Poor Little Rich Girls

Is it ever possible to be a happy minion? What do the waitresses and doormen, drivers and chambermaids make of you? Do they despise you behind your back? Do they scoff at your whims with the rest of the staff? Are they writing a book about you? Yes, you.

DrivingTheSaudisDriving the Saudis, by Jayne Amelia Larsen, is a memoir of an actress fallen on hard times, who makes the odd decision to become a limo driver in Los Angeles. She’s left idling in the car park a block away from the parties she once attended, and ferrying dignitaries to buy things she once coveted herself. She hits the sharp end of the American dream, adjudged unworthy of being one of the Beautiful People, and forced back into the service industry. But this is Hollywood, where every waiter has a movie pitch, and every chauffeur has an angle. For an actress, driving a car is an irredeemable fall from grace; for an author, it’s material. When she finds herself conscripted into an army of drivers shuttling a branch of the Saudi royal family around Los Angeles, she starts to keep a diary…

Her clients are ghastly. Some of them are Jew-hating fascists, others are patronising and condescending fundamentalists, although mercifully she is spared any dealings with the men, and merely has to appease a gaggle of bickering soubrettes. There is an overpowering stench of new money, as the capricious princesses demand iPhones on the spot, unaware of the logistics of signing a service contract, and the servants hoard sackfuls of hotel L’Occitane, badgering the chambermaids for more of it, even though they plainly never wash with it themselves. But most of them are simply awful for universally understandable reasons, not because they are racists or fanatics or spoiled, but simply because petrodollars have made them impossibly rich in a land where the customer is always right, able to have literally anything they want by opening a briefcase full of money. Money is power, and you know what they say about absolute power. Maybe Rodeo Drive gets the customers it deserves.

As time goes by, Larsen befriends some of the servants, who sleep five to a room and must hand over their passports, as well as a few clueless princesses: miserable, fidgety things who yearn to watch carefree infidels on skateboards at the beach, before they are taken away to be someone’s third wife in a tent somewhere. Meanwhile, Larsen had enough of a former career to show up on reruns of Judging Amy, leading to a bunch of odd questions from her charges about why she is in the front of a limo instead of the back.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

She comes to take a simple, servile pride in her work, immensely proud of herself when she is able to source 40 Chantilly bras at short notice, and to round up all the depilatory cream in Beverly Hills, despite scoring zero appreciation from her bosses. She learns, in the manner of all slaves, not to push too hard to be noticed, and begins hiding her laptop so that the onus ceases to be on her to find 24-hour ice cream parlours and all-night liposuction. But she is also dragged into preposterous power games, as higher-ranking flunkies pass the buck on impossible tasks so that someone else gets fired.

The tension over the revolving-door staffing mounts up as the time ticks by, because a month of 16-hour days, working for cartoonishly unpleasant people, is totally worth it to her if she’s expecting a $20,000 tip and a Rolex. So it goes from being ready to walk out the door at a moment’s notice, flipping the Arabs the finger, to putting up with literally anything in the final weeks, holding out in desperation for that long-awaited gratuity. Larsen artfully teases the reader all along with guessing games about how much the final tip will be.

She struggles to be objective. She reads up on Arab history and culture, and tries in vain to persuade herself that her clients are not deeply-depressed shopaholics, imprisoned by medieval despotism and hopeless fates. Her life in their service has all of the antic chaos of a movie set or military operation, but seemingly achieves precisely nothing, unless you count the fortune shovelled at shopkeepers and thereby funnelled into the American economy. Larsen throws around some impressive statistics, such as the claim that 75% of the world’s couture and luxuries are snapped up by Arabs with more money than sense, who walk around in lonely desert palaces wearing lacy knickers under their burqahs.

There are also glimpses of how civilised people behave — the thoughtful Muslim prince who reads a book every day on his way to college being one of only a tiny handful of the characters who seem remotely likeable; Garrison Keillor, who chivalrously chats her up while she drives him to a book signing; or Kirk Douglas, who admits that he has less posh paintings to show her because he has started selling them off. He is using the money to build children’s playgrounds all over Los Angeles. His quiet philanthropy strikes a rare and noble note in a book populated with gimlet-eyed, grasping termagants, swimming in baths of dirty, sexy money.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road.
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The Ties That Bind

tied in coverWhen I was a kid, novelisations were the way you could experience an AA- or X-rated film without breaking the law. They were a way of re-entering and re-watching movie texts that meant a lot to you, and they were often a means of finding out all the bits of the film that had been left on the cutting room floor. I even knew a boy at school who once bragged that he only read movie novelisations, as if this were some sort of badge of sophistication. As an occasional tie-in writer myself, I now know his boast for what it was – the literary equivalent of crowing that you only ever ate fast food. It’s not unusual for a movie novelisation to get cranked out in two weeks flat, by an author fuelled on various medications and, erm… enhancers.

I once finished writing a film novelisation bang on time, only to re-read my contract and realise that I was three thousand words short. So I went back in and wrote a whole new chapter, implied but never seen in the script itself, a massive funeral sequence that tied up a bunch of loose ends from the script, and fleshed out some character motivations that were otherwise vague. I’ve seen other authors do this. Arthur Byron Cover, in his novelisation of Flash Gordon, threw dozens of curve-balls into his book, with bonus asides and little scenes that had all sorts of implications. My favourite was when Flash silences Dale Arden with a kiss and says: “Let’s save it for our kids.” That’s in the script.

But in Cover’s novel, Dale thinks to herself: “Kids? Should I tell him about my operation…?” Very confusing for the eight-year-old me.

Zarkov-Dale-and-FlashLicensors can be arseholes. According to Tied In: The Business History and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing, edited by Lee Goldberg, Max Allan Collins was obliged to cut 60,000 words from his novelisation of Road to Perdition (itself based on comic by one Max Allan Collins), because the stuff he added “wasn’t in the script”. He confesses that this situation is “fairly rare” (certainly, nobody has ever stopped me adding extras, and indeed my editors have normally welcomed them). But Collins clearly wasn’t dealing with one of the nice licensors who see a novelisation as a bonus exercise in metatextuality; he was dealing with a literal-minded bean counter who saw a novelisation as an advert for the film, that cannot cross any bland boundaries of expectation.

Licensors can also offer wildly varying degrees of support and interference. The most unwatchably bad franchise I have ever written for happened to have the best-written, most helpful style guide I have ever seen, in any medium. The franchise I’ve most enjoyed writing for was also the least supportive, offering a single line of advice before packing me off to write 80,000 words – presumably, hopefully confident that I knew what I was doing. They then spent a month cordially attacking my work with scissors. Seriously, they could have saved everybody a lot more time by just telling us beforehand a couple of ground rules that they’d kept to themselves.

Tie-in writers can also be arseholes. Some of my best friends are tie-in writers, but our world is orbited by an Oort cloud of dicks, without an original thought in their heads, fighting tooth and claw over the scraps that drop from producers’ tables, bragging desperately of their fannish connection to this TV show or that franchise, and often pissing away their creative lives in serial, flat-fee write-a-thons, with limited artistic heritage and no long tail. I couldn’t care less what those people have to say about their profession, but I am deeply interested in the thoughts and experiences of their smarter colleagues – people who thrive on the discipline and energy of diving briefly into someone else’s world, and turning around a story using the characters and the mood they have been dealt. This is, after all, how Hollywood itself seems to work most of the time, and it’s a skill that any jobbing writer would do well to cultivate.

dick tracyI bought Tied In because I was curious if they could pull it off – and, largely, they do. The multiple authors deal to some extent with the peculiar condition of the tie-in world, such as the possibility that a book with your name on it will get kited into the bestseller lists, but only because it has someone else’s name on it as well.

It helps that Max Allan Collins is on board – an author with enough clout in his own right to get away with naming names when it comes to some of the disasters of his tie-in career. There are some real shockers, beginning with his first job on Dick Tracy, when he was made to rewrite his novelisation from the ground-up, and drop the ending from the film itself, by editors who were petrified that the OMG OMG shock twist ending would be revealed by readers before people had seen the film.

There’s a great discussion section, involving over 20 authors, that doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty of advances and royalties, demonstrating just what kind of numbers are involved in putting that copy of the Pacific Rim novelisation on the shelf in Asda. Much of the craft of writing a tie-in is no different to the craft of writing any book, except possibly with a first-draft written by someone else in a script format. The forum members discuss the issues of “head-hopping” when a film changes point-of-view, or the particular problems of rendering a cross-cut movie scene into more traditional prose form. Collins in particular shines with some great ideas for original approaches, although his horror stories are so horrific you wonder how he still has the balls to try them. His solution for novelising the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Daylight, framing the whole thing as a documentary, is just great, but one unlucky dice roll with the licensors, and they would have made him throw it in the bin.

Several authors note the unique opportunity to fix plot holes and crappy bits in the script with the greater space afforded to prose. They note the opportunity afforded in a prose (or audio) tie-in for super-duper special effects or locations that are beyond the means of a TV show stuck in Vancouver (or Wales) all the time, or the chance for “Easter Eggs” that will only be noticed by hard-core fandom.

Kevin J. Anderson reveals that he gets a minion to type the whole script into a word processor with the tenses changed, so that when he sits down, he has, in his words, a “badly written” story that already hits 30% of his wordcount. It all sounds dreadfully hacky, but then again, as he points out, his main duty is to deliver a workmanlike 60,000 words to the licensor’s specifications, and what better way to reach that target than by recycling the pre-approved script.

It’s all too easy to sound defensive about a profession that I myself have previously described as the prison shower bitch of the literary world, but there are some interesting arguments to be had about the extra creativity needed to function within another creator’s limits. They’re all here, along with some top tips and some truly terrifying tales of licensing hell. True, some of the contributors seem to think they are promoting their work in a particular franchise rather than the craft that went into it, but Tied In still offers an intriguing glimpse of a part of the literary world that is ever on the bestseller lists, but rarely discussed by critics.

Jonathan Clements, under this name and others, is the author of tie-ins for over a dozen franchises, including Spartacus, Doctor Who, and Strontium Dog.

Osmond Uncensored

Andrew Osmond’s review on the Manga UK website of my book Anime: A History, was substantially cut down from its original length. He has very kindly allowed me to print the full version here.

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41bkTuP9TdL._SY445_Midway through Jonathan Clements’ book Anime: A History, he tells a fascinating story that – like most of the stories in this book – you’re not likely to have heard before. In the late 1950s, a celebrated manga artist paid a visit to a Japanese animation studio. There weren’t so many back then. The studio, Otogi Pro, consisted of twenty people who did most of their work on tatami mats in a room in their boss’s house. The boss was Ryuichi Yokoyama, a manga artist himself, who’d dreamed of making it big like Disney, but had been disenchanted by the cartoon business.

The visitor told Yokoyama he was thinking of setting up his own cartoon studio. Bad idea, Yokoyama said. Animation would never make money, and would only mess up his life. According to a witness, Yokoyama told the visitor this again and again, ‘until his mouth was sour.’ Eventually, the visitor went away.

A few years later, the visitor – chap called Osamu Tezuka – produced a TV cartoon; Astro Boy.

This story looks like a hinge of fate. If Tezuka had taken Yokoyama’s advice and stuck with manga, then anime’s history over the next half-century would have been profoundly different. Or…  maybe not. Things are always more complicated. Someone else might have done essentially the same thing as Tezuka – used the ‘limited animation’ methods established in American TV toons (The Huckleberry Hound Show), and applied Japanese heroes to them.

Tezuka was hardly the only Japanese artist seeking to advance animation in the 1950s. The Toei studio was churning out massively ambitious feature films, and starting to look at new kinds of cartoon style. Nor was Tezuka the first Japanese animator to mass-produce animation for weekly TV. He’d been beaten to the punch by Tadahito Mochinaga, one of the forgotten greats of Japanese animation. In his long career, Mochinaga had worked on the landmark 1942 war film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, followed by a remarkable career in postwar China – of all the places for a former Japanese war propagandist!

new_pinocchio_1From 1960, Mochinaga led animation onto the world stage, even if no-one noticed. His star was Astro Boy’s literary cousin, the puppet Pinocchio, animated in stop-motion by the studio MOM Production in 130 episodes of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They were made for the American studio Rankin/Bass, hidden exports, but exports nonetheless.

It’s not the agenda of Anime: A History to argue what might have happened if, for example, Tezuka had been persuaded not to go into animation. But it’s very much the remit of the book to question the stories we think we know, of anime’s rises and falls, its heroes and breakthroughs. The book is about Japanese animation as a messy, multi-stranded medium, always struggling to adapt to new generations, technologies and business models, transforming so thoroughly that a kid may barely comprehend the cartoons his dad grew up with, let alone his grandfather.

In his introduction, Clements sets out what his book is and isn’t. “This is not a book about, say, gender roles in Star of the Giants or manifest camp in Neon Genesis Evangelion… This is a book concerned with about how Star of the Giants, Evangelion and a number of other anime fit within a continuum of a century’s film-making, how they came to be, who the makers thought were watching, and how they transformed the nature of subsequent productions.”

Clements adds that he is “less concerned with anime texts themselves than in their existence in (or apparent absence from) historical memory, what other researchers might call their significance or their artistic heritage.” Or their business heritage. Clements reminds us that buyers and sellers have a perspective on anime far removed from robots or magic girls. “For a large part of the process that takes it from creator to consumer, intellectual property is less an entertainment event, and more like a magical commodity that, if fed the right conditions, somehow spits out revenue. It is these featureless monetising boxes that are traded at film markets, sold on to third parties, and bundled in group deals to broadcasters and video distributors.”

Clements does not treat anime just from this perspective – on the contrary, he encourages us to think of anime from all perspectives – but his book is unlike many media histories. It’s not structured around a selection of classic or milestone titles, tracing how anime developed to when it could turn out Astro Boy, or Akira, or Death Note. Clements doesn’t sing such titles’ praises, nor give profiles and mini-histories of the people and studios who made them. You will learn a lot about Tezuka and Toei and many lesser-known names, but only when they were central to changing anime from one thing to another – or thought that they were, or were perceived to be.

Moreover – and this will be a shock to some readers – Clements’ book has a much wider scope than fans will expect. In its chronological history, Astro Boy is the halfway point; that is, the whole of the book’s first half is immersed in Japanese animation before 1963. Only the last three chapters of ten concern anime after 1990. Some readers may question if most of the book is about anime at all.

astro-boyClements acknowledges at the start that there’s no consensus about the proper use of “anime” as a label. The word was coined about the middle of the twentieth century, and plenty of pundits have tried to restrict it. For example, Studio Ghibli and its American distributor Disney have been reluctant to identify Ghibli’s films as anime. Meanwhile, a Japanese historian of anime, Nobuyuki Tsugata, argues that the medium didn’t “begin” until 1970s cartoons like Space Battleship Yamato. (Tsugata allows the 1960s Astro Boy as a “zeroth” stage of anime history, reminiscent of Japan’s penchant for “Episode 0” prequels.)

Clements dismisses such arguments briskly. Even if “real” anime began with Astro Boy or Yamato, he says, “we must first comprehend the end of anime prehistory.” In fact, the book effectively outlines a continuing history of animation through its various mutations. As we noted above, Tadahito Mochinaga worked in World War II animations, but went on to helm New Adventures of Pinocchio. As Japan’s first bulk cartoon export, Pinocchio was a precursor not just to Astro Boy but also the export works of the later Top Craft studio, which made the 1970s Hobbit film and later Nausicaa… and so on. For Clements, the changing industrial situation is what’s interesting, whether the volume of production at the time was high or low.

Another point Clements stresses is that there’s no single anime ‘industry.’ That’s especially true now, when “family feature films can still resemble features of the 1950s, alongside TV shows created along models developed in the 1970s and 1980s, and ‘adult’ shows across multiple formats, aimed at an audience that would be barely recognisable to the pioneers of anime’s early days.” From many (though not all) perspectives, there’s a chasm between, say, the mainstream films of Studio Ghibli and TV anime made for graveyard Japanese TV slots and a 0.4% broadcast share – and often made for us, foreign fans, too.

There are also strands of Japanese animation that are mostly ignored, and Clements is keen to recover these. There are animated TV commercials, for example, and animation made under contract to overseas studios. During wartime, there was animation to instruct soldiers; not cartoon mice and robots, but animated diagrams and step-by-step guides.

Anime also shades off into other media. Today, that includes computer visual novels, which are both the sources for anime adaptations like Steins;Gate, and arguably a kind of anime themselves, with extremely limited animation. Decades ago, though, a close relative of anime were Japanese puppet TV shows a la Gerry Anderson. Clements highlights 1960’s Spaceship Silica, a “forgotten prototype” for the Astro Boy generation.

matsumoto-fragmentIn its early chapters, Clements’ book could be called Anime: A Secret History. The very first anime are lost, and in some cases it’s uncertain if they even existed, at least as films. Clements has fun debunking the so-called “Matsumoto Fragment” (a bit of antique celluloid widely and groundlessly proclaimed the oldest animation ever), which may be “less a film than a comic drawn on celluloid.”

Moving to the early cartoons which have survived, there’s an especially interesting section on the first wave of sports anime, driven by Japanese contestants participating in the Olympics. “The sports genre involved a new environment,” Clements writes, “a placeless, modernist setting based on the towering foreign stadiums where real-world Japanese athletes were competing against foreign powers.” In 1936’s Mabo’s Great Race, the boy hero is even cheered on by foreigners in the audience – Betty Boop and two Mickey Mice.

These chapters are also an account of early Japanese cinema. We learn about benshi, people hired by cinema in the silent days to provide live commentaries for both cartoons and live-action. “The benshi was the cinema’s barker and town-crier, its warm-up man and the literal interpreter of the film… There are photographs of benshi attired as the movie stars they are voicing, imparting an immediate, third-dimensional impact to the films they presented by dressing up as, say, Charlie Chaplin.” The job of the benshi included warning the audience about “incidents of odd foreign behaviour, such as kissing.”

These MCs would find themselves being outmoded by sound cinema, much like the star hero of The Artist. “Some (benshi) tried to bellow their interpretation live as the soundtrack played, which was both frustrating for the individual benshi but lucrative for the profession as a whole, as it required extra benshi to take up the shortfall caused by lost voices.” Some found other professions, such as dubbing foreign films.

Clements also talks about the Pure Film Movement, Japanese filmmakers in cinema’s early days, who “published polemics and reviews in contemporary journals complaining that film remained beholden to the traditions and tropes of the Japanese theatre.” They disliked benshi but were enthusiastic about animation; “a genre without any local (Japanese) precedents, it could not fail to aspire to an international outlook.”

Interestingly, the Pure Film Movement disliked traditional Japaneseness in live-action films but praised it in cartoon form. One pundit declared “Japanese animation should use Japanese subjects.” Fast-forward a century, and this argument’s still going. How much does Japanese animation’s strength as a world brand depend on its immersion in Japan?

Some early Japanese animations were cartoons as we think of them, such as Mabo’s Great Race. From the 1920s, though, much animation was educational, made with government support, such as 1926’s The Spread of Syphilis by Sanae Yamamoto. According to Clements, arguably “the first 30 years of the Japanese animation business was a period in which such ‘invisible’ productions comprised the majority of Japan’s animation output, with occasional narrative stories as exceptions rather than the rule.”

millennium actressAlong with government cartoons, there was a counter-culture. In the early ‘30s, the Proletarian Film League of Japan turned out leftist agitprop films such as 1931’s Slave War, directed by Tetsuo Kitagawa. It protested against the exploitation of China by the British, but implicitly by Japan too. The film was censored into unintelligibility. One wonders if Satoshi Kon heard of it; a key character in his film Millennium Actress is a heroic Japanese dissident who fights for China in the 1930s.

As Japan moved into an era of conflict, first with its neighbours and then with the world, cartoons took on aggressively nationalist overtones. This reviewer confesses that when he first saw The Plane Cabbie’s Lucky Day (1932) directed by Teizo Kato, he saw it as a charming piece of futurist whimsy, in which people ride planes as casually as we drive cars. Clements, though, argues the film is far more sinister. “Its most cunning subtext lies in the off-hand manner in which (the cabby’s) ‘long fare’ both incorporates and localises the South Seas within the compass of Japanese power, presenting unidentified Pacific islands as enduring, albeit distant and backward, additions to the Empire.”

By the end of the 1930s, there was no need for subtext. Mabo – the boy hero who’d been cheered by Hollywood toon stars in 1936’s Mabo’s Great Race – was militarised in films which “carnivalise the danger of conflict, presenting warfare in China as an exciting adventure for Japanese boys and their talking-animal friends. Moreover, the Japanese are depicted as agents of Pan-Asian goodwill, saving grateful girls from Manchurian robbers, ‘exterminating’ bandits who threaten peaceful Chinese farmers, and protecting beleaguered South Sea islanders from attacks by British soldiers.”

momotaro sea eaglesAt this point, Clements introduces the Shadow Staff, a special film unit of about thirty people formed in 1939 to make films for the Japanese military. It made what may have been the first Japanese animated feature, the enticingly named Principles of the Wireless: Triodes and Diodes, circa 1944, and similarly “humorless, informational” films for soldiers. (A candidate for Britain’s first animated feature was the equally dull Handling Ships, made by the Halas and Batchelor studio in 1945 for the Admiralty.) All the Shadow Staff’s films are lost, destroyed in bombings, by the victorious Allies or even the Japanese themselves.

Elsewhere, young Tadahito Mochinaga was providing backgrounds and effects for the much more exciting Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), a fairy tale rendering of the Pearl Harbor raid. Mochinaga said he heard Japanese kids at play, imitating the film hero’s orders – “Torpedo squadron, bomber squadron, fighter squadron! Take battle positions!” The animator wrote, “I heard that many youths volunteered for the flying corps and that while they were on duty they died on air raids. I wonder whether the film that we made influenced their decision to volunteer…  I thought, in the future I only wished to make a film that would benefit the young, difficult though that might be.”

In fact, Mochinaga lost control of his destiny for several years. Towards the war’s end, he moved to Manchuria, then in Japanese hands, and was trapped when the region fell under Soviet control. By fantastic chance, Mochinaga ended up not in a prison camp but working with other Japanese artists for the Chinese authorities. “With outrageous historical irony, the portrait of Chairman Mao that led the Xingshan Communist parade on May Day 1947 was painted by former Japanese propagandists.”

As mentioned above, Mochinaga’s career continued back in Japan, with his work for America on The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Clements presents this series as an example of early commercial Japanese animation that’s usually forgotten in histories of anime. Another is the 1950s boom in animated Japanese advertising. The Beer Through the Ages adverts “charted the history of beer from ancient Babylonia and Egypt, through medieval Germany, and up to its arrival in Japan in the 19th century on the black ships of Commodore Perry.”

hakujadenThe book’s second half deals with titles better known to anime fans, starting from the landmarks of Toei’s Hakujaden and Tezuka’s Astro Boy. However, Clements maintains a historian’s scepticism and a refusal to take ‘well-known’ accounts as read. He considers, for example, the accounts of “anime syndrome” among staff; that is, the health problems caused by “unremitting late nights, irregular diets of junk food and cramped, repetitive labour.” These were all certainly unhealthy, but “anime syndrome” might have been a useful image for staff to maintain, so they could take a sick-break after a hellish crunch time.

Equally provocatively, Clements questions the standard criticism of Tezuka – that he was a terrible businessman whose underselling of Astro Boy and subsequent anime products scarred the industry ever after. True, Tezuka’s anime productions were crazy, chaotic affairs where frazzled middle-men frantically outsourced work to second and third-hand parties, while moonlighting animators stole work from themselves, and the enterprise resembled a teetering pyramid scheme.

Yet Clements suggests that, at the end of the day, Tezuka might have been no more reckless than one of his idols, Walt Disney, who risked far more money on Snow White. Then again, Walt was at least sometimes restrained in his excesses by his prudent brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney. Tezuka, it seemed, had no such outside voice of sanity.

sazae-sanIn the late 1960s and early 1970s, anime coalesced more into the medium we know today. But it’s not always a story of evolution. Today, Japan’s (and the world’s) longest-running animated series remains Sazae-san, a mild comedy about a Japanese housewife, which began in 1969. “Its very mildness is surely one of the factors that allows it to remain part of the televisual wallpaper more than forty years after its first broadcast,” Clements says. He calls it a case of Japanese animation in extended equilibrium.

As a primetime series about an ordinary family, Sazae-san appeals across demographics (it’s by far the highest rated cartoon on Japanese TV). Many other anime are “kid’s shows,” though Clements questions if this is the same as their target audience. After all, the “audience” will involve the children’s parents, watching, dozing, eating or knitting, but still receiving the show’s underlying self-advert, that “it is this show, these characters, these toys that most occupy their children’s interests.”

With mecha series, for example, one does not need Evangelion to decode the genre. “There is a recurring message that must surely have a subliminal message for an office worker hoping to buy his child’s love: my father gave me a robot, my father gave me a robot, my father gave me a robot.” Later in the book, Clements cites claims that Japanese children’s tastes shifted in the late 1980s. Before, kids would happily buy both heroes and villains/monsters as toys; later, they just wanted the heroes. This helps explain both the prevalence of “battle teams” in action series, and the later rise of harem series for older viewers. “The best possible character roster for an anime show would be a large number of female characters, each a possible love interest for the hero.”

HeidiClements quotes Japanese pundits who argue that the idea of ‘anime’ partly arose out of negative comments on cartoons – their violence, their limited animation, their low popular denominators (unlike the experimental Japanese films at animation festivals). Some artists tried to transcend this, most famously Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, who made the TV series Heidi (1974) much more painstakingly than the average show. “Heidi’s quality was over-engineered, far in excess of the minimum requirements for it to be fit for purpose.”

A different approach was taken by the robot-show director Yoshiyuki Tomino, who applied deep thought to a genre machine-tooled to sell toys. Tomino broke rules by killing major protagonists in 1977’s Zambot 3, which was “no loss to a franchise that was already being shut down.” Then, Tomino focused on believability, creating “mecha that increasingly needed to obey at least some of the laws of physics.” The result, the first Gundam in 1979, was initially a ratings flop. “However, its artistic heritage, rejuvenated by subsequent feature-length movie edits, and with repeats that gained it a 15% audience share, would make it a pivotal event in the history of anime.”

Gundam stands between Space Battleship Yamato and Akira, three landmark SF anime often said to define the medium. Anime fandom in Japan became notable during the production of Yamato, when middle- and high-school fans turned up at that show’s studio Artland, “full of curiosity and amazement.” However, Artland’s owner Ishiguro Noboru noted that “the girls sheepishly confessed that although they had seen Space Battleship Yamato, they much preferred Heidi.

yamatoMale fans, though, started forming clubs (not necessarily formal; the director Satoshi Kon participated in fervent “Otakuesque conversations” about Gundam at his high school). The first Yamato movie in 1977 marshalled fan energies. The Yamato studio recruited fans with a guerrilla marketing kit, “which instructed them to fly-post posters in prominent locations, call radio stations to request the theme song, and pester newspapers to run coverage – for which (the fans) were rewarded with animation cels and other production items.”

Contrary to popular belief, the film did not break records (though its sequel, Farewell, Yamato, did). But, Clements says, Yamato “demonstrated that anime fandom represented a discrete sector of new consumption that could be served or exploited through releasing more anime aimed not at children, but at teenagers.”

The advent of home video met that sector. “Viewers who had been children in the 1960s and 1970s now had the opportunity to consume sequels and remakes with an older sensibility.” Straight-to-video was born, throwing up the sometimes baffling range of anime titles through with British fandom picked its way in its own early years. These titles ranged from wellsprings for multimedia franchises (Patlabor, Tenchi Muyo) to “an advert for the opening pages of a novel, all but meaningless in foreign territories where the novel was not available” (hello, Vampire Wars).

Meanwhile, cartoon porn videos “placed anime fans on a continuum that is inextricably connected to the activities of murderers and molesters.” In Clements’ view, this was the cost of refashioning a children’s medium for adults, which may “make a statement about wider applications for the art, but also risks appealing to an audience caught in arrested development, clinging to notions of infantilism.”

Thanks to censors, Britain didn’t get “straight” porn anime, but rather their mutation into sex-horror (Overfiend, Wicked City). For years, they were a disreputable standard bearer, a public “image” for anime until the global sweep of Pokémon in the 1990s. Pikachu’s arrival coincided with the rise of the DVD format and what Clements calls “a degree of transnational rationalisation,” bringing anime’s motley multiple histories closer. Previously, shows could often be huge in some territories, unknowns in others –Saint Seiya is a prime case.

pikachuMore recently, foreign anime viewers have been split into those who consume anime “in celebration of its difference, such as the adult anime fans who like Akira”, and the generation who watched it as “an established norm, such as children who grew up with Pokémon.”  A comparable split developed in Japan, between the “niche” 0.4% audience who watched late-night TV anime, versus the “mainstream” audience for Ghibli films or Sazae-san. (Sazae-san, incidentally, was still made with cels long after other anime had switched to digital, because some of Sazae-san’s staff were too old to learn digital techniques.)

But the “niche” animation market, Clements says, is far more lucrative than the mainstream. “A one-shot children’s movie might appear to deliver higher short-term returns in DVD sales… A late-night TV series with a limited edition box set, tie-in laptop, collectible metal figurines and a subscription-based online game tie-in will sell fewer copies, but generate substantially more revenue from a single, notional consumer.” The otaku population in Japan is small in number (contra certain BBC documentaries), but a Japanese commentator, Matsumoto Satoru, reckons it’s worth 85 to 90 per cent of Japan’s animation market.

On the “mainstream” side, Clements argues that popular hits depend on brands, and has done since Toei’s 1960 film Saiyuki (aka Alakazam the Great) was supported by its source manga and famed creator, Osamu Tezuka. As a more recent case, Clements cites the 2005 film Zatch Bell: Attack of the Mekavulcan. It looked like a flop in cinema but the film may have greatly benefited its franchise, which included manga and computer games. Clements also cites the ill-fated 2000 film The Boy Who Saw the Wind, which tried to copy Studio Ghibli without Ghibli’s first decade of brand-building. “Even Ghibli’s box-office returns started off small.”

garden of wordsClements judges the biggest risk in cinema anime now would be “an entirely original, standalone” film, though limited cinemas releases are less risky, serving as adverts for foreign buyers and the home release. (When the new Makoto Shinkai film The Garden of Words was shown in Japanese cinemas, customers could buy the DVD edition in the foyer.) The substantial box-office returns of Hosoda’s The Wolf Children, a wide release original film, looks like a counter to Clements’ argument, although Hosoda’s name has brand cachet of its own.

The book’s last pages touch on the challenges posed by fansubbing, in a world where a sample of 21 new anime titles were ‘fingerprinted’ and traced across the net for four months in 2009-10. They were duplicated over 25,000 times, and viewed 28.7 million times, with most of the illegal servers and downloads seemingly in China. As a Japanese writer said ruefully, “if every one of those viewers were paying a mere 100 yen (£0.81) each to watch the same content, the revenue from the anime business would be twenty or thirty times larger than it is.”

As it is, there’s a possibility of an anime “crunch” in the near future, an implosion in the number of ‘supportable franchises.’ However, this wouldn’t end Japanese animation, but open the next chapter in its history. In any case, Sazae-san and Pokémon aren’t facing the apocalypse, though Ghibli is entering interesting times with Miyazaki’s retirement.

hatsune mikuAs for how other producers could cancel the apocalypse, there may be salvation through advertising, through multimedia (making anime to advertise other parts of a franchise) or through foreign markets; China could even replace America as the industry’s foreign holy grail. There’s also the possibility of mining fan events – making anime an adjunct to conventions, Hatsune Miku-style concerts or simulcast screenings. The last is topical in Britain as the BBC milks Doctor Who with a fiftieth anniversary film in cinemas and on TV.

But, Clements concludes, the future of anime rests on its artists – on the successors to the mavericks that today’s establishment once were, as diverse as Miyazaki and Tomino. The anime business is not just the story content, the robot designs and cute girls of the season. But nor is it just the “featureless monetising boxes” which spit out money (or combine, robot style, with more boxes to make money-spitting franchises). Animation is not the province of cartoon characters, nor bank balances, but of humans.

As Clements says, anime is “the frantic morning scramble to complete an animatic reel sufficient for an afternoon sound recording session; a courier arriving at Narita airport only to discover in a moment of panic that his luggage has gone missing, along with the 500 urgently-needed cels it contained from a South Korean subsidiary; Itano Ichiro climbing into the cockpit of an American fighter jet to research dog-fighting; Yamamoto Eiichi demanding his fair share of the royalties for a song on the Jungle Emperor album; Rintaro ringing a manga artist’s doorbell in the pouring rain to argue about a change in the script.”

And in all these things, “we are still speaking of the Japanese animation industry, of its workers and its scandals, its successes and failures, its legends and its truths.”

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is available now from the British Film Institute.

Digital Disruption

My review of Iordanova and Cunningham’s Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-Line is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s a very interesting walk through some of the issues facing “cinema” and “broadcasting”, in a globalised economy where nobody wants to pay for anything.

I particularly like the authors’ decision to eschew content, access and production, and to talk about matters of exhibition and distribution, which are all too often overlooked in film studies.

Scooby-Who?

My review of Iwao Takamoto’s posthumously published memoirs is up online now at the Manga Entertainment UK blog; one of several articles recently on the blog that aim to commemorate creatives of Japanese ethnic origin who work in America. Other articles in the same series have included Andrew Osmond on Jimmy Murakami and there are a couple more in the pipeline.

2011: The Year in Anime Books

For the last few years, it has been my mission to read through as many Japanese books about anime as possible, with special concentration on personal testimonies from the animators themselves. And I have been annotating as I go. For some reason, many of the people who write books about anime are allergic to indices, so I have been writing my own, of dozens upon dozens of memoirs and biographies, in order to build up a picture of the way the anime business looks to the people who actually work in it. The concordance is currently at 230 typed pages, although I think it will hit 300 before I am done. The work has functioned as a sort of audit of what people think they know about the business they work in, and has allowed me to chart several memes and misconceptions from their birth through to their establishment as industry lore.

And so my neck-deep wade through Japanese-language books on anime has continued, most recently with the NTT collection of scholarly essays Anime in Transition (or Anime Across Borders? or Anime Transnational?). The book is something of a landmark, forming an entire volume of the eight-part Japanese Film is Alive series from Iwanami Shoten, and hence perhaps redeeming anime as just as reasonable a field of study as, say, documentary, performance or audience. Notably, however, five of the eleven chapters in the book are written by foreign authors, with the likes of Marc Steinberg, Thomas Lamarre and Hu Tze-yue providing commentary and perspectives that the Japanese seem unwilling or unable to provide themselves. Is Japanese academia on animation really that lacking in local heroes, or is this a form of auto-orientalism, with the Japanese lapping up foreign attention as a means of validating their own interests in such an unlikely, unloved field as animation studies?

I’d believe it if NTT Shuppan had not answered within the year with an all-Japanese collection. There is no question about the anime book of the year 2011 — that award surely goes to Anime Studies, edited by Mitsuteru Takahashi and the omnipresent Nobuyuki Tsugata. Anime Studies contains ten chapters of detailed commentary on many interesting areas in the anime field, including education, intellectual property and national animation policy. The authors include academics, but also producers and directors, most notably with a chunky section from Ryosuke Takahashi about Tezuka’s anime “revolution”. Anime Studies is the book to which I wish every Western scholar had access, laden with charts and diagrams explaining the way that modern anime works, but also with informed references to peripheral areas, and, that greatest rarity in books on anime, a functional index.

Anime directors continued to be feted with studies and analysis, notably in books about Kenji Kamiyama and the journeyman director Keiichi Hara, now enjoying a new-found fame thanks to his breakout feature Colorful. This has also been a good year for books that analyse anime from the perspective of a producer or manager. Six years after he penned a guide to the anime business, Hiromichi Masuda writes an all-new account of the same subject, incorporating the wild ride of changes since the 2006 production peak. Meanwhile, Kinema Junpo jumps on the bandwagon with books on the below-the-line squabbles that get anime made in the first place including How to Make a Hit “Mundane” Anime and On the Job of the Anime Producer. Meanwhile, Yuichiro Oguro publishes the long-awaited second volume of his Anime Creator Interviews, collating material originally run in Animage at the beginning of the last decade.

You’ll notice, perhaps, that many of the books have dully typographical covers. In a country where Japanese studios will often charge magazines even for illustrations used to accompany rave reviews, the studios are often their own worst enemies when it comes to picture sourcing. I am pleased to note that the current crop of Japanese academics and scholars have simply given up playing the studios’ game, and instead published the texts that they want to publish, without bending over for outrageous fees or assenting to textual tampering — here’s a hello to the idiot who tried to get us to lie about the production details of his company’s movie in the Anime Encyclopedia, and who tried to use image access as the lure to make us cooperate. Anime is, assuredly, a visual medium, but I would much rather have good books published without pictures than see compromised picture-books, defanged of all their interesting content.

There is still a good deal of pretension awash in the anime field. Ani Kuri 15 DVD x Material is an infuriatingly packaged book of interviews and storyboards from the short series of NHK commercials made to order by creatives including the late Satoshi Kon, as well as Yasufumi Soejima and Shinji Kimura. Which is all very well, but it comes with a tight yet flimsy paper wraparound that is sure to tear after a single use, and includes an origami robot by way of apology.

Other books I’ve read this year have included Yuka Minakawa’s two-volume account of the “rise and fall” of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, although the fall is bundled into the final few pages. Like Eiichi Yamamoto’s much-cited 1989 Rise & Fall of Mushi Pro, the book is presented in fictionalised form, although Minakawa presents detailed references, usually to DVD sleeve-note interviews and other ephemera that might elude the more traditional scholar. I also found much of interest in Makoto Misono’s 1999 Complete Book of TV Animation, a forerunner of the Anime Studies collection that diligently attempted to create an institutional memory for television cartoons more than a decade ago. I think I bought it when working on the first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, but I haven’t properly gone through it till now. I also stumbled across Masaki Tsuji’s long out-of-print The Youth of TV Anime, a memoir of the 1960s and 1970s by the scriptwriter of, among other things, Astro Boy, Star of the Giants and Sazae-san. It’s the last that interests me in particular, since the studio that made Sazae-san has never really had to try since. Go on: see if you can name it without opening a book or another window. It’s not all that famous, despite making Japan’s highest-rated and longest-running cartoon. Whereas other studios have to push and flash and bluster to get attention, the studio that makes Sazae-san just motors along on a job that is essentially below-the-line… certainly below the notice of many foreign fans.

In this periodic round-up, which I have previously run in 2010 and 2009, it’s usually my habit to talk about the English-language books on anime that come my way. In many cases this year, I have already reviewed them elsewhere, such as this piece on the excellent Ladd and Deneroff memoir of early anime in America. I’ve also written a glowing review of Iwao Takamoto’s autobiography, but that won’t appear until later in 2012. In others, I simply haven’t got round to them, since the Japanese-language books are prioritised ahead of them. In a couple of others, I have read them, although they were so awful that I cannot bring myself to even name them. One was an academic account so up itself as to be entirely impenetrable, including an interview with a Japanese creator who actually tells the author to piss off and talk to someone else. The other was a seemingly self-published witter about divinity in anime, by a man who couldn’t even spell Wikipedia, even as he cited it.