Videosyncratic

Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Jon Spira’s Videosyncratic, an account of life in the video rental trade.


“I am already encountering students and researchers with no memories of the media of the 20th century, who never had to fast-forward through a Simon Bates warning; who can pause and rewatch with pinpoint accuracy; who do not appreciate the concept of waiting, of not bingeing. They need to read this book.Spira helps ground his readers in a historical context by rewinding way, way back, to the kind of customer journey his great-grandfather would have had to go on to see a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. He’d have had to dress nicely, and get the bus into Central London, and sit through the preliminary programme with its Wurlitzer serenade and newsreels, and concentrate really hard because he was unlikely to see it again. And today? As Spira notes, you don’t even have to get out of bed to be able to access a bunch of variant Metropolis movies on your phone. Some of which, you don’t even have to pay for.

“But Spira is interested in his own culture of entertainment. More specifically, the generation spanning 1983 to the early 2000s, the first generation that was effectively given control over exhibition. For people of Spira’s era, the VHS cassette could turn your home into a cinema and your lounge into an archive. It was, as Yasuo Nagayama observed in his history of Japanese fandom, a huge disruption to the nature of film-watching all over the world, equivalent, in his words, to ‘the discovery of time travel.'”

Play All

9780300218091The concept of binge-watching is nothing new to readers of this column – indeed, it was first introduced here in NEO #26, ten years ago, where it was lifted from 1990s US TV fandom. It came into its own in 2013, when Netflix’s new paradigm of dumping entire serials online on a single day encouraged even mainstream viewers to get into the habit, and in 2015, the concept was hailed as the word of the year by the Collins English Dictionary.

I first noticed binge-watching implicit in the style of Gantz, an anime series with four-episode arcs, dumped onto late-night schedules in Japan where it seemed to be begging its audience to watch it in longer chunks. The serial format, it seemed to me, was merely a conceit. Gantz was long-form story-telling, pretending to be a TV show just to keep investors happy.

TV critic Clive James has also stumbled across the world of binge-viewing. Housebound and believing that he only had a few months to live, he kept himself busy with DVD box sets. With his life-threatening leukaemia happily in apparent remission, he has been unable to resist writing up his experience in Play All: A Binge-Watcher’s Notebook, a book-length meditation on a “new critical language” to cope with a new form of media consumption.

“I wondered briefly what Theodor Adorno would have said on the subject of American schoolgirl detectives,” he notes regrading Veronica Mars, “but after watching a few episodes I realised that I didn’t give a damn what Theodor Adorno would have said.”

There is something sweet about James’ tardy arrival at conclusions that will be familiar to almost any anime fan. Like much of his recent writing, it has an elegiac quality, as if he expects every page to be his last, and as he struggles to correct solecisms from his past. Spanning the rise of quality TV from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, Play All is not a simple collection of reviews. Rather, like J. Hoberman’s similar Film After Film, it uses a number of representative works to build a unified account of a modern medium.

Sadly, James has nothing to say in this book about Japan. His snarky love of the country’s television was a defining trope of his 1980s heyday. I wished for a moment in this lovely book where he would roll his eyes like old times, offered a pained grin and say: “Meanwhile, in Japan…” Because in the era of anime box sets, I would have loved to see what he made of Gantz, or Attack on Titan, or…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016.

A Brief History of the Martial Arts

7587595896_db1a919508_bOver at the Anime Limited blog, Paul Jacques reviews my Brief History of the Martial Arts: “A Brief History of the Martial Arts walks a path between academic facts and a cracking good yarn; both enlightening and entertaining whilst trying to separate the fact from the fiction. Openly fictional accounts also contribute to the narrative, such as the legends of The Water Margin and Journey to the West… those of a scholarly persuasion will find a gold mine in its exhaustive links to further reading. But just about anyone who is interested in the martial arts, real or fictional, will find page after page of fascinating histories and stories.”

Armchair Beijing

41A5LcKbTvL._SX268_BO1,204,203,200_Comments are in for my new Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing, from some impressively heavy hitters.

“This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

“…direct, well-written history, that travels at a steady pace from Peking Man to the ill-fated opening of a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City… if you’re after some interesting facts to impress friends and visitors with, this is the book for you.” — That’s Beijing

“Jonathan Clements evocatively captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Beijing while rooting the city in its broader historical context … Covering such a wide swathe of territory is no easy task, but Clements does so skilfully and often wittily, weaving together myth, factual data and vivid details … Clements’s written is lyrical at times, but there are also moments of jocularity in unexpected places. When introducing the Beijing Zoo, for example, he wryly notes that “dogs are available for rental, for anyone who wants to… rent a dog.'” — Times Literary Supplement

Available now from Amazon UK/US.

Chinese Stop-Motion Animation

$_1Cao Di’s Mandarin-language book Chinese Stop-Motion Animation chronicles the rise of animated films using the media of pieces of paper, marionettes and claymation. She does so in an impressively all-encompassing 336 pages, according a weighty, persuasive presence on the bookshelf to a medium that is often otherwise confined to the footnotes.

Cao does not shy away from the fact that some of the leading lights of early Chinese animation were Japanese, such as the early pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese animator fleeing the last days of WW2, who adopted the Chinese name Fang Ming, worked in China for the early 1950s, and returned periodically over the next two or three decades clasping new contracts and technology. However, considering his Manchurian childhood, which made him a fluent speaker of Mandarin by adulthood, Mochinaga is arguably a liminal figure that all but went native. Cao does, however, whisk away Mochinaga’s crown, suggesting that he was pipped to the post to make the first Chinese stop-motion film by the obscure On the Front Line, produced in Chongqing in 1939.

Stop-motion films largely remain short works, with concentrated bursts of artistry like the iconic Princess Peacock (1963) and the charming propaganda film Red Army Bridge (1964). China’s political upheavals made remarkably little impact on the output of stop-motion films, with only a three-year gap in releases at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In recent times, stop-motion leaps out of the arthouse into TV commercials and pop videos, where its short running times and quirky look can grab it more hits on the internet.

Cao’s book is packed with usable data – not only its narrative account of the industry, but a thorough chronology, a filmography of the works mentioned, and even an account of spin-off media – even Mao-era China had books-of-the-films. It is a valuable account of this over-looked subset of the animation medium, and a fitting companion to the same serial’s The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009).

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

The God of Manga

The Osamu Tezuka Story - A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions Translated by Frederick L. SchodtToshio Ban’s The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Anime and Manga is a ground-breaking manga biography of one of Japan’s best-loved and best-selling creators, the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. At 900 pages, it is a breathtakingly thorough sweep through Tezuka’s post-war struggles to become a comics artist, his misplaced faith in the financial returns of animation, and his pioneering efforts in setting up the studio Mushi Production.

Ban’s approach often has the relentless, linear plod of a TV movie, beginning with his leading man’s infancy, and working all the way through to his death. But in doing so, he draws deeply on Tezuka’s own memoirs, citing childhood incidents as crucial inspirations in his later work, such as the sticky-up hair that inspired the coiffure of his iconic Astro Boy. Most subjects would not warrant this intensive focus, but Tezuka is such a fundamental figure for understanding modern Japanese media that there is sure to be plenty of interest here for fans and scholars.

Ban’s artwork is deceptively simple. At first glance, it looks like the journeyman drafting of an educational comic, but actually goes much further. His depictions of many scenes are photo-real, deriving directly from documents, photographs and location hunts in the places under discussion. When Ban writes about the arrival of a letter from Stanley Kubrick, offering Tezuka the production designer’s job on 2001: A Space Odyssey, he doesn’t just tell you about it. He shows you the envelope it came in, complete with Kubrick’s return address. Translator Frederik L. Schodt almost fell off his chair in surprise when he got to a page recounting a visit by Tezuka to America, realising that the youthful hipster in one panel was himself as Tezuka’s interpreter, faithfully recreated from a forgotten photo.

fred and tez

Here we see the formative years of a young comics artist: the temptations of a career in medicine; the irresistible but risky pull of animation; the struggles of a young studio, and the confusing whirl of international attention. Tezuka is propelled to the height of the manga profession, only to risk it all with a blind-faith bet on animation. Much of the dialogue is taken, word-for-word, from his own books and speeches, including a wistful farewell in which he speculates about how the children of the future might regard the Earth from space. Cue Ban’s artwork running with Tezuka’s ideas to present a slingshot, sci-fi ending, as Tezuka’s work forges on into the future without him.

Ban also injects some subtle artistic elements. As Tezuka’s long-term assistant, he has mastered his boss’s style, drawing much of the manga in a direct pastiche of the original. Clearly channelling the idea of how Tezuka himself might have approached the project if he had been able to draw his life-story from beyond the grave, Ban presents the whole thing as a fantastical documentary, narrated by characters from Tezuka’s own works. The art-style degenerates into more amateurish cartooning when the young Tezuka is telling a story to an indulgent audience of relatives, but blossoms into richly toned artwork when recreating adult memories.

The Osamu Tezuka Story is an unparalleled gateway to Tezuka’s life and work. Many critics, myself included, warn that Tezuka and his estate have been expert curators of his memory, and that Ban’s work typically shines a spotlight so brightly on its subject that many of his contemporaries are confined to the shadows. But that doesn’t stop Ban from noting some of the low points, including Tezuka’s resignation from his own studio and his flirtation with depression. Unless you can read Japanese, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a warts-and-all portrayal, and undoubtedly the most informative, detailed and illuminating work on manga and anime to be published in English this year.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #10, 2016.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair

A new collection of essays on Finland in World War II.

mannerheim line

Finland fought three conflicts between 1939 and 1945. The first was the notorious Winter War (1939-40), in which the country stood alone against Soviet invasion. “Only Finland,” thundered Winston Churchill, “superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do.” What Finland, under its famous leader Mannerheim, managed to do was put aside the festering civil strife of Red versus White, left over from the civil war of 1918, and unite against a common enemy, fighting the Russians to a standstill while the world looked the other way. In the process, the map of Finland, sometimes described as the “Maid” for its resemblance to a girl in a dress, lost an arm of territory to the Russian bear.

41wDEOVZcaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The second was even more divisive. The Continuation War (1941-44) saw Finland joining forces with Nazi Germany in a renewed attack on Russia. As noted in Tiina Kinnunen and Ville Kivimäki’s insightful collection of academic essays Finland in World War II: History Memory, Interpretations, it was the Germans who swiftly announced this to be Waffenbrüderschaft – a “brotherhood in arms.” It was the Finns who pushily translated this into English as a “co-belligerency pact”, refusing to call themselves allies of Hitler, even as they overshot their original targets, clawing back the land lost to the Soviets and rolling onwards to the East, seizing the lands of Karelia, which had arguably never been Finnish before, creating an entire new industry in manufactured traditions and rescue ethnology, well covered in Kinnunen and Kivimäki’s book.

One might suggest that the third was even more controversial. Whereas the Continuation War was a shocking deal with the devil (a devil that, as noted here, more crucially sent the food supplies that saved the Finns from starvation), the Lapland War (1944-45) was its shocking turnabout, as the Finns turned on the Nazi troops on their territory, chasing them out of the country in a conflagration that saw almost all human habitation destroyed north of the Arctic Circle.

It never ceases to amaze me how historians can find new angles on the war, and Finland in World War II does not disappoint, with space devoted not only to geopolitics and treaties, army operations and tactics, but also to such oddities as the psychological effect of burying the fallen in their home towns (Finland today boasts 600 “heroes’ cemeteries”), the countrywide ban on dancing (an activity regarded by grim Lutherans of a betrayal of comrades’ sacrifices on the front line), and the DIY magicians’ kits sent to entertain troops in their trenches. Modern trends to conflate history with memory also lead to some interesting areas, such as accounts of the historiography of the war as told in movies and novels, as well as changing public perceptions of Finland’s attitude towards the Holocaust. The editors aim to both summarise and outline the most recent researches on the subject, with chapters firmly grounded in Finnish-language academia, and a bibliography of many obscure English-language academic papers on Finnish subjects.

Later essays include several welcome treatments of the role of Karelia in the conflict, not only as a land to be defended, but also as the new frontier of a Nazi-inspired expansion into conquered lebensraum, and a lost land ceded to Russia – source of thousands of refugees in the 1950s. One remarkable section even delves into Sain Karjalan takaisin (“I Got Karelia Back”), a 2003 account of a woman’s trips to the place of her birth, now a Russian republic where her childhood home is occupied by strangers, and where she is inspired by the landscape to stay and build a house.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).