Aim for the Top

I don’t expect your sympathy. Anime for you is a free choice. You find something to love and then you love it day after day, hour after hour. Modern technology has created binge fandom, consuming entire serials in marathon sessions. Some anime, like Gantz, seem tailored to this market, designed to be watched in real-time, without week-long gaps between episodes. Which is great, if you like it to begin with. Some anime, however, feel like you are trying to pull out your own teeth.

You can switch off. You can dismiss the awful Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and move on to something else, all memory gone of your wasted 25 minutes. I have to keep watching; it’s my job. Which is why I do my very best not to pull the term “classic” unless I’m really going to use it. A classic shouldn’t be some antique show the distributor acquired by accident and feels obliged to hype. It shouldn’t be some old has-been, shuffled onto a small screen where the age doesn’t show so badly. It should be something that stands the test of time. Something like Gunbuster.

For its wartime echoes and its maudlin pathos; for its superb voice-acting and peerless script; for its kamikaze students and its red-haired Russian bad girl; for the misleadingly dumb beginning, which lurches into a gripping space war drama; for all these things and more, Gunbuster is my favorite anime.

Gunbuster has shadowed me through every step of my career, all around the world. When I was at college in Japan, Gunbuster was the anime shown in Sociology as a discussion point on the Japanese school system. When I lectured on anime translation in Scotland, the US edition of Gunbuster was my object lesson in excellence; at an animation conference in Wales, I used it to demonstrate jiggling fan service at work; at a Norwegian film festival, it was my clip to demonstrate wartime analogies; at a Finnish convention, the last episode was used to show the power of black-and-white filmmaking. Ten years ago, Gunbuster was the litmus test of my independence, when, much as I adored it, I refused to work on a UK version that I disapproved of – missing footage, with pathetic extras and a poor transfer.

It was only a few years ago that a translator told me Tokyo audiences would simply not comprehend my references to Gunbuster. It was old news, he said. It was an obscure video show from the late 1980s, gone and forgotten. Now that the otaku generation are running the anime business, the latest edition of Gunbuster comes complete with scholarly sleeve notes calling it a landmark in anime history. Critic Ryusuke Hikawa argues that Gunbuster is the grandfather of much in modern anime – it has the passion of Evangelion, the yearning of Voices of a Distant Star, and the “fan service” and self-referentiality of Genshiken. It placed the token female of anime cliché front and center, cunningly twisting the traditions of girls’ entertainment for a new and unexpected purpose – entertaining boys.

Gunbuster has been hard to find for many years, tied up in rights issues. I’m glad it’s coming back. It feels like I’ve been waiting 12,000 years.

This article originally appeared in Newtype USA, October 2006. Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Seven Years On

milkycrisis-12It’s been seven years since the publicity junkets for Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the book that led to this blog being started in the first place. And over on Youtube, Nozomi Entertainment have posted up their podcast interview with me from spring 2009, in which we discuss everything from the demographics of fandom to the problem of getting Chinese waiters to do backing vocals on “Help Me Rhonda”.

Glasgow Loves Anime

Details are now up online of the first weekend of Scotland Loves Anime, to be held at the Glasgow Film Theatre on 9th and 10th October 2010. Screenings include Redline and Trigun Badlands Rumble, the latter to be introduced by Satoshi Nishimura and Shigeru Kitayama.

I shall be there introducing a bunch of other films, including Summer Wars and Professor Layton & The Eternal Diva. Someone has already asked on the Twitter feed if I will be signing copies of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. God, yes! In fact, this is Glaswegian anime fans’ big chance to bring in a copy of SMC. I can sign it to you, to your mum, or to that anime fan you are hoping to impress with a bespoke gift this Christmas. So get over to Amazon and order your copies now!

Attack of the Space Leeches

We shall, as is traditional, have to call the show in question Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. The Japanese had left two episodes of it with the TV channel. Bigwig the producer was so important that he could only schedule the meeting during his lunch hour, which was why the opening teaser played out to the room over the sounds of him grazing on a salad.

I watched as the superheroes gathered onscreen to save the world from alien parasites. Across the table, a figure we’ll call Gothboy thumbed listlessly at his cellphone. Bigwig shovelled another forkful of salad into his mouth as a Martian general threatened to conquer the Earth.

We hadn’t even got to the theme song, before Bigwig slapped both hands on the table, leaned forward and called the meeting to order.

“Right,” he said. “What can we do with this?”

He was blocking my view of the screen. I leaned to the side to get a better view.

“We could replace the music?” said Gothboy.

Behind his head, the jaunty theme song had kicked in. It had been a number one hit in Japan, but Gothboy had better ideas.

“This would be really great with Cradle of Filth rocking out on top of it,” suggested Gothboy. “Or someone similar. My mate Dave’s got a band that’s a bit like them. They might be cheaper.”

“We could replace the original language?” suggested a woman who had been sitting so quietly behind a potted plant that I hadn’t even noticed her.

“Yes, Fiona!” said Bigwig. “We could get someone famous to do the voices!”


“Someone famous.”

We were still only a couple of minutes into the first episode. The people around the table had given it all of thirty seconds before launching in to ways of how they might change it.

“Can you translate it?” Bigwig asked me, all of a sudden.

“Not translate-translate,” added Fiona. “He means: translate it so it’s good.”

“I can translate what people are saying…” I began.

“Yeah, I don’t want to know what they are saying. I want you to write a script that’s better than that.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer,” I ventured, “to know what they are saying first? Then you would know if you wanted to change it.”

Bigwig, Fiona and Gothboy exchanged sidelong glances.

“We want it to be good,” affirmed Gothboy.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said, “that a million Japanese viewers tell you it’s good already, without any interference.”

“We’ll make it better,” said Bigwig.

“But still faithful to the original,” added Fiona hastily.

“Faithful to the original,” continued Bigwig, “but with more Zhzhh.”

“And change the names,” said Gothboy. “So they sound less… Japanese.”

“And we’ll put some music on it from Cradle of Filth,” said Bigwig.

“Or my mate Dave’s band, if they’re cheaper…” said Gothboy, carefully.

I stared at them open-mouthed.

“Trust us,” said Bigwig. “This is what we get paid for.”

“Otherwise,” said Fiona with a snort, “We’d be out of a job!”

“You haven’t even seen it!” I protested. “Did you buy it just to change it?”

Gothboy’s cellphone erupted in a disco version of the James Bond theme.

“Better take this,” he said. “It’s important.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #71, 2010)


It’s ten o’clock in the morning, on a rain-washed street in London’s Soho district. The clubs are dark and closed. The Thai Cottage restaurant won’t open until lunchtime. The coffee shop on the corner sells early morning caffeine shots. Yes, for the London media set, this is early morning. This isn’t the up-with-the-lark early birdism of sunny California. In media London, nobody’s at their desks before ten. They’re all out late at night partying, sorry, having meetings in popular local venues. And then the next day they sidle into the office after the rush hour is over.

I am the only one standing outside the screening rooms. This isn’t your afternoon or evening Event, with nibbles and wine and smiling marketing girls. An earnest, dapper Japanese man, still on Tokyo time, hands me a single glossy card about Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: The Movie. He has a stack of twenty. The cinema seats maybe fifty, in plush super-luxury.

Another five people arrive. They are young and bored. None of them really wants to be here. They are the newest workers in their respective offices, dumped with the worst of the pre-MIP tasks – watching a Japanese cartoon at ten in the morning.

All the real action will happen in France, at the Cannes MIPCOM fair. That’s where the buyers from the distributors are being wined and dined by the distributors. That’s where the goodie bags and perks are. That’s where people are splashing out on lunch. That’s where, in a week’s time, the higher-ups will be living it up. But before the movie world converges on France, there’s the pre-MIP screenings.

Nobody has time to watch movies in Cannes! They’re too busy being “entertained”. So the week before, they send out the expendable soldiers to catch film after film at special screenings, so they can turn up in France knowing what they want. Or rather, what they don’t want.

If a film is really huge, if it really has buzz and momentum and Tom Cruise, then you don’t need to revise for it on a wet April morning. These screenings are for the wallflowers – the ones that didn’t get invited to the ball. And yes, that usually means the Japanese cartoons.

Pro audiences are the worst in the world. Within 20 minutes, I am alone in the cinema. The others waited just long enough to make sure this wasn’t another Paprika, another Akira, another Howl. As soon as they confirm it isn’t, there’s no need for them to stay. They don’t want it. They walk straight out without a backward glance. They will write a single line email to their boss, and that’s another meeting he won’t be taking in France.

I stay to the end. I’m only here because I was genuinely interested in seeing the film. The Japanese exhibitor grabs me outside.

“You’re Jonathan Clements,” he says.

I ask him how he knows.

“You stayed to the end,” he says with a sad smile. “And you laughed at the Kurosawa joke.”

He stacks his remaining cards and looks at his watch. He knows who I am. Which means he knows I don’t actually have anyone to report to. Nobody’s buying Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, not today.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, November 2007 and was reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis).


While statistics show that the size of the manga market has steadily decreased in Japan over the last decade, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Japanese are reading less manga. The figures only refer to new manga – serialised in magazines and bought in shops as graphic novel compilations. In the past, the vast size of the Japanese publishing industry was often over-estimated by pundits who counted the same title twice, once on its magazine publication, and once when it was reprinted in book-form. This only matters if you are an accountant, not a fan.

But it’s these book forms that are weighing heavily on the industry now. Anthology magazines the size of phone directories have built-in obsolescence. The ink comes off in your hands, the paper is often coloured to hide the fact it has been recycled several times already. You’re supposed to read it on a train and then dump it at the next station, thereby allowing creators to sell the same thing back to you later on in book form.

But books are much more enduring. In Japan, you can shell out for new editions of the complete works of Masamune Shirow or Osamu Tezuka, or you can just pick them up second-hand for a fraction of the price. Ex-bachelor fanboys are forced to sell off their collections by irate spouses. Old-time fans die off, leaving their collections to go back on the market. Second-hand manga are great news for impecunious fans, but they can cause the entire market to depreciate in value. It’s going to be an interesting question, over the next few years, if UK manga sales also develop a second-hand afterlife. Then again, there are some companies whose products are so shoddily assembled that they won’t last long enough to make it to the second-hand stores. Poor print quality, weak glue… was this a cunning plan to build in obsolescence, or just low quality from the start?

(This article first appeared in NEO magazine #24, 2006, and was reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I choose to reprint it today because of the recent news that the manga market dropped 6.6% last year, something of a collapse after the steady 2%/year decline since 1995).

Radio Days

In answer to a special request from Anna over at Chocolate Keyboard, a reprint of an article from PiQ magazine, originally published in July 2008, and subsequently collected in the anthology Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.


The girl who met me in reception had a badge that said Emma. She didn’t actually tell me who she was, but sulkily informed me that she was here to take me upstairs. She didn’t show an iota of enthusiasm until the elevator reached the designated floor, at which point she practically pushed me into the green room.

“Someone will be with you,” she mumbled, before disappearing.

Someone soon was. Coincidentally, her name was also Emma. But Emma #2 displayed little interest in me. Instead, she was running through the questions with the people who were just about to go on-air before me. A nervy girl whose dog could play the bongos, or something like that. Emma #2 whispered her way through the questions she was going to get, just to put her at her ease.

That’s nice, I thought. I imagined that for a lot of people, appearing live on the radio was quite nerve-wracking. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve done it, and it’s still pretty nerve-wracking for me. There is always that little devil at your shoulder, whispering that now would be the ideal moment to have a Tourette’s Syndrome outburst. And the thought of it makes you giggle. And then it’s too late.

Except Emma #2 didn’t bother to tell me what questions were coming up. Instead, she pushed me into the studio where Emma #3 lay in wait. Another Emma — what were the odds? I began to suspect that this wasn’t going to quite be the discussion of manga’s broad genres that I had been promised.

With a proud flourish, I pulled a selection of manga from my bag. They’d asked me to grab a few titles from around my office: Ironfist Chinmi, which I translated many years ago, Yoshihisa Tagami’s Wild West manga Pepper, and Shooting Stars in the Twilight by Kenshi Hirokane.

“What’s this?” said Emma #3, wrinkling her nose in scorn.

“Oh, that’s my favorite,” I said. “Shooting Stars… is a series of love stories and thrillers for the elderly.”

“The elderly!?”

“Yes. I did say that manga catered for everyone. This particular series is for people in their sixties.”

She turned through a few of the pages with an unhappy look on her face, and then handed it back to me without a second glance.

“Don’t you have any porn?” she asked.

“Er… no,” I said.

“It’s just, I was hoping to see something shocking.”

“I’m not all that sorry to have disappointed you,” I replied. Then I remembered there was one more manga in another part of my bag. It was a copy of Princess, an anthology magazine for teenage girls.

I stuck Princess on the table, too.

“Is it porn?” said Emma #3.

“No,” I said, beginning to get a faint idea of where this was all going. “It’s for teenage girls!”

“Do they like porn?” she asked.

“You do realize,” I began hesitantly, “and I did tell you on the phone, that manga is not just porn. It is kids’ stories, and adventures, and thrillers, romance and drama, science fiction and detective stories—” But she cut me off with an upraised hand.

“By the way,” she said, just as the light changed from happy green to ON-AIR red, “we’ve had to drop a few of the questions. It was kind of boring. Instead we’re going to talk about changes in Japanese porn legislation.”

And with that, I was in the line of fire, lured on-air to talk about the Japanese comics that I loved, and, once more, forced to become a spokesman for and defender of an entire nation’s erotica.

Not that I mind that so much. There have been some fascinating developments in Japanese legislation recently. The Japanese government has spectacularly bowed to American pressure over obscenity regulation. Japanese law infamously rates obscenity on the basis of harm — in other words, it has long argued that if a sexual act, however unpleasant, is shown in a drawn image, nobody is actually being harmed and so the image should not be kept from consenting adult readers. This position has increasingly come under fire, both from UNICEF and from pressure groups like Cyber Angels, who have argued that manga should be subject to the same restrictions as “real” images, since they could be used to “groom” susceptible children.

Remarkably, the Japanese government has been prepared to listen to this. Instead of telling the Americans to leave them alone, the Japanese Cabinet Office issued a Special Opinion Poll on Harmful Materials. They discovered that a surprising percentage of the Japanese population agreed that “harmful” manga images should be censored. 90.9 percent in fact, said that they thought Internet images should be regulated. 86.5 percent said that they thought child porn in manga should be regulated. Interestingly, however, a massive 72.7 percent admitted that they didn’t actually know enough about the materials under discussion to say for sure whether someone would be harmed, or how they would be harmed, or what was harmful.

This is a fascinating legal area. Obscene materials, like green politics, cross international borders in a wired world. They require international agreements, not local fixes. Despite complaints about the slowness of Japan’s response, its willingness to listen to American arguments on the subject has been unprecedented.

And what does this have to do with manga? Not a whole lot, particularly if it’s the only thing you get to bring up, and your time to talk about it has been slashed to less time than it takes to boil an egg. A runny one.

“Manga cover every conceivable genre,” I pleaded in vain. “So, of course there are erotic manga.” But that doesn’t mean that every discussion of Japanese comics should turn into one about pornography. And it’s ironic that Emma, Emma, and Emma’s desperate desire to be shocked should have caused them to discuss Japanese pornography on national radio, giving it far wider coverage than it ever had in the Adults Only section of a comic store.

But that’s what you get in the mainstream media. A promised fifteen-minute slot dwindles to five because someone has a dog that plays the bongos, and before you know where you are, you might as well not have bothered getting up early. It had cost me ten bucks to get into the studio that day. I was already wondering if I shouldn’t have just stayed in bed and used the money to buy cheese.

On my way out of the studio, Emma #1 realized I might be angry about my treatment. She finally tried to make conversation.

“Does my name mean anything in Japanese?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re the ruler of Hell.”

Fighting the Phonies 1919-2010

“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life.”

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex makes recurring references to the work of legendary American recluse JD Salinger, whose judgemental Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye bears some similarity to the Laughing Man, and even supplies the quote for his logo. The tune, ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’, is a regular feature of daily life in Japan in everything from elevator doors to pelican crossings, and has cropped up before in the anime Vampire Hunter D and Grey: Digital Target.

Salinger’s short story ‘The Laughing Man’ was first printed in the New Yorker magazine in 1949, and featured a tale within a tale, about a boy kidnapped by Chinese bandits, and vengefully tortured by having his head partly crushed in a vice. Left with a gaping hole where his mouth should be, he takes to obscuring the lower part of his face with a mask. He proves a fast learner, even comprehending the language of wolves, and becomes a bandit with skills he had learned from his former captors. But his whole existence is a case of misdirection, for the story is actually about something else entirely, the tales of banditry and derring-do merely the means employed by a character to distract the reader from the real story going on around him, a thwarted romance.

(Excerpted from Jonathan Clements’s sleeve notes to the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex box set, released in the UK by Manga Entertainment, and reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis).