Award Nomination?

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is on the longlist for the Bookseller magazine’s annual Diagram Prize for the daftest book title. It faces heavy competition from Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich and The Origin of Faeces, among others, so who knows if it will make it to the shortlist on 19th February. Still, nice to be noticed…

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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).

Cameron's Artifice

I have been having a good giggle this week at the redesigned election posters at http://www.mydavidcameron.com. for readers outside the UK, this is a site that lampoons the opposition election campaign by inviting the public to creatively vandalise one of their posters. The example illustrated, by one Ian Yates, is particularly nice, although I am baffled by the UK public’s supposed indignation about one element of the campaign.

There are plenty of things to argue about in British politics — real issues like education, health, crime and defence. And yet a large proportion of this week’s debate seems to have been about the fact that the picture of opposition leader David Cameron has been *airbrushed*. As if this is some sort of sin against nature.

I find it odd largely because the newspapers and TV shows behind this furore will be fully aware that everyone is airbrushed. On my days as editor of Manga Max, Vanessa the designer used to spend hours touching up the covers, even though they were often supposedly flawless anime digital images to begin with. She spent similar intricate efforts making the insides of the magazine look nice. Few images available to the press are ever plug-and-play.

Back when I was a presenter on Saiko Exciting on the Sci Fi channel, there was a brief storm in a teacup over the revelation that I wore make-up on air. This was whipped up by some people who thought that there was something unmanly about it, as if I were duping the viewers by not letting them ogle my zits. The plaintiffs seemed unaware that everybody wears make-up in TV, because you’re sitting under zillion-watt lights that make you look like zombies otherwise.

Most large-scale advertising images are doctored. If you’re on an billboard at 1200 dots per inch, why on earth would you want to look bad?

This isn’t even new. There was a little squib of fun in the 1940s, when a British politician’s wife, Lady Diana Cooper, was amused to discover that the president of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was wearing make-up when he met her. She didn’t consider that Mannerheim was also meeting the press that day, facing down the world’s media, and hoping not to look like someone who had been living in a shed in the forest.

A digital effects technician of my acquaintance got his first break in the industry going through a film that you have heard of, frame by frame, gently erasing the blemishes from the face of the leading lady. An actress of whose career you are aware, sure to be named in the top ten actresses you come up with if I asked you to list them, has an asking price that includes a million dollar fund to clean up her image digitally. Now, politicians are not actresses, but give them a little credit. If David Cameron had a big spot on his nose on the day that picture was taken, only a complete idiot would run with it as a campaign image to get him elected.

In the movie field, there’s a broader issue. If you’ve got a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis the book, you may have already read my discussion of the possibility that animation is now perceived as a threat to “real” films. Some forms of artifice, it seems, are more acceptable than others. Special effects that make actors look good are welcome to many Motion Picture Academy voters. Special effects that make actors redundant are a very different matter — a large proportion of MPAA voters are thespians. As “animation” becomes so heavily integrated into special effects, and special effects so heavily integrated into live action, that we see “live-action” films that are almost entirely “animated”, the chance finally arises that a “best actor” award might go to a cartoon character, that a “best movie” Oscar might go to a… well, a cartoon.

You know, I don’t think David Cameron’s people are all that worried about the satire. I think they are telling themselves that no publicity is bad publicity, and, I suspect, storing up a whole series of stories about their rivals in the Labour party (shock!) wearing make-up and doctoring their photographs, ready to roll at the next news cycle. But as for David Cameron’s long-lost cousin, James, artifice is something to be proud of. He might even get an award for it.

A Thorn in Their Sides

It’s all been very quiet for a while over at Matt Thorn’s blog. Despite its presence in the links section at right, I’d given up checking to see if he’d done anything new. Then I’ve been busy for the last few months on a new book project and I simply haven’t had the time. Which is why I am late to the party over at his site about this article, in which Thorn puts the boot repeatedly into what passes for translation in the manga field.

This is, of course, a subject close to my heart, and I agree with everything he says. Those lucky individuals who already own a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis will have already read the transcript of a lecture I gave on translation at the University of East Anglia, in which I approach many of the same issues, but with regard to the anime business. But I was speaking to an audience at the Department of Literary Translation, so I was able to ignore many of the basic issues. I was, in effect, already talking to professionals. Thorn’s frustration is born of the boggling number of *amateurs* in the manga field, who do not understand the basic principles of translation.

I’ll add no more to Thorn’s thoughts except to cut and paste an email I sent to him a couple of years ago, when we were bitching about this among ourselves:

“Last month I was offered a manga translation job for the first time in years. Apparently it required “special talents” (read: someone had to open a dictionary) and was expected to win awards and suchlike. I had apparently been on the slate for this one for three years, and now it was my Big Chance to earn what I estimated as $33 a day.

“The guy was very upfront. He showed me his sales projections and his budgets, and demonstrated that that was all he could afford to pay me. Yes, I said, but you are asking me to make your bad business decisions *my* problem. This is a one-month job, if I do it right. I will not rush it in a week just so that the money doesn’t feel like I am working at McDonalds.”

I find this topic interesting largely because it comes so fast on the heels of my comments about the continued success of Ironfist Chinmi. The money I was being offered for this project was roughly a third of what I was offered for Chinmi, and I am not sure there was any royalty element either. When I did Chinmi, I was 24-year-old graduate student and so, arguably, still young and stupid. But some modern entrants into the manga translation field are expected to accept fees that are only at 30% of 1995 rates. Are we surprised that even the good ones are over-worked, harassed and otherwise distracted?

Pay peanuts, get monkeys, as Confucius almost said.

2009: The Year in Anime Books

It has been a good year for worthy books on Japanese animation. Apart from my own Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, of course, there have been a couple of books I have yet to read but suspect I will like: Andrew Osmond’s Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Surely the prize for best anime book of the year must go to Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, lovingly translated by Frederik L. Schodt and Beth Cary, and treating the anime fans of the English-speaking world to an unparalleled glimpse inside the mind of the medium’s most famous director, warts and all. Miyazaki is surrounded at all times by a cloud of idle speculation and spin, and it’s great to see him speaking up in his own words. Not wholly about anime, but deeply illuminating about one of its best-publicised elements, was Lowenthal and Platt’s Voice-Over Voice Actor, also published this year.

Osamu Tezuka has enjoyed a revival, with two excellent English language studies of him arriving in swift succession, first from Natsu Onoda Powers in May, and then Helen McCarthy in October. Meanwhile, in Japanese, the “God of Manga” was the subject of the multi-authored The Osamu Tezuka That Nobody Knew, and Yuka Minakawa’s chunky, gossip-ridden tomes, The Rise and Fall of Japanese Animation: Osamu Tezuka School, 1: The Birth of TV Anime, and 2: Psychologist With an Abacus.

Japanese-language books on anime this year have offered some tantalising glimpses behind the scenes. Just before the end of 2008, the Association of Japanese Animations (sic) and Tokyo Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs published a new syllabus for trainee animators and those wishing to enter the business, which seemed to carefully airbrush out much of anime history before the millennium. You might argue that on a need-to-know basis, new animators don’t really need to know… but for those of us with a historical perspective, industry stories are vital for keeping a sense of institutional memory in a notoriously amnesiac business. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, guiding light of Production IG, published The Animation Business and a Non-Conformist Producer’s On-the-Spot Revolution, and Masanobu Komaki published his memoirs from behind the scenes at magazine in My Time at Animec. Meanwhile, Mana Takemura published Magical Girl Days. And in 2008, although I did not acquire it until this year, Mamoru Oshii (yes, him) published a management guide called (deep breath) : Salvation Through Outside Help: Seven Powers for Work That Does Not Fail, which not only included some wonderful insights to the anime movie-making process, but some mental photographs.

Few of these works seemed to have troubled the reading lists of people who call themselves anime fans, or indeed who call themselves anime scholars. It irritates me that so much anime scholarship seems to revolve around the re-invention of the wheel, as hordes of newcomers blithely ignore what has already been published in the field. Enough respect, then, for Simon Richmond, whose Rough Guide to Anime, also published this year, took the trouble to acknowledge his predecessors. If you just like watching Japanese cartoons for fun, then this shouldn’t bother you in the slightest, but anime seems to be attracting a lot of self-styled experts these days, and it wouldn’t kill some of them to pick up a book every now and then. Starting with the Anime Encyclopedia, which really does have some very interesting essays in it, the contents of which I keep finding other people to have ‘discovered’ independently, which is frankly a waste of their time, and of mine!

Catnip for Industry Wonks

Chad Kime, formerly of Geneon, is the special guest at Anime News Network’s podcast this week. It doesn’t take hosts Zac Bertschy and Justin Sevakis all that long to coaxe him into tell-all confessions of inventory, minimum guarantees, sales figures, returns, and honest-to-God numbers. Seriously, if you have any interest in the way the anime business actually works, if you really want to get a handle on the upheavals of the last five years, then put this week’s episode on your MP3 player and listen in wonder. Kime is this blog’s Man of the Year, for essentially delivering an annotated edition of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, but with all the real names.

People are going to write dissertations about this one-hour interview. Kime makes a humble show like Heat Guy J the epicentre and looking-glass of the entire industry in the 2000s, talking the listener through the many recurring issues and problems that have hampered anime for as long as I have been observing it. He does so with humour, grace, and most importantly, real-world numbers about the years he spent “riding a glowing star, that transformed into a giant black hole.” Listen if you dare, and then go back and read Schoolgirl Milky Crisis again with a whole new perspective!

Now, none of the shows he cites are the *actual* shows mentioned in my book… but that’s even better. It just goes to show that the experiences I was chronicling were recurring all over the anime world.

China Crisis?

To Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, where prime minister Wen Jiabao had some words of complaint for animation students.

Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world,” he told students at Jiangtong Animation. “Let Chinese children watch more of their own history and own country’s animation.” But this was meant less in praise than in criticism. After spending time with a grandson we shall call Wen Junior, the prime minister was shocked to discover that the boy preferred Japanese imports to China’s homegrown animation.

“He always watches Ultraman,” complained Wen. “He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”

Wen says this like it’s the animators’ fault. I fully believe the Culture Ministry’s statement that there are 200,000 animators at work in China today. It’s just that a big chunk of them are working on The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or take your pick. And while that’s great for Chinese industry and keeps people in employment, it doesn’t automatically translate to a rich local creative culture.

The Chinese animation industry, according to its Deputy Culture Minister, produces 41 hours of content a week, a number that appears to even top the output of Japan, which was 35 hours per week at its 2006 height, and is probably more like 20 hours a week today. But statistics are never the whole story. In many cases, those cartoons are being counted twice. When the Japanese broadcast a cartoon (let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis) on TV Tokyo, that’s 25 minutes of animation claimed on the Japanese figures. But if the same show is a Chinese co-production, and broadcast in China as Exemplary Scholar Heroines of Dairy Production Problem-Solving, then those same minutes will also go on the Chinese slate. Meanwhile, Chinese in-betweeners and colourists doing the dogwork on a bunch of Japanese or American serials, will be surely registering that as even more “Chinese” hours. None of that is going to help them make the Greatest Chinese Cartoon of All Time, although one day it might help pay for it.

Moreover, discussion of media in China often suffers from significant vagueness in definitions. There is often an infuriating unwillingness to distinguish between movies and TV shows, or pirates and legal imports, which in turn leads to woolly thinking and bizarre non-facts. Shows are “banned” that are not actually available. Fan-bases develop for titles that haven’t been sold. We can see this at work here, as well. Wen Jiabao’s thoughts are certainly relevant, but Ultraman isn’t a cartoon at all. There was, true enough, an Ultraman anime, but it’s difficult to imagine that Wen Junior is watching a cartoon that’s older than he is. Although if he is, and he still prefers it to homegrown product, then Chinese animation is in even bigger trouble than Wen Jiabao thinks. But if, as I suspect, his complaint was correctly translated but perhaps misinterpreted, and Junior really was watching a recent live-action Ultraman TV show, then Wen is being awfully unfair on China’s creatives by comparing apples and oranges. The cost of live-action TV is an order of magnitude above the cost of animation. He’s asking them to make an impossible leap.

(This article first appeared in NEO 64, 2009)