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)

Pimpage

“Jonathan Clements is one of the rare commentators who writes for the English speaking anime enthusiast without resorting to supposition. .. Clements’ work stands as an effective testament to the value of print commentary in anime. Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased to have more of this work captured in a shelf-suitable bound edition.” (Ain’t It Cool News)

Tomorrow, this blog is a year old. It’s been twelve whole months since the Big Giant Heads showed me the negatives, and assured me that they would release them to the press unless I updated this blog twice a week with titbits from a writer’s life, rants at the injustices of the world, and pictures of cats. Although I talked them round about the cats.

In the process, I’ve uploaded a whole bunch of things that didn’t quite fit in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, as well as many more articles that might well turn up in a sequel, should I ever be able to talk the Big Giant Heads into printing it. With that in mind, nothing sways a publisher like a massive spike in December sales, so do please consider Schoolgirl Milky Crisis as a Christmas gift for an anime fan in your life. Or an eccentric uncle. Or anyone on an award committee who complains that there are too many books on the market about women who “find” themselves or men who like blowing stuff up. Every little helps.

Exquisite Bastards

I couldn’t go to San Francisco without dropping in on Toren Smith, founder of Studio Proteus and major mover of the manga scene in America. Despite only getting in on a plane from Canada that afternoon, he made sure he and his lovely wife Tomoko were available to help Mrs Clements and me chomp through a curry fit for six.

There is a universal language within the anime and manga business. I haven’t mentioned my trip to see Madman Entertainment in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, because I am sure that it probably merits an appearance first in Neo magazine. But for the record, I did drop in on Madman, and we did spend a merry lunch comparing horror stories from the anime industry. This is because no matter what country we are in, no matter what titles we are selling, no matter what job we have within the medium, we all have the same experiences. Madman’s designer had licensing terror-tales that matched exactly those I’d heard from his opposite number at ADV in the US, and MVM in the UK. French translators have the same woes as their compatriots in German or English. When anime and manga are the things that put food on the table, we all have a lot more that unites us than divides us.

Toren has been in manga for more than twenty years, with a long-term durability that’s hard to beat. He knows I’m not just saying this because it cropped up several times in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, when discussing issues in translation, print quality and the economies of manga publishing. His specialist area, it often seems, is speaking unwelcome truths. Perhaps you can see how we might get along quite well.

In particular, I owed him a Guinness or three in thanks for taking the time to write his glowing review of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. When we were soliciting cover quotes for the book, I deliberately left him out of the loop because he was mentioned several times in it. Hence, his recent praise for SMC is not that of a paid shill, but of an independently minded Amazon punter who paid for the book with his own money. I particularly liked the bit where he said he went off and bought five copies to give away… if only every reader did that!

While our wives nattered about dogs and headlocks, we chortled and guffawed about the state of the manga market like two grumpy old men. I gave him a sneak preview of some of the material that might just lose its legal toxicity in time for publication in a putative Schoolgirl Milky Crisis 2, and he called me an “exquisite bastard.” High praise indeed, Toren: you’re an exquisite bastard, too.

Sendai

When I was a child, I imagined that Sendai was the headquarters of a vast satanic conglomerate called Muramasa Industries, which spanned the globe and several neighbouring dimensions in a bid for mastery of the universe. In 1987, I wrote my Geography O-level paper on the little-known Muramasa Steelworks in Sendai, which I had entirely made up (it did not help that I accidentally drank a bottle of sake before going into the exam — I got a B, thanks for asking). When I left Japan in 1992, I told the immigration clerk that I was sure to come back, “because I haven’t been to Sendai yet”. I have always imagined that Sendai would be a really cool place. And now, more than twenty years after I began imagining what Sendai was like, I am finally here.
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Clouds on the Hill

Ryotaro Shiba, a prominent writer of historical fiction, serialised the novel Clouds on the Hill (Saka no Ue no Kumo) from 1968 to 1972. He was a master at hunting down those people in Japanese history whose lives spanned crucial events and critical issues. In the case of Clouds on the Hill, he focussed on the Akiyama brothers, two boys from Matsuyama (see last blog entry) who witnessed the rapid modernisation of Japan, joined the new-look military, attained high military rank, one in the army and the other in the navy.
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Manga Snapshots

For several years, I have been writing a column in Neo magazine called Manga Snapshot. Every month I take a different Japanese comics anthology magazine and literally take it apart, examining everything from the paper quality to the adverts. There are so many comics magazines in Japan that despite running now for four years, Manga Snapshot has yet to repeat a title. I’ve covered all the usual magazines for boys and girls and housewives, and the usual niches like romance and war comics, but also weirder areas. Detective stories for lonely Goths, educational golfing magazine containing nothing but manga about golf, a magazine entirely devoted to mahjong… several of these were reprinted in the Schoolgirl Milky Crisis book, and in the event that there is a Schoolgirl Milky Crisis 2, there will be many more of them.
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