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.

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Empress Wu: Too Hot for TV?

empress wuThis week’s Telegraph reports that the new TV show Empress of China, all about the scandalous Empress Wu, has been taken off air amid scurrilous gossip over its revealing costumes and grotesque violence. Robert Foyle Hunwick in Beijing notes that: “The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), China’s chief censors, has issued regulations banning depictions of one-night stands, adultery, sexual abuse, rape, polyamory, necrophilia, prostitution, nudity and masturbation, as well as murder, suicide, drug use, gambling and even racy subtitles and puns.” Well, that pretty much covers a to-do list of any historically accurate account of Empress Wu. Oh, except gambling; I don’t remember any gambling.

For more about the historical Empress Wu, see my interview here, my article on film adaptations here, or listen to my Woman’s Hour interview here.

“All the Lonely Hearts in London…”

londynczycy3najserialLondynczycy (The Londoners) is a series that I have been aware of for five years, but which I couldn’t properly watch until I obtained the subtitled DVDs. It is a Polish television show about migrant workers in London, filmed by Polish film crew with Polish actors, who slip in and out of English depending on whom they are talking to. It’s fascinating to see England portrayed through foreign eyes, seen from the perspective of builders and nurses, cleaners and entrepreneurs. There’s the country girl who arrives as an unwitting drug mule, and gets dragged into industrial espionage in the finance sector. There’s the earnest young graduate forced to work as a builder, dumped by his girlfriend and hoping to make a go of it as a fast-food vendor. There’s the nurse who has been sending money home to her family while banging one of the doctors at her workplace, and the husband who comes out to see her, unaware of the minefield into which he is stepping. And then there’s the pensioner, neglected by her Anglicised children, who finds herself as the landlady to a coterie of her countrymen…

londynczycy-3The London they live in is geographically dispersed. Most of the Poles in the show live in Ealing, but the nurse works in Tooting and the yuppie works in Canary Wharf. Aesthetic requirements manage to ignore most of that, so that, as one wag noted, half the action seems to take place just outside Tower Bridge. There’s an element of honour winning through, as the eternally pure-hearted Andzrej tries to find a niche to make honest money, and keeps bumping into Asia, the hard-up would-be make-up artist with bee-stung lips, who is clearly destined to be his bride. But also there are elements of luck, as the teacher Marcin finds himself on a downward spiral in his new land, unable to even wash dishes competently, soon ending up in a squat packed with ne’er-do-wells. He turns on his fellow Polacks in a language class, berating them for having nothing to say about their homeland but jokes about vodka and football. He speaks of the glory days of Polish literature and culture, but can only do so in Polish, for which his teacher awards him no marks.

05Londynczycy_033I have spent most of the last six years living in someone else’s country, so perhaps Londynczycy speaks to me in a way it doesn’t for others. My own language is still a secret code I share with myself and occasional single-serving strangers. And London, my home for 15 years, stares out at me now as a fictional construct, in the Docklands glass of Spooks or bleached frames of Ultraviolet. But the Poles’ London is a wonderful sight to behold: a wainscot society of Slavic grafters, gangsters and good-time girls, where a bus will take you to Lodz from the outskirts of Ealing, and where every street has a “wailing wall” of help-wanted ads. Wladek, the doorman at a theatre, seems to be the oldest of all the Poles, with a vintage that suggests he was here with the last great influx in WW2. But his story remains untold, in favour of that of Pawel (“Call me Paul”), the city trader who sacrifices his soul for success, and Ewa, a nurse who is offered the high life, as long as she deserts her family.

b0759e8470317faecf8401d2ff2b9725The English cast are a menagerie of broad caricatures, seemingly instructed to bellow all their lines as CLEARLY AND DISTINCTLY as they can to help struggling Polish viewers keep up. A sizable chunk of them are also of immigrant origin, including an entire clan of scowling Pakistani wide-boys, a perpetually dancing family of samba-obsessed Brazilians, a posh British-Indian doctor and a gaggle of thick-necked Russian drug-dealers. Among the English, randy Isabella is a rich cougar with a thing for builders; shouty James is a city trader from the pointy-finger pointy-pointy school of acting; and chinless Peter is a yuppie who fancies Polish girls, who persuades Darek the builder to pretend to be “Derek from Edinburgh” in order to get off with Mariola, the swivel-eyed model who lurches and slurs through all her scenes as if drunk. Running through the whole thing is a fascinating subtext of form — that so many people in Poland have had this experience, or know someone who has, that it is possible to run an entire show about England on primetime on Poland’s national broadcaster. Meanwhile, modern technology allows for some interesting slants on time-honoured set-ups – it is now possible for example, for the loyal daughter to be talking in real time with her hapless sister in another country, as the former wires money for the other to pick up: a conversation held in two Western Union offices, albeit in two different countries.

The show’s tagline in Polish reads: “Great Britain, Great Expectations,” deliberately invoking a Dickensian sense of London as a city where dreams can be made and dashed, luring hopefuls from everywhere in search of that elusive secret of success.

Jonathan Clements is the co-author of The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Television Since 1953.

Premises, Premises

milkycrisis-1Right, I said, I see that you are writing an article about why anime has disappeared from TV screens. Great to have attention from the mainstream press, and yes, I will happily help you out. After all, there’s no such publicity as bad publicity, right…? However, I am not sure that you are asking the right questions. I am not sure that I accept your premises.

Firstly, is anime really not on television any more? I’ve just flicked around and I’ve found Pokémon and Dragon King airing right now. I’ve found a rack of Studio Ghibli movies airing on Channel Four. I’ve found an obscure cable channel pumping out Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

I think there is a story here, but I think you’re looking in the wrong place. The story appears to be not that anime is in trouble, but that anime is doing fine, while television itself is in trouble. If anime fans are early adopters, and one in ten UK residents are torrenting, doesn’t that tell you a whole lot about how fans are accessing this material? Particularly when we consider that so many anime television shows in Japan are aired in the graveyard slot when nobody is watching. So if nobody is watching them in Japan, why do we expect them to be on in primetime here?

Look, I said. Why don’t you talk to Joe Bloggs from well-known Anime Channel? Here’s his email address. He will tell you about the anime channel that he set up, and give you precise reasons why it shut down. And while you’re at it, why don’t you talk to John Smith at Anime Company? Here’s his email address. He will tell you that his company is now bypassing TV entirely and offering direct anime broadcasts to X-boxes, downloads from iTunes and free try-before-you-buy streaming from his own website. Let me put it like this, your premise is that more anime should be on television. I suggest that anime is finding another way to reach fandom, and that television doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it any more. That is sure to be an interesting thing for your tech-savvy readers to think about over their cornflakes.

Alternatively, if that doesn’t sound good to you, why don’t you just pick someone at random in a comics shop, ask them for their opinion, and fill up a quarter of your article with whatever they say? I am sure that the readership of your newspaper won’t mind. It certainly won’t get me into trouble when I am the only person from the anime industry quoted in your article. If anyone complains, you can say that you “didn’t have enough time” to interview everyone worth interviewing. That is sure to impress everyone (er… me) who gave freely of their own time to help you out before you collected the money for writing your article. And yes, that might be why I so often get an awful sinking feeling when approached by mainstream journalists who want to talk about anime, when I realise that I don’t merely have to provide answers, but also the questions. And even then, it’s no guarantee they’ll talk sense.

This article first appeared in NEO #76, 2010. Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.