Interview: Jonathan Clements

by Andrew Osmond, Jan 28th 2014

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is the first in-depth history of Japanese animation in English. It sweeps over nearly a century of the medium, from its shadowy origins as a tiny cottage industry, through a dizzying series of changes; a wartime tool for instruction and propaganda, a kids' medium which grew up with its audience, and an export whose origins have been hidden and hyped. The book is available in Britain and America, published by the British Film Institute.

Clements' involvement with anime goes back twenty years. Most ANN readers will know him as the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia (with Helen McCarthy); its third edition will be published later in 2014. He's also the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, a collection of articles on manga, anime and Asian culture, and has a blog with the same name.

Clements' other books include The Erotic Anime Movie Guide (with McCarthy) and The Dorama Encyclopedia, written with Motoko Tamamuro. He does live presentations on anime (such as this one on youtube), often appears on Manga Entertainment's podcasts, and introduces the annual Scotland Loves Anime screenings in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Clements is also a historian on subjects from the Vikings to the Chinese imperial family, and survived translating a large chunk of Urotsukidoji and numerous other anime.

ANN took the opportunity to quiz Clements on his new book.

Readers may be surprised that about half of your book deals with Japanese animation before Astro Boy. Why did you take this approach?

Astro Boy didn't happen in a vacuum. It's true that by 1964, 75% of the people who worked in Japanese animation owed their jobs to Tezuka, but Astro Boy was part of an ongoing process. Tezuka was poaching staff from Toei. Toei was formed from the ashes of Nichido. Nichido was a haven for refugees from TOHO. TOHO was a home for former members of the Shadow Staff. The Shadow Staff recruited animators from the small studios and animation houses of the 1930s… So let's take it right back. Let's go right back to the first Japanese man sitting in a room with a pencil, trying to make pictures move, and then take it all the way up to the present day.

I think the best thing that offers for appraising the present day is a healthy scepticism. I talk a lot about the kind of performances that animators put on in interviews and at conventions, and the degree to which that does or doesn't reflect the reality of the industry.

I would guess that Japanese animation from the first half of the twentieth century is little-known even in today's Japan. Is there a fandom or a specialist literature around it?

Not in any great detail. There was a little flurry of activity when Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors (right) was rediscovered, and occasional things tied to film festivals. Jasper Sharp at Midnight Eye has done some stuff about early Japanese animation, and there are some academic articles about early animation cited in my book. Nobuyuki Tsugata has written entire books on the subject, though, and he really gets into it. He'll get a photo of the staff at Kitayama Eiga in the 1930s, and he'll blow it up until he can read the chart on the wall behind them, and use that as his source for what they were working on.

There was a whole strand of early animation at the Locarno Film Festival in 2009. Akira Tochigi came over from Tokyo and we did some great dialogues about the material we saw. But it was a bit of a missed opportunity. Early anime is what we call a “vulnerable text” – it is only part of a theatrical event that requires an MC, and a band… but sometimes we just got silent films with no accompaniment, and that, in a very touchy-feely cultural studies sense, means that you're not actually seeing anything like the film as the creator intended.

Which were the most useful books for your purposes, and which did you find the most enjoyable to read?

I ended up writing a concordance to all the industry memoirs I could find. These books often don't have indices, so I wrote my own. That really throws things into sharp relief, when you read a director's account of a movie in production, and realise that you've also got the writer's version of events in another book, and it's completely different.

I place particular value on the memoirs of Tadahito Mochinaga and Soji Ushio, because they were both posthumous. These animators die in relative obscurity, and then years afterwards, their families manage to get their memoirs into print, and they transform our sense of what Japanese animation is. Mochinaga is a crucial figure in understanding animation in Japan for decades, and is often a hostile witness, writing about how much he loathes working for Rankin/Bass. Ushio is a relative unknown in the anime business, with powerful family connections (he's Shiro Sagisu's dad, for example), who off-handedly supplies the vital data that allows us to work out the history and personnel of the Shadow Staff.

I loved Keishi Yamazaki's memoirs of being a producer at Tokyo Movie, because he really has a sense of the dramatic. You get this sense that he is pissed off with absolutely everyone, and you can feel the tension in his meetings with hand-wavey writers and introverted artists, as he badgers them into keeping Star of the Giants (left) on track. Sometimes, you get a negative-positive, such as in the memoirs of Musei Tokugawa, the great benshi and voice actor. Three chunky volumes about his life, but he doesn't mention cartoons once. Not once! But even that is useful information, in terms of framing where those jobs stood in his own assessment of his career.

Books on the anime industry usually go out of print very fast. Nobuyuki Tsugata has complained that he'll put years into a book, and then there's barely a thousand copies printed, a few end up in libraries, and it's impossible to find a year later. I had to get hold of a lot of books second-hand, which involves a Rube Goldberg process whereby I get my colleague Motoko to have it sent to her mother in Yokohama, because most of the sellers on Amazon Japan won't ship abroad.

I bought everything I could find, and some of them were wastes of money, and some were fantastic discoveries. My book will at least give other researchers the chance to preview some of that material for themselves, so they'll know what they're buying before they put down their money.

And I listen to the ANN podcasts. They give me some great ideas, just by listening to smart people talk about Japanese cartoons.

Your book aims at clearing up long-standing misconceptions about anime. For you personally, what are the most annoying things that even serious fans get wrong about the medium?

Numbers. We all get the numbers wrong if we're not careful, and that's because companies really don't want us to know what the sales figures really are. So I'll be listening to someone moaning about how, say, Tokyo Godfathers (right) was “really popular” and I have to say, no, it only sold a few hundred discs in their territory. I get particularly irritated with academics who'll take a single series with four-figure sales, and extrapolate it into some sort of touchstone for understanding the psychology of 120 million Japanese.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned yourself while researching the book?

I think it has to be the fact that the pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor were taught how to do it with a cartoon.

Many fans know about the Japanese popularity of the fictional French thief Arsène Lupin, who inspired Monkey Punch's Lupin the Third (left). However, I was fascinated to read that another French master-thief (Zigomar) was also a hit in Japan in the early twentieth century. Are there particular reasons why both criminal heroes clicked with the Japanese public?

It reminds us that until 1914 the global film industry was very much France-centred, and much of the archive of early film, supplying global cinemas and also plot ideas for local filmmakers, was coming out of France. There is always a shifting centre in the movie business, and there's a whole chain of production, distribution, exhibition, that is often ignored by critics who just want to talk about some films they have seen. And that's fine, if reception is what you want to talk about, but I'm much more interested in how these things get made, and who made them, and why.

In your estimation, which Japanese animation professionals would most reward further study, and increase understanding of the industry's history, by researchers who can read Japanese?

Every single memoir increases our understanding in some way, even in the things they disagree on. The story of how anime developed its hyper-real tropes, for example, is radically different depending on whether you're reading an animator's account or a producer's. But I guess the most explosive and rewarding memoir is still The Rise and Fall of Mushi Pro, by Eiichi Yamamoto. It's thirty years old, and semi-fictionalised, but it's formed the basis of many dissertations and histories. Me, and the rest of the anime world, have been waiting for a sequel for years, because he was also there to see the chaos of the 1970s, which is one of the least-covered areas because people have been scared of getting sued.

The question that you didn't ask is whose memoirs are missing. I've begged Ryosuke Takahashi to write his, but he says he's too busy and “might” get round to it after his 72nd birthday. I live in hope that someone going through Yoshinobu Nishizaki's garage will find a stack of pages that turn out to be his account of where all the bodies are buried. Ironically, nobody has actually done a warts-and-all account of the production of Akira – the Production Report is very misleading, as I note in my book. There are also very, very few accounts of the anime business written by women, even though women make up 50% or more of the labour force. That also comes into the realm of reception studies – people think Space Cruiser Yamato is the key show of the early 1970s, but it was matched in the ratings, viewer-for-viewer, by Heidi (right). So you get this sense that men are telling the history of anime, and they are favoring their own experience and interests, rather than those of 50% of the actual audience.

The book mentions the moments of actual conflict at Japanese studios, at TOHO in 1948 (when aircraft and tanks were set on film workers) and at Toei in the 1960s (when the young Takahata and Miyazaki marched in strikes). Do you think that kind of insurrection is imaginable at anime studios today?

Well, the workers in 1948 gave as good as they got. I love the idea of an actor in a cowboy hat, commanding the special effects department to use their wind fans to launch paint bombs at the US army. And the water cannons that made the rain in Seven Samurai, turned on the Japanese police. It would make such a surreal anime movie. “Everything came but the battleships!” as one observer noted.

Anime, as Tezuka conceived it, was an unsustainable business model that collapsed in the late 1960s. The studios like Sunrise that rose from the ashes were designed to avoid those same conflicts and issues. They implemented many of the ideas that originally got Miyazaki into trouble, for example, when he suggested them as a shop steward. They also did exactly what Miyazaki didn't want, by commodifying every aspect of the process, so that anime didn't get made at all without something to sell, and that's what covered the shortfall in budgets thereafter. But perhaps most crucially, they took away a lot of the job security that made the workers feel able to protest in any meaningful way. So many people are freelance now, they are in a state of take-it-or-leave it.

I think anime labour has been proletarianised to such an extent that many workers are too easily replaced. There are still labour issues in the modern-day anime business, and there are still union reports and agitations about conditions and pay. One of the elements that recurs throughout my book is what Yasuji Mori called “Anime Syndrome” – that terrible toll on one's health that arises through late nights, junk food, and the realisation that no matter how hard you work, there is always one little element that you could have done a little bit better. Just one more hour and you can fix that hair-flick. Just one more hour…

You describe the impact that Disney's imported films had on the anime industry when they were released after the war. Do you think that the recent generation of CGI features from Pixar or Dreamworks are having a comparable impact on anime now?

Disney is part of the Japanese animation industry, and always has been, because for studios like Daiei in the 1950s, it's Disney cartoons that make the money for them. From 1952 to 1958, Japanese cinemas were just swamped with all this pent-up Disney energy, all those cartoons that had been kept from the Japanese during the war. There was one every school vacation, for years, and the Japanese industry just couldn't compete. You only get Hakujaden, Japanese animation's first colour feature (right), when the Disney flood has slowed, and I think you can see Toei Animation actively preparing for that. You can see them thinking: Aha! Disney is going to run out of product in 1957. There's going to be a gap in 1958. Let's aim for that slot.

Disney is often the strange attractor. You look at sales figures in the mid-1990s and you see Evangelion and Oh My Goddess! are doing well on laser disc, but they are dominated – I mean really wiped out and crushed – by the Japanese sales of Aladdin and The Lion King. So when discussing animation in Japan, it's important to be aware that the average Japanese viewer categorically doesn't sit there all day with a stack of fan-bait otaku stuff. Animation in Japan often means Disney or Pixar. Anime supplies the niches that they don't already meet.

When it comes to CGI, a lot of anime's self-identification for the last couple of decades has been a refusal to engage with 3D. Anime has come to define itself by not being what Disney and Pixar do, and I think it's very late to the 3D party, mainly because of money issues. Patema Inverted (above) would have been great in 3D, but it will never do the international numbers of Toy Story. Statistically, there has been compelling evidence for the last ten years that 3D anime trumps 2D at the box office, although you could argue that that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you might as well say that expensive films with massive marketing do better than cheap films with no support. Anime is slowly waking up to 3D, but there is a substantial lobby within the industry that just doesn't want to have to deal with it, because it means new technology, new skills, new attitudes, and a whole bunch of other expensive issues that won't do them much good if they're still left with only four thousand people who are prepared to pay for Minky Momo.

In your view, what kind of reader will benefit most from your book?

I think anyone who thinks seriously about anime, or who cares about who actually did what, how the industry works, how anime actually gets made, is going to get a lot out of this book.

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