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Andrew Osmond reviews the book of anime’s first century

Anime: A History questions the stories we think we know of anime’s rises and falls, its heroes and breakthroughs. The book is about Japanese animation as a messy, multi-stranded medium, always struggling to adapt to new generations, technologies and business models, transforming so thoroughly that a kid may barely comprehend the cartoons his dad grew up with, let alone his grand-dad’s.

In his introduction, author Jonathan Clements sets out what his book is and isn’t. “This is not a book about, say, gender roles in Star of the Giants or manifest camp in Neon Genesis Evangelion. This is a book concerned with about how Star of the Giants, Evangelion and a number of other anime fit within a continuum of a century’s film-making, how they came to be, who the makers thought were watching, and how they transformed the nature of subsequent productions.”

Unlike many media histories, the book is not structured around a selection of classic or milestone titles, tracing how anime developed to when it could turn out Astro Boy, or Akira, or Death Note. Clements doesn’t sing their praises, nor give profiles and mini-histories of the people and studios who made them. You will learn a lot about Tezuka and many lesser-known names, but only when they were central to changing anime from one thing to another – or thought that they were, or were perceived to be.

Clements stresses that there’s no single anime ‘industry.’ That’s especially true now, when “family feature films can still resemble features of the 1950s, alongside TV shows created along models developed in the 1970s and 1980s, and ‘adult’ shows across multiple formats, aimed at an audience that would be barely recognisable to the pioneers of anime’s early days.”

There are strands of Japanese animation that are mostly ignored, and Clements is keen to recover these. There are animated TV commercials, for example, and wartime animation to instruct soldiers. Anime also shades off into other media, like today’s computer “visual novels,” both the sources for anime adaptations like Steins;Gate, and arguably a kind of anime themselves, with extremely limited animation. Decades ago, a close relative of anime were the Japanese puppet TV shows à la Gerry Anderson. Clements highlights 1960’s Spaceship Silica, a “forgotten prototype” for the Astro Boy generation.

Some early Japanese animations were cartoons as we think of them, like Mabo’s Great Race. From the 1920s, much animation was educational, made with government support, such as 1926’s The Spread of Syphilis by Sanae Yamamoto. As Japan moved into an era of conflict, first with its neighbours and then the world, cartoons took on aggressively nationalist overtones. Even Mabo – hero of Mabo’s Great Race, in which he was cheered on by two Mickey Mice and Betty Boopwas militarised; his later films “carnivalise the danger of conflict, presenting warfare in China as an exciting adventure for Japanese boys and their talking-animal friends.”

Clements introduces the “Shadow Staff,” a special film unit of about thirty people formed in 1939 to make films for the Japanese military. It made what may have been the first Japanese animated feature, the enticingly titled Principles of the Wireless: Triodes and Diodes, circa 1944, and similarly “humorless, informational” films for soldiers. Elsewhere, other filmmakers made the much more exciting Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), a fairy tale rendering of the Pearl Harbor raid.

There’s a myth that Japan’s animation was moribund between the war’s end and the release of Hakujaden (White Serpent) by Toei in 1958. But Clements points out that there was a 1950s boom in animated Japanese advertising. The Beer Through the Ages adverts “charted the history of beer from ancient Babylonia and Egypt, through medieval Germany, and up to its arrival in Japan in the 19th century on the black ships of Commodore Perry.”

The book’s second half deals with more familiar titles, such as Tezuka’s Astro Boy. However, Clements maintains a sceptic’s refusal to take ‘well-known’ accounts as read. For instance, he questions the standard criticism of Tezuka; that he was a terrible businessman whose underselling of Astro Boy and subsequent anime products scarred the industry ever after. Certainly, Tezuka’s anime were chaotic affairs. Frazzled middle-men frantically outsourced work to second and third-hand parties, while moonlighting animators stole work from themselves, until the enterprise resembled a teetering pyramid scheme. Yet Clements suggests Tezuka might have been no more reckless than one of his idols, Walt Disney, who risked far more money on Snow White.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anime coalesced more into the medium we know today. Clements quotes Japanese pundits who argue that the idea of ‘anime’ partly rose out of negative comments on cartoons – their violence, their limited animation, their low popular denominators (unlike the films with artistic ambitions shown at animation festivals). Some artists tried to transcend this, most famously Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Their TV series Heidi (1974) was made far more painstakingly than the average show. “Heidi’s quality was over-engineered, far in excess of the minimum requirements for it to be fit for purpose.”

Meanwhile, the robot-show director Yoshiyuki Tomino applied deep thought to a genre machine-tooled to sell toys. Tomino focused on believability, creating “mecha that increasingly needed to obey at least some of the laws of physics.” The result, the original Gundam in 1979, was initially a ratings flop. “However, its artistic heritage, rejuvenated by subsequent feature-length movie edits, and with repeats that gained it a 15% audience share, would make it a pivotal event in the history of anime.”

Gundam stands between Space Battleship Yamato and Akira, three landmark SF anime often said to define the medium. Anime ‘fandom’ in Japan became visible during Yamato, when middle- and high-school fans turned up at the show’s studio Artland, “full of curiosity and amazement.” However, Artland’s owner Noboru Ishiguro noted that “the girls sheepishly confessed that although they had seen Space Battleship Yamato, they much preferred Heidi.

Male fans, though, started forming clubs (and not necessarily formal; the director Satoshi Kon participated in earnest and fervent “Otakuesque conversations” about Gundam at his high school). The first Yamato movie in 1977 marshalled fan energies. The Yamato studio recruited enthusiasts with a guerrilla marketing kit, “which instructed them to fly-post posters in prominent locations, call radio stations to request the theme song, and pester newspapers to run coverage – for which (the fans) were rewarded with animation cels and other production items.”

Contrary to popular belief, the film did not break records (though its sequel, Farewell, Yamato, did). But, Clements says, Yamato “demonstrated that anime fandom represented a discrete sector of new consumption that could be served or exploited through releasing more anime aimed not at children, but at teenagers.”

The advent of home video met that sector. “Viewers who had been children in the 1960s and 1970s now had the opportunity to consume sequels and remakes with an older sensibility.” Straight-to-video was born, throwing up the sometimes baffling range of anime titles through with British fandom picked its way in its own early years; from wellsprings for multimedia franchises (Patlabor, Tenchi Muyo) to “an advert for the opening pages of a novel, all but meaningless in foreign territories where the novel was not available” (hello, Vampire Wars).

Meanwhile, cartoon porn videos “placed anime fans on a continuum that is inextricably connected to the activities of murderers and molesters.” In Clements’ view, this was the cost of refashioning a children’s medium for adults, which may “make a statement about wider applications for the art, but also risks appealing to an audience caught in arrested development, clinging to notions of infantilism.”

Thanks to censors, Britain didn’t get “straight” porn anime, but rather their mutation into sex-horror (Overfiend, Wicked City). For years, they were a disreputable standard bearer, an “image” for anime until the global sweep of Pokémon in the 1990s. Pikachu’s arrival coincided with the rise of the DVD format and what Clements calls “a degree of transnational rationalisation,” bringing anime’s motley multiple histories closer. Previously, shows could be huge in some territories, unknowns in others – Saint Seiya is a prime case.

Post Pikachu, foreign anime viewers split into those who consume anime “in celebration of its difference, such as the adult anime fans who like Akira”, and the generation who watched it as “an established norm, such as children who grew up with Pokémon.”  A comparable split developed in Japan between the “niche” 0.4% audience watching late-night TV anime, versus the “mainstream” audience for Ghibli films or Sazae-san (a mild family comedy and the world’s longest-running TV cartoon).

But the “niche” animation market, Clements says, is more lucrative than the mainstream. “A one-shot children’s movie might appear to deliver higher short-term returns in DVD sales… A late-night TV series with a limited edition box set, tie-in laptop, collectible metal figurines and a subscription-based online game tie-in will sell fewer copies, but generate substantially more revenue from a single, notional consumer.” The otaku population in Japan is small (contra certain BBC documentaries!), but a Japanese commentator, Satoru Matsumoto, reckons it’s worth 85 to 90 per cent of Japan’s animation market.

The book’s last pages touch on fansubbing. In 2009-10, 21 new anime titles were ‘fingerprinted’ and traced across the net for four months; they were duplicated over 25,000 times, and viewed 28.7 million times. Most of the illegal servers and downloads were seemingly in China. As a Japanese writer said ruefully, “if every one of those viewers were paying a mere 100 yen (£0.81) each to watch the same content, the revenue from the anime business would be twenty or thirty times larger than it is.”

But there may be salvation through advertising, through multimedia (making anime to advertise other parts of a franchise) or through foreign markets (China could replace America as the industry’s number one.) There’s also the possibility of mining fan events – making anime an adjunct to conventions, Hatsune Miku-style concerts or simulcast screenings.

Clements concludes, though, that anime’s future may rest on its artists – on the successors to the mavericks that today’s establishment once were, like Miyazaki and Tomino. Animation is not the province of cartoon characters nor bank balances; it’s a human activity.  As Clements says, anime is “the frantic morning scramble to complete an animatic reel sufficient for an afternoon sound recording session; a courier arriving at Narita airport only to discover that his luggage has gone missing, along with the 500 urgently-needed cels it contained from a South Korean subsidiary; Ichiro Itano climbing into the cockpit of an American fighter jet to research dog-fighting.” In all these things, “we are still speaking of the Japanese animation industry, of its workers and its scandals, its successes and failures, its legends and its truths.”

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is published by the British Film Institute.

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