Apparently an early 80’s Japanese music genre called City Pop is exploding on the internet right now. As a watcher of 80’s anime, I’m used to it, but it is nice to see this music getting it’s due. Everything old is new again!
Plastic Love (the song taking YouTube by storm)
What is Plastic Love (about a City Pop single which has recently shot up in popularity on YouTube)
Page from Tagosaku and Mokube’s Big Toyko Adventure
In this episode, Rob and Don journey back into the past of Japanese comic books to explore it from its roots 1300 years ago until the great experimental manga age of the 1970s. They explore the European roots of Manga, how the medium was shaped by the winds of Japan’s history, and the major figures who helped make manga what it is today. All this, and how Go Nagai brought sex and violence to Japanese children’s television, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by fellow gamer Jack Ward to discuss the granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying- Dungeons and Dragons. The intrepid trio throw on their adventuring gear and delve deep into the many editions of D&D while sharing their thoughts on how D&D became a cultural fixture in our society. All this, and why you need to roll for initiative right now!… are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
Earlier this week, I was having an email exchange with my DNA co-host Don and our frequent esteemed guest Jack Ward about anime and American animation. As part of that conversation, Don took it upon himself to write up a long blog post explaining to Jack how the two animation industries diverged from each other during the 1960’s with lots of examples thrown in. Since I thought that such effort was worth sharing, Don graciously edited it and sent it to me to share.
So, we were having a discussion the other day and this came up:
>Aha! So Anime is akin to sixties animation in North America!
And the truth is, sort of. N. American and Japanese animation parallel each other for a while, but split a few times along the path. The Japanese were always enamoured of Hollywood animation, notably Disney. Here we had Hanna Barbera develop the “limited animation” style, which made animation inexpensive enough for television. That style set the standard, and tv and for a long time was the ONLY way to do a show. So…. back in the early days you get:
Stirring. And across the sea:
You probably notice a lot of similarity in technique. TV animation was pretty new and there weren’t a lot of shortcuts and techniques available yet, so it tends to look cheap. Our stuff was all “staged;” that is, filmed like you’d film a stage play…. everything moving along a single plane. The Japanese used a lot more wide shots than us, as well as making attempts to induce depth to their tv animation. (That’s one of the reasons you see so many shots of things moving diagonally in Japanese shows, whereas ours usually have stuff move left to right, in profile.)
I think this is in no small part due to the popularity of early theatrical animation in Japan; they were a lot less willing to sacrifice visuals than us. Even in the earliest shows the Japanese still use a lot of establishing shots and panoramic views. There’s also a tendency to write more detailed stories than us. We did a lot of one-off gags, whereas the Japanese were creating continuing stories right from the get go. Another holdover from the theatrical features maybe?
These differences in conceptualization create one of the first big forks in the road between N. America and Japan.
Jump ahead a decade or so and you get:
Drugs. You get drugs. Anyhoo, in Japan:
I think more things should be called “Gowapper.” Anyhoo; you can already see a separation of sensibilities, although them AND us were still experimenting. The Japanese were WAY more willing to do straight up drama, whereas we ran screaming in terror from any serious story. Even our action stuff was really…. sterile. This gets to be important in a few years. The Japanese made a jump from “cartoons is just fer kids” to “animation is just another way of doing tv” that we never quite make. We come close, but there’s a lot of inertia to oppose. During the 70’s the Japanese were starting to do animated dramas, soap operas, comedies, SO MANY giant robots….
By the 80’s in America you had a weird peak:
[Rob Note- while the designs and origins are American, the first four shows listed here were mostly Animated in Japan, and these are Japanese-made intros.]
Mmmmm…. violence…. Fuck the Smurfs. Anyways; there’s a lot of high quality stuff there, mostly ‘cos the Japanese companies worked cheap, and where in the midst of a big animation boom. Even so, we were starting to sink some cash into the product. There’s a lot of technical quality. It didn’t last ‘cos animation is REAL expensive, and our studios turned to marketing tie-ins to cover the cost. So cartoons became half hour toy ads for the most part.
Across the sea:
Looks the same, doubtless ‘cos a lot of it was done by the same studios. The biggest difference was that the shows were leading the merch in japan; the cartoons would be made AS CARTOONS, and any tie-ins would come later.
By the end of the 80’s; going into the 90’s animation was taking a dip, and moved towards the cheap. Especially here:
Japan did something weird; since they had a more demanding audience they couldn’t lower quality too much (although they tried) so they just kept doing whatever worked, over and over and over…. So you get a lot of shows that LOOK nice, but are WAY boring:
Okay…. that’s a cheat….
More recently you’ve been getting a mix of decent stuff and crap; although Japan is way more willing to sink a few bucks into their animation. Part of the solution/problem was South Park, which showed that you COULD do animation for an older audience, but set the standard that said animation must be as cheap and vulgar as possible.
Still; in the years since we’ve done some good stuff:
We tend to make up for funds with style…. a-la Batman:TAS. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t…. well….
Japan still goes the technical route:
Holee Smokes, why can’t we have nice things like that? Japan isn’t afraid to get weird though:
So to answer the question that started this; 60’s Japanese animation is akin to 60’s N. American animation, but thereafter things take some odd turns. As a result, animation in Japan gains general acceptance WAY earlier than it did here, and that allowed Japan to produce a greater variety of material and to achieve a level of technical skill we haven’t quite hit yet.
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with guest Jack Ward to discuss what it means to be a nerd. The trio discuss exactly what nerds are, where they came from, and whether nerds as a concept is even still relevant in modern culture. All this, and why The Nutty Professor was the great nerd hero of the 20th century are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Michael Monahan, author and co-producer of the documentary American Scary, to talk about Horror Hosts. We delve into the origins of the Horror Host phenomena from its early days with Vampira to the megahit Ghoulardi and the modern incarnations which still stalk the airwaves. All this, and why Bob Wilkins is a name every scifi fan should know, is coming to you in this, the 27th episode of the Department Affairs!
Don’t know what Horror Hosts are? Watch the short video below for a quick primer of a few of the more famous ones in action.
Silent films were an international language. Taking advantage of the fact they had no natural soundtrack, they were designed and produced to be understood through purely visual storytelling. Even when dialog cards were later introduced to add key pieces of dialog, the core of the films were still visual. This allowed them to be watched and understood by audiences the world over, or world audiences which lived right next door, since this was the great age of immigration and your neighbour may not speak the same language you did.
When these silent films were exported to other countries, they were adapted to the local customs, and in the case of Japan they took on narrators who were there to help the audience with the points of the film that local audiences might not understand. These narrators, called Benshi, would introduce the film to set the story and context, and then narrate the story as needed for the audience to help them get over jumps or occasionally missing pieces of film. While in the Western tradition, organs were used to accompany silent films for music, the Benshi worked alongside traditional Japanese Kabuki orchestras to produce a very Japanese movie-going experience from 1910 until the mid-1930’s. It worked so well this system was also adopted into early Taiwanese cinema, with the narrators called Benzi.
The Benshi also shaped Japanese cinema, as the producers of Japanese films of the time knew that a Benshi would be there to narrate their films and so they started to script their films with the expectation that the Benshi would not only narrate, but do all the voices for the characters (of both sexes) as well. This made the Benshi truly part of the drama, and different Benshi became major stars based on their styles of acting and narration. People would even go to see the same film again if narrated by a different Benshi because it was said that in the hands of a different Benshi the same film could become a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or take on different levels of drama as the Benshi would add their own improvisations and style to the film’s story. You might even say that the Benshi became the reason people went to see the performance, and that the films themselves become a backdrop for the Benshi!
According to Wikipedia, “in 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women.” This was likely their peak, as it was around this time that the first American “talkies” appeared and sound was introduced to movie-going audiences. So, while Benshi did continue on for a time as translators for foreign films, their services were less and less required, and they slowly became a rare cultural tradition. Today, there are still Benshi like Midori Sawato who do performances when silent films are played in art houses and on special occasions, but they are a rare experience. Here is a series of short clips showing a Benshi in action from the above performance at the Sydney Opera House:
I personally find Benshi fascinating as a concept, and think it would be amazing to watch one perform, although technically I already have. Back when I was the president of Anime London in the 1990’s a group of us would meet on the second and fourth Monday of every month and watch anime from my fairly large (at that time) collection. One of the shows we watched was a series called Macross 7, and I had the whole series on videotape with only one problem- it was still in Japanese and wasn’t subtitled after the first two or three episodes. This was in the days before internet video was really big (or possible in any quality), but I did manage to find translation scripts for subtitlers to use online. However, I didn’t have the equipment or ability to subtitle all 49 episodes of Macross 7, so what to do?
My not-all-that-innovative solution was to become an audio subtitler, and read the scripts alongside the dialog while the rest of the group watched the show. (Holy Benshi, Batman!) However, after a few episodes one of my friends, a talented young man named Glenn Jupp offered to take over audio-titling for me for reasons I’ve forgotten. (I think I couldn’t do it one week for some reason.) Glenn was a natural Benshi, and would have done these Japanese masters proud. I never did it again because Glenn spent the next 44 episodes giving Macross 7 his own personal spin by doing his own inflections to all the voices, and showing incredible timing and dramatic flare. It worked perfectly, because Macross 7 is an over-the-top mecha anime musical, and having a wild dramatic reading of the lines just fit perfectly.The highlight of each meeting became watching Glenn perform, and while new members to the club took a bit to get used to our unusual way of doing things, they soon came to appreciate Glenn’s talents.
It made watching Macross 7 a unique experience that took the show to a whole other level, and even today I can’t watch it subtitled without hearing Glenn’s voice narrating the character lines. (“Listen to my song!!!”) The day we finished the series, I think we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, and when they released some direct-to-video episodes of Macross 7 we got scripts and asked him to narrate once more. Watching it without Glenn just wouldn’t have been the same, and I can appreciate how audiences in Japan felt about their Benshi, because Glenn was ours.
Arigatou, Jupp-san. You would have done the masters proud!
Detroit 9000 should have been called “70’s Detroit Action Flick- The Movie” or perhaps “Detroit Cops of the 70’s- The Movie”, either way it’s an odd and unique little time capsule of a film. At it’s core, it’s a simple cop drama about police detectives trying to find the culprits behind a major robbery and a black cop and a white cop trying to get along in a service where even the police force seems divided along racial lines. However, there is nothing simple about this film.
The only way I can describe this movie is this- imagine if a millionaire (it was 1973) with almost no film experience decided to hire a top-knotch production team to help him film his dream movie about the cops of his home town- Detroit. He wrote the film himself, and filled it with local actors of highly variable quality, and then had this professional crew help them make it into a movie. That may not be what happened, but my god, it sure feels like it’s what happened when you watch this film.
The director, the editor, the sound people, the costumers, and pretty much everyone else knew how to take what was likely a medium-ish budget and make something really solid out of it. The problem is, the film they were making was horribly written and had some of the worst and most awkward dialog you’ve ever heard. The core structure of the film is okay, which keeps it watchable, but the dialog needs to be heard to be believed. You literally never know what awkward racist line going to come out of people’s mouths next, and most of the minor parts seem to be played by people who have never acted in their lives, so that makes it even worse!
The trailer above plays it as a Blaxploitation flick, but that isn’t quite accurate. It’s not so much an exploitation flick about black culture as a police/crime film that happens to have mostly a black cast. Which is good, actually, because that’s one of the things that keeps it interesting- watching the interplay between the black and white characters and seeing how they interrelate to each other as people and professionals. If anything, the movie is mostly colorblind (it treats all races, genders, classes and even sexualities as just normal people, despite the racist dialog), which I think was what the guy who wrote it had in mind- a movie about the people of Detroit just trying to get along despite the things that divided them.
So would I say I liked the film? I’m not sure I’d go that far. As I said at the beginning, it’s an odd and unique film. It’s an action movie about the people (and especially the police) of Detroit, made by the people of Detroit for the people of the city of Detroit of that time. As someone who lived in Windsor for a few years, and has a bit of an interest in Detroit as a city and its history and culture, I found it a fascinating little time capsule of a period after the white people had mostly gone, but before the middle-class black community had completely disintegrated. However, as a film, it’s so wildly uneven I don’t know whether I would actually tell anyone else to watch it unless you really just enjoy this kind of thing and are willing to appreciate it in its own unique context.
Today, while searching for a collection of the poems of the Chinese master poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) I stumbled across a marvelous website called Wengu Zhixin, which is a site collecting translations of Chinese classic philosophy and thought into English and French. They have the usual documents like The Analects of Confucius, The Yi Ching, and Lao Tzu’s The Way and Its Power (the core book of Daoism), but they also have a great collection of Tang Dynasty Poems (with actual good quality translations), the Art of War, and the (largely unknown in the West) Thirty-Six Strategies. All of these have the original Chinese provided as well, with clickable Hanzi characters that show translations of their individual meanings.
However, for me, the gem of it is the Thirty-Six Strategies (of war and conflict) each have a story to go along with them to illustrate their point, pulled from Chinese and Japanese history. I have another book with the Strategies that has stories as well, but these are actually different stories from the ones in the book translation I have, since whoever translates these tends to pull their own favourite examples from history and fiction. For example, here is the entry for Strategy One:
Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea
Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
Japanese Folk Tale
There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.
And the amusing entry for Strategy Six::
Clamor in the East, Attack in the West
In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.
Song Dynasty China
Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”
“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”
The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone.
Go and read them. Whenever I need to get a character out of a tricky situation, the 36 Strategies is my go-to book for answers!
P.S. I’ve had it pointed out that this translation and examples are excerpts from a published text about the 36 Strategies, which you can find here. The full text uses 118 stories to illustrate the points, and has other material, so if you enjoy these you might consider picking it up!
I’ve always had a fondness for oldschool horror, especially the Hammer Horror films from England of the 60’s and 70’s. They used to show them on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, and I found them annoying because they were displacing my favorite movies involving giant monsters. However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve also grown to appreciate the contributions Hammer made to horror and film in general. If for no other reason than bringing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into the popular culture!
Today my friend Richard pointed me in the direction of not one, but two documentaries on YouTube about the history of Hammer. The first is written and hosted by Sherlock writer/actor (and Hammer Horror fanboy) Mark Gatiss, and is from a BBC documentary series on horror he hosted.
The second is an older documentary on Hammer Horror called Hammer- The Studio that Dripped Blood!, which was done by the BBC in the late 80’s. The quality isn’t the best since it’s transferred off videotape, and it’s been chopped into parts, but if you’re interested in the subject it makes a nice companion piece to Gatiss’ show.