By Jonathan Clements.
Northrop Davis’ opening gambit is a good one – much as many animals share 95% of their DNA, the Japanese and American media industries are almost exactly the same. It’s that vital 5% that makes all the difference between, say, a cow and a kangaroo, a difference that he intends to uncover. But his book Manga & Anime Go to Hollywood is neither fish nor fowl, mixing a rather familiar and threadbare account of the Japanese media business with a handful of journalistic interviews, spattered incongruously with comics drawn by his own students.
As a jobbing screenwriter who has sold work to studios, Davis has some appreciation of issues in syndication and development. He also has some golden advice from his lawyer for young writers about sensibly managing one’s finances. His personal accounts, of pitching stories to Japanese publishers and the legal issues in selling scripts, offer some interesting anecdotes about modern media. I suspect that such moments come from the book he would rather be writing, and that somewhere on his laptop is the first draft of a tell-all writer’s memoir. But nobody wants to buy a how-to book by someone who has never had a script produced. Nor, I imagine, does he want to burn too many bridges by writing his own personal Tales from Development Hell about the several stalled projects he mentions – because those would be manga and anime that didn’t go to Hollywood.
There are some illuminating talks with the likes of Ian Condry, Hikaru Sasahara and Michael Arias. Guillermo del Toro has some pertinent things to say about showing the correct degree of respect to people one is trying to work with, and this interview, along with several others in the book, would have made a great article. There are, in fact, about a dozen classy, informative articles fighting to get out of this book, but hard to glimpse beneath a lot of Media 101 padding.
Davis’ approach is strangely old-fashioned, often reading like one of those breathless 1990s accounts of how anime and manga are taking the world by storm. Manga and anime, he claims, “earn tens of billions a dollars a year,” citing no actual research to back this figure up. There are a lot of quotes from contemporary internet reportage but far too much of the book simply rehashes earlier publications, pouring in excerpts from works that any serious researcher will already own. Davis presumably intends this to be a textbook in his own class, and collating certain materials here saves him having to photocopy bits of Helen McCarthy’s The Art of Osamu Tezuka every semester. Despite his claims to be updating histories from the likes of Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan, Davis demonstrates only a passing acquaintance with the scholarly literature that has been published on the subject in the intervening years. His citations from the Anime Encyclopedia lean on the 2001 edition, which has since been twice revised with material directly germane to his thesis, and he has paid scant attention to materials in Japanese, the language in which most Japanese media industry accounts are written!
When I was writing on the Japanese animation industry, I was made to confront the basic building blocks of my proposed topic. What is Japanese? What is animation? What is industry? Answering those questions, which are more elusive than they first appear, generated an entire structure of enquiry and lit up areas previously unseen. I wish that Bloomsbury Academic, supposedly a scholarly press, had pushed similar methodology on Davis. What is this Hollywood to which he wants manga and anime to go? Is it Anglophone finance? Is it West-coast movie production? American audiences? Western media? I think Davis might have benefited from considering some of Ramon Lobato’s shadow economies, particularly when one of his interviewees suggests that some movies based on anime can only find their true audience on home video. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a notional 5% difference between the DNA of the Japanese and American media industries, but Davis concentrates on production and reception. He makes little effort to investigate distribution or exhibition, both of which are surely major components of his “Hollywood” paradigm, bearing multiple points of difference with Japan, many of which exert a powerful structural influence on how things are done.
Manga creators, he claims, “have to publish so many pages every week in a serialized manga in order for the stories to be long enough to incite (or inspire) deep character identification among the readers…,” entirely putting the cart before the horse. There are financial and logistic reasons why manga have the page-counts they do. And, yes, that has an essential influence on the stories that they tell, but students are surely best served by knowing the influence, not the outcomes.
Two later chapters are case studies in specific anime/manga-based live-action feature films, in the style of David Hughes’ Comic Book Movies. At a chapter each, you could already fill an entire book with the histories of a dozen such crossovers, from Crying Freeman to Oldboy, Street Fighter to Transformers – I suspect that’s another book that Davis could have and should have written. But here he concentrates on just two: Speed Racer and Astro Boy, which did indeed go to Hollywood, but didn’t stay for long. Astro Boy, at least, justifies his earlier pages on the history of Tezuka in America, although I dispute whether the 1963 TV show “went to Hollywood” or if the 2009 US-Hong Kong cartoon feature was “anime and manga.” As Davis occasionally observes, we are instead dealing here with a multi-nuclear, globalised hybridity, and while the connections between Japan and “Hollywood” are certainly important, they are mere pieces in a transnational puzzle. What of manga products that are adapted by non-Hollywood producers, like Andrew Lau’s Initial D or Yang Yun-ho’s Fighter in the Wind? What of co-productions below the radar like 30 years of Rankin/Bass TV specials? What about straight-to-video tosh like Tony Randel’s Fist of the North Star?
Davis provocatively argues that the tedious box-office flop Speed Racer “…is an utterly inspired and near-perfect adaptation of the original anime, and in fact, it is almost impossible to imagine how the film could be better than it is.” In doing so, he demonstrates a winning charm sure to serve him well in lunch meetings with thin-skinned producers, although one wonders about the quality of professional advice he can offer. A hard-nosed money-man will want to know what went wrong and how to fix it; Davis doesn’t think it needs fixing at all, so shrugs his shoulders and blames the marketing.
Standing before a class of wannabe artists and writers, I bet Davis is everybody’s favourite teacher, starry-eyed and inspirational. At the classroom level, there’s nothing wrong with telling people to pursue their dreams (it’s actually a fundamental part of his job), and he’s sure to sell a bunch of copies of this book to students who will be thrilled to see their comics mentioned in print. This amateur art show doesn’t have a whole lot to do with either Japan or Hollywood, but his editors at Bloomsbury have bafflingly waved it all through. In fact, this book’s legacy is liable to be as an advert for We Make Manga (no you don’t, but bless you), a website that showcases the comics output of his students. Many of them, I’m sure, will walk away from his class with new-born confidence, not because of any airy factoids they’ve picked up about Japanese media, but because of the sheer energy and enthusiasm that Davis displays for their work, and the cherished memory that their teacher saw fit to reprint their illustrations in his book. Better this, perhaps, than the unrelenting assault on ambition to be found in the notorious Storylining in a Corporate Environment workshop, where the participants are forced to consider industrial issues, and face Sisyphean torments that constantly frustrate their goals. But survivors of that workshop probably have a better appreciation of how the sausage is made.
As for the book, it left me feeling that Northrop Davis has been let down by his advisers and his peer-reviewers, possibly encouraged to scramble ahead in a battle for tenure by rushing out a book before he is ready. An MFA in screenwriting, he appears to have taken “write what you know” somewhat literally, and nobody seems to have pushed him to take a more rigorous academic approach to matters of epistemology and phenomenology – Why do I know what I know? What do I think I know, and where might there be blind spots? It’s a shame that there was not a greater emphasis on due diligence at the proposal stage, when a sharp commissioning editor should have noticed that this project was striving to be three different books at once, and was dooming itself to spread too thinly in all directions. In five or ten years’ time, when he’s Famous Hollywood Screenwriter Northrop Davis, a few pages from this book might be repurposed as part of an insider account to rival William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. But even Davis himself will disregard the rest.