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An Interview with Helen McCarthy

Date: 2011 November 27 16:11

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We're going all nostalgic here at Otaku News and have decided to dig up some old articles from our archive that are not published on-line, either because they were originally for print or from websites that are now off-line.

Just because they're old doesn't mean they're not relevant to today's otaku.

Before Otaku News, we used to run Anime Digital, a website hosted by the London Anime Club. In October 1999, we were lucky enough to interview Helen McCarthy, who is an anime expert, author, speaker and so much more. Although the interview is over 10 years old, it's interesting to see how many things are still the same in the industry and fandom. We've reprinted this article with Helen's permission. Readers familiar with Helen's work will note that she did write an award winning book about Tezuka in the end!

Update: Helen has also blogged about this article.

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Anime Digital Logo - web design circa 1999

An Interview with Helen McCarthy

Helen McCarthy was the first person in the UK to run an anime programme at a convention, start a dedicated anime newsletter, and edit a dedicated anime magazine. She was the first person in the English speaking world to write a book on anime, and with her new book on Hayao Miyazaki has become the first person in the English speaking world to write a book devoted to the work of a single anime creator. Over the past ten years she has been interviewed by media ranging from What Video? and BBC Radio Woman's Hour to TIME magazine, and has spoken in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia about anime.

Apart from meeting three of her personal heroes (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Frederik L. Schodt) and seeing My Neighbour Totoro, she says that the most enjoyable part of the whole experience has been giving their first writing break to most of the UK's current crop of anime and manga writers and reviewers, and seeing some of them progress beyond the field into other areas.

Helen lives in London with her partner, artist Steve Kyte. When not working on anime and manga, or to pay the bills, she writes other things, reads voraciously, sews obsessively, plays with her dolls and cooks. She has an addiction, until now secret from all but a few intimates, to discontinued Sanrio character Chippymouse and his more successful sibling Bad Badtz-Maru.

When did you first become interested in Anime and Manga? - (and what was it that attracted you to anime).

I was interested in Japanese history from the time I was given a school project to do on bushido and its similarities and differences from the Western concept of chivalry - that was in my second year at the convent, so I was about twelve. But as far as modern Japan went, I had the same vague and dopey ideas most people have, that it was this place where people wore kimonos and looked at cherry blossom a lot. Also, my father had friends who were in Asia in World War II and was very, very anti-Japanese as a result. (I never thought of it this way before, but maybe it's not a coincidence that I didn't start working seriously on anime until after he died. I respected my father as well as loved him, and even though I didn't agree with lots of his opinions I would never have deliberately done anything I knew would offend or upset him.)

So I went along with this image of Japan at the back of my mind as either a mediaeval culture or a quaint reality, and then I met my partner Steve Kyte. He'd just left art school and was working as a freelance illustrator, and he was living with his parents. When I went round to his place to do the usual meet-Mum-and-Dad bit, he did a guided tour of the house and showed me his room, and it was crammed with great stuff, among which were these wonderful vividly coloured robots and books full of pictures that really caught my imagination. He told me they were from Japanese cartoons, and the two of us just followed up the interest as much as we could.

Of course, back then there were no specialist anime shops and very few Japanese or Chinese traders in London, and so getting any information at all was a real hard slog. Steve got his first robots and books in Spain when he went on holiday there as a student. We used to go round every little Hong Kong grocery store in the hope of picking up a Hong Kong mag or paper, because anime was big in Hong Kong and you could quite often find a few pictures or even a feature. I was a Star Trek fan from way back, and through American Trek fan friends we met some American anime fans, and after a lot of effort we made contact with some Japanese fans, and gradually we built up a network of people who knew about anime and loved it and could help us find out more.

I often giggle when I hear UK fans in their teens and twenties ranting on about how hard it is to get anime. It sends me into Graham Chapman mode and I start muttering "only three releases a month, that were luxury, that were! We were so poor we didn't 'ave video releases.."

As for what attracted me to anime, at first it was the visual freshness and inventiveness. Then I got to see more stuff and was very struck by the characterisation and the range and depth of storytelling that was possible in both anime and manga. And I loved the idea that so many different kinds of stories could be told using the basic medium in so many different ways. The artistic and literary possibilities are endless. You can go wherever your imagination takes you. Of course in those early days I didn't really think about budgetary limitations and their impact, but even now, when I know more about that kind of restriction, I still think anime can liberate the imagination in many ways.

With Pokemon being released in Europe and Mononoke Hime being released in the USA (and hopefully Europe soon), that this will increase public awareness of anime and manga and make more people interested?

Wil Overton's chibi picture of Helen as seen in SNES mag Superplay

Well, the public is certainly aware of Pokemon! But I think that public awareness of it as anime may not be all that high. After all, if you think about the number of anime that have been shown in the USA to big audiences, and been very successful - things like Astro Boy, Gigantor, Kimba The White Lion, Robotech - there hasn't been a lot of awareness that these shows are Japanese in origin until quite recently. Even now I wonder if the vast mass of the American public is really aware of that. When Matthew Broderick talked about his call to audition for the voice of Simba in Disney's The Lion King, he said that he wondered if they meant Kimba, a white lion in a TV show he watched when he was a kid, but he never indicated that he thought the show was anything other than an American cartoon.

Miramax are pushing the Japanese angle on Princess Mononoke, but then it's obvious that this isn't Kansas, Toto, so they have to explain the context to the audience, just as they would for any movie with a non-American setting. Also, because Disney have said they bought the Ghibli movies as part of a World Animation series, a collection of foreign animated movies of real stature, the foreign angle has to be pushed to help the concept to work.

So far, Kiki's Delivery Service has done very well on video for Buena Vista with its mainly juvenile domestic audience, and Princess Mononoke has picked up mostly, though not entirely, positive press and excellent audience reactions at the art-house screenings pre-launch. So there are two markets, the kids' market and the arthouse market, both buying Miyazaki movies, one knowing the material is foreign and maybe liking it partly because of that, the other mostly too young to know or care about the origins and just loving the movie.

But you have to remember that getting people to buy or go and see a movie they love isn't the same as getting them interested in manga and anime. Most people pick and choose their entertainment eclectically - they don't just go and see Tom Cruise movies or only listen to Oasis music. They won't go to see something or buy a tape just because it's anime; they'll go if they think they'll enjoy it. The trick is to get them to open up their minds to the concept, and that can best be achieved by making more high quality material available to a wide audience. High profile marketing will help, but the best marketing in the world can't make a bad movie into a good one - look at the Tristar Godzilla.

I have absolutely no doubt that the two things that would help get anime into the public consciousness most effectively are high profile marketing campaigns backed up with merchandise availability, and long-running TV series exposure. Both are expensive, so companies need to feel that the medium has a wide appeal, and can sell outside a few thousand fans. So maybe Princess Mononoke and Pokemon will help in that context. Whether they will get what many fans think of as 'good stuff' into the mass market is another question.

How do you think the increasing use of the internet effected fandom?

The net has a lot of good points, but they can be seriously compromised by its drawbacks. And, sadly, fandom is a prime example of how those drawbacks operate. For every really intelligent, enjoyable group like and the Miyazaki Mailing List, there are a dozen I'd pay to avoid.

For me there are two main problems with the internet. One, it's a cultural ghetto for the wealthy and privileged. Only rich developed countries have access to it, and it's worsening the gulf between rich and poor. On TV and in the media you can't shut out these issues, but you can choose to do so on the net. Why do we see it as PROGRESS that we can spend money on idle chatter online and buying stuff from round the world, when we still can't be arsed to stop people starving or spread basic medical research to the poorest people on our planet?

This blinkering process affects fandom (any kind of fandom, not just anime and manga fandom) because it encourages people to develop a very narrow worldview by enabling them to communicate only with those who share their own priorities.

Two, it's made everyone into an instant expert and enabled a lot of rubbish to be talked on many an otherwise interesting topic. I have been very disturbed by the way the immediacy and anonymity of the net encourage the proliferation of the most appalling bad manners and bad habits, and give the weight of spurious authority to people who know very little apart from how to put up a cool looking website. Again, this applies to all kinds of interest groups, but I see more anime and manga sites and groups than most other sorts except for slash, needlework and dolls. My views are based on direct experience. I'll give just three anime/manga fandom examples from my personal mailbag and surfing excursions in the last eighteen months. Names and genders have been omitted to protect privacy.

A would-be writer accepted a professional commission to provide a piece about a Japanese creator whose work is widely translated into English. Instead of reading any of this stuff, he/she went online and asked other users for information about the creator's works, then made no attempt to check the information except on the net. This is what passes for research among the uninformed, but it doesn't cut much ice with me and it propagates errors and misinformation.

A fan writing on a newsgroup made a strong comparison between a certain English language magazine and toilet paper, with the magazine coming out bottom. This same fan was closely connected with a convention at which the editor of said magazine was an invited guest. This same fan was quite surprised when it was pointed out that such publicly stated views might possibly get back to the editor, and might conceivably be perceived as offensive.

A fan wanting to break into professional writing sent me, completely out of the blue, an example of work for comment and criticism. I spent a long time over several weeks giving a considered professional opinion of the work, which contained basic information errors and some terrible grammar and spelling, offering encouragement and acknowledgement to the talent I could see underlying the sloppy work sent to me, and replying as patiently as I could to the fan's increasingly acrimonious and self-justifying emails. Finally this person told me I was trying to protect my own position from emerging new talent by sabotaging it with negativity. (Evidently, telling someone that one of their factual errors would cause serious offence to an important Japanese company if it ever went into print is sabotage. I would have thought the reverse. If I really wanted to sabotage someone's career, surely I'd let them make mistakes like that in public?) This same person also wanted us to keep the whole discussion confidential, but then went on to discuss it with a number of other people - some of whom know me, and who got in touch to ask what was going on. We are no longer in correspondence, possibly because I pointed out the major grammatical error at the end of his/her last email.

The whole net community needs to grow up and accept responsibility for its ideas, opinions and habits. There are many good sites and many intelligent users out there; but right now, large areas of the net are being used more as a playpen than a playground, with people behaving like two-year-olds and tears before bedtime on a daily basis.

Is the only option for the European fans importing?

No, of course not. Europe is an open market now, so all European fans have access to each other's material. Fans in the UK have access to a huge PAL library - all the French anime released on PAL for the French speaking Belgian community. You can get these by mail order or on trips across the Channel, and there's a good choice of both French-subbed and French-dubbed titles. German and Spanish material is a little harder to come by and there's not so much of it, but still, many of us go on holiday to Spain or Germany or know people who do. And there's anime on satellite TV in all these languages.

The British are historically lazy about learning other languages, but many Europeans learn at least their own language plus English in school, and many British fans have a few years of school French to fall back on. It's really not that hard to use your French once you get back into practice, and you can get so much more anime that way.

Also, if we encourage the growth of a broad commercial market and take every opportunity to present anime as an interesting entertainment choice, we'll see more anime come into the UK in English. If a company can make money publishing anime, they will. If they can't, they won't. It's that simple.

Out of all the titles you have seen which ones particularly stick in your mind and why?

When I first saw Z Gundam I was deeply impressed. I still love Gundam, though I find one or two of the more recent incarnations less attractive. The design is good, the characters are good, and I love the basic premise - there are no aliens or demons involved, all the evil and pain and conflict comes from mankind and we have to find our own solutions.

Mobile Police Patlabor is an all-time classic, but I think the movies lose a lot if you haven't seen the series. The characters really grow on you over time, and you come to love even the awkward cusses like Ota. The concept, that the giant robot is just a big police car, is great, and the issues the show deals with are important ones for urban communities, but it's done with a light touch, and is never preachy.

Vision of Escaflowne is superb in almost every respect - great art, great characters, great story, fabulous music; it's one of those series where you'd love to see a long series of novels giving you more on the back story, the civilisations, the minor characters and everything about Gaea. Blue 6 looks as if it will be the same kind of favourite for me, though I've only watched a couple of episodes so far.

I really like Legend of Galactic Heroes because it has that same density and depth of story and characterisation. That's another one where I'd love to see lots of novels, and since they already exist, all we have to do is get them translated! Yoshiki Tanaka is one of Japan's most-animated pulp writers, with works like Heroic Legend of Arslan and Legend of the Four Kings done as anime, but LGH is my favourite. And the spaceship battles are very convincing because they're so slow and diffuse, happening over huge tracts of space with lots of the time delays that you'd have to have if you were moving huge fleets of massive ships over vast distances.

Thinking of older series, I love Secret of Blue Water and Future Boy Conan for the same reasons I love Escaflowne and Patlabor. Both are fully realised worlds with convincing characters, and both have compelling stories. For the same reasons, Bubble Gum Crisis is still a big favourite of mine. And I like Cutey Honey and Kekko Kamen because both are so silly, such a fun take on the sexy heroine.

Lupin III is a big favourite of mine because it's grown-up entertainment: clever, witty, well thought out. Monkey Punch's fondness for jazz usually comes through in the scores - Yuji Ono's music is especially good. Steve and I have quite a few of the soundtracks and we play them a lot. I love Castle of Cagliostro, but I think my favourite Lupin movies are Fuma Conspiracy and Secret of Mamo - though that can change depending on which one I saw most recently! They're all worth watching.

I have a sneaking fondness for Darkside Blues, Virus Buster Serge and Cyber City Oedo 808, because I love shows with pretty men and angst. My favourite in that department is Ai No Kusabe, but I'm not going any further into slash territory here...

Most spaces in my personal top ten are taken up by Miyazaki movies. My Neighbour Totoro is my all time favourite film, and I never saw a Miyazaki I didn't like. I wrote a lot about why I love Miyazaki movies in the Anime Movie Guide (which one wag of my acquaintance told me I should have called the Miyazaki Movie Guide!) and I've just published a book on Miyazaki in America (Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, from Stone Bridge Press), so I won't go on about it here. You'll have to buy the book.

Is there any anime or manga that you would really want to avoid?

If I never see Midnight Panther again, it will be too soon.

Do you plan on doing more books on other influential individuals as you did with Hayao Mayazaki? Perhaps a book on Osamu Tezuka or Masamune Shirow?

The only Westerners who could really write a great book about Tezuka-sensei are Frederik L. Schodt and Fred Patten, who knew him personally. I'd love to see them tackle that project. But really, I think the best person to write a book about any particular creator is someone who feels a strong involvement with their work. For me, with Miyazaki's movies, it was love, pure and simple - but it doesn't have to be that, just a really passionate urge to say something about this individual's work. I don't feel that with Shirow. No disrespect to him, he produces wonderful work in many fields, but his world doesn't engage me like Miyazaki's does.

But it isn't just a case of "what do you want to write about?" An author has to find a publisher who's willing to take a risk on the subject. To do that, the publisher has to believe the subject will sell. It took me two years to sell my first book on anime. It's taken ten years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on Miyazaki. I pitched the idea to my regular publisher, Titan, three times, and they turned it down each time because they didn't think it could sell enough copies to cover costs. Peter Goodman at Stone Bridge Press loved the idea, but without the Princess Mononoke launch in the USA, I don't think we would have had such a good chance of making sales.

You have to think about the market for any book. UK anime fandom, hardcore, is maybe 500 people. They won't all buy any book just because it's on anime. Some hardcore fans say they prefer to get their information off the net and don't seem to buy books and magazines. Libraries and colleges will put on maybe 1500 sales, with luck. If you produce cheaply, you can just about break even on that, but nobody makes any money unless you can also sell into the general market. In the USA things are a little easier because hardcore fandom is bigger and because there is more general awareness of anime as part of 'cult tv'; but even there, you have to cost a project very carefully to have a chance of making money on it. Many authors in any subject area, even in fiction, don't sell enough copies to cover the costs of publishing their book. Breaking a new subject is even tougher.

On the subject of books do you plan to write an up date or whole new edition to your Anime Movie Guide?

I would very much like to do that and have pitched the idea to the publishers, Titan. They haven't accepted it yet. Maybe if they get enough e-mails from people who are likely to buy the book, it would convince them there's a market for it.

Who are the rising stars in the anime industry (who should we be looking out for)?

Anyone whose work appeals to you personally. I don't like all this business about 'rising stars' - partly because we just don't know enough about the totality of the industry in the West, and people's careers often develop over many years; partly because anime depends so much on ensemble work that it's hard to be sure if, for instance, someone's scripts are so good because they're a great writer, or because someone else wrote a great scenario for them to work from, or they were kept in line by a really strong director, or the cast threw in lots of hilarious ad-libs at the dub session.

Having said that, I think we haven't seen the best of Ryoei Tsukimura yet. I've liked his work ever since he did Metal Jack and I think he has many, many good scripts and concepts in his future.

Do you think that anime would be more successful if it was always dubbed with or famous voices such Hollywood Stars?

I don't think it matters except in marketing terms. It might get a few hundred more people to buy one tape or see one film, but unless they like what they see and hear, they won't fall for that trick again.

What will help any show most is to be dubbed by actors who really care about their work, under the control of a director who sees the job as more than just something to pay the rent this month, working from a script which has ideally been translated direct from the original by a gifted writer who is also a properly qualified translator, or failing that, has first been well translated and then been versioned by a writer with the talent to do great dialogue and the humility to work closely with the translator.

The writer in me has a struggle admitting this, but the actors and director matter more than the script to the average viewer. If the script is clunky, good actors and a good director can make the difference. But if the actors and directors just don't care, or see this as a bit of a lark to make some pin money while they're resting, the best script in the world won't save the project.

In 1992 you did some voice acting for Cat Girl Nuku-Nuku (the UK release), did you enjoy it? Would you consider doing it again, and which character would you love to voice?

It was good fun to be around the studio working on production, but really it was just a fill-in because we needed a spare female voice. (It's amazing how many dub bit parts get filled that way.) I don't really think it's my thing; I'm not good at voices and accents. Of course, if I was offered buckets of money I just might consider it, but only for a director I could trust!

And lastly is there any anime or manga in Japan that fans should look out for?

I'm never sure what to recommend, as personal tastes vary so much. But I'm really looking forward to the new Escaflowne movie, and the new Sol Bianca video, and if Karakuri Soshi Ayatsuri Sakon lives up to the promo artwork I've seen, the series should be visually stunning. Shivas 1-2-3, the new Satoru Akahori video with designs by Hisaishi Abe, might be worth a look too. Akahori can produce some absolutely lunatic stuff when he's on form. I don't know if all fans will enjoy My Neighbours The Yamadas. Some may find it a bit slow. It's one of the most amazing pieces of animation Ghibli have done in technical terms, but it's very low-key and gentle.

Interview Ends

This interview was conducted via e-mail in October 1999

Anime Digital would like to thank:
Helen McCarthy for agreeing to the interview and giving such excellent answers.
Wil Overton for granting permission to use and supplying us with his artwork.

Source: Otaku News
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