Helen McCarthy – Interview

Helen McCarthy introducing anime at the Barbican. © Paul Jacques

Helen McCarthy introducing anime at the Barbican. © Paul Jacques

We first met Helen McCarthy at A-Kon several years ago. We were impressed not only by the breath of her experience in the anime world but by her charm and wit. Every year we look forward to meeting with her to catch up and chat, so naturally we thought of her for our first Anime Night Celebrity Interview.

Helen McCarthy was the first to write extensively in English about anime. In 1992 she produced Manga Manga Manga, A Celebration of Japanese Animation a work that profiled the anime of the time. McCarthy followed that success with Anime! A Beginners Guide to Japanese Animation in 1993. Her tenth work, The Art of Osamu Tezuka : God of Manga, garnered a Harvey Award in 2010.  And in 2006, she  graced us with a revised version of The Anime Encyclopedia, Revised & Expanded Edition: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917, written with Jonathan Clements. Helen graciously allowed us to interview her by email, and we are looking forward to seeing her this year at  A-Kon. Be sure to come and check out her panels! Find her other works here at her Amazon.com page  and read her blog Helen McCarthy: A Face Made for Radio.

What was the first anime you ever saw? 

I saw Marine Boy and the stuff that was on British TV, but I wasn’t actually conscious of that as Japanese until 1981, when the guy who was then my very new boyfriend showed me Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z in Spanish. He’d picked up lots of Mazinger stuff on holiday in Spain, because he was thrilled by the graphic style and energy of anime and manga. Back then you couldn’t get hold of anime and manga in the UK, but Europe had begun to translate Japanese material for mainstream media in the late 70s. I understand French, and cheap coach and ferry trips to France were available, so we had a golden chance to get more material. We also found a Japanese import bookstore in London and bought far too many wildly overpriced magazines. Luckily my very kind American Star Trek and SF friends hooked me in to US anime fandom, so we could get tapes to feed our VCR. (That’s how addicted we were. We got a multiregion VCR in the days when they were NOT cheap.)

What inspired you to watch bad anime so we wouldn’t have to?

You know what it’s like when you first find an author or a band that you really love? You get all their stuff, and at first it’s all amazing. Then the critical perspective kicks in, and you get to know they work better, and you realise that actually it’s not all amazing, but that’s OK because artists are human too. When you see or hear enough material you start to slot it into your intellectual and critical universe, to compare it not just to other Springsteen or New York Dolls but then to other rock artists, and then not just to rock but to other music. Gradually, you develop a sense for where each work sits in your creative spectrum. It’s important to remember that developing confidence to make your own judgements and acknowledge them takes time, too. We invest very deeply in the things we love early in life, and it takes a while to detach our child selves from their memories and realise that critiquing what we love isn’t negative.

So, after a while, I began to realise that all the anime I saw wasn’t on the same level as My Neighbour Totoro. I also started to disentangle the technical aspects of the medium from the creative ones, so I began to see that an old or cheaply animated show might not be technically brilliant but could still have great design, or writing, or music. As my ability to define what I saw as bad anime grew, I started to think my ideas might be helpful to others who were just starting to explore. Remember, back then, anime was VERY expensive. Even if you were in the US and could get to a JapanTown or Chinatown store, or were on the fan tape trade networks, videotape and postage had to be paid for, travel to club meetings had to be paid for. So the more I could do to help people make the best choices for their money, the more likely they were to stay an anime fan and the more likely it was that we could grow a viable market.

And besides, sometimes bad anime can be fun! For all those moments when I’ve wondered why I didn’t just go and watch some paint drying (thank you, The Gigalo!) there have been moments of sheer hilarity.
Tell us about writing your first book.
I started writing my first book very soon after my boyfriend and I started researching anime, because there just wasn’t any solid information out there.  In the pre-pre-Internet era, fanzines and club newsletters circulated around tiny groups of maybe a couple of hundred people at most,  and “mainstream’ animation books and magazines dismissed anime as cheap kiddie pulp. A few had a paragraph on Osamu Tezuka or some art-house film-makers, but there wasn’t any awareness of anime as a medium, and an industry. Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, which I regard as the seminal text for Japanese graphic culture studies in English, didn’t appear until 1983, and wasn’t widely available in Britain.
I really wanted a book packed with information about directors and writers and shows and techniques and inspirations – a book that treated anime like a proper branch of film, not some exotic oddity. So after a while I realised there was no such book and decided I’d better write it myself. I wrote an absurdly ambitious synopsis, pitched it and got turned down by just about everyone I spoke to. I had no sense of timing or market readiness. Finally, after Akira became a huge hit in 1990 and the industry began to show some interest, and after we set up Anime UK magazine in 1991, one of the publishers who’d turned me down called me and said maybe the time was right for us to talk.
So in 1993, a mere 12 years after I started wanting a book on anime, my first book was published. But it still wasn’t the book I wanted. Again, the time was wrong for a huge, detailed infopack. It took another eight years to get the book I originally wanted to write published. That was The Anime Encyclopedia,  which was co-authored with one of Anime UK‘s regular writers, Jonathan Clements.
What was it like to collaborate with Jonathan Clements?

Helen McCarthy in a panel session with Jonathan Clements (left) & Paul Gravett (right)

Helen McCarthy in a panel session with Jonathan Clements (left) & Paul Gravett (right)

Working with Jonathan has always been both entertaining and educational. We first met after he picked up a copy of Anime UK in an airport and contacted us to see if we needed any translators. He thought everyone on the staff must speak Japanese, when in fact none of us spoke more than a couple of words. (I think he was a bit taken aback by our idiotic chutzpah, but let’s face it, by 1992 I’d already been waiting a decade for someone fluent in both English and Japanese to write about anime. I was ageing too fast to wait any longer.)

Our first book together was The Erotic Anime Movie Guide which remains the only serious approach to the topic in English. He’s funny, combative, challenging and takes no prisoners. I’m airy-fairy and butterfly-brained but I’ll go where no self-respecting angel would tread and try absolutely anything that looks interesting. So we made quite a good team for The Anime Encyclopedia.

Of course, Jonathan’s talent and energy very quickly took him into all kinds of other areas as well. One of the most wonderful things about  the growth of the English-language anime and manga market  is that doors have opened for some very gifted people that might not have opened otherwise. I know a very respected professor at a Japanese university who left school and started work in a mundane job in the North of England, without any thought of higher education, until anime made him want to go to night classes and learn Japanese. I know a couple of novelists (apart from Jonathan) who got their first writing break on Anime UK. There are artists and designers out there whose first work featured in British anime and manga fanzines. Japanese pop culture has been transformative for so many people. Even the reaction against it in some countries has revitalised local comics and animation industries.

What are some of your favorite anime and why?

My Neighbour Totoro is still me favourite movie. I love most older Ghibli stuff, and I think Arrietty is a delightful film. When it comes to  series, I love a lot of old-school classics, and that means I love the shows that share their values: entertainment, solid writing, character development, coherent design. You can do all that in a movie as well as a TV series, if you do your work properly. I think there’s a commitment to story values and character values that runs through classic Gundam and Legend of Galactic Heroes and Code Geass, through Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles and Utena.

I love giant robots and good writing, so Patlabor is high on my list of favourites. I have to confess that animation technique isn’t all that important to me – I admire and appreciate it but it’s not the defining thing that makes me love a show. Redline did nothing much for me, Summer Wars blew me away: both looked great but I don’t think Redline could match Speed Racer except in technical terms. I’d rather watch episodes of Gatchaman than episodes ofEvangelion because there are only a couple of characters in Eva that I care about, and that’s just not enough to entice me to sit through more rehashes of Anno’s teenage angst. Quite a few people have told me recently that the latest Eva movies are amazing, but 20 years is a long while to wait for a series to work out its knots and pick up speed.
What do you think about the future of anime?
I think there will be one, but I have no idea what form it will take. Let’s face it, unless we pay a bit more attention to the state of the planet and stop threatening each other, the future of everything may take forms we don’t care for.
I’m worried about what piracy is doing to the industry. Nobody who downloads anime illegally wants to cut the industry to shreds and destroy livelihoods, but sometimes what seems like a small step links up with everything else going on and makes a big change. The point isn’t really about fault or blame – it’s about how each of us is reshaping the industry by our actions, without any real idea of the consequences. Industries have died before when they stopped being profitable. If we don’t want that to happen to anime, we have to start thinking about how we deal with it. I love watching the animation people make at home and post on YouTube, but I don’t want that to be the only animation out there.
What is your current favorite anime?

Nothing has challenged My Neighbour Totoro  as my number one in over 20 years. It’s Miyazaki’s perfect movie, in my opinion. Of course, that’s as much about my personal tastes as it is about the movie. The great Carl Macek once told me he thought Miyazaki’s perfect movie was Laputa: Castle In The Sky, and my other half would probably agree with him on that, because they both look for more action than they find in Totoro. But if you look at the daring of the story, the writing, the music, the performances, the absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous animation, not to mention the music – it’s hard to do better than Totoro.

What inspired you to write haiku?
I’ve always written poetry but haiku wasn’t one of the forms I studied before the mid-eighties. I suppose my growing awareness of modern Japanese culture must have fed into it, but one day I picked up a book of translated haiku and was struck by the elegance of the form. There was a poem by Issa in there that tore my heart. Then Steve [Kyte] and I went to Portmeirion in Wales, and one of the lovely things about Portmeirion is that it has so many hidden nooks and crannies. We scrambled through the woods and down the cliff to a tiny, completely deserted white sand beach with nothing in front of us but sky and water, and that’s where I wrote my first haiku.

What is your favorite thing about anime conventions?

The people. Always the people. You can watch anime at home, but at a convention you can have lively, feisty, challenging, entertaining, enlightening conversations about it, meet all kinds of viewpoints you might not encounter otherwise, and see so much creativity all around you.

What is your current/next project?

I have a novel under consideration with a British publisher, and I’m working on a new book on anime, one on manga, and a second big anime project. I haven’t been given the all-clear to talk about them in detail yet, but I’ll have plenty to say on next year’s convention circuit! (And convention chairs, I still have a few dates free in the second half of 2013!)

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