Helen McCarthy is one of the most influential anime and manga scholars in the West. As she explores later in this very interview, hers was one of the first voices to bring attention to anime and manga in print in English with titles such as Manga Manga Manga, a Celebration of Japanese Animation (1992), Anime! A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Animation (1993), and The Anime Movie Guide (1996)—followed by many, many other volumes. Perhaps her most notable publication is her astonishingly huge The Anime Encyclopedia, which she worked on with John Clements, and which has gone through three editions so far. Here at Toho Kingdom Nicholas Driscoll reviewed her Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation book, and she has many other titles as well, including the Harvey-winning The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga (2009), and the recently-released tome on Leiji Matsumoto co-edited with Darren Jon-Ashmore.
Senior editor of the site Nicholas Driscoll recently had the opportunity to pick her brain about the history of manga and anime, their relation to Toho, and her thoughts on many aspects of the culture and impact of the same!
Nicholas Driscoll: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! First, I think it may be helpful to begin with some sort of introductory questions if that’s alright. I imagine most of Toho Kingdom’s readers aren’t very familiar with your work, which is a shame. You’re one of the pioneering scholars on manga and anime in the West, and wrote some of the first books on the subject in English. Could you tell us a little about yourself—how you got into Japanese entertainment, and then into scholarship, and just a little about how things have changed in your field over the years?
Helen McCarthy: Long story short = I met a guy who was a giant robot fan.
Long story long = Like most people born in postwar Europe, I grew up among people who had strong prejudices against Japan – my father had friends who had died on the Burma railroad and felt very strongly anti-Japanese. So it wasn’t until 1981, when Steve (now my partner) introduced me to these giant robot toys and comics he’d picked up on his graduation trip to Spain, that I had any idea Japanese animation and comics were so different from what I’d grown up with in the west.
So I set out to find a book, and I was well placed to do that as someone who’d worked for the British Library and knew how to dig out rarities from the library system. And I discovered there was no book on Japanese animation in English (or manga either, at that stage.) A few mentions in histories of world animation or comics, usually three or four lines, mostly rather dismissive.
Of course, I didn’t consider at the time that the dismissiveness was probably a cover for ignorance and embarrassment, because these books were written by guys who were experts on films and comics they could understand but didn’t know what to do about material in an unfamiliar language. This was long before translation programmes and fast online searches. Literally, if you wanted a foreign book you had to get it shipped to you, having first found someone who would sell it to you and made it clear to them what you wanted and then organized payment in a form they could accept. After waiting weeks for it to arrive in the mail you then had to find someone who claimed to read the language and hope they could give you an accurate account of it.
At that point I decided that, since nobody had done it for me, I was going to write the book I wanted to read: a big book about every anime I could discover, with info about who made it, the story, the company, the music – everything you might find in a book about Disney. It was 1981, few English-speaking people had heard of or could actually pronounce “anime”, I knew nothing about publishing, and I decided to write The Anime Encyclopedia. And of course it was a stupid decision, because nobody in British publishing would take a chance on commissioning a huge book on an almost unheard-of medium by an unknown author who didn’t speak or read Japanese or know much about the subject. So I had to wait for the market to grow, and I helped it along a bit by founding a fanzine and then a magazine. After 12 years of research and building a network and getting rejected by every publisher I approached, I got my first book published in 1993. It was nothing like the book I wanted, but it was the book the market wanted at that stage, and it did quite well. And it opened the door for me to build towards the book I wanted to write. (You can still get Anime! A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Animation on the secondary market.) The first edition of The Anime Encyclopedia finally came out in 2001, twenty years after I started dreaming it.
There was, of course, no anime scholarship or manga scholarship in 1981. I’ve only ever found one paper written in English before that time, and it was by an American academic who looked at, and was very dismissive of, a single manga anthology volume. But gradually, as fans began to publish on and discuss what they loved, we built up a critical mass of pressure for this material to be studied seriously, as the art and literature and social anthropology it is. But that’s another long story, and one you should probably get an anime scholar, like Dr. Darren-Jon Ashmore, Dr. Rayna Denison or Leah M. Holmes MPhil, to tell. And of course it’s a different story in Britain than in America, which is much richer and had anime on TV in the 70s, and different in Europe, which also had anime on TV in the 70s. It wasn’t until broadband had spread, in the mid-2000s, that an active worldwide network of anime scholars and anime scholarship really got going.
I fell into anime scholarship by accident. If there had been any kind of structure or formalised status to anime scholarship, I have no doubt I would have been gatekept out of it: female, old, non-Orientalist, no command of the language, a background in the history of art my only recommendation. But by dint of showing up first and writing some basic coal-face works in English, I managed to get a foothold and build from there. Now people are doing MPhils and PhDs in anime and manga, and there are some fabulous young scholars coming up in the field. Lots of them are also female, not straight, not white or a combination thereof and that’s good to see. Anime and manga are Japan’s gifts to the whole world, not just the rich white male world. There is so much great work happening all over the world in comics, in animation and in scholarship inspired by anime and manga.
Driscoll: I really enjoyed your book on Hayao Miyazaki and learned a lot from it, and was impressed with your writing, your knowledge, and your passion for anime in that book. How did the work come about? What do you think of some of Miyazaki’s later films which weren’t included in the book? Any chance for an updated version?
McCarthy: Thank you! To begin at the end, I don’t think there’s much chance of an update because Miyazaki, the world and I have moved on from 1997 – a new book and a new approach would be a better idea. I’d be up for a reprint of the old book if any publishers were interested, because I think it still has some value. The book came about because of My Neighbor Totoro, my first Miyazaki film. I saw it in 1989 while I was prepping the anime programme for the 1990 Eastercon, and I fell completely in love with it. I had to know more about the director. So I started building up my knowledge, started pitching a book, but there was a feeling in British publishing that a book on a single Asian cartoon director only geeks had heard of wouldn’t be a big seller. Then in 1997, Steve and I were invited to take part in the European City of Culture events in Copenhagen. We stayed in this beautiful, beautiful city for the weekend, Steve gave a manga workshop and I gave a talk, and one of the other Miyazaki fans there encouraged me to get this book done and suggested trying publishers in the USA. I took the idea to Peter Goodman at Stone Bridge Press, and he was very positive, supportive and determined to make sure the book got out there. I’m very glad that it was so successful, because Stone Bridge is a small press that took a big chance on the idea, and we made money on that book every year for twenty years.
It was very nice to return to the same ground in 2019 and write a chapter for Dr. Rayna Denison’s wonderful book about Princess Mononoke. Rayna is another person who could give a fascinating account of the development of anime scholarship, she is such a major force in engaging and encouraging young scholars.
The films post-Mononoke are interesting and I’d like to write more extensively about them, but I view them as a distinct, separate phase in Miyazaki’s career. Of course, they have also been extensively written about both academically and for the popular market. So it would be a different book, written for a different world.
Driscoll: I have started reading your astonishingly expansive The Anime Encyclopedia, Third Edition, which I am enjoying thoroughly! What an amazing book! Could you tell us a little about this project, some highlights about its creation, and how the book has evolved over time?
McCarthy: Well, as I said, this was the book I decided I needed to write in 1981 when I was totally incapable of doing so. Steve and I started out after the 1990 Eastercon running a fan newsletter for the contacts we made there. That became Anime UK Magazine, which ran from 1991 to 1996 and sold worldwide (including in Japan) and in the process of making the magazine we made contact with studios, individuals, distributors, went to a few TV trade fairs, built up a whole raft of contacts. I continued writing, doing articles and consultancy for other magazines and projects. I was involved in a small way with Manga Mania when it was set up, just a couple of meetings with Cefn Ridout, but I never saw them as competition – more as evidence the market was growing. I had a column in Super Play magazine which was so much fun to do. I wrote other books, 1997’s The Anime Movie Guide and The Erotic Anime Movie Guide in 1998, building my knowledge and my credibility for writing books that could sell. The Miyazaki book came out in 1999 and was successful, and I did my first chapter for an academic work on anime in 2001, in John Lent’s Animation in Asia and the Pacific.
Anime UK introduced me to Jonathan Clements when he turned up in 1992 asking to work with us. That was a great stroke of luck for us, because he was fiercely talented, already a good translator and a very funny and insightful writer. He Lived near Steve and I for a while and was a great friend of ours. Professionally, we tried working together on the Erotic Anime Movie Guide and found we could do it without driving each other mad, being so precious about our own work that we couldn’t take each other’s criticism, or killing each other, which are the main hazards of collaboration. So we pitched The Anime Encyclopedia to Peter Goodman at Stone Bridge Press and he gave us – and has given us ever since – the greatest possible support.
I wanted a book with solid information, breadth of vision, and a distinctive critical voice of its own. I wanted to know how anime intersected with other animation and other art forms, and what its inbound and outward influences were – how it related to the rest of Japanese and world culture. I wanted to know who made it, to be able to trace careers and build filmographies just like I could in Western film. It seems strange now, when bloggers and Instavoxes can rip off any info from any source and replicate it worldwide overnight, but before the mid-2000s, when most of the world still didn’t have broadband, if you said “I like this anime TV series directed by X or written by Y, what else have they done?” you had very few routes to find out. The Anime Encyclopedia provided and then developed the route map. Over the 20 years since the first edition came out, we’ve developed the scale of the book to a massive extent, but I don’t think we’ve shifted from that original outline.
As to how we’ve evolved over time – we didn’t feel the need to make major changes. Thematic essays and biographical entries were logical developments that our readers welcomed, but the basic principle is still the same.
Someone once told us it couldn’t be an encyclopedia because it only has one volume, but if we do a fourth edition that will have to change because the third edition is at the limit of binding technology. We literally can’t fit in any more pages.
Driscoll: Toho Kingdom focuses specifically on Toho films, and recently Toho’s Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train has been at the center of a lot of excitement, given the massive success of the manga, the anime, and the movie itself, which has become the highest grossing Japanese film of all time, as well as the highest grossing theatrical release of any film in the entire world in 2020. What do you think of the film, of the Demon Slayer phenomenon, and what it might mean for the future of anime?
McCarthy: I don’t think Demon Slayer is any different in terms of its impact from all the other biggest grossing movies of all time that we’ve seen in and outside anime. Think back to Your Name and tell me what changed in the world, or in the industry, after that. More people are attracted by the publicity to give anime a try, some people stay with it, the industry may expand a bit, but that’s happened before. It happened first in the west with Akira, then there was Ghost In The Shell, and of course Pokémon. There is always a Next Big Thing.
I enjoyed Demon Slayer. I think it’s a well-made object. I’m not wildly enthused over it because it wasn’t made for me, and there’s no reason why it should be. Film-makers and TV producers make most of their money out of people who haven’t already seen so many riffs on the Hero’s Journey that they’re hard to impress, so they very wisely aim at younger targets with shorter, narrower viewing experience. But the point of it is, it’s evidence that an old industry in a country with a culture and language quite distinct from most of the world can still pull world-pleasing rabbits out of its hat. It’s important because it’s got a wide enough pull to be so massively successful, and can be marketed across a range of media in all the major territories. Right now it’s in three East London multiplexes within twenty minutes of my house, which is something I never imagined I’d be able to say about any anime movie back when I was teaching editors how to pronounce anime in the 80s.
I love anime as an art form and as an academic area of enquiry, but above all else it’s a business, and franchises like Demon Slayer are its lifeblood. As long as anime can keep doing one of these every few years, and tick over with TV and movies in between, it’ll survive as a business. Once it can’t, it will dwindle, slowly or fast, until the anime business in Japan is just a few fanatics and poets making art in their garages. Or else Disney will buy up every anime studio and start mousing them up, or Disney, Amazon and Netflix will fight to the death and the death involved will be anime as we know it.
Driscoll: I understand that Toho’s (and Japan’s) biggest money-maker of any film series (surpassing even Godzilla) is actually the Doraemon series of films—a series with over 40 entries, and part of an enormously successful media enterprise of endless goods, comics, and popularity. I have seen numerous students drawing Doraemon in my classes, or referencing him or his stories and comics in their projects and conversations. Why do you think Doraemon became such a media juggernaut and such an iconic character in Japan?
McCarthy: Oh, I’m sure you can find many a scholarly paper on Doraemon… but basically, I think Doraemon is an avatar of nostalgia now, like Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan and Jarinko Chie. The story started out as a reflection of postwar pre-boom era life, with kids playing on vacant lots and a very gentle, local vibe, and this crazy robot cat from the future providing excitement and being even more of a klutz than his unfortunate human sidekick. Doraemon’s cast and their world were relatable when the manga came out in 1970, but they also became more and more nostalgic, not because new things weren’t incorporated into the story – they were very good at moving just fast enough with the times – but because you watched them on TV or went to the pictures with your mum, and then you and your mum watched them with your kids, and now your grandchildren watch them with you. Anime on TV is the reason for that longevity. Doraemon and Nobita have been part of people’s family for three or four generations. That’s one big reason why Doraemon and Sazae-san are family to Japanese people, rather than shows Westerners prefer like DragonBall or Pokemon – they got there first and just kept showing up. And of course, the characters are in familiar settings doing things the audience can recognise, at least some of the time. The school holidays, the favourite foods, all bolster that sense of being at home.
Driscoll: I recently have been trying to watch a movie in theater here in Japan every week, and in that pursuit I have become more acquainted with the Detective Conan series. I watched Detective Conan—the Crimson Alibi (which is basically a film composed of clips from the series), and Detective Conan and the Scarlet Bullet. Along with Doraemon, Anpanman, Pokemon and a few other series, I have been astonished at the popularity of Detective Conan in Japan, which now has over 20 films in the series. What do you make of Japan’s embrace of Conan? Also, I have to say, I was a bit flabbergasted that a movie made of nothing but clips from the series is passed off as a film in Japan, for which I had to pay full price for a ticket. Do you know where this practice come from?
McCarthy: For the practice, it’s happened with quite a few series in Japan – for instance the first two Gundam series were successfully recut into three feature films apiece, one in 1981-2 and one in 2005-6. People first saw these shows on their small TVs at home, or nowadays maybe on their phones or tablets, and many welcome the chance to see them on a bigger screen. (Also, don’t underestimate the importance of being able to watch a show all the way through without parents or housemates grousing that you’re hogging the screen, or mocking your taste in heroes/heroines. That was almost certainly a factor in the pre-broadband days when more Japanese teenagers spent screen time with their family.)
Japan’s fascination with Conan is an offshoot of a long established love of detective fiction – look at how well Sherlock Holmes and his many Japanese colleagues have done in anime and manga. Also, I think there’s something about the idea of the smart-arse kid who’s outdoing all the adults; the audience knows that he’s really an adult all along, so they’re ahead of the characters and in on the secret from the start. Also, the indignity of being trapped in a body you don’t want, perceived by others in ways you don’t recognise, speaks to people of all ages and cultures.
Driscoll: It has been said that Pokémon is actually the most profitable media franchise in the world, surpassing Star Wars, Marvel, and even Mickey Mouse by a wide margin. What do you make of the Pokémon miracle and its longevity and grasp on the zeitgeist around the world through the video games, cartoons, movies, and even the mobile game market?
McCarthy: Power and freedom without responsibility will always sell, and Pokémon embodies that ethos. You get to own pets who can be stuffed into little balls and carried around, and you can decide when to “train” them to fight each other at your bidding and for your honour and glory. They are literally the perfect pet – no being nagged to feed your rabbit, get your cat off Dad’s chair or change the dog’s litter. And these pets don’t old and stop being fun – instead Pokemon evolve into bigger better shinier fighting cocks. When you set off to a tournament or an adventure, your world is full of facilitators who pop up or fade away depending on what you need – a bed for the night, a meal, clean clothes, all taken care of. Life as a Pokémon trainer is essentially an endless road trip with no chores and someone else footing the bills.
That grasp on the zeitgeist is not going to get old anytime soon. Incorporating the game into mobile phone technology and adding Pokéspots was a stroke of dark genius. Parents and kids can get out of the house together looking for Pokéspots and building their collections. If you look at the way Pokéspots have sprung up and been used regardless of their location (Auschwitz was a bad idea) or of other people actually living their lives around the area, it’s not entirely a good look, but it’s a very 21st-century one.
Driscoll: I started reading your book A Brief History of Manga and I just find it really fascinating. The book is quite short, but packed with phenomenal information, such as how the first “manga” of a sort were just funny drawings by workers on a temple hundreds of years ago, and how the earliest recognizable manga “comics” were heavily influenced by British and French expats. Could you say something about how this book came to be and who might be interested in picking up a copy?
McCarthy: One of my publishers had done another book in the same format – small, short, picture-packed – and asked me to write one on manga. I was about three-quarters of the way through the writing process when my editor had to tell me that because of various structural changes the book had to be 25% shorter, so that was an interesting conundrum and a few lovely things had to be left out, but to be fair I’ve never worked on any book where we’ve had all the space and all the time we wanted. I wanted the book to be a fun read and to look interesting and exciting wherever you opened it, and I wanted it to be enjoyable and understandable to people who knew nothing about manga, but also to tell people who thought of themselves as fans one or two things they maybe didn’t know. It’s still available, any good bookshop can order it for you if you quote the title or the ISBN 978-1781570982 – or of course you can order via your evil empire of choice, but indie booksellers deserve our love and support.
Driscoll: I believe your latest book is actually an academic book on manga and anime legend Leiji Matsumoto. I recently started reading some of the Leiji-verse, and I even submitted some manga to a contest that he presided as judge over, so I like to think he read some of my work! Can you tell us a bit about your Leiji Matsumoto book, how the book came to be, what role you played in it, and who might be interested in reading it?
McCarthy: My old friend Darren Ashmore is a university professor in Japan, where he’s lived for over 20 years. During that time, as a big Matsumoto fan, he’s been to quite a few fan events and got to know Mr. Matsumoto well enough to talk about his life, his family and his artistic philosophy. When my book on Osamu Tezuka came out in Japanese, I believe Darren saw that Mr. Matsumoto had a copy and mentioned that he knew me. Darren came up with the idea for the book, as a record of Matsumoto’s importance in the anime and manga field, and we began to think about the format. With so many different facets of the work to cover, and very limited name recognition for the man himself although his work is so well know, we came up with the idea of a book of essays – an academic format – but mixing scholars’ work with artistic, linguistic and other practicioners, so as to get a broad-spectrum look at the impact of the works. I always want my books to be accessible to any intelligent reader, and so that was our brief: a book for the scholar, the artist and the intelligent reader that would introduce Matsumoto’s range and depth of influence over seventy years of working in manga and anime.
Darren and I co-edited, but to divide up the work sensibly, he handled liaison with Japanese companies and offices, and all the picture rights work, while I handled editorial, organisational and publisher-related tasks. I sold the book faster than I’ve ever sold any project, which suggests that we were right in thinking there was a market.
We wanted to include some serious artistic and stylistic assessment of Matsumoto’s manga, ably provided by comic creator and animation director Tim Eldred; his approach to language; in a lovely essay from translator Zack Davisson; his female characters, by PhD candidate Stefanie Thomas; his engagement with Pacific War stories, by comics editor and university lecturer Jon Tarbox; his impact on fandom, fanzines and cosplay in the 70s and 80s by PhD candidate Edmund Hoff; and his inspiration of artists and crafters in a dense technical chapter by Zenko.Akko Cosplay. A chapter by Darren on his use of the bildungsroman as a structural motif, an exclusive interview, and a biographical sketch from me, complete the chapters. We also have a full list of his manga publications, his anime works, and his other works, all checked and sanctioned by his own office in Japan. So it makes a really useful entry point to his work if you want to find out who he is, place him in the history of postwar manga and anime, and understand his influences.
Darren and I are editing another book of essays together at the moment, and have plans for some more work after that. I’m also working on a few other projects and hope to develop them further.
Driscoll: Since our readers are often heavily skewed towards the tokusatsu fandom, can you give any recommendations for entry level manga or anime that might be of interest especially to fans of that persuasion?
McCarthy: Anyone interested in Japan might want to see a docudrama project Darren worked on: Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan on Netflix.
There are a few anime either based on or made in homage to tokusatsu: Android Kikaider, Kikaider-01 The Animation, Guitar wo Motta Shonen: KIkaider vs. Inazuman, Casshan, Cassnan: Robot Hunter, Casshern Sins, The Ultraman, Ultraman, Ultraman Graffit, Ultraman Kids. Bamboo Blade is a series about a tokusatsu fan that also contains its own fictional tokusatsu show, Blade Braver. One of my favourite shows, Garo, has seven anime starting with Garo: The Animation. An early show with huge debts to tokusatsu and Ultraman is Gatchaman also known in its butchered Western incarnation as Battle of the Planets. The Guyver will definitely appeal to tokusatsu fans with the 2005 Guyer: The Bio-Boosted Armour being the most recent anime verson. Samurai Flamenco is a tokusatsu-inspired TV series from 2013, and 2011’s Tiger and Bunny is a fun blend of tokusatsu and superhero influences. Just google tokusatsu anime or search YouTube – there’s a lot to explore.
Driscoll: Last question = What can we look forward to from you next?
McCarthy: Darren and I are editing another book of essays together at the moment, and have plans for some more work after that. I’m also working on a few other projects and hope to develop them further. Right now my main aim is to revive my blog, which has languished untouched for almost two years, and put a website together for Steve. And I haven’t given up hope on another edition of The Anime Encyclopedia, time, funding and binding permitting.
Driscoll: Thank you again so very much for agreeing to the interview! Any last comments or notes you want to leave with the readers for now?
McCarthy: Thank you for asking me! I’m looking forward to seeing this and getting the link to share online.
Dear readers = all the above responses are just my opinions and recollections. Yours may differ. Fight me over them at your own risk – you have better things to do.
Follow your dreams, pick up as many skills, contacts and opportunities as you can along the way, but above all else, don’t give up the day job until you’re certain you can avoid sleeping under bridges or scavenging in dumpsters without it.
Buy your books and comics, or borrow them from a public library, but don’t pirate them. Authors and artists need to eat; if nobody pays for their books, they can’t.
Plus all the hashtag stuff: Be Kind. Get Vaccinated. Wear A Mask. Enjoy. All really good ideas.