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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 is your favorite thing about anime conventions?
What is your current/next project?