More anime is being made these days than ever before – the industry has more than doubled in size in the past two decades – but for many anime and manga fans that increased popularity can be regarded as something of a mixed blessing. A big driver of the anime industry’s growth has been its ever-increasing overseas appeal – in 2019, overseas sales of anime reached 1.092 trillion yen and by some estimates accounted for as much as 46% of the industry’s overall revenue – but foreign money means foreign interest and foreign influence. As many overseas fans enjoy anime precisely because it is distinct from and refreshingly unlike any of our own domestic entertainment, to have overseas firms start dictating terms of investment from an overseas perspective actually risks making anime a victim of its own success and self-destructively diluting the very unique fundamentals that makes anime attractive. Certainly, Japanese themselves are conscious of this mounting pressure – Chapters 280 and 281 of the manga Fire Force, recently published in Shonen Jump, involve the character Tamaki Kotatsu (whose lascivious figure we’ve previously admired) defeating an enemy by defiantly stripping off her clothes, outright declaring that she’s going to “save the world with the power of sex appeal” while literally yelling at a bystander “I don’t need your goddamn commentary on everything I do, so stay quiet!”. It’s about as direct a statement as you can get from mangaka Atsushi Okubo that he’s getting mightily fed up with woke Twitterati scolds carping at him from the sidelines!
On the other hand we equally mustn’t patronise the Japanese by insisting that they have to be delicately handled like precious porcelain and preserved in their cultural reservation, protected from any gai-jin contamination – Japanese creators may very well be open to an overseas perspective and choose to enjoy and absorb foreign influences of their own independent accord. One of the episodes of the ribald and anarchic Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt featured an original music video of the characters which referenced a whole host of Western musical performers from Lady Gaga to King Crimson by way of Elvis and Oasis: when watching the episode on first broadcast all those years ago I was struck by how many other English-speaking viewers watching along on the forums seemed baffled that the Japanese studio even knew who these musicians were in the first place. Why wouldn’t they? It was really a bit condescending to project onto Japan that because your typical fansub-watcher circa 2010 didn’t know another language, the animators couldn’t study anything else themselves. In truth, if consumers of anime and manga are “weeaboos” then Japan has its own “westaboos” as well, and today’s manga Pompo the Cinéphile shows them in action.
Gene Fini is a young man who enjoys the rare privilege of escaping existentialism and ennui and knowing his exact purpose in life. Gene knows what he needs to achieve in order to feel fulfilled, and that is one thing – making movies! Gene is a cinema obsessive, to the extent that he flunked school because instead of doing his homework he spent all his time writing notes on films… yeah, he’s one of those sorts who can make a film last eleven hours by freeze-framing every shot for an analysis of the misé-en-scene. Gene has put his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder to realising his dream of directing, scoring a position as Production Assistant at Petersen Films, one of the biggest studios in the heart of Tinseltown itself. Even though he’s little more than a gofer running around fetching drinks and towels on the stars’ demand, Gene does not the slightest bit resent his dogsbody job because it keeps him in the proximity of the great man himself – J.D. Petersen, the legendary director-cum-actor-cum-writer-cum-photographer-cum-producer who bestrides the industry like a colossus, and Gene always has his notebook in a front pocket ready to whip out and scribble down any precious pearls of wisdom that Petersen drops in his path.
It’s a good plan to wedge one’s foot in the door to opening up “Nyallywood”, but there is one teensy-weensy snag that’s stopping Gene from walking through… Gene isn’t working for J.D. Petersen. He’s actually on the staff of Petersen’s granddaughter – and Joelle Davidovich “Pompo” Pomponette is only a little girl!
Pompo may be a precocious pipsqueak but she is actually a genuine prodigy producer and seems to have inherited her grandfather’s filmmaking talent. Alas, she is squandering that talent on churning out profitable but unfulfilling creature-features and other genre flicks – even if she has an adult’s ability, she still has a child’s impatience against anything longer than 90 minutes. Yet all that is set to change – Pompo’s next production is moving upmarket. She has her eyes on producing a classy, artsy film which will surely dominate the awards season – and she has suddenly decided out of the blue that its director will be none other than Gene!
Pompo the Cinéphile neatly illustrates Japan's own willingness to be outgoing that introduced this review. This manga is a thoroughly Japanese production - it began life as a webcomic on Japanese digital art site pixiv and the mangaka is an animator in the anime industry itself (the cover prominently declares that he is part of "Production Goodbook" - not a household name for Western audiences because it does not direct productions but is an animation subcontractor - maybe it's trying to raise its profile with the credit?). Nonetheless, Gene’s education in film-making on Pompo the Cinéphile uses a thoroughly Western syllabus. A positively delightful feature of this manga, reminiscent of the analytical essays I've read in Dark Horse manga like Wandering Island and Emanon, is that the characters don't just each list their Top 3 Movies but the between-chapter intermissions even have some paragraphs of text explaining them too, pulling you in with a ruminative reflection of cinema. Pompo the Cinéphile actually does have a movie of its very own – an anime film produced by Studio CLAP premiered earlier this very summer in June, and GKids will be releasing an English version in 2022. As these sidebars are crucial to the manga’s appeal I’m curious how the anime will translate them when I eventually get to see it, but in any case they work well on the page.
Nor are the movie choices just the typical crowd-pleasing populist blockbusters we all know about but show a specialist interest - one character is a fan of French actress Isabelle Adjani, whose movies must be classy and sophisticated because I've never heard of her! The only concession to Japan is that Corvette, the journeyman director who diligently cranks out Pompo's B-Movies, is a Japanese man whose own "Top 3 Movies" intermission highlights anime including Magical Sisters Yo-yo & Nene, Welcome to the Space Show and Princess Arete (Hey, I've seen that one!)
Despite the set-up of Gene's challenge to develop his first feature film, Pompo the Cinéphile is emphatically not a guide to how to make a movie. There are a couple of off-hand references to filming jargon in places but the actual nitty-gritty of production is largely elided. A case in point is Gene's lead actor, a multi-award winner called Martin Braddock who is an undisguised stand-in for Marlon Brando - Braddock's own Top Three movie picks are all Brando pictures. Now it must be said that Marlon Brando was a "high-maintenance" actor... which is a euphemism for him being an utter incongruent wastrel. In his later career Brando took a sadistic glee in making filming as difficult as possible, selfishly revelling in the fact that he was unsackable by relentlessly disrupting sets and tormenting cast and crew alike. A rookie director like Gene would have been eaten alive by the real Marlon Brando, and the manga itself is aware of this - the text of Martin Braddock's favourite movie intermission even directly asks the question "will first-time director Gene be able to reign[sic] in this larger-than-life star, undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Brando?".
It's a question that never gets answered because Martin Braddock turns out to be an obedient actor who hits his marks and says his lines without so much as a peep of dissent. Braddock even keeps his sense of humour during a washout nighttime shoot when Gene on an auteur's whim abruptly tips everyone out of their hotel to improvise an off-script storm scene, which would surely have had most real-life Hollywood divas flouncing off to their trailers and berating their agents!
I must stress that none of the above is necessarily a criticism. There are plenty of other places where you you can look up production processes - some of them from Best Worst Movie to Lost in La Mancha are movies in their own right. Pompo the Cinéphile doesn't really need to answer those questions, and it is interested in something else: what films are even about in the first place. Pompo herself treats us to her own perspective on what really entices audiences several places, and the manga has a long postscript reprising the Top 3 Movies intermission where she challenges each character about their own picks. The impeccable ease with which Gene makes his movie may be unrealistic, but that's not the point: Pompo the Cinéphile is at its heart a positive, good-natured, light-hearted celebration of cinema for its own sake, and that is clear in the pages. The art is simple - this is chiefly a talking-heads manga with no real action - but expressive, compensating ably with very distinct characters who certainly don't suffer from the "sameface" trope, from Gene's haggard eyebags to Pompo's own eyes filling up her entire eyeball more than even a traditional anime figure, giving her an intense look when she bursts into the page and a presence that's bigger than her small size.
Looking back over my manga reviews in the past year the word "fanservice" has come up more than a few times, but that is not something that features in Pompo the Cinéphile. Pompo's star actress Mystria wears a perfectly tame bikini during a beach shoot and poses for a Vogue-style cover in the opening few pages but other than that there's nothing sexual in the entire volume. Pompo the Cinéphile is an all-ages manga that's safe to share with the wider family. Rest assured, Lowlife Love it ain't, but it does still share the distilled essence to keep the cameras rolling no matter what.
The cover of this manga confidently has an embossed title and proclaims that Pompo the Cinéphile is part of the "Nyallywood Studio Series" and it's a series that I'm happy to see continue - even if it's not in-depth it's still bright and beaming and comes from a position of genuine knowledge. Manga fans hoping to explore the world of cinema were disappointed when the promising act-age fell apart in scandal, but this year Pompo the Cinéphile smoothly cuts in a fresh replacement reel.