“And thereby hangs a tale, not least the Festival Jury Chairman wondering if he is going to be dropped through the trap door into the piranha tank, after the odds-on favourite, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, was consigned to second place at Scotland Loves Anime 2019, pipped at the post by an outside contender about a surfer girl and her lost love.”
Over at All the Anime, I discuss the perils and pitfalls of festival jury voting.
There has never been a better time to write about film. In the twenty years since the coming of the DVD, there have been some truly marvellous opportunities for the critic, largely caused by the presence of all that memory space on the disc, and the search for added value. The commentary track is not a recent invention. They were available on laser discs beforehand, and sometimes transferred to VHS. Somewhere in my office I still have a “collector’s” VHS of The Usual Suspects that dials down the audio and replaces it with the director and writer talking about their film.
There have been occasions, hand on heart, when I have bought a film on DVD and simply watched it for the commentary. If I have already seen it at the cinema, maybe I don’t actually want to see it again. But I’ll pay £20 to hear a two-hour lecture from its writer or director. Probably not from the voice actors, though.
And I’ve even done some commentaries myself, sometimes known in anime fandom as Clementaries. Unique selling points or wastes of bandwidth… you decide!
Appleseed: An odd beginning, with the film company only discovering on the day that they didn’t have the facilities in-house, and having to move me and my fellow commentator to another studio. By the time we started recording, I’d been kicking my heels for six or seven hours. My fellow performer wasn’t feeling that talkative, either — for a bunch of reasons, including some personal stuff that she was keeping from everyone, but amounted to (as far as I could tell), her having to move house on the day that she was also recording a commentary track. None of these things is a welcome discovery to make when you are recording LIVE and can’t really backtrack, but we managed. I talked for England, only to have some reviewers complain that (a) I was drowning her out, or that (b) my attempts to elicit anything more than monosyllabic answers from her about a day’s work she’d done nine years earlier were some sort of convoluted attempt to chat her up. It taught me a valuable lesson about any commentary. It’s a live performance, but it is recorded, warts and all, for posterity. Anyone can have a few stumbles and fluffs, but you’re basically on your own. Since then, I have insisted on being just that.
A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains. A year on, and I’m back on the commentary trail, recording A.Li.Ce and the next anime on the same day on a remote Welsh industrial estate. I took great pleasure in talking about the development of digital animation, and the fact that one was recorded right after the other makes A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains a sort of two-parter on the development of CG in anime.
Detonator Orgun. Notable for my invention of the Detonator Orgun drinking game. At least, that’s all I can remember about this one.
Vampire Hunter D. Partway through this DVD, while I talk about various culture’s vampire traditions, you can hear me having an idea for a script that would eventually become Snake Head.
Spriggan. My favourite, if not only that for the first time I was hired to talk about a film that I had genuinely followed from its very inception, having been formerly hired to translate the pre-production script by a company that was considering investing in it. So I actually had some genuine behind-the-scenes information about the production that nobody else could have supplied. And I also took the opportunity to ask why the people who build secret underground hideouts are always on time and on budget, unlike the people fixing my bathroom.
Spirited Away. The commentary that never happened. I spent a week writing 25,000 words of notes, ready for the ultimate, super-duper commentary on the production and mythical background of an Oscar winning movie. This was to make a rashly-advertised Special Edition actually Special. Except the distributor didn’t have the right to actually add content to one of Studio Ghibli’s DVDs, and were slow to realise this. Eventually, they cancelled the recording the day before it was scheduled, and sheepishly paid me off.
Robot Hunter Casshan. In an elaborate sting operation, an agent from ADV Films attempted to poison me an hour before I went in to record this for Manga Entertainment. An innocent lunch beforehand with Hugh David had a series of unpleasant after-effects in the studio, and left me drooling and… well, probably too much information. But we recorded it anyway, with a brief pause for 20 minutes about halfway through while I writhed in agony.
Golgo 13. I sat down in the booth and started wittering confidently about missing footage from this movie, only to discover it had all been put back in. While the producer pointed at me through the window and laughed, I had to spin on a dime and re-tool my thoughts. We could have gone back to re-record, but Manga Entertainment quite liked the sound of me discovering, live, that long-lost material had been restored, and rather enjoyed the sudden enthusiasm I apparently developed. Actually, I think they just liked hearing me sputter with surprise.
Vexille. An interesting dilemma, with an intensely political film but a director who insisted (largely, I suspect, out of misconstrued Japanese modesty) that it’s just mindless entertainment. “Jonathan Clements is having none of that!” commented one reviewer, as I proceeded to draw a whole bunch of political parallels, as well as commenting on further developments in digital animation. A nice commentary, and eventually situated on the disc with a bunch of other material in which the director and I inadvertently end up wholly agreeing with each other. We’d both been misrepresented, it turned out.
Weathering with You. A first for Anime Limited and for me — a commentary track not for the Blu-ray or DVD, but for an online film festival, available exclusively through Screen Anime as part of the 2020 Scotland Loves Anime festival. Wonderful fun for me, and hopefully something that will grow into more commentary opportunities in future.
So the brochure for Scotland Loves Anime 2020 is live online, and includes Works-in-Progress pieces on anime in production, online screenings of Japanese films, two actual screenings in real cinemas (remember them?), as well as me delivering an exclusive feature-length commentary track on Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, not available on the Blu-ray.
The festival is included in the package for anyone who already subscribes to Screen Anime, but there’s still time to sign up for some of the extras available to crowdfund backers, including a full-sized festival poster, a hard copy of the festival brochure, and a package of posh films to watch at home. Note, as well, that two third of the money from the crowd-fund is being donated directly to the cinemas in Glasgow and Edinburgh that would have screened these films for paying audiences if circumstances had allowed.
In the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1916, a group of independence activists plot to resist Russian oppression. They volunteer for the secret jaeger battalion being trained in Germany (for which see the previous year’s Jaeger’s Bride), they run off angry pamphlets on a hidden press, and they try to prevent a list of agents from falling into enemy hands.
Yrjö (Tauno Majuri) is an undercover agent planted in the Russian gendarmerie, pretending to be a collaborator while secretly passing information to the resistance. Kari (Turo Kartto) gives up the fight and takes a job with the Russian-friendly senator Niskanen, although he spends most of the film fulminating about what an arsehole Niskanen is, even to the senator’s face, so he is hardly hiding in the shadows. Niskanen’s fiery daughter Marja (Helena Kara) is openly sympathetic to the activist cause, which makes her the ideal candidate to sneak in to the quarters of the dastardly officer Vasiliev (Ville Salminen) and steal the papers.
Meanwhile, General Danilov’s daughter Katjushka (Tuulikki Paananen) is sweet on Yrjö, and mistakes his sneaking around for the actions of a two-timing cad, causing her to inadvertently start a vendetta against Marja, who really is out to stick it to the Russians, but not in the way that Katjushka thinks.
Released by Suomi-Filmi in April 1939, a time loaded with apprehension about a new Russian threat, and mothballed for 38 years after 1944 in order to keep the Soviet Union happy (see also The Jaeger’s Bride), Risto Orko’s Aktivistit is loaded with propagandistic exhortations for the people of Finland to fight to the last against the Russian eagle. There’s a lot of talk about the “sacred duty” to resist, and “no sacrifice is too great for the fatherland”, all priming the Finns for a real-world conflict just around the corner. A bunch of Finns go on the run for the Swedish border, tracked down to a remote farmhouse for a Christmas Eve shoot-out. All seems lost, and then 1917 dawns…
The most striking thing about The Activists is the confusion over what kind of revolution the Finns want – when a coup actually breaks out, it’s Russians overthrowing the Tsar, not necessarily Finns overthrowing the Russians, and the titular activists risk being lost in the melee. The story of the Finnish Revolution hence comes nested inside the Russian Revolution, and the film artfully encapsulates that confusion – there are many scenes where it is not all that clear whose side we are supposed to be on.
The opening overture references both the Communist Internationale and the national anthem of independent Finland, as well as La Marsellaise for good measure, foreshadowing a similar music sting in the opening credits of the later Casablanca. The cast themselves are split between good Finns, bad Finns, indifferent Finns, good Russians, bad Russians and bad Russians who might prove useful to good Finns. Yrjö is in such deep cover that he spends half the film being beastly to Marja, before she realises that he is on her side. Katjushka can’t make up her mind if she is a friend or a foe, while her father General Danilov gains the respect of the Finns, even as he fights them.
“Russia faces a great affliction,” says one of the activists grimly – of all of the Tsar’s domain, only Finland did not end up as a Communist state, and cinema-goers in 1939 had every right to fret that the jury was still out on that, too. There is a subtle emphasis on the lack of glamour faced by true patriots – Ville (Uuno Lakso) is the best agent among the activists, but largely because he is happy to slum it as an undercover drunk or rag-seller. Much is made of his mastery of disguise, and his noble willingness to get his hands dirty out of the spotlight.
When the Revolution breaks out, the Russians and the Finns both run for the local prison, hoping to free their own and fight their corner. An almost comical series of about-faces ensues, as Russian fugitives believe they have reached a friendly redoubt, only to find themselves chucked into the clink.
The film is, however, rather confused on other levels, too. Vasiliev is just about to shoot Yrjö in his cell, and then magically both of them are elsewhere, unharmed, even though we hear a gunshot. There are several moments of camera trickery that don’t quite work, including what appears to be early experiments with subliminal frames, and a drunk’s-eye view of his captors, as well as heavy-handed shadow symbolism, with crucifixes falling across pertinent pages from the Bible, and the patterns on shawls and curtains creating tattoo-like impressions on actors’ faces. For modern listeners, the revolutionaries’ exuberant celebration takes on a surreal tone when they spontaneously burst into the Russian folk-song Korobushka, better known today as “the Tetris tune.” Much of the action is marred by a bunch of actors who seem to think that getting shot equates with suddenly falling asleep, which is a shame, because The Activists has a number of rousing songs (the first ten minutes is practically a musical; later, there is an intricate dance scene with dozens of participants), and presents a fascinating glimpse of life in Finland when it was a duchy under Russian rule.
The DVD comes with English subtitles (which even rhyme for the songs), as well as several bonus features, including stills from the making of the film, and a documentary about horse-riding in Lappeenranta.
“…between the years 1941 and 1945, foreign music was actually illegal in Japan. Entertainingly, the people of Japan kept listening to it anyway, prompting the Intelligence Division in 1943 to start grumpily listing banned songs that were “a disclosure of nationalities characterized by frivolity, materialism, and high regard to sensuality.” Among such filth, threats to the national spirit to be purged like toxic waste, were Home on the Range and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Over at All the Anime, I review Toru Mitsui’s new book on Japanese popular music.
“Not since Makoto Shinkai’s debut has there been quite such an emphasis on self-starting, go-getting amateurs. The original manga on which the film is based was a 2005 self-published work by Hiroyuki Ohashi – in fact, the ‘complete’ edition, on which this film is supposedly based, was not released until the film itself was finished last autumn. The creator started a crowd-funding campaign to adapt the work into an animated film, on which director Iwaisawa toiled, often solo, for seven years. Of the 40,000 drawings that span the film’s 71-minute running time, most are Iwaisawa’s work – he is billed as director, animation director, screenwriter and editor, and presumably also made the tea and took out the bins.”
Russian “New Year” in 1928 was one more handy excuse for a piss-up for the fun-loving foreigners of Shanghai’s International Settlement. As the Orthodox church still insisted on using the Julian calendar, a Russian New Year was a fortnight behind everybody else’s – a brilliant reason to dress up, go out and ring it all in again at the Kavkaz restaurant, complete with Georgian nibbles and a “gypsy” violinist.
It’s here that authors Hon-lun Helan Yang, Simo Mikkonen and John Winzenburg press pause on a riotous party night, zooming in on the music, and the musicians – what was played and what was heard, and how it affected the lives of those all around. Just published by the University of Hawaii Press, Networking the Russian Diaspora: Russian Musicians and Musical Activities in Interwar Shanghai peels back the curtain on a whole lost world of émigrés in China – not merely the sounds of the city in its clubs and concerts, but of their long-term influence on the Chinese.
The Russians started arriving in earnest after the Far Eastern Republic, the last stand of the Whites in the Revolution, fell to the Bolsheviks in 1922. Initially they flocked to Harbin, the “Moscow of the East”, but as Japanese invasion loomed in Manchuria, anyone with any sense headed south. By the mid-1930s, there were 30,000 Russians in Shanghai, a number soon to be boosted by 18,000 Central European Jews – as the authors note, even republican Russians often had a rather imperial attitude towards the former vassals of the Tsar, thinking of aspects of Polish or Czech culture, or indeed Romani music as also somehow “theirs.”
Every now and then, you’ll find the Russians of the Far East confined to asides and footnotes, but dropped from most accounts that have eyes only for the Asian-ness of Asian history. There were the dashing Mukden Lancers, an all-Russian cavalry squadron, working for a Manchurian warlord; Manchu matrons with blue-eyed slaves, and former duchesses working as “taxi-dancers” in Shanghai clubs. There were the Jewish emigrés who founded cake-shops and patisseries (a stop at the cake shop is always a surprise for people I take on my personal tour of London’s Chinatown, because nobody expects a diversion through the history of Jewish bakers). Russians even sneak into the history of anime in the 1940s, when Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese exile working in China, set off to Harbin like a pilgrim on a magic quest, hoping to obtain a hair from a red-haired girl to use in his home-made hygrometer – apparently, Asian hair threw off the calibration.
In Shanghai, they were often split between the International Settlement and the French Concession, the French having decided to have their own special area apart from everyone else’s, and the Russian upper-classes being predisposed to use French language in their daily life. In fact, many of the early Russian arrivals in Shanghai, no matter how poor they were at the time, had usually come from money – which meant that they were often impoverished but well-educated, and many of them could play musical instruments.
“Many of these people,” write the authors, “simply vanished sometime after the late 1940s,” repatriated to the Soviet Union, or fleeing ever onwards, to form new émigré communities on the US west coast or in Australia – a topic addressed in Antonia Finnane’s Far From Where? Some ended up in Hong Kong – there is a heart-breaking cameo, in Martin Booth’s 1950s memoir Gweilo, of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile old white woman in rags, who occasionally lets slip through a drug-addled haze that she was once a lady of the Russian court. She mistakes the young Booth for a long-dead crown prince, and pursues him through the streets yelling: “Alexei! Alexei! Why did you leave? Where did you go…?”
But I digress. The authors are interested in the way that music knitted the community of Russian émigrés together in Shanghai, as a means of entertainment, but also cultural education, keeping elements of their native culture alive in their children and their social life. Sometimes this took odd forms, like KhLAM (“rubbish”), the bohemian collective who would jam on Wednesdays, and hence called their club Wednesday.
The authors dig into the archives of local newspapers to dredge up long-gone concerts of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, multiple revivals of the opera Boris Godunov (which is, you may recall, about an Asian man who conquers a European territory), performances by Russian choirs and happenings set up to promote new business ventures. They note the palpable difference between musical choices – the Russian musicians play different tunes for their own amusement than the ones they play for foreigners at recitals, and different tunes again from the ones they want their children to learn.
Accomplished Russian musicians packed out the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, a long-established cultural institution that offered employment for refugees who had lost everything except their talent. The authors go beyond newspaper reportage here, using other materials to reconstruct a history of the pay scales and labour disputes behind the scenes, as musicians fought to get their dues from a penny-pinching impresario.
Later chapters move away from the Russians’ squabbles and relationships among themselves and onto the topic of their lasting impact on Shanghai, not the least with the Chinese students they would teach about Western music. Within a generation of knocking on the Shanghai doors of Russian piano teachers and voice coaches, we see the results of their classes, with Russian-trained musicians and composers forming the frontline of early Communist arts – the composer of the opera The White-Haired Girl, for example (pictured above), and the chairman of the Chinese Musicians Association. Relatively obscure composers like Alexander Tcherepnin exerted a considerable degree of influence on the next generation of Chinese pianists (not the least Lee Hsien-ming, who would become Mrs Tcherepnin). The book finishes with a chapter on Aaron Avshalomov, whose fusion of Chinese and European influences would lead, among other things, to operas about the Tang-dynasty beauty Yang Guifei, the Goddess of Mercy, and the legends of the Great Wall.
Over at All the Anime, I write up Takashi Yamazaki’s CG feature Lupin III the First, which will be having its UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.
“With its unlikely caper, in which a feisty archaeologist outwits comedy Nazis, Lupin the First owes a strong debt to the Indiana Jones films, particularly The Last Crusade, which similarly finishes with a mismatched team of raiders trying to break into a trap-ridden site with the aid of a cryptic diary, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also features a booby-trapped American McGuffin…. But Lupin the First remains an incredibly accomplished work of computer animation, prancing along a tense tightrope between live-action and cartoon, and largely succeeding in propelling Lupin III into the 21st century, even as it clings so firmly to the look and feel of the 20th.”
So, the news is out about Scotland Loves Anime, which includes two cinema events featuring Lupin III the First and On-gaku: Our Sound, as well as a feature-length commentary track from me over the online stream of Weathering With You, and a bunch of items visible to people watching Screen Anime. I will be introducing a bunch of films from a variety of locations, including this one, inside a motion capture studio, dressed like an idiot for a change.
“At 20,000 words or thereabouts, a BFI Film Classic is roughly the length of a feature-film commentary track, which means that in many cases, film-lovers have options to hear entire ‘audio books’ on DVDs, often by the people who made the films themselves. I, for one, have spent many happy hours as Chris McQuarrie laments the fate of his Way of the Gun in real time, or listening to James Schamus and Ang Lee relentlessly take the piss out of their own movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In other words, since only a few years after the inauguration of the Film Classics list, it has faced serious competition from the movies themselves, as the nature of DVD extras began to favour very similar, in-depth accounts of a movie’s construction.”
Over at All the Anime, I write about the BFI Film Classics list, and the recently re-issued volume on Spirited Away.