Rice Rice Baby

Two years after Japan seized Taiwan from imperial China in 1895, the government in Tokyo had started to wonder if it was worth the hassle. The local people were notoriously difficult to control; the anti-Japanese resistance continued to bubble away in the hinterland, and the infrastructure was a mess. Some wag in the Japanese parliament even made the modest proposal that, all things considered, Japan had been sold a lemon, and should probably consider off-loading the whole thing for a bargain price on the first mug to come along… probably France.

Toshio Watanabe’s The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is a study of those Japanese engineers, politicians and scientists who refused to give up, turning Japan’s newly acquired colony into a testing ground for some of the grand schemes that would later be unrolled all across the Japanese empire.

Watanabe zooms in on Shinpei Goto, the administrator whose thoughtful approach to researching his new posting led to the commissioning of invaluable, multi-part scientific surveys, including a 4000-page report on tribal traditions among the indigenous inhabitants – often the first time such matters had been documented. It was Goto who dragged the island out of almost a decade of infrastructural decay, setting up the Bank of Taiwan to disburse investment funds for roads and railways, and declaring a Twenty-Year Plan to make the island a net contributor to the imperial Japanese economy.

Watanabe focuses on several linked elements of Japanese colonial development in Taiwan, particular­­­ly the creation of a new strain of rice, optimised not only for local conditions, but also for the Japanese palate. The result was a strain named for the ancient Chinese isles of the immortals, Penglai Rice (a.k.a. Horai Rice or Ponrai Rice), and Watanabe takes the story of this miracle crop out of both Taiwan and the Meiji era, to demonstrate its wide-ranging impact overseas, particularly in India in the 1950s. Even today, it and its descendants represent up to 93% of all the rice grown in Taiwan – Watanabe’s chapter on Horai Rice scales way, way out, making a bold claim to it as the saviour of millions of twentieth-century lives. This has, however, done some damage to crop diversity on the island – a fact alluded to in Crook and Heng’s Culinary History of Taipei, which notes the extinction of certain other rice strains in the wild.

But the crop was only half the story. Watanabe also delves into the history of the fields where it grew, particularly the plains between Chiayi and Tainan, the agricultural capabilities of which were multiplied a hundred-fold during the Japanese colonial era. For this, we have to thank a Japanese hydraulic engineer, Yoichi Hatta, who designed an irrigation system covering hundreds of square miles, holding back floodwaters and saving them to re-use in dry spells, to turn the Chia-Nan plain from a farming disaster-area into a rice-producing power-house with three crops a year.

Hatta was justly celebrated as one of the icons of Japanese Taiwan, and enjoyed a vibrant afterlife, particularly at the turn of the the 21st century, when a Japanese prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, turned out to come from the same part of Japan. The result was a veritable Taiwan-Japan love-in, with diplomatic visits, high-level glad-handing, and even the release of a worthy-minded dramatization of his life, Noboru Ishiguro’s animated film Batian Lai – well, Batian Lai (“Here Comes Hatta”), is how I translated the title in the Anime Encyclopedia, but the Japanese original Patten Rai, has a stab at replicating the way his name would have been pronounced by the actual Hokkien-speaking locals. The anime film concentrates on Hatta’s obsession with the irrigation system, and his pride and joy, the Wushantou Dam, which for six years in the 1930s was the largest in the world. Hatta’s most recent appearance in the media was in 2017, when a crazed politician in search of clickbait decapitated his commemorative statue at his gravesite beside the dam.

After Japan lost Taiwan in 1945, the new Kuomintang government adopted a scorched-earth policy towards the fifty years of Japanese rule. They played up colonial atrocities (of which there were many), deported thousands of Taiwan-born “Japanese”, banned the Japanese language from public life, and did everything they could to wipe out the Japanese colonial legacy. Watanabe’s book is a celebration of the oft-forgotten achievements of Taiwan’s Japanese era, although in pushing to recognise the achievements of the Japanese, he might occasionally have forgotten the Taiwanese who did much of the hard labour, and the occasional European who might have helped a little bit, such as William Kinnimond Burton, the Scottish engineer who designed many of the island’s Meiji-era sanitation systems.

But Watanabe’s book is more interested, naturally, in the Japanese, whose lives he describes with empathy and occasional melodrama. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the tragic end to Hatta’s story, when he dies aboard the Taiyo Maru, a ship torpedoed by an American submarine. His body lies in the water for a week, in which time the flesh is so picked clean by marine scavengers that he can only be identified by his clothes and personal effects.

His wife, Toyoki Hatta, held on until the 15th August 1945. On hearing the news of Japan’s surrender on the radio, she calmly walked through the rain to the Wushantou Dam, took off her shoes, and threw herself into the waters.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Human Fallback

It’s been more than twenty years since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy used the newly made Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment (MASSIVE) software to create and animated armies of orcs and elves. MASSIVE famously took much of the misery out of big battle scenes, generating thousands of sprites that would battle among themselves. Well, they were supposed to. Early prototypes had trouble getting the sprites to fight each other – they had to literally make them more stupid and foolhardy before they’d get into it.

Regardless, MASSIVE had plenty of other obvious uses, and as processing power ramped up, would be purloined by Mamoru Hosoda to generate schools of self-aware fish in Mirai. Soon after, Yuhei Sakuragi would use similar “deep learning” algorithms to get the crowd scenes in his Relative Worlds to effectively animate themselves.

Such applications were just the tip of the iceberg. As demonstrated recently by Dwango’s Yuichi Yagi, now we have A.I. software packages that can be trusted to generate the in-between animation that goes between key frames, putting a big chunk of the animation business out of work. A.I. software like DALL·E 2 can now take a photograph and turn it into a 3D environment, or take a portrait and make it come to life. It can even guess what might be off-screen or out of frame, like predictive text, but for images. When faced with such leaps in abilities, it’s not hard to see that the next generation of animation labourers could be reduced to “human fallback” – the supervisor minions who pop their heads in every now and then to click an approval or reject a bodged model, based on a Stable Diffusion scraping of Every Anime Ever Made.

But how long will we have to wait before A.I. worms its way into other areas? Surely there’s already enough content to process, and expectations low enough in certain genres, for an A.I script writer to plot out an entire anime show? Feed a hundred light novels into a hopper, and see if the Plototron 3000 comes up with a world-beating idea for… I don’t know, a teenager in another world with a sentient smartphone.

I’m not one of the doomsayers, yet. Yuhei Sakuragi estimated that human fallback was required on almost half the working hours of his deep-learning scenes. “The conclusion was that you should probably aim for 50 or 60 per cent of completion, then shape it with human hands afterwards,” he said. Computer animation itself was once decried as a poison that would destroy anime… instead it made it anew, and gave us unexpected talents like Makoto Shinkai.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #227, 2023. A month after this article first appeared Rootport’s Cyberpunk Peach John was hailed as the first manga drawn by an A.I.”

Takahiro Kimura (1964-2023)

“Basically, if you’re just drawing stuff, there’s no particular inconvenience. I could have a meeting on the phone and send stuff off by courier. There was no producer to worry about because all we had to do was draw. It was fine. But once you start working as a character designer, suddenly you find that you can’t just ask: ‘What about this?” So after I’d finished GaoGaiGar, Betterman and Brigadoon, I thought it was time to go to the source and actually move to Tokyo. So that’s what I did.”

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Code Geass designer Takahiro Kimura.

Ghost Master

Lu Great Uncle arrives, a bent, wizened figure half my height, 82 years old, with a straggly mystic’s beard and teak-tanned face. He is clutching a long-stemmed pipe and looking around him in a faintly baffled manner, as if he went to sleep in 1896 and is taken aback by the sight of horseless chariots. This figure is the local guishi, or ghost master – a herbalist, feng shui consultant and exorcist.

“What do you make of the building outside?” I yell over the noise of the cement mixer. “Good or bad feng shui..?”

“Good it is,” he beams. “Feng shui’d it I did.”

We relocate to the relative silence of Lu Great Uncle’s house, which is right next to the drum tower. We squat uncomfortably around his fire pit in a grey, cement room, and he talks me through his life, including his poverty-stricken teens, the inheritance of his gift for second sight from his father, and the various elements of parapsychology that he taught himself from books he got on a rare trip to Hong Kong. He speaks Mandarin, but occasionally slips into Kam without realising it. But, oh, he can talk. I have a list of seven questions to ask him and I talk him through them before we start. But when I begin with “So, Lu Great Uncle, tell us a little about yourself…” (using the nin particle for respect that I rarely ever bother with when talking to the Chinese), he gives a 15-minute reply that manages to answer all seven questions in an unceasing oration.

Despite having previously claimed he was not able to tell my fortune, he then proceeded to tell my fortune. He took note of the date and time of my birth, counted on his fingers and thumbs for a while, ruffled through a book, and then began reading out a series of poems and portents, which amounted to: “You are smart, you are diligent, you have a good heart. You have a golden life with few hurdles. At 42, you were sick at heart. You will never want for anything. Your parents are still alive. It is known. You have a son? You will have another. And you will die at 81.”

This all takes a lot of calculation and book-flipping through his meticulous hand-written notes, so much so that the director is already bored and moving the cameraman around us to get cutaways and close-ups. But Lu Great Uncle continues to look at his notes and write observations on a scrap of paper. Suddenly, he leans over to me and whispers: “When you were born, the sun came out.” And my fortune is told.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events features in Route Awakening, S03E01 (2017).

Hello World

“Kyoto has been successfully digitised; 2027 has been ingested to such a degree that it can be run in Naomi’s own future as a simulation indistinguishable from the real world itself. In effect, his whole world has been carefully saved and archived, which is good news for his future self, because Ruri Ichigyo, the girl he fancies, is fated to be put in a life-threatening coma in just a few weeks.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Tomohiko Ito’s Hello World.

Junk Head

“In a medium notorious for shots and beauty-passes that go on for way too long in order to amortise the costs of set construction, Hori’s camerawork is brisk and choppy, never outstaying his welcome in any particular scene, deftly creating the illusion that he is snatching his footage on the fly, not painstakingly building it one frame at a time, paltry seconds of motion taking hours to create.”

Over at All the Anime, I watch Takahide Hori’s stop-motion future feature Junk Head.

Foxtail in the Armpit (1940)

Evacuated from the city of Viipuri, recently lost to Russia in the war, Valle (Arvo Lehesmaa) sets up a musical group with his old war buddies Nalle (Leo Lähtenmäki) and Jalmar (Martti Lohikoski). The boys are soon thrown into the company of a trio of fun-loving office ladies, who unwittingly drag them into a series of misunderstandings about a valuable fox-fur scarf that comes into their possession. Eventually, all’s well that ends well, three couples find love, but the women dutifully donate their engagement rings to the Finnish war effort, since every little helps.

Released in the last week of 1940 and not making it to many provincial theatres until the following spring, Ketunhäntä Kainulossa rounds up a bunch of B-list actors, overlooked by the Suomi-Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus studios. Leading ladies Mirjami Kuosmanen and Aune Häme, for example, had only managed bit-parts in films for the majors, while Aino Angerkoski might have a familiar surname, but only because the recently deceased star Kaarlo Angerkoski was her brother. All gamely throw themselves into a farce that tries to make light of the war raging just outside – famously, Finland had banned dancing during the Winter War as a mark of respect to the hardships on the frontline, and the jazzy, toe-tapping resumption of fun times seen here would soon be repealed again when hostilities resumed. As a result, the cast desperately try to cram in as much singing and dancing as they can, from impromptu a cappella singalongs on apartment stairwells, to a full-on variety show that bulks out the running time in the last reel.

The film’s odd title derives from a Finnish slang term – a foxtail in the armpit, not unlike a wolf in sheep’s clothing, denotes a wily predator trying to pass himself off as something he is not. In this case, it refers to a folktale about a fox trying to pass as human by cramming itself into an overcoat, only for its tail to poke out, giving it away. It is also the title of one of the many songs sung during the course of the film – in this case, at a bizarre masked ball that the cast attends, and where people throw paper streamers in an attempt to make things more interesting. The song is reprised at the end in a song-and-dance number in which Lähteenmäki is surrounded by a bunch of lissome Finnish girls in hotpants, so life could be worse.

The film was written to order by Reino “Palle” Hirviseppä, a prominent radio scenarist hired to dash something off to capitalise on the armistice. His revue-style caper (compare to the contemporary S-F Paraati and the same company’s earlier Kaksi Vihtoria), throwing together a bunch of stock characters better known from Finnish radio, often lumbers towards incomprehensibility when divorced from the memes and call-backs of its original era. Hirviseppä openly feuded with director Blomberg over liberties taken with his script – rushed into production so fast there was no time to wait to shoot planned summer scenes, losing most of the first-choice cast to also-rans, and a bunch of rewrites that he regarded as ruinous. He would later comment that the premiere at the Helsinki Savoy was an unmitigated disaster, and that he was ashamed to be present. Audiences agreed, in a year for which cinema attendance was already in a slump – this was the fifth and last film for the production company Eloseppä, and its box-office failure caused the cancellation of the planned follow-up, Singing Cinderella (Laulava Tuhkimo).

The Helsingin Sanomat was unimpressed, with movie critic Paula Talaskivi archly noting that a movie billing itself as the “funniest Finnish movie of all time” failed to elicit a single chuckle in the cinema. Instead, she found it to be “the saddest thing imaginable,” betraying the audience’s trust by committing the most unforgiveable crime for any comedy: being boring. Olavi Vesterdahl was similarly damning in Tampere’s Aamulehti, berating the film for even bothering to staple its song-dance routines together with such a flimsy plot. The Swedish-language press commentary is beyond me, but I cannot resist sharing the Google translation of the review in Hufvudstadsbladet, which reads: “”This is an insertion for the whole of the landfill and the landfill of the landfill. However, the number of landfills used is not open to the public from the operative coupling of the ramp.” Say what you mean, Sweden.

Critics were more easily swayed in the Finnish provinces, where the Savo Sanomat called it a veritable “herring salad” (sillisalaatti – this is apparently a good thing if you come from Savo), and commented: “There’s such a vibrancy and momentum in the movie, so that no one sleeps at all while watching it. In places, the film touches such limits of respectability that it should be categorically kept from children.”

Two years later, director Erik Blomberg would marry leading actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, so I suppose someone found it raunchy enough outside Savo. Hirviseppä and Blomberg, however, never spoke to each other again, and were still bitter about the whole thing in interviews four decades later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Studio Ghibli: An Industrial History

“Denison devotes entire sections to Ghibli’s short films and advertising contracts, many of which will be completely new to some self-proclaimed fans, despite a cumulative running-time equivalent to that of a whole other movie. These include, for example, Hayao Miyazaki’s nostalgic advert for House Foods, made in 2003 and unseen abroad.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Rayna Denison’s new book, Studio Ghibli: An Industrial History.

Fifty Shades of Brown

Out today to a world-famous series of valleys of Mesozoic rock, known in Chinese as the “Rainbow Ridges” for their beautiful multi-coloured strata. Do not believe everything you hear.

“It’s just fifty shades of brown,” says the director.

Our driver, who has been supplied by the marketing office, answers her with a weary and hostile tone, which makes me think that he has to say this rather a lot.

“Don’t you have eyes? Can’t you see the subtle gradations? Anyway, the many colours only really show up after a rainstorm, but in the sunshine, at the sunset, in springtime…” He continues to list an absurd set of parameters for the valley looking the way it does in the pictures. We soon discover that even the publicity shot that brought us here, taken in the valley, was in a location that was impossible for a car to reach, and had been created with the magic of Photoshop.

I start to realise why the visitor centre has three windows: one for information, one for tickets, and one for complaints.

Four locations in the park are set aside for scenic views, but all of them have been thoroughly ruined, festooned with toilets, construction sites, visitor centres, and in one place, a permanent loud-speaker loop of a man singing a song about horses. Also, mirabile dictu: camel rides. So the director gets the driver to drop us off at a secluded spot where I can wander along the base of the mountains, while our drone buzzes above me.

“Don’t actually climb the mountains,” warns the driver, “because there’s a fine.”

We walk a couple of hundred metres across the plain, and start to set up the drone. Immediately, a jobsworth on a moped beeps his horn and drives onto the plain with us, gouging up deep tyre tracks in the soft wadi.

“You can’t go off the road,” he shouts.

“We can’t go up the mountain,” says Clarissa the fixer. “We can go off the road.”

“No you can’t!” The security guard is quite adamant about this, despite the fact that he has no trouble riding his motorcycle into the middle of it, and from the tracks all around, he is not the only one.

“Yes we can!”

“On whose authority?”

Clarissa waves a pink piece of paper from the Marketing department, who have given us access at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But this isn’t good enough, because the security guards only answer to the Head Security Guard, and he is having lunch, while the Head of Marketing is somewhere in the park that doesn’t have radio reception. Clarissa and the security guard argue for so long that we could literally have done our drone shot and left again. Meanwhile, a group of Chinese women see us standing on the plain and decide that if we are there, they can go off the road, too, and start climbing the slope. This results in the surreal sight of the security guard bellowing at us that we are not allowed in, while three Chinese women cavort behind him, taking selfies on the supposedly forbidden ridge.

As far as the guard is concerned, he is doing his duty by obstructing us until his superiors confirm otherwise. Clarissa makes a point of taking his uniform number. He makes a point of setting his mobile to record, and placing it in his top pocket. After half an hour has been wasted, the director announces that the park can shove its publicity up its arse, and Clarissa pointedly rings the marketing department to tell them after travelling a thousand miles to get their rocks on film, that we have wasted our allotted time waiting for a man on a moped to get out of the way, and that their rocks will consequently not be appearing in the National Geographic documentary, even though they boast on all their signage that National Geographic decreed them to be one of the ten wonders of the natural world. We stomp off back towards the car park, from where we sneakily film some footage over the fence, after the director sees a nice view when she goes into the bushes for a piss.

Our driver, however, who seems to know everybody and everyone, knows another place where he can get us in. The mountains there are sort of like the ones in the park, he says, and he knows a dry riverbed between them, where we can get some good shots.

Which is why I find myself driving a Buick, wheel-spinning my way along a wadi, sending flints and quartzes flying, bumping along the ridges and gullies carved by spring streams, as the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon buzzes overhead, and our spare camera, bolted to the dashboard, films me at the wheel.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Some fragments of these events made their way into season two of Route Awakening.