Film Classics: Spirited Away

“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.

God’s Judgement (1939)

Jumalan tuomio turns upon a tawdry series of events, in which a local lawyer takes pity on a fallen woman – fallen through no fault of her own, but because her brother is a convict on the run. Helena (Ansa Ikonen) is packed off to Helsinki to study, where she falls for the judge’s son Aarne (Tauno Palo), who soon dumps his fiancée for her. But with opposition to their love, Helena considers marrying Mr Peltoniemi (Wilho Ilmari), her fallback beau.

Aarne, also a lawyer, undertakes to clear the name of Helena’s brother, but that’s not the only court case that unfolds around her, as Helena is accused of murdering the illegitimate baby to which she gives birth, alone, in a deserted barn.

In an incredibly complex denouement, testing one’s grasp of Finnish tenses to the limit, Helen confesses to drowning her child, although she is later found to have merely dropped it into the water and fainted from grief when a passer-by failed to help her rescue it. The case turns around the prospect that Helena wanted the child – evidence is presented of the baby clothes she was happily making – and to what extent any of this is anyone’s business but God’s, hence the title. But she is still wracked with guilt, and on a trip to the bridge where the child fell, she throws herself into the water and kills herself. The menfolk who have variously failed her, played her, bedded her and deserted her are left to wring their hands about how they could have played things better.

Although the above synopsis makes this film sound like a tense indoor drama, Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta’s eleventh and last film as co-directors makes much of outdoor location work, with several Helsinki street scenes, and an expensive interlude in which Helena and Aarne go sailing. Although the dialogue is stagey and melodramatic, the effects work is impressive – not only is Helena’s bridge jump a believable and stomach-churning stunt, but the film ends with her body lying in state and a halo forming around her head. So I guess that’ll be God’s judgement.

The original 1937 stage play by Arvi Pohjanpää was set in the immediate aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. This movie adaptation deliberately stretches the time frame up to the 1930s, in order to give it a certain modern resonance.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Chinese SF

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I update the comprehensive “China” entry with details of the recent China Film Administration paper on the future of sf movies.

“Politically, this could be seen as the statement of a case for sf as a worthy contributor to modern Chinese society, pre-empting a backlash like that of 1983; practically, it risks adding little to the genre in China except an additional level of management.”

Yanis Varoufakis

“Much of Varoufakis’s work can be seen as an engagement with the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) as if it were a foundational text in an Economic sub-genre of science fiction: that Marx himself offers a stinging critique of capitalist society, but no actual alternative. ‘I still believe,’ said Varoufakis in his 2019 Taylor lecture at Oxford University, ‘we face a stark choice between (A) science fictions that are being deployed to maintain a clinically deceased dystopia and (B) science fictions that can help a realistic utopia be born.'”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Yanis Varoufakis, definitely in my top ten Favourite Greeks. Also: nice shirt.

Reader, She Didn’t Marry Him

“Sittenfeld’s Rodham (2020) is an alternate history that takes as its Jonbar Point the refusal of a young Hillary Rodham to marry Bill Clinton. The timeline thereby ensuing came under fire from some critics for retaining the importance of Clinton in the heroine’s life thereafter, although this was part of Sittenfeld’s narrative point – that both of them were destined to be major figures in political history, as were Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and indeed Donald Trump, whom the novel’s Hillary fatefully attempts to groom as a useful idiot.”
Over at the SF Encyclopedia, I write up Curtis Sittenfeld.

Pivoting

When people are indoors with literally nothing to do except read books, listen to the radio and watch movies, it is a tad disingenuous to refer to the media as a “non-essential” industry. I’m pretty sure it’s kept a fair few of you sane over the last three NEO-free months.

There’s been some confusion about the degree to which the animation world has been affected. Amid press reports that many anime productions have shut down, there are also news stories proclaiming the exact opposite, and that animation is ideally suited for remote workers. Certainly, there have been a few hiccups in production this spring, but a remarkable number of people have rolled with the punches. Your correspondent, for example, has suddenly become the proud owner of a 4K-compatible home film studio, to do all those pesky media interviews without leaving the house. I was shocked at how cheap it was – and it paid for itself in three days!

Lockdown viewing has created some odd patterns in media consumption. The new Ghost in the Shell series just slipped out under the wire, becoming one of the few shiny new things available to a captive audience. Trolls World Tour was a lockdown hit with parents trying to keep their kids entertained, leading Universal Pictures to promise more straight-to-streaming premieres, and the cinema company AMC to proclaim that if they were going to be like that, they weren’t going to screen any of their films ever again.

It is the exhibition sector that is feeling the pinch the worst. Theatres and cinemas are the great social-distance hazard zones, and that means tempers are easily frayed among stage actors, musicians and festival organisers of my acquaintance – practically my whole family.

But we are not through COVID-19 yet, and there are still many twists and turns to come. I suspect one will be “festival fatigue”, as the migration online of what were once local events starts to create something of a crowd on your desktop. It will probably not surprise you at all to hear that there were more than ten film festivals a week last year. It didn’t trouble you, because unless you lived in Yamagata, or Sao Paulo, or Stockholm, none of them were noticeable. But now it seems that all of them are a click away, clamouring for your attention. Choose wisely. By which I mean, choose Scotland Loves Anime this autumn!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #199, 2020.

Manga in Arts Education

“There is a whole book to be written on this subject someday, for all sorts of reasons. One is that non-Japan specialists (and as is clear from this book, quite a few Japanese people) are often unaware of the political manoeuvring behind the scenes, which has led certain Japanese authorities to make grand-standing claims for manga that are not supportable. Another is that many writers on manga are so woolly and incoherent in their ability to define it that they sound like idiots. Still another is that the word manga has become such a touchstone of editorial confidence, such a killing-word of marketing power, that publishers even in academia seem to want to shove it onto any book related to Japanese media. Inevitably, this forces some contributors into shifty-eyed equivocation, presenting perfectly interesting and worthy topics, but having to name-check the word ‘manga’ every page or so, as if it is lurking, threateningly in the room like Donald Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton at a presidential debate.”

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about manga in arts education, among other things.

Martial Arts

Clements explains how, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), government censorship and oppression was so invasive that it’s difficult to distinguish historical fact from fiction. “Add to that the damage done to the record by the hundred years of upheavals after the Opium Wars, and then the damage done again in the Cultural Revolution, and there are vast swathes of Chinese martial arts history that were only really curated and maintained by, say, the Hong Kong movie industry,” he adds.

Over at National Geographic, Dominic Bliss interviews me about the history of the martial arts.

Seagull Diner (2006)

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) is a Japanese woman inexplicably opening a café in Helsinki, where she thinks the Finns will like Japanese food because they like salmon. After a long month without any business, her first customer, Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) is an anime weeb with a terrible taste in T-shirts, who wants her to write out the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme. Unable to remember the lyrics (because this is an alternate universe where the internet doesn’t exist), she buttonholes a stranger in a Helsinki bookstore. Midori (Hairi Katagiri), knows the song, but is an oddball who has randomly picked Finland on a map, and now has nowhere to stay. Sachie offers her a place to live, and the two women muddle through at the café.

They are soon joined by Masako (Masako Motai), a third Japanese woman who has come to Helsinki to celebrate her “freedom” after twenty years as unpaid carer for her ailing parents. She is the only character whose back-story is really announced in any detail – whatever has brought the others to Finland is kept discreetly off-screen. They are three characters in search merely of acceptance and belonging, finding it in the oddest of places, and clinging, curiously, to a desire to be anywhere but Japan.

“A strange man just gave me a cat,” Masako announces. “So now I have to stay.”

It’s only when I write out the synopsis that I realise just how little happens in Naoko Ogigami’s feel-good film, Kamome Shokudo. The Japanese ladies experiment with new menu choices, and slowly win over the reserved Finnish passers-by in a Helsinki street. These include Liisa (Tarja Markus), an abandoned housewife who has to be carried home after collapsing in a drunken haze. Masako, meanwhile, has lost her luggage, and turns up in an increasingly garish selection of Marimekko dresses while she is waiting for her clothes to show up. Midori doodles some awful pictures on the menu, and Masako goes looking for mushrooms in the forest.

Whereas Master Cheng (2019) was a Finnish exercise in luring Chinese visitors, Seagull Diner is a very Japanese take on the Nordic countries – I am tagging it with my #finnfilms watchathon of every Finnish film ever made, but it is technically a Japanese film that happens to have been shot on location in Helsinki. Ogigami’s characters fall in love with Helsinki’s quaint streets and seaside cycle paths, its city markets and melancholy locals, and, presumably with a surfeit of product placement, since the café is packed with Finnish design classics. There’s no real jeopardy or crisis, just a slow infusion of joy as the ladies experiment with local ingredients, refine their menu, and eventually proclaim that the diner is a success, because it is full of happy Finns.

Ogigami’s script boldly dispenses with much of the whys of her leading ladies’ backstory, taking it as given that they are all fleeing from something, and simply seeking a harmonious, happy life in the land where the Moomins come from. Much in the spirit of My Neighbour Totoro, it’s a resolution that doesn’t see the need for conflict. They remain in a remarkably compact series of locations – huge tracts of the film pass in single locked-off shots in the café or Sachie’s flat, plus what looks like a single day’s shooting down in Helsinki harbour, a bike ride around Töölö, and a pick-up at the airport.

Matti (Aki Kaurismäki regular Markku Peltola) shows up to mansplain how to make good coffee. Apparently, you should stick your finger in it and make a wish, which explains an awful lot about Finnish coffee. He leaves a package of coffee that has been passed through the digestive tract of a civet cat. The Japanese women end up making coffee that is literally made of animal shit, and telling each other it’s lovely. For Kaurismäki fans, this was sacrilege, but for an entire generation of middle-aged Japanese women, marginalised and ignored, it was a wake-up call that they, like Sachie, could do whatever the hell they liked. Or in Sachie’s words: “not do the things I didn’t want to.”

Despite premiering in a single Japanese cinema with very little fanfare, it would become the fifth highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. More than a decade late, it remains a potent soft-power ambassador luring Japanese tourists to Finland.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Christian Sorcerers on Trial

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about the 1827 Osaka Incident.

“…a bunch of deluded commoners who thought they had joined an underground religious sect, but had actually signed up for a series of parlour tricks, fortune-telling sessions with a local medium, and blood-letting rituals centred around a magic painting called The Lord of Heaven….They might have been Christians, but they might have been nutters, or they might have been Buddhists, or some sort of hybrid like the Taiping rebels who would rise up a generation later in China.”

“They discuss Christianity as if it were an ancient pandemic – a religious virus that has been carefully stamped out nearly 200 years earlier, with periodic outbreaks that have to be strictly monitored. We get a sense, in at least some of the comments, that some are gently questioning the statutes, wondering if it is really fair to impose regulations drawn up two centuries earlier upon contemporary people.”