The Hard Cel

Maybe they don’t have anything better to do? When the Japanese government reconvenes in Tokyo, a multi-party group of MPs promises to present a new bill that calls for the establishment of a Media Arts Centre that will preserve the core materials of Japanese animation. It turns out that some people are worried that horrible foreigners are ram-raiding the Japanese arts, carting off truckloads of cels and manga sketches, and depriving the Japanese people of their rightful heritage.

Wait a minute… are these the same anime cels that were previously regarded by the studios as “industrial waste”, impossible to dispose of amid ever-escalating government green initiatives, and on one occasion surreptitiously buried in the back yard of a studio that had no space for them? They’re not even a thing any more, since Japanese animation for the last 20 years has been largely a digital affair, even if it looks like it’s drawn on cels. Why on Earth would Japanese politicians suddenly start agitating about something that they literally couldn’t give away in the past? The first notable exodus abroad being the flogging off of all the Akira materials in one big shipping container, to Streamline Pictures, who handed them out as extras to people who bought the video.

You could, of course, argue that it’s a tardy appreciation of the value of animation cels as art, and as a crucial, ineffable element of Japan’s artistic heritage. For reasons to do with intellectual property law, the cels can’t just be scanned into a computer, so they have to be physically stored somewhere if someone wants to preserve them. But why preserve them at all? Or rather, why now?

Maybe it has something to do with that “Media Arts Centre”, which long-term readers of this column may recall was first mooted during the Taro Aso administration in 2009, as a $120 million white elephant to celebrate all that Cool Japan content we keep hearing about. As I observed all those years ago, it wasn’t all that clear what the Media Arts Centre would actually do; maybe this new initiative is a desperate attempt to give it some purpose as a big… bin… full of the stuff the studios used to throw away, built just around the time that the 1980s animation generation, the last to work with actual cels, are retiring, downsizing, and looking to sell off their archives to the nearest customer.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.


The Almost-King of Finland

Finland needed a ruler. That, at least, was the claim of the monarchist faction in its 1918 parliament, keen to hold off the Swedish aristocracy and Bolshevik agitators, and to establish the newly proclaimed independent country as a European monarchy.

Before claiming independence, Finland had spent a century as a Russian grand duchy, causing the policy wonks of the new state to dig deep into the archives in search of a precedent. They found it in a 1772 statute, back when Finland was still part of Sweden, suggesting that in the case of a monarch not being available, a new one could be elected. Determined not to have a Russian or a Swede in charge, the Finns turned to the Germans, who eventually offered them Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse (1868-1940), the Kaiser’s brother-in-law.

Frederick threw himself into Finnish lessons, which soon turned out to be harder than he was expecting, while the womenfolk of Finland started enthusing about his eldest surviving son, Wolfgang, the Crown Prince. Plans were afoot for the new king to take to his throne late in 1918, as King Karl I of Finland, although republican rumour-mongers started spreading the fake-news version, that he would have the ridiculously old-school name King Väiniö. But it was the republicans who were the problem, refusing to show up for the critical votes in the Finnish parliament that would establish the state as a constitutional monarchy, and bogging the negotiations down.

Prince Frederick Charles was only the nominated “king” for sixty days. By December 1918, Germany had surrendered in the Great War, and other states were refusing to acknowledge Finland except as a republic – they wanted no German princeling raised to power in what used to be part of the Tsar’s empire. Frederick Charles officially gave up his crown on 14th December, before he had even been to Finland, and instead Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was proclaimed the republic’s new regent until a president could be elected.

But there is far more to this footnote of Finnish history than meets the eye. Although on paper it sounds like little more than an exchange of telegrams and some faffing around a possible political appointment, the plan to create a Finnish king was far more involved. At the time Prince Frederick Charles walked away from the idea, Finnish designers were already hard at work on his monograms and his crest, and the uniforms of his honour guard, hand-picked from the ranks of the German-trained Jägers who had fought in the Finnish civil war. The carpets and fixtures for his palace (the former Imperial Palace, now the Presidential Palace) had already been ordered, and artisans from the Stockmann department store in Helsinki were already delivering his sofa.

It’s these elements that lend such weight to the Suomen Kuningas exhibition currently running in Tampere – not merely the story of the king that never was, but the sight of the chairs he had planned to sit on. These cool Deco items were a matter of some controversy – delivered for a kingdom that would not exist, no official of the new republic would pay for them, and Stockmann was obliged to put on a special sale of almost-royal furniture. The curators are to be commended for rounding up some surviving examples in this centenary exhibition, along with the designs for his crown, and his guards’ uniforms, and a snide pop song from the period about the man who would be king.

The almost-King of Finland died in 1940, as the Head of the House of Hesse. Two weeks after his funeral, an envoy arrived from the Finnish embassy in Berlin, and discreetly laid a wreath on his tomb.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. The Suomen Kuningas exhibition runs at the Museo Milavida in Tampere until October.

Kiss of Evil

Private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired to chase up a cold case. The police have given up on the 2009 murder of young Kerttu Malmsten, but her mother Asta (Outi Mäenpää) is prepared to pay thousands of euros if justice can be done. But when a second body is uncovered, seemingly linked to Kerttu, Vares begins to suspect that unless he solves the first two murders, a third might be in the offing.

The third film in the Vares franchise begins with a book launch, as author Luusalmi (Eppu Salminen) finally breaks his ten-year writer’s block. His new novel charts the misadventures of one “Juha Korppi” a tough, unflappable Finnish private eye, inspired by his best friend Vares. In other words, much as Maria Bello in The Mummy 3 shrugged her shoulders and suggested that Rachel Weisz in earlier films was a fictionalised version of her real self, the first two Vares movies have been gently slid out of continuity. As well they might, since not only has Luusalmi been replaced by a new actor, but so has Vares himself. There’s plainly been a lot of water under the bridge in the four years since 2007’s Frozen Angel – enough time has elapsed for Jasper Pääkkönen to be re-cast in an entirely different role. Formerly, he had an unforgettable turn as the sleazy lead singer of a metal band; here he returns as Antidote, a drug addict trying to go straight.

That’s not all that’s changed. The film blows a fair chunk of its budget on a grandstanding aerial shot that sweeps in on Turku from the Baltic Sea, catching it in summer glory and tracking around its cathedral. If the plan was to make Turku look like Miami in the trailers, it was money well spent, but unfortunately for a story in which a major plot point rests on changes in lighting, it’s abundantly obvious that the airborne footage was shot at the height of summer, while the bulk of the action takes place on distinctly greyer days.

New director Anders Engström has plumped for a very different version of Reijo Mäki’s laconic hardman, partly because the plot of Pahan suudelma (1998), the tenth book in the original series, seemed to call for it. Whereas the Vares we first saw in the movies was a man in a vest smacking people with a shovel, Antti Reini sports designer stubble and a carefully crumpled suit. This Vares has had a decade to get used to the modern world, and to adopt modern technology – he takes photos with a mobile phone; he investigates the time-stamps on digital photography, and he hunts his prey using social media. He seems completely at ease in his dealings with the Swedish-surnamed middle classes of Turku, unphased by encounters with ship designers and randy housewives, and far more accommodating to the police, with Inspector Hautavainio (Ilkka Heiskanen) now a cordial ally.

There’s some confusion as to whether this third “film” is a film at all. Despite movie-level production values, it was shot back-to-back with the next two entries in the franchise, and its own distributor’s website divides the cast into “regulars” and “guest stars”. From this point on, some instalments were premiered in cinemas while others went straight to video, with a central cast that would remain static from story to story, while cycling in some big names from Finnish film. In this instalment we have a cameo from Mikko Nousiainen (the best thing in Renny Harlin’s otherwise terrible 5 Days of War) as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who functions as a conduit of criminal goods to the Turku suburbs.

I rather miss the Vares of old. In the title role, new-guy Reini barely sucks down more than a gallon of beer and a couple of fags in the whole film. He carries a book in his jacket pocket and wears glasses to read through documents, as if the original blue-collar hero has been kidnapped by the pod-people of Turku. But there are still flashes of the original’s dark humour and off-hand misogyny – every woman is either desperate to hump him or shopping for lingerie, and the Finnish underclass and underworld are always just two streets away from whatever gastropub he’s sitting in. Even his part-time chauffeur, taxi-driver Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi) conveniently moonlights as a stripper in order to economise on speaking roles and set up several scenes in a titty bar. But whereas the earlier Vares films were triumphs of low wit, Kiss of Evil heads sadly upmarket, delivering the sort of gumshoe thriller you can see anywhere else on primetime. Pietari Kääpä, in Directory of World Cinema: Finland, suggests that the Vares reboot was a deliberate attempt to muscle in on the Nordic crime market of Wallander and the Millennium series, but if that’s the case, Vares has had to sacrifice much of what made it so scabrously unique.

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


Over on the All the Anime blog, I write an article on Mari Okada’s striking directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, which has its UK premiere in Glasgow this Sunday.

“Okada… seems to regard the political struggles of her world with complete indifference, even though they would surely form the central narrative of such a story if it were directed by a man. She looks for a different kind of hero. Her characters find slavery in victory, and freedom in defeat.”

Sacred Sailors: out on the Kindle

Japan’s first animated feature was a masterpiece of propaganda film-making, uncompromising in the bile it directed at the enemy, romantic in its evocation of home and hearth and of Imperial Japan’s Pan-Asian aspirations. Its path to modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evaded bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after a generation to offer modern audiences a disquieting glimpse of a very different world.

Momotarō, Sacred Sailors (1945) is a film of immense contradictions – the creative pinnacle of Japan’s right-wing military aesthetic, it was made by a director who would later be hounded from the film industry for being a Communist, and a lead animator derided as an “unpatriotic” pacifist.

Jonathan Clements traces the incredible life and career of the film-maker Seo Mitsuyo (1911–2010), and takes the reader on a scene-by-scene analysis of this classic film, its context, reception and legacy. Available now on the Kindle from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Or buy it as a hard copy with the film included, direct from All the Anime.

V2: Frozen Angel

Seedy second-hand car salesman Jakke (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) is believed by everybody in the Finnish port town of Pori to have been responsible for the death of Mirjam (Johanna Kokko), a sometime prostitute whose death in winter went unnoticed until the snows melted. Jakke hires his former classmate Jussi Vares (Juha Veijonen) to clear his name, neglecting to mention that at the time of the death he was knee-deep in an attempt to blackmail a group of powerful local figures.

Based on Jäätynyt enkeli, the fifth book in the series by novelist Reijo Mäki, the second Vares film continues to lampoon Finnish masculinity with the joyous abandon of a drunk tramp pissing on a dumpster fire. Its cast is an utterly ghastly procession of sweaty, flabby, beered-up chain-smokers stumbling through the plot, double-crossing each other in motels and dive bars. Even the sponsors’ logos that begin the film look like a recipe for the worst night of your life, including (if I remember correctly) Karhu beer, an online poker site, and some guy’s kebab shop.

Stories are like pizzas, observes one character sagely. The thinner the base, the tastier the topping. The victim has slept with half of Pori, sometimes for cash and sometimes for love, enmeshing her in a complex web of possible exes and indifferent one-night stands. The police, as in the first film, can’t be trusted – in the film’s biggest plot hole, the entire case might have been more easily solved if they’d just made a cursory examination of the body. Instead, it’s left to Vares to uncover a complex conspiracy involving Swedish hookers, a heavy metal band, a daisy-chain of polyamorous lesbians, a comic-relief transvestite, and a gang of small-town big-wigs with a terrible secret. Meanwhile, the towering bully Veikko (Jussi Lampi) comes home after serving a stretch in a Swedish prison. “Those Swedes understand Finnish well enough,” he growls, raising his fists. “And if they don’t, there’s always sign language.” Yeah, up yours, Sweden! He hates Swedes the way that Indiana Jones hates Nazis, and is always ready to postpone the action for a few minutes while he beats some up, or in one scene, tries to drown a pair in petrol.

Unlike the novel, which took place in winter, the film tries hard to play up the unbearable heat of the Finnish summer. Yes, really. Everybody is sweating, and telling each other how terribly warm it is all the time, which adds a note of unintended comedy for anyone who’s had to wear an anorak in July. Vares deftly uncovers a conspiracy, hunts down some stolen cash, and fights off the hulking minions sent to dissuade him, but it’s only at the end, as he burpily recounts his mission to his drinking pal Luusalmi that everybody realises he’s forgotten to solve the actual killing.

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

Age of Empires

When I met Yang Zhifa in 2013, he was living well off the proceeds of being ‘the man who found the Terracotta Army.’ Tall for a Chinese, he was sprightly for a grandfather nearing 80. What was left of his white hair was shorn off in a neat burr, he affected a blue Mao suit and an ostentatiously long cheroot holder. A week did not go by without a journalist or film crew wanting to talk to him about his place in history, and Yang was ever ready to oblige for a fee – my time with him cost about £100.

There was very little clue from Yang’s demeanour that he could pull down a week’s wages just by getting out of bed in the morning, at least, not until one was close enough to look in his eyes. The dark irises were limned with the faintest edge of blue, a telltale sign that the old farmer sported contact lenses.

With up to two film crews a day hanging on his every word, and tourists eager to get his signature or calligraphy, Yang was a jealous guardian of his status. He had been in something of a feud with several other Yangs, who wanted to claim equivalent status as co-discoverers – I still suspect that he and his cousins once took turns to sit in the museum shop and sign autographs as ‘Mr Yang, who found the Terracotta Army.’ He cherished a photograph of himself with a grinning Bill Clinton, and still scowled at the memory of articles that had claimed the American President had met with an ‘illiterate peasant’. He clutched his adze proudly, showing me the seal of government authenticity that pronounced it to be the very tool that had struck at that fateful terracotta fragment in 1974.

Yang’s version of events featured a degree of self-figuration – first-person I’s and me’s about what the record usually describes as a group effort, but nonetheless came from the horse’s mouth, in a Shaanxi dialect so thick that I often had to ask him to repeat himself.

‘It was hot and it was dry. It was March and there had been no rain all winter, and we needed to sink a new well. There was some low-lying ground with persimmon trees on the plain, and I figured that the water there would be sweeter, so we started digging. When we got down a couple of metres, we hit something. It looked like the top of a pot, the lip around the edge, so we stopped digging.

‘I said: “Look, if this is a pot, we might have found an old kiln from the Han dynasty or something. Those pots are still good to use. Let’s keep digging.” So, we edged around it and saw that it wasn’t a pot. It wasn’t a pot because it was decorated really weird, like a suit of armour, and then we found an arm.

‘So this is a problem, because the elders hated it when we uncovered old temples or graves. That’s really bad for the feng shui. They made us go back that evening with joss-sticks. We lit incense and chanted prayers in case we had disturbed earth gods or something. But I said to the elders: “You shouldn’t worry that this is something to do with the First Emperor. I mean, it’s two kilometres away from his grave, this can’t possibly be anything to do with that. There’s no way it could be that big.”

‘So we went to the cultural office at the museum, and they said oh yes, that looks very Qin dynasty. Bring us the terracotta bits and we’ll give you some cash. They offered me 10 kuai [£1] for every wheelbarrow-load of pottery I could bring them. So we edged around the well and hauled up three cart-loads of the stuff. I took it to the museum and got 30 kuai, but then I had to share it with the other members of the crew and the village. At the end of it all, I got 1.3 mao (13p).’

The Yangs’ well-sinking exercise had transformed into an archaeological dig and gained him another rival. At another museum on the edge of town, the local Party official also happily signs himself as the ‘man who discovered the Terracotta Army’, on the understanding that Yang didn’t know what he was looking at, and that in an intricate semantic sense, the Terracotta Army was only ‘discovered’ by the person who identified the pottery as a Qin artefact. At the time, however, nobody seriously considered that the pottery uncovered by the Yangs was directly related to the First Emperor’s distant mausoleum. For centuries it had been assumed that the First Emperor’s mausoleum centred on Mount Li itself, and yet the finds of the well diggers were far from it. The well now forgotten, the soil from the initial dig was sifted, unearthing more terracotta pieces, and the fragments of what might once have been crossbow trigger mechanisms.

By that June, the news was out. Something had been found near the site of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, and if a find of the magnitude of the Yangs’ was present so far from it, the size of the necropolis itself may have been grossly underestimated.

‘Then they said we’d found something significant, something of national importance, so it all kind of got taken away from us,’ Yang tells me. His role in the site was forgotten for twenty years, while archaeologists sifted the earth. He confessed that he had done nothing but swing a pickaxe for his life up to that point, and his ability to monetise being the ‘discoverer’ of the Terracotta Army turned problematic. He was once flown to Japan for an academic conference, but was able to little more than trot out his well-rehearsed account of that fateful day. Since then, he has observed the slow growth of the museum as a tourist site, and done his best to capitalise on the influx of visitors.

‘It’s brought a lot of wealth to all of us in the village,’ he says carefully, ‘and that cheers me up. Yes, I like being famous. It’s better than not being famous. People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph. It’s better than holding a pickaxe.’

From The First Emperor of China, by Jonathan Clements available now in the US and the UK. The exhibition China’s First Emperor is running at the World Museum in Liverpool until 28th October 2018.