Borrowing Some Matches (1938)

Fat old man Antti Ihalainen (Aku Korhonen) pops out to get some matches, and runs into his old friend, the widower Jussi Vatanen (Uuno Laakso), who has just hitched a new horse to his cart, and is on the road to give it a test. But Jussi is also in a celebratory mood, having waited a reasonable year since the death of his wife. Agreeing on a vague plan for finding Jussi a new bride, the two men go off on a drinking spree, forgetting all about the matches. They cause several accidents on the road, and start several fights, and as news of their escapades drift back to the farm, Antti’s family comes to believe that he has decided to abandon them and emigrate to America.

While his daughter Maija-Liisa (Ester Toivonen, in a wacky Princess Leia hair-do) cries on the shoulder of her idiot farmhand beau Ville (Joel Rinne), Antti and his drinking buddy become involved in chasing a piglet around the nearby town. Then they forget where they left the horse, so they steal another one.

They really should have called this one Dude, Where’s My Horse? At least Tulitikkuja lainamassa is mercifully short, and if the misunderstanding-about-man-off-on-a-common-errand plot is already tired and weak in Finnish film narrative (see, for example, The House at Roinila, 1935), there’s plenty of broad humour to be had. There’s also a lot of unintentional comedy provided by the cast, with Ester Toivonen entertainingly unable to take the plot seriously enough to weep convincingly, a piglet that often outperforms the professionals, and a series of policemen trying a little too hard to be funny, through outrageous facial hair and a running style inspired by the Keystone Cops.

For the 21st century viewer, there is also an intriguing glimpse at the customs and mannerisms of the era, not the least the ready way that the menfolk are prepared to trade their daughters in marriage, with only the merest acknowledgement that the ladies (still eight years away from the right to vote when the original story was written) might want a say in it. The cast also have a strange and stilted way of saying “America”, referring constantly to Amerriikka, as if they have misheard someone speaking of Amer-reich or Amer-riike, a mythical Land of Amer across the sea.

The Finns provide ample material for passing anthropologists with their custom of drinking coffee from a saucer (juoda tassilta), pouring their drink into a cup, staring at it for a while as if wondering what it is for, and then decanting it into a saucer so they can slurp at it like kittens. This was apparently the way of cooling one’s drink down faster – only the upper classes had the time to drink from one of those cup things. Antti also ostentatiously holds a sugar lump in his mouth as he drinks, the better to offset the bitter taste of his discount coffee.

Aku Korhonen reprises much of his Lapatossu schtick as the silly old Antti, adopting the one-eyed school of acting whereby winking constantly substitutes for any other expression. Notable in part for the degree to which the camera can’t keep its eyes off her is the 18-year-old former Miss Heinola, Nora Mäkinen, in the role of a young girl who attracts Jussi’s fancy. She has appeared in bit parts in a couple of previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, but here visibly shines.

The original novel on which the film was based was published in 1910 as by “Maiju Lassila”, a pseudonym for the left-wing radical author Algot Untola (1868–1918), who famously edited the last edition of the Työmies newspaper single-handed in 1918, even though there was nobody left in Helsinki to read it. As well as his exhortations to overthrow the state, he paid the bills by knocking out potboilers under a variety of names, with Borrowing Some Matches sharing shelf-space with his The Barn Boys, The Young Miller and Love. His life took him from what is now Russian Karelia to St Petersburg, and then Finland, where he fled after being implicated in a terrorist conspiracy. His first marriage ended within days, allegedly because Mrs Untola turned out to be a hermaphrodite. His second ended in tragedy when his child died and his wife poured sulphuric acid on his genitals. It ended under doubtful circumstances in 1918, when, captured by the White Guards and on the way to his execution in Helsinki, he either jumped from the deck into the icy waters, or was shot and pushed overboard. He was himself the subject of a biopic, the 1980 film Tulipää (Firehead), which concentrated on his radicalism and ignored his “Maiju Lassila” works entirely.

As if this couldn’t get any more surreal, the screenplay for Borrowing Some Matches was adapted by Jorma Nortimo, a regular player in front of the camera, appearing briefly here in a cameo as a disapproving magistrate. And because once wasn’t enough, the story was adapted as a film a second time, in 1980, the same year as the Tulipää movie pretended it didn’t exist.

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

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Tokyo Tower

Television arrived in Japan in 1953. The technology would transform the city’s skyline. The original transmitter of NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, was inadequate to cover the entire Kantō region, and rival firms soon popped up with their own broadcast requirements. In order to avoid peppering the entire city with antennae, a consortium of channels and developers pooled their resources to create one massive broadcasting tower with a footprint that would reach all the way to the mountains. Modelled at least superficially on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tokyo Tower was originally intended to be taller than New York’s Empire State Building, although resources and requirements eventually dictated a slightly shorter height of 332.9 metres.

Work began on the tower in 1957 – the 2005–12 film series Always: Sunset on Third Street would later use the sight of the tower under construction as a background evocation of life in the post-Occupation period. Tokyo Tower became a symbol of Japan’s reconstruction, rising from the ashes of the war-torn city, asserting Japan’s greatness in the post-war world, and doing so by quite literally repurposing the trash of the old world order – a full third of the steel used in its construction came from hundreds of scrapped US tanks from the Korean War. It was completed in 1958, proclaimed as the tallest freestanding tower in the world, at least for a while, and painted in a bold orange-and-white colour scheme for safety purposes.

“The fact that the Tokyo Tower is a cultural landmark building,’ writes the author Patrick Macias, ‘speaks volumes about the lack of cultural landmark buildings in Tokyo.” It was always intended to have a dual function as a tourist site, although the prospect of having an observation deck a bit higher than the surrounding buildings would diminish in appeal as the years passed. Today, it seems faintly ludicrous to be excited about the prospect of being a few floors up when you’ve arrived in Tokyo in a jumbo jet. The Foot Town shopping complex beneath lures visitors to stay longer with restaurants and several museums, but, to be brutally frank, the Tower never quite achieved the status abroad that its investors had hoped for. Tourist brochures heralding Japan abroad tended to plump for stereotypical scenes depicting natural beauty or evoking the samurai. If they wanted to go modern, they would go for Mount Fuji, foregrounded by a rushing bullet train. The only place that Tokyo Tower achieved significant recognition was among the legions of movie fans who would see it regularly trashed, bent and stomped on by the likes of Godzilla, Mothra and Mechani-Kong. This is particularly ironic, since at least part of the will to destroy the tower on the part of 1960s film-makers surely stemmed from its role serving the competition, broadcasting the TV programmes that were luring audiences away from cinemas.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Monkey Punch (1937-2019)

Over at the All the Anime blog, my obituary for Kazuhiko Kato.

“The editor said to me – ‘It’s hard to tell whether your art was done by a Japanese or a foreigner, so let’s create a pen-name that is indistinguishable by nationality.’ And after a lot of discussion in the editor’s room, they came up with MONKEY PUNCH.” Which was nicely inconspicuous.

Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy

The singer Akatsuki Teruko summed up the Occupation era with her 1951 song Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy, an upbeat ditty with a downtrodden message about a Japan that was still in thrall to American dominance. The titular shoeshine boy is getting on with his work, doing his earnest best to make every scrap of leather sparkle, while musing:

That lady that I like
Hasn’t turned up yet today
But perhaps she’ll come back
Even if it’s rainy or windy.

The girl in question appears to have business elsewhere, as a later verse reveals:

That lady in red shoes
Is she back walking around Ginza today
With gifts of chocolate
Chewing gum and Coca Cola?

With its recognisable foreign words and its frisky rhythm, Tokyo Shoeshine Boy was a hit in the dance halls – but it is also a flatly hopeless elegy, loaded with subtle clues, starting with the slang term for a Ginza promenade, Gin-bura. As the novelist Tanizaki Junichirō once archly observed, only a country hick would use such a phrase. That poor migrant labourer has nothing to offer her – he literally couldn’t even shine her red shoes with his boot-black polish, nor can he pile her with presents like GI-issue chocolate and chewing gum, or take her for an exotic Coke in swanky Ginza. ‘I’m sure she’ll come back tomorrow,’ he says brightly. ‘Someday we’ll go out dancing together.’ It is a triumph of Japanese melancholy, never once letting its enthusiasm slip, even though any listener can plainly see what has happened. The song makes background appearances in two films – listen closely and you’ll hear it evoking the pop culture of the Korean War in M*A*S*H, and playing incongruously during a terrorist attack in Akira.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Statue of Limitations

Just a couple more years, and Bandai accountants might have thrown away all the relevant documentation, allowing two former employees to get away with deceptively simple crime. But someone got a surprise when checking over old invoices, leading at least one man to get caught cooking the books at the Japanese company most famous for Gundam.

I say “at least one”, because so far among the accused, only Takashi Utazu (44) has pleaded guilty to the charges, which include talking up the costs of installing the giant Gundam statue in Odaiba in 2013, and pocketing the surplus. LED lighting, which should have cost 10 million yen, was billed to the company at 20 million, leaving Utazu and his alleged accomplice with almost £70,000 in pure profit. And that’s only one incident in a four-year scam, thought to have netted the embezzlers a total of 200 million yen (£1.4 million).

Because of the sheer size and volume of certain franchises, toy companies have to deal with sums an order of magnitude above what simple folk like you and I are used to. A few years ago, when the Japanese government was dickering about the expense of the much-mooted National Media Arts Centre, it was a Bandai staffer who put everybody in their place by pointing out that the sums under discussion cost no more than a single new theme-park ride. It’s very easy, said another, to spend a million dollars. He meant that when you’re dealing with numbers this big, the overheads of simply making enough toys for something to stand a chance of becoming a bestseller turn into phone-number sized entries on a spreadsheet. Bandai won’t miss a few thousand, right?

Well, wrong. Their bean-counters are super-powered, transforming maths robots, and the dating on these reports makes me think that someone flagged up something fishy, seemingly in projects connected to another employee – a man who is currently continuing to protest his innocence, even though he was fired in October 2017 over the audit findings. There’s a statute of limitations on financial reporting – in Japan as in the UK, companies aren’t obliged to hold on to records for longer than seven years. So the thieves might have got away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling accountants.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #186, 2019.