Flowers of Edo

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Hokusai was the most famous print artist in 19th century Japan. He drew the iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the Views of Mount Fuji and the Stations of the Tokaido Road. He celebrated the celebrities of the kabuki stage and even kicked off the beginnings of tentacle porn. In 1814, he published the first of a long-running series of “how-to-draw” manuals and art references, known as the Manga (Sketchbooks) and eventually lending their name to comics from Japan. And… he had help.

As Hokusai got older, there are stories that he suffered from palsy and infirmity. There are rumours in the Japanese art world that he was practically unable to hold a brush by his final years, and yet somehow kept churning out masterpieces. Word on the street, but rarely admitted in the auction houses, is that for the last years of his life, much of his work was ghosted by his daughter O-ei.

Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai is not a biopic. There is far too little known about the historical O-ei for that to work, and barely a dozen of her acknowledged art pieces remaining. But this itself has inspired numerous fictional accounts, from Katherine Govier’s novel The Print-Maker’s Daughter to numerous untranslated Japanese novels, and an award-winning manga by Hinako Sugiura. It’s this latter work that is the basis for Hara’s film – the director is the world’s biggest Sugiura fan, and deeply in love with the creator’s unique perspective on life in 19th century Japan.

“I wanted to be fresh,” Hara told me at the UK premiere. “Sugiura wrote about the common people; about the townsfolk, artisans and prostitutes. Japanese media is full of depictions of the Edo period, but Sugiura’s manga told me things I had never seen anywhere else.” And his animated film is packed with incidental detail – the bumping of boats under the Sumida river bridge, the chaos caused by the fires that were poetically known as “the flowers of Edo”, even the sensation of stepping in a samurai-era dog turd.

“Of course, we wanted to use Hokusai’s prints as reference material,” notes Hara. “But 19th century prints were not intentionally realist. They play tricks with perspective and proportions. They aren’t blueprints for evoking the period. Sometimes, you still have to go with your imagination.”

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The same might easily be said of the other anime Edo-period piece recently released, Masayuki Miyaji’s Fuse: Memoirs of the Hunter Girl. Despite being demonstrably more irreverent and playing havoc with fantasy elements, false colours and bawdy backgrounds, Miyaji’s film is just as much a celebration of the same city that would be renamed Tokyo, “East Capital” in 1868. Miyaji’s movie is an Edo of the mind, conceived as a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of a famous Japanese literary magazine, and stumbling joyously through a number of different literary modes. It is a retelling and a re-imagining of The Hakkenden, a samurai serial novel first published in 1814, the same year as Hokusai’s infamous Manga, but the film is actually based on a modern “light novel” by Kazuki Sakuraba – one of the notoriously throwaway potboilers popular with modern commuter kids on their iPhones.

The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter looms large in both movies. In Miss Hokusai, it is a place of shadows, the inspiration for O-ei’s most famous surviving picture. In Fuse it is a vibrant, dingy ghetto, ringed by a sewer but aspiring to be a bawdy Disneyland. The historically faithful Hinako Sugiura would have had conniptions if she saw Miyaji’s centrepiece, an entirely unhistorical clock tower in the shape of a woman’s torso, with a skirt that spins and lifts as the chimes strike the hour. But it is arguably just as evocative of the Yoshiwara as Miss Hokusai’s studious recreation.

Fuse is a faithful retelling of the fantasies of the Edo period, when merchants and samurai sat down to read lurid novels about lycanthropic dog-warriors, wandering swordsmen, and geisha with hearts of gold. Its colours are eye-bogglingly vivid, its characters calculatedly larger than life, sometimes threatening to cotton on that they are ciphers in a story being written by an aging samurai trying to pay the bills. Or are they? There are suggestions in Fuse that the real story is being written by his bespectacled, geeky grand-daughter…

This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #6, 2016. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai.

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So What’s New…?

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So there’s a new Ghost in the Shell film, spun off from ARISE. It’s called Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. Just remember, someone had a meeting about that, and that’s the title they brain-stormed. Someone got paid to say: “We’ve got a title that everyone’s going to sit up and take notice of. It’s Ghost in the Shell. And it’s NEW!”

Seriously, did nobody in the room raise a hand and point out that the last Ghost in the Shell film was also new when it came out? And so was the one before that.

Maybe you missed it at last year’s Scotland Loves Anime, because you, like a number of other punters, thought it was the old new Ghost in the Shell until it was too late. And not just the punters; some journalists also confused this new film with the last time a Ghost in the Shell film was new, and used the wrong stills in their coverage. This new film will only be the new film until a new new film comes along, and then it will be the old new film.

Is there method in the madness? Quite possibly, what with a live-action Ghost in the Shell movie also coming soon. Internet search engines are sure to confuse this new film with Scarlet Johansson’s. Who knows, maybe the distributors will end up like those sneaky bastards who released Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoon with an all-typography cover just before Christmas, hoping to fool shoppers at the checkout that they were snagging Peter Jackson’s. In movie distribution, such sleights-of-hand are called “spoilers”, not the least because they’re going to ruin someone’s day, possibly yours.

Meanwhile, Makoto Shinkai’s latest film Your Name (Kimi no Na wa…) just happens to have the same title in Japanese as a radio series that was a massive hit in the 1950s, and adapted for television in the 1960s and the 1990s. When the Japanese publicity kicks off, it’s going to trend through the roof on social media with three different generations of tweeters, all of them crossly telling each other that it’s nothing to do with the show they loved from their youth. Someone, somewhere in a Tokyo cocktail bar will be patting herself on the back about how high the title is trending, even though half of the hits will be noise.

Ah, I hear you say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Does it really matter how these people get the public talking about their movies? It matters to me, because in five years time when the perpetrators of these crimes are back selling soap powder or brushes, I’ll still be here, dealing with angry letters from people who’ve bought the wrong DVD, or who missed a cinema screening.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #147, 2016.

The Treacherous Fox

empress 3In 2007, I did a long interview with the Dutch magazine BOEK, about my book on the Tang dynasty Empress Wu, which was published in the Netherlands soon afterwards.

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BOEK magazine: In the book you tell that the idea to write a book about a woman, instead of pirates or kings, came from Sutton Publishing. How did you come up with the idea to write it about Wu?

Jonathan Clements: Actually my editor said that the subject of Wu kept coming up with educational establishments who wanted to concentrate on female figures in history, but that, as with so many other periods in Chinese history, remarkably little had actually been written about Wu in English. She asked me what I thought there was to say, and I replied that there was plenty, but a lot of it would be outrageous, scandalous or obscene.

“Ooh!” she said. “That sounds jolly exciting!”

The figure of Wu is a real controversy. She is seen both as a strong woman fighting her own emancipation and as a lying, back-stabbing power-monger, and everything in between. How would you describe Wu?

I think it’s possible for Wu to be both. She was the product of a fiercely competitive palace environment. She was a chambermaid and a nurse for a dying old man (the Taizong Emperor) who was presented with a terrible choice. She could either wait for him to die and spend the rest of her life imprisoned in a nunnery, or take the biggest risk of her life and seduce his son – a capital offence at the time.

Wu has a lot of enemies. The idea of a female ruler was offensive to Chinese traditional scholars, and they tried pretty much everything they could to make it sound like putting a woman in charge was a really bad idea. However, after her second husband Gaozong’s crippling stroke, Wu effectively ran China for 20 years, and she did no worse than any man, and in fact, you could argue that her reign behind the throne was actually a pinnacle of Chinese civilization.

empress wuWhat do you think is Wu’s best quality: exploiting the fact that she is a woman by seduction in sharing her bed for power, or her cunning ability to move in court-politics?

Actually, I think there is a quality bigger than both of those: her charisma. Forget Wu in the position of power. Forget Wu the goddess, and Wu the ruler of the world. Just remember that she got there from nothing. She started off as little more than a palace servant, and a large part of her rise to the top came on the basis of her ability to make people do her bidding. When she had an army to back her up, that was relatively easy. But for the first fifty years of her life she was operating without a safety net. She was doing it on willpower alone. She must have had incredible, and I mean, earth-shattering star quality. Think of Madonna, and Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Mata Hari. Think of a woman with all that power combined. Then give her a vial of poison and tell her that unless the ruler of the world falls in love with her tonight, she is going to spend the rest of her life in prison.

Wu had that moment. She had that terrible decision to make, and she made her choice. Continue reading

If This Goes On…

ten yearsWork continues over at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, where I’ve contributed new entries on the Chinese tomb-raiding author Tianxia Bachang, and the controversial Cantonese polemic Ten Years (pictured), about life in a near-future Hong Kong. The China entries in the SFE constitute a book within a book, covering everything from early pioneers to Party people, and it’s all online for free, because that’s how they roll. Blessings of the state, blessings of the masses…

Sleeping with the Enemy

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All the Nordic countries had unique experiences in the Second World War. Sweden was neutral; Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis; Iceland, rarely discussed, was occupied by the Allies. But Finland’s war was the most complex, abandoned by the Allies, left to fight alone against the Soviet Union, and entering a controversial pact with Germany, not as allies but as “co-belligerents” who happened to fight the same enemy. It was not the first time that Germany had proved to be Finland’s best friend in a time of need. The Finns ultimately turned against them in the little-discussed Lapland War, which destroyed every building north of Rovaniemi, and led to the bitter departure of some 700 Finnish women who refused to desert their German husbands.

Katja Kettu’s 2011 novel The Midwife (Kätilö) went out under that title in most of the 19 languages in which it was published, but seems to have been renamed Wildeye in attempts to flog it to the German- and English-speaking markets. Oddly, English seems to be one of the few major languages it hasn’t been translated into – perhaps there was some resistance among publishers to a romance that featured a Nazi male lead.

Antti Jokinen’s 2015 film version is now available to own (Time Travel Footnote, and now available in the UK, 2017)  – I could not face it raw in the cinema, but correctly guessed that it would have English subtitles on DVD. It is set in a Finland that no longer exists: that eastern arm stretching up to Petsamo and the Arctic coast, lopped off during World War Two and lost to Russia. Based on the depiction here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Finns were well rid of it – broad strokes swiftly delineate it as a grimy, miserable place populated with cackling, brown-toothed witches, racists, and thugs. Helena (the award-winning Krista Kosonen) is the closest thing that the locals have to a paramedic, forced to oversee difficult, bloody births in remote cottages. The film begins with one such event, swiftly followed by the locals’ stoic, heartless decision to drown the unfortunate infant in a swamp.

Helena is sick of it, too, and sees her chance to escape when she meets the steely blue-eyed gaze of Johann (Lauri Tilkanen), a half-Finnish German officer who has been posted to the nearby concentration camp of Titovka. At no point does the film claim to be a true story, although media coverage at the time of the novel’s publication suggests that it is partly based on the life of a real person – Kettu’s own grandmother. This opens up a whole can of worms by even suggesting that there were Nazi concentration camps on “Finnish” territory, where human experimentation (“Operation Cowshed”) was carried out on Russian prisoners and other undesirables. You would think someone would have brought this up before, if it were true!

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Soon the sole surviving employee with any medical training, Helena finds herself complicit in the shaving of prisoners’ heads and the administering of “medicines” that turn out to be lethal viruses. This is explosive material to introduce into modern times. The extent of Finland’s cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi regime has been a matter of much reconsideration in recent years, most notably in the anthology Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, which challenges the nation’s usual narrative of firm resistance. In a 2011 interview in Kuvalehti, Kettu noted that modern historiography was reluctant to admit that one’s grandfather or uncle might have been a killer or a rapist. Her take on this, however, is gendered and universal, that war makes killers and rapists of us all. Helena is certainly an inadvertent stooge at Titovka, administering poison to doomed prisoners, and posing unhappily with two SS officers for the Third Reich newsletter. Even most of the Nazis are unhappy about their duties, but get on with it anyway in a jobsworth, everyday evil that is somehow more chilling than the open malevolence of the camp commandant Gödel (Tommi Korpela, channelling Ralph Fiennes).

This is no Schindler’s List – Helena ultimately only manages to help herself and a single prisoner escape, abandoning the rest of the camp to their fate. But that is at least part of Kettu’s point, that her heroine is almost entirely powerless, stripped of agency, left with little to live for but her own survival, and little to hope for but her unlikely prince charming.

Jokinen’s camera-work does a beautiful job of capturing a lost Finland on the edge of Norway, one with actual mountains. As with Jalmari Helander’s Big Game, this is achieved by filming somewhere that isn’t actually Finland – in this case Lithuania, which is not only 30% cheaper for film productions, but cheaper to reach by plane than the real Lapland. He also artfully captures the desperately awful conditions of Helena’s daily life, so that her decision to move to a concentration camp is indeed regarded as a step up. When it comes to the war itself, the film allots its €8 million budget superbly in capturing a worm’s-eye view of the Lapland War. In one notable scene, Helena is caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment, literally unable to turn in any direction for fear of death, spun in circles by a series of explosions like a human pinball.

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The film evokes elements of the novel’s cut-up format – each of its original six sections began with a flash forward of a starving Helena in the remote Dead Man’s Cabin, on the run from the war and waiting for Johann to show up at their agreed meeting point. Only then it would it jump back to her horrible life in 1940s Lapland, the brief flurry of joy at her romance with her dashing officer, and the collapse into hell of Operation Cowshed and the Lapland War.

Elements of it inadvertently recall earlier Finnish war films – there has in fact, been a degree of carping from online pundits that all Finnish war films are the same, and seemingly strive to fulfil an annual quota of grim sisu and pyrotechnics. This is a most unfair comment to level here, particularly in the case of Wildeye, which is not even the first film to give a Finnish woman’s perspective on WW2, but certainly does so in an original, if melancholy, manner. I will note, however, that those playing Finnish War Film Bingo will have plenty to keep them occupied nevertheless, including a gratuitous oral sex scene ripped off from Rukajärventie and three people in a shed recalling Käki (The Cuckoo). This isn’t even the first Nazi-Finnish romance movie either – the so-bad-it’s-good Sensuela managed to beat it by decades, and that was a remake.

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It also appears to have been a stage play.

From what I can glean from author interviews, Kettu never claimed that the Titovka concentration camp was a real place: her inspiration came from her grandmother’s letters about the war itself, the experience of stumbling across an abandoned hut on the Norwegian coast, and her childhood memories of playing in the ruins of a German prison camp near Rovaniemi. Instead, her interest was in telling the story of the human cost and effect of 200,000 German soldiers posted to Lapland, and their subsequent removal with extreme prejudice. The Lapland War is an embarrassment to the Finns, partly because it was one of those conflicts that effectively destroyed the place over which it was fought, displacing 168,000 residents, but also because it was a terrible betrayal of people who had been their friends.

The Titovka concentration camp is hence a handy device to confront the characters directly with the nature of Nazi evil, although it feels to me that this undermines one of the author’s intended points, that men like Johann were not goose-stepping fascists, but human beings caught up in a conflict not of their own making.

However, trawling through the Finnish-language web, I am surprised that nobody in Finland called the story out on its depiction of war crimes, which (commenters please correct me if I am wrong) seemed to have been invented by the author for dramatic effect, and yet are repeated in the film with an air of realism. Experience during the press junkets for my Mannerheim book taught me that many young Finns get far too much of their historical knowledge from movies and the internet, and are apt to accept any and all literary devices as representations of real events.

This is true all the world over, of course, and it is not the fault of Kettu or Jokinen that their book and film might be misinterpreted as more factual than they warrant. That would, perhaps, be something best addressed in DVD extras, but the version I bought in Finland offers nothing but a trailer, a teaser, and a picture gallery. For a subject that risks becoming so controversial, and so open to misinterpretation, this is a disappointment.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland (Available from Amazon in the US/UK). The film was finally released in the UK in 2017 as Finland 1944, “based on true events”.