The Attack

The story behind one of Finland’s most famous paintings.

A girl in a white dress is running along the sea shore, attacked by a two-headed eagle. At least, that is what Eetu Isto’s 1899 painting The Attack (Hyökkays) looks like at first glance. Unsurprisingly, this work of Finnish national romanticism comes loaded with heavy-handed symbolism, tied up in the struggles of the people of Finland to free themselves from their Russian overlords.

The girl in question is The Maid of Finland, a female shape suggested by the outline of Finland itself on maps – a girl with a billowing skirt. She is not merely wearing a white dress, but also a blue sash, foreshadowing the Finnish flag. The crest of Finland can be seen on her buckle. The two-headed eagle (Russia, of course) is not actually attacking her, but a hefty book of laws in her hands, symbolising the continuous assault on Finnish freedoms in the 1890s. For nearly a century, the Russian tsars had allowed the grand duchy of Finland relative autonomy; but now Nicholas II seemed intend of stripping Finns of their language, their money and their postal service, along with other rights.

Eino Parmanen, who chronicled the rise of the Finnish nation in his four-volume epic The Book of the Struggles (Taistelujen Kirja), identified a number of subtler cues in the painting. The Maid of Finland is not scared, but shows a demeanour of grim resolve. A lantern of “sacrifice” lies broken on the ground, its flame still sputtering with the fires of resistance. On the horizon, there is a faint glimmer of dawn, in spite of the stormy skies.

5istoEetu Isto (1865-1905) was the youngest of five children, and the only one to attend the newly founded Rauma grammar school near his parents’ farm. After demonstrating an aptitude for art with sketches of the local church, he drifted into a career as a painter and decorator in Helsinki. In 1895, just as the Russian authorities were clamping down on Finnish nationalism, he received a grant to study in Berlin. The money soon ran out, but he spent another four years there, struggling to get recognition as an artist, while working part-time at a menial clerking job. The Attack was the culmination of Isto’s Berlin work, although true to Finnish nationalist fervour, legend has it that he refused to make the finishing touches to the painting until he had brought it back to the land that birthed him.

At the time, the picture still didn’t have a name. It was hung in a house in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki, and shown only to an audience of invited revolutionaries. “The observers,” wrote Eino Parmanen, “stood amazed and in deep affection, many even with tears in their eyes.” Isto solicited suggestions for the title in the visitors’ book, where also-rans included Fantasy, Allegory and Battle, before The Attack was suggested by a friend’s wife.

Would-be revolutionaries with an eye on the picture’s propaganda value were already determined to make copies. It was photographed, and the negatives were used to etch copper plates for heliogravure printing. But the police had already uncovered rumours of an anti-Russian art exhibition somewhere in the city, and Isto was forced to flee his Kaivopuisto hideaway, grabbing the two-metre-high portrait and escaping through the window of the house, running for the docks and safety in Sweden. Copies of the painting, however, were soon in production, trickling in to Finland from printers in both Stockholm and Berlin, including 10,000 smuggled into the country in heavy boxes marked “anatomical preparations”. A policeman actually stopped one crate on the dockside at Turku, demanding to know what could be in such a large and heavy box. He was assured by some nearby students that it contained geological samples. Several other shipments came in along the Finnish smugglers’ coast, where the thousands of islands and inlets afforded local fishermen with multiple opportunities to dodge Russian customs vessels and police inspections. The Attack also spread among American Finns in a postcard format, and somehow made it into Russia itself by 1903, when unknown sympathisers were said to be distributing a version the size of a postage stamp, for secretive supporters to cherish in their pockets.

The original Attack’s seditious status made it impossible for Isto to actually sell. He made 6000 marks by selling 20-mark lottery tickets with the painting as the prize, but the eventual winner, a Helsinki housewife, was so terrified of being caught with it that she sold it back to him. Several of Isto’s other paintings were also subject to censure, not because of his identity as the artiz41ch3po2yyl-_sy445_st, but because the circles in which he moved tended to be crowded with dissidents, who were themselves often subject to purges. On a visit to Siberia in 1902 to visit a vicar friend administering to Finnish exiles, Isto contracted typhoid fever. His health never quite recovered, and he died in 1905 from pneumonia, shortly before his 40th birthday.

After the Finnish revolution, The Attack ended up in the hands of one Niilo Helander of Heinola, whose widow eventually donated it to the National Museum in Helsinki, where it hangs today.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

The End of Fantasia

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There have been some heartfelt eulogies in fandom for Studio Fantasia, which has declared bankruptcy after a generation in the anime business, most notoriously with its micro-skirted spies in Agent Aika and its panty-flashing operatives in Najica Blitz Tactics.

Fantasia itself was born under suspicious circumstances, by staff manning the lifeboats from the foundering Tsuchida Production in 1983. Tsuchida eventually sank in 1986, but to say it went down with all hands would be misleading – by the time it went, it was a name on a filing cabinet, without real estate, equipment or employees, while its former staff were already running Studios Comet and Fantasia.

It’s important when reporting the history of the anime business to understand the difference between a disaster and a simple change in circumstances. Studio Fantasia, from what I can see, appeared to shut down because it was little more than some signatures on paperwork that allowed a guy to get some bank loans. Tomohisa Iizuka, the man who led the exodus from Tsuchida all those years ago, set up a company that in its 2006 heyday was bringing in £2.7 million a year and had 43 employees. But if Iizuka wants to retire, and if there is nobody willing to take on the company and its liabilities… if the company itself has no intellectual property worth preserving, then Fantasia might as well cease to exist on the day that Iizuka puts on his golf shorts and heads out to the country club.

As the director Noboru Ishiguro put it in his memoirs: “It is so easy to create a TV animation subcontractor. That’s because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is needed. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy tables for animators, all you need is people. You could start an animation production company tomorrow. But they go bankrupt quickly, too – just like a pub. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors can never make large profits. You’re lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

2006 wasn’t just a peak for Fantasia, it was a peak for the entire anime industry. The studio visibly slowed over the following decade, until it was just picking up a few bits of piece-work on a couple of recent shows. It was not, like Studio Ghibli, initiating and owning new content. But it was, like Studio Ghibli, very much the workplace for a group of guys who were looking forward to not having to work anymore. Except the guy who draws knickers, for whom it is still probably still a labour of love.

Then again, never say never. Who would have guessed at the beginning of last year that the “next Hayao Miyazaki” would turn out to be Hayao Miyazaki?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #159, 2017.

Empress Wu and Historiography

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Michelle Lam, a student in Australia, emails me with a bunch of questions about conducting historical research on infamous bad-girl Empress Wu. I’ve asked her if I can repeat the interview here…

Michelle Lam: Why did you choose to write a book about Wu Zetian?

Jonathan Clements: My editor had seen that Wu was cropping up on a lot of women-in-history curricula, but that nobody really knew anything about her. She asked me what a book about Wu would be like, and I said that it would be too obscene to read out in public. “Excellent,” she said…

Did you experience any difficulties accessing evidence?

No, the evidence is easy to find. We’ve got evidence coming out of our ears, along with reams of noise. The Old Book of Tang and The New Book of Tang are only a click away if you can read Chinese. There’s a surprising amount of material that survives from the 7th century. Wu’s always been a popular subject, although in recent years, books about her have gone through the roof. I don’t rate a lot of the new Chinese stuff from the last decade, though, as most of it’s just cash-ins, except Meng Man’s work. She’s good.

How much of the evidence was biased?

All of it. Everybody had an agenda when writing about Wu. She’s striking a blow for women. She’s an evil witch-queen whose children despised her. She was a living god who ruled over a golden age. She was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She was a murderous bitch who staged a palace coup. Take your pick.

wu2How hard was it to discern the truth from evidence that was evidently biased?

There are plenty of issues blocking our path to understanding Wu. There’s a distance of 1300 years, there’s the lost materials that we don’t even know existed in the first place. There’s the ridiculous spin and propaganda of her own regime, and the regimes that replaced her, which seem awfully keen on “alternative facts”. These are common errors of historical practice, and they’re certainly there with Wu’s historiography.

You talk about how hard it is to discern the truth from “evidence that was evidently biased”, but it’s much harder discerning the truth from evidence that seems completely on the level. There is an easy temptation to cherry-pick the best material, not in terms of its persuasiveness, but in terms of how it matches what we call “the mode of emplotment.” Which is to say, most historians want to tell a story with a convenient beginning, middle and end – is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a tale full of ironic modern parallels? You can’t cling to a doubtful source or a later interpolation, just because it makes a good story. That’s fine if you’re writing a novel or a bodice-ripper TV show, but not a good enough reason if one is claiming to be a historian.

I found myself using some arcane methods with Wu, such as investigating the “content of the form”, whereby you can work out information by how something is said, or even by what is not said. This method is called abduction, searching for what isn’t there, and, for example, it was what I used when analysing that fantastic speech against Wu, issued in the name of a rebel prince.

“She entered the gate through deception, and all fell before her moth brows. She whispered slander from behind her sleeves, and swayed her master with her vixen flirting. She trampled on the pheasant regalia of the empress, and entrapped her prince in incest. With the heart of a serpent and the nature of a wolf, she gathered sycophants to her cause, and brought destruction to the just.”

And so on. The point with that proclamation is that it doesn’t mention some of the most infamous accusations levelled against Wu by later writers. If you were trying to take down an opponent, you would be sure to mention the most scandalous accusations against them, but Luo Binwang, who wrote those words, doesn’t seem to be aware of them. So we find ourselves in the odd position of using the words of Wu’s enemies to work out which of her alleged crimes didn’t happen. We’re essentially using them as witnesses for the defence.

Do you think your identity and personal opinions played a part in how you presented Wu Zetian in your book?

Certainly. I was once derided by another author for not being Chinese enough or female enough to understand her. Only a Chinese woman could possibly get it, she claimed, entirely unaware or uncaring of how sexist and racist that made her sound. It’s the sort of thing someone says when their identity turns out to be their sole qualification, and it’s a poor substitute for actual knowledge and research.

I would like to think that my personal opinions were less relevant in the construction of the book than my awareness of other people’s. It’s important, I think, to bear in mind that many Chinese historians were misogynists, determined to prove that women should not be given positions of power. This isn’t merely a matter of being bigots, sometimes it also reflects later times with different subtexts, such as periods of Mongol or Manchu rule, when women traditionally wielded more power, and the Han Chinese establishment never liked it. Then there are the later Wu historians determined to establish a parallel with the wife of Chairman Mao, or with Hillary Clinton, and the many, many TV writers determined to present her as some sort of innocent Cinderella or knife-wielding psychopath.

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Do you think you were influenced by any external factors whilst writing the book?

Maybe. I know that while I was writing it, I was surprised at the number of conversations I found myself having with women who thought she sounded awesome, and who wanted to know what the cushions were like in the palace. “Write the cushions!” one of them said. She wanted to know what make-up Wu wore, and what her dresses were like, and what food was on the table. These aren’t the immediate concerns of the traditional historian, but they really should be, because history isn’t just about stuff that happened. It’s about the touch and smells and sounds of another world.

What are your personal thoughts on Wu Zetian? What do you think of her as a ruler? What do you think of her as a person?

I was doing an interview with Radio Four when the book came out (you can still find it online but it’s in a dinosaur format that’s difficult to convert), and the presenter suddenly stopped and said: “You really admire her, don’t you?” What I find most incredible about her is the fact that she got to where she was from nothing. When she started in the palace, she was little better than a chambermaid, and yet she was somehow able to run the country for decades. As a ruler, not only in her own right, but behind Gaozong’s throne, she presided over the height of the Tang dynasty. If a male emperor behaved like Wu, nobody would have batted an eyelid, so I see little reason to say that China suffered under her watch. As a person it is harder to say. The few reliable quotes from her lifetime make her sound like she was pretty insufferable. But who wouldn’t be…?

If there was anything you could have done differently whilst researching her person, what would it be?

There are so many rich resources for the Tang dynasty, and if I’d had, say, another month, I could have spent more time poking around the Chinese sources. But I must have been pretty satisfied with the book the way it was, because when we did the second edition recently, the only real changes I made were to update the media references, and for the Chinese-language edition, a new foreword.

Empress Wu is published by Albert Bridge Books.