Soups You, Sir

Have you seen that quirky new Japanese film? The one that goes full-on geek about some silly little pastime – brass bands, or sumo wrestling, or candy selling, or cosplay – or that gets truly, madly deeply into a completely mundane profession, like funeral directors, or bus drivers or…? Amid the samurai and the sex kittens, it sometimes seems like every festival season has some earnest little Japanese comedy, making the best of a small budget by focusing with incisive high resolution on some tiny piece of the modern world.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) was the granddaddy of them all, mashing the workplace drama into the comedy sketch show and the Zen pursuit of perfection. Turn on your TV any weeknight in Japan, and you will see a dozen serials that seem to riff on it – valorising the dedication of obscure professions, or enthusing about food… or both. Its blue-collar truck-driver hero Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town like some bygone cowboy, taking local widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) under his wing as she tries to master the art of cooking noodles. He and his swiftly assembled cabal of hangers-on gamely mansplain the nature of proper fast food in a series of test-runs and side-quests, while background characters, largely middle-class buffoons, blunder through a series of unrelated vignettes and satires about epicurean culture, taste and table manners.

It’s hard to remember, when piss-poor chain-restaurant ramen are to be had on every British high street, that there was once a time when Japanese noodles were an exotic foreign import for cinemagoers. Supposedly an evolution of Chinese noodles, but actually a post-war development that combined American food-aid wheat with Asian ingredients, these combinations of broth, noodles and optional toppings were a wonder for 1980s audiences to behold. It is, ironically, unlikely that many foreign cinemagoers appreciated how un-Japanese a film Tampopo could be, conceived by its director as a pastiche on numerous American genres, from Westerns to gangster movies to romance.

Three decades on, Tampopo is not merely an entertaining comedy about food and foodies. It is also now a time-capsule glimpse of a golden age, when a pre-recessionary Japan swum in so much money that it snapped up van Goghs, took over American corporations, and propelled its newly monied middle class into the world of fine wines, foreign cuisines and hipster menus. In that sense, its oddball cast were everymen a few steps behind the times, concentrating instead with pure-hearted nationalistic fervour on hearty, homespun local food: a proper meal, done properly. The titular heroine is a woman on the way up, aspiring to an honest day’s pay for a good job done well. Even as ramen was on the way up in the West, some feared it was on the way out in Japan, crowded out by spaghetti carbonara and burgers. Fortunately, rumours of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

And what a cast! Ken Watanabe, future star of The Last Samurai, is seen here as a gormless truck-driver sidekick. Koji Yakusho, future star of Thirteen Assassins, is a mad-eyed gangster who harangues the audience about consideration for others. His scenes are the ones that linger longest in the mind, not the least for their witty eroticism as he swaps an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth with his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) or tries to discuss a secret recipe for sausages in the middle of a gunfight.

Tampopo remains a joy to watch for the Japan nerd. It’s not just the little cameos, like Lady Snowblood director Toshiya Fujita as a man with a sore tooth, it’s the dozens of little asides and nods to the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, from the pearl-divers who once formed an entire subset of soft-core erotica, to the domestication of foreign food (or some might say today, cultural appropriation) as the original Chinesey café name of Lai Lai is replaced by Tampopo’s own. Itami uses food as a keyword for examining Japanese life and customs from top to bottom, foreshadowing today’s wacky scholars who try and tell the history of the world through clocks or condiments. His masterpiece remains a film that leaves every viewer hungry.

Tampopo is playing as part of the Culinary Culture and Gastronomy in Japanese Cinema season in London on 26th August. This article was originally written for Geeky Monkey #23, although the magazine was cancelled from underneath it.

Xi’an to the Max

Despite periodically depicting herself as a square-jawed manga hero, “Tommy” Hino is apparently a woman, usually self-identifying as a drab, androgynous drudge in a skull-cap, weeping copiously and cartoonishly at the prospect of being posted to China. Linked to a blog that has found a fond following in Japan, Hino’s work seems to have laboured under a number of different titles. Some iterations of it have a subtitle implying “survival tips” for Japanese animators, others draw upon the blog’s title of Giri Giri Xi’an, perhaps best translated as Xi’an to the Max. The actual title of her collected four-panel strips, however, is the much more histrionic Nande Watashi ga Chugoku ni!? Or if you prefer: What am I doing in China!?

Hino seems to have largely swallowed the line, common to surprisingly many urban Chinese, that her adopted town of Xi’an is some sort of second-tier backwater and not, say, the former capital of China for over a thousand years, rich in historical artefacts and sites. Apart from a predictable genuflection in the direction of the Terracotta Army, Hino’s exploration of Xi’an culture is hence largely limited to foodie expeditions among the noodle shacks and dumpling parlours, and a foray among the fake handbags of the city’s Muslim Quarter.

But this is because she is there to work, not see the sights. She coquettishly uses anonymising initials for the companies and ateliers she works at as a Flash animator, but uses recognisable cartoon characters – there is not a whole lot of effort expended at concealing the identity of Pleasant Goat, one of the most iconic characters in modern Chinese animation.

Hino’s chirpy account lists a number of issues affecting the animator who wishes to work in China, not merely universal issues of acclimatisation and culture shock, but more specific problems like the sudden blocking of internet access, and her hosts’ pig-headed refusal to understand that she cannot wave a magic wand and make cartoons “like anime, but cheaper.”

More entertainingly for the animation scholar, even though Japanese animation has been integral to the Chinese industry for decades, Hino arrives in China at a time when local media are puffed up with anti-Japanese nationalism, Japanese cartoons are banished from Chinese airwaves, and even streaming sites are subject to purges of unwelcome Japanese cartoons. At a time when openly importing anime can literally damage a Chinese citizen’s credit rating, China’s “dongman” community of fans of animation and cartoons is faithfully presented as a mixed bag of furtive true-otaku and a far larger, rather gormless herd of comics fans who don’t really know what manga is.  As an artist, Hino is comically boggled at the locals’ apparent satisfaction with ghastly pseudomanga that proclaim themselves as “Japanese style” but are just plain bad.

It is fascinating to see a creative struggle with such a contradictory status, hired for her skills in a medium that is respected by the artisans, but proscribed by the authorities, for an audience that is largely ignorant of the issues in play. As alluded to by Zhang Huiling in her study Animation Plus, China has placed itself in the odd situation of striving to emulate Japanese successes, while constantly trying to shut out and deny the existence of such successes in the first place. Hino finds herself at the sharp end of such tensions, but gamely pushes a mouse around in her garret so that the Chinese animation business can pat itself on the back at how it’s beating Japan at its own game.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Finns in America

Blissfully devoid of jargon or academic cant, Auvo Kostiainen’s collection Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent and Immigration offers a rich, inspiring account of an entire cultural enclave, from the largely Finnish population of “Swedes” who founded a 17th century colony in Delaware, through to the 600,000 modern Americans who claim Finnish ancestry. How much is left of their Finnishness after multiple generations of transformation and miscegenation? What would they make of their genetic homeland, if they ever went there, and what would a modern-day Finn make of them?

One look at the Finnfest 2017 programme makes it clear that Americans of Finnish descent (a group that includes Matt Damon and Christine Lahti) are proud of their heritage. Should you be in the Minneapolis area this September, you’ll get the heavy metal cellists Apocalyptica, a barrel of quintessentially Finnish pea soup, a symposium on saunas, a Finnish-language play, lectures on ecology and forestry, an appearance by Santa Claus and even Finnish author Sofi Oksanen. Kostiainen’s book, however, offers detailed accounts of the many paths and roads-less-travelled that led to the existence of such an event – the struggling miners and loggers of the late 19th and early 20th century; the migrants who actually gave up on the US and returned home as failures; the deported criminals and lauded local heroes. I thought I knew my way around books about Finns, but the references to be found here have quadrupled my personal reading list.

In a controversial court case in 1908, Finns were accused of being “Mongolian”, and hence subject to anti-Asiatic immigration restrictions. They were, grudgingly, eventually granted status as whites, but in a confusion that co-opted socialist movements of the early twentieth century and mixed it with anti-Native American prejudices, were often still reviled as “Red Finns”.

The term, of course, strictly applied to those who had fled the Finnish civil war, where Mannerheim and the victorious White Finns had pushed would-be Soviets out of the country. Many such revolutionaries ended up among the mining towns of Minnesota and Michigan, where the red dust from the copper added yet another nuance. Finns became instrumental in the temperance, cooperative and labour movements of the Depression era, but also saw their identity eroded after 1924, when quotas suddenly shut down substantial migration.

Until 1924, Finnish-speaking culture, particularly in the Great Lakes region, was kept alive by a constant stream of new arrivals from the Old Country. Second generation American Finns kept up their language skills by working as waitresses in Finnish-speaking canteens, or alongside newly arrived miners from Europe. The golden rule of cultural assimilation, that it’s the third generation that loses the former mother tongue, was postponed and kited for decades, fed by local Finnish-language newspapers and amateur dramatic societies, and a local publishing niche that clung quaintly to old-world vocabulary. The poet Kalle Koski wrote in 1894 about the dangers of racial mixing, conjuring the image of a Finnish girl who falls for a wieras airis, a beautifully archaic clash of old-world spelling and migrant slang – “a foreign Irish.” Such cross-cultural romances bred entirely new and alien phenomena, such as Finnish Catholics, a virtual impossibility back in Europe, where the Reformation had seen Catholicism hounded from the country centuries earlier.

Six thousand American Finns returned to Europe in the 1930s, lured to Soviet Karelia by promises of a socialist utopia. Finns in America struggled to brand themselves as Good Americans, assimilating swiftly into the local population, with only traces of their old culture remaining – Laestadian splinter groups, an obsession with log cabins… a few names or twangs in regional accents. In the 1950s, Finns fighting the cultural dominance of St Patrick’s Day concocted St Urho’s Day, a rival celebration purportedly marking the banishment of a plague of grasshoppers from Finland’s entirely fictional vineyards. The grim, joyless image it evokes, of scowling matrons pointedly sipping grape juice while beered-up young drunks threaten to stab each other at a sausage barbecue, is a fitting coda to Kostiainen’s superb study, which embraces not only the echoes of both good and bad from the old country, but also their inevitable thinning in a new world.

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