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.

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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.

Floating Worlds

Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Maria Roberta Novielli’s Floating Worlds: A Short History of Japanese Animation, which sadly misses the opportunity it sets itself to be a “History of Short Japanese Animation”. There’s a moment when you think she’s really going for it, and she’s really going to try to tell the story of Japanese animation through the arthouse and what wins awards at festivals, but such a solid methodology doesn’t quite materialise. Instead, it turns into a largely unreferenced narrative of Japanese animation history with some odd inclusions and some even odder omissions.