Reading Mononoke-hime

Fittingly for a twentieth anniversary collection of essays on a single, much-loved film, Rayna Denison’s just-published Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess (Bloomsbury) throws in everything but the kitchen sink. In the sense that it went mainstream and has been the focus of widespread appreciation, Princess Mononoke has generated a vast amount of secondary materials. Through critical acclaim, corporate backing and foreign sales, Hayao Miyazaki remains the best-represented anime director in translation in his own words, which boosts him in terms of scholarly access – it’s not only easier to sell a Miyazaki book to publishers, but also to readers and even contributors.

And this is an impressive bunch of contributors, featuring some of the sharpest minds working on anime today. Shiro Yoshioka examines the position of Princess Mononoke within Miyazaki’s work, noting that is very success may have forced him into a compromising niche, turning him from an action director into an eco-pundit. Eija Niskanen pokes around Japanese archaeological sites in search not only of Miyazaki’s inspirations, but the gaps in knowledge that he imaginatively filled with his own designs and ideas, noting in the process that the film defies traditional notions of what a “period film” should be like – a samurai movie with no samurai in it, showcasing the also-rans of Japanese history. Julia Alekseyeva provocatively but persuasively argues that Princess Mononoke is a prolonged homage to the Soviet film The Snow Queen, which Miyazaki saw in his shop-steward days. Both Helen McCarthy and Alice Vernon argue for Miyazaki as a feminist storyteller, seeing in his work echoes of the Maid, Mother and Crone of Robert Graves and the “heroine’s journey” of Maureen Murdock, and in Vernon’s case, asking whether the pragmatic, driven Lady Eboshi is a threatening vision of what the future holds for the heroic San.

Other chapters review cunning ruses in stunt-casting, not only of the film’s A-list voices, but of Neil Gaiman as the script adaptor, examining both the promotional value of these decisions and the nuances they introduced to the English-language version, the marketing of which is carefully analysed from the perspectives of posters, trailers and featurettes. Refreshingly, Denison has assembled writers who are not only prepared to dive into appreciations of the film itself, but overlooked elements as its critical reception (for which Emma Pett wades through over 800 reviews), and the long tail of its merchandise. The result is an impressive meeting of Princess Mononoke minds, although at £80 hardback and £55 on the Kindle, Bloomsbury seemingly lacks faith that the film’s much-mentioned blockbuster status will translate into a wide readership.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.

The Girls of April

Hard-up Finnish journalist Ruuhio (Mikko Lempilampi) leans on his drinking buddy, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) to poke around a cold case that has long been forgotten. Fifteen years earlier, three girls from Turku disappeared in swift succession – maybe they left the country, maybe they were murdered – but the town has already forgotten the scandal.

This is probably because the town is munted. Antti Reini’s second outing as Vares rarely strays far from the pub, which seems to be the location for much of Turku’s thinking, drinking and big pimping. He’s been so smashed for the last decade that he hasn’t even noticed that his drinking buddy Luusalmi (everybody is a drinking buddy) not only dated one of the missing girls, but wrote a book in which he outlined his personal theory about their disappearance. Luusalmi, however, is not renowned for his problem-solving skills – he thinks they were in a sapphic love triangle, and that one bludgeoned the other two to death with a dildo before running off to Lesbos to become a tour guide.

Ruuhio’s challenge to Vares to bring him some reheated column inches is only the first of a remarkable series of unlikely coincidences, which put most of the suspects, victims and investigators not only in the same city, but often in the same building, and sometimes the same pub. One of the girls, it transpires, didn’t even leave town, but put on a wig and switched careers to become a fortune-teller. We see her in the opening sequence, telling Vares’ hot mess of an ex-girlfriend that she knows just the guys to put the scare on our hero, a pair of off-the-peg thugs, one of whom also used to date one of the murder victims. Meanwhile, menacing bad-guy “Tristan da Cunha” (Taisto Oksanen) gets off the ferry from Sweden (it’s always the ferry from Sweden, which is like Mordor if you’re Finnish) and soon establishes his bad-guy credentials by picking up a man in a gay club, force-feeding him a cock-shaped birthday cake, and then savagely murdering him so he can squat in his apartment.

Based on Huhtikuun tytöt, the 15th book in Reijo Mäki’s Vares series, Girls of April (2011) is an odd choice for adaptation, coming right behind a similar cold-case in the previous instalment, Kiss of Evil. One wonders how problematic a dozen other novels had to have been for this one to get the greenlight. Our hero is so drunk, in fact, that he doesn’t dare get behind the wheel of a car, and travels everywhere either on public transport or in a taxi driven by a part-time stripper. A vital clue is provided for him when his cat goes missing, prompting him to shamble, sozzled, into his next-door neighbour’s storage unit and kick over a box full of 15-year-old photographs. If anyone is more incompetent than Vares, it’s the police, who need him to tip them off that there’s been a murder, and who do not seem to have drawn any of the dots together on the case for the last decade and a half. Vares has stumbled into a complex web of blackmail and double-crossing over high-end prostitutes, and half-heartedly fends off the blunt and clinical advances of one victim’s sister, who has been told by a fortune-teller that he’s going to be the best shag she has that year. Admit it, we’ve all been there.

Screenwriter Katariina Souri (who, as Kata Karkkainen, was also the December 1988 Playboy Playmate of the Month, because this isn’t surreal enough already) takes her hands off the wheel and lets Mäki’s original story carom through its plot. She appears to have been hobbled not only by the original story, but by what is now clearly the restrictions of network television, with several gruesome murders happening off-camera, leaving characters to coyly tiptoe around even their descriptions of what has happened. In one crucial moment, a death is merely hinted at by the sight of a pile of fresh earth, and the viewer has to embark on a detective mission of their own to work out who’s been killed. Meanwhile, elements of what I blush to call magic-realism creep in, with visions in a crystal ball that appear to accurately reflect events going on elsewhere, and Vares himself haunted by sado-masochistic dreams in which the murder victims seemingly try to offer him clues.

Souri, like Mäki himself and every other author working today, must also grapple with the narrative problems introduced by the singularity of social media. Vares is investigating a case from 1995 (1983 in the original novel), at least in part because 21st century metadata would have made it so much easier to crack. My bank statements today will tell you how much I spent on booze last month, where I bought my groceries, and even which cab I took home on Monday. Such an information overload has confronted the world of the crime novelist with a huge crisis; it has ruined half of the plots that used to work, solved a bunch of cases within moments, and forced criminals, police and, indeed, authors to come up with a whole new bunch of ruses, hacks and tricks to carry on their trade. Dating from 2004, the original novel is ironically more recent than the three sources that were adapted into movies before it (1999, 1990 and 1998 respectively), but looks back to the 20th century for its crime and its evidence.

Souri does add one moment of subtle drama, drawing fittingly on the nature of alcoholism, or rather, its absence. A kindly supporting character is revealed to have been a complete bastard 15 years ago – entirely reformed through giving up the bottle, he is something of an object lesson to the other cast members, although the change in him is so complete as to call into question whether he could even be considered to be the same person. One would hope that a female scenarist would find some fun to be had with the outrageously toxic masculinity of the Vares cast, but instead she leaves them to it, perhaps on the understanding that anyone who doesn’t already see these characters as ludicrous failures is probably a lost cause.

In the lead role, Antti Reini remains counter-intuitively charming – there is no evidence in the script that he is anything more than a piss-artist, but he exudes heroic charisma, even when unsteadily toasting his chums in the eighth or ninth bar-room scene of the film, or shooting the shit in his mate’s bookshop. The women in this film, meanwhile, are all crazy bitches, fit to be banged or murdered, or banged then murdered. Much like the growing pile of corpses that turn Inspector Morse‘s Oxford into a comedically unsafe place to live, Vares’ Turku is a veritable minefield if you are a girl in a miniskirt. Even the danger is chauvinist – girls and gays are expendable, but the straight men in Vares’ world live oddly charmed lives. If you’re a good guy, even the criminals sent to beat you up will give you a free pass, and even the murderer you’re chasing will cut you loose if he sees another criminal planning to kill you. Violence is occasionally dealt out to men, but usually by criminals dispensing rough justice to other criminals. Vares’ Turku has to be the cushiest police assignment anywhere; you just sit in the pub all day and wait for one bunch of thugs to murder another. Meanwhile, the blonde at the bar is giving you the eye, and is probably up for it.

The Vares series seems to dwell in a time warp where the latter part of the twentieth century never happened, when men were men and women were grateful. It often seems uncaring or ignorant of the social contract that is to be found even within old-school sexism – call it chauvinism or chivalry, the code implies that the womenfolk within it are protected, but the men of Vares’ world inevitably arrive years too late to save a damsel in distress, although they are available to shag her sister, and/or write a book in which they call her a dyke.

If you asked me to pitch a more “Finnish” crime series, it would be about a tough, female detective in a country run by women for women, more Jane Tennison in a socialist utopia than these losers. Maybe such an idea was itself a structuring influence: the Vares films went into production shortly after the broadcast of Rikospoliisi Maria Kallio, based on Leena Lehtolainen’s novels about just such a heroine. I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of Vares’ appeal for its readers and viewers. Somewhere in Finland there are unreconstructed men who miss the good old days of fags, booze and knee-tremblers behind the kebab shop. And they yearn for simpler times, when women knew their place, which was apparently either bed or a shallow grave.

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

The Hard Cel

Maybe they don’t have anything better to do? When the Japanese government reconvenes in Tokyo, a multi-party group of MPs promises to present a new bill that calls for the establishment of a Media Arts Centre that will preserve the core materials of Japanese animation. It turns out that some people are worried that horrible foreigners are ram-raiding the Japanese arts, carting off truckloads of cels and manga sketches, and depriving the Japanese people of their rightful heritage.

Wait a minute… are these the same anime cels that were previously regarded by the studios as “industrial waste”, impossible to dispose of amid ever-escalating government green initiatives, and on one occasion surreptitiously buried in the back yard of a studio that had no space for them? They’re not even a thing any more, since Japanese animation for the last 20 years has been largely a digital affair, even if it looks like it’s drawn on cels. Why on Earth would Japanese politicians suddenly start agitating about something that they literally couldn’t give away in the past? The first notable exodus abroad being the flogging off of all the Akira materials in one big shipping container, to Streamline Pictures, who handed them out as extras to people who bought the video.

You could, of course, argue that it’s a tardy appreciation of the value of animation cels as art, and as a crucial, ineffable element of Japan’s artistic heritage. For reasons to do with intellectual property law, the cels can’t just be scanned into a computer, so they have to be physically stored somewhere if someone wants to preserve them. But why preserve them at all? Or rather, why now?

Maybe it has something to do with that “Media Arts Centre”, which long-term readers of this column may recall was first mooted during the Taro Aso administration in 2009, as a $120 million white elephant to celebrate all that Cool Japan content we keep hearing about. As I observed all those years ago, it wasn’t all that clear what the Media Arts Centre would actually do; maybe this new initiative is a desperate attempt to give it some purpose as a big… bin… full of the stuff the studios used to throw away, built just around the time that the 1980s animation generation, the last to work with actual cels, are retiring, downsizing, and looking to sell off their archives to the nearest customer.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.

The Almost-King of Finland

Finland needed a ruler. That, at least, was the claim of the monarchist faction in its 1918 parliament, keen to hold off the Swedish aristocracy and Bolshevik agitators, and to establish the newly proclaimed independent country as a European monarchy.

Before claiming independence, Finland had spent a century as a Russian grand duchy, causing the policy wonks of the new state to dig deep into the archives in search of a precedent. They found it in a 1772 statute, back when Finland was still part of Sweden, suggesting that in the case of a monarch not being available, a new one could be elected. Determined not to have a Russian or a Swede in charge, the Finns turned to the Germans, who eventually offered them Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse (1868-1940), the Kaiser’s brother-in-law.

Frederick threw himself into Finnish lessons, which soon turned out to be harder than he was expecting, while the womenfolk of Finland started enthusing about his eldest surviving son, Wolfgang, the Crown Prince. Plans were afoot for the new king to take to his throne late in 1918, as King Karl I of Finland, although republican rumour-mongers started spreading the fake-news version, that he would have the ridiculously old-school name King Väiniö. But it was the republicans who were the problem, refusing to show up for the critical votes in the Finnish parliament that would establish the state as a constitutional monarchy, and bogging the negotiations down.

Prince Frederick Charles was only the nominated “king” for sixty days. By December 1918, Germany had surrendered in the Great War, and other states were refusing to acknowledge Finland except as a republic – they wanted no German princeling raised to power in what used to be part of the Tsar’s empire. Frederick Charles officially gave up his crown on 14th December, before he had even been to Finland, and instead Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was proclaimed the republic’s new regent until a president could be elected.

But there is far more to this footnote of Finnish history than meets the eye. Although on paper it sounds like little more than an exchange of telegrams and some faffing around a possible political appointment, the plan to create a Finnish king was far more involved. At the time Prince Frederick Charles walked away from the idea, Finnish designers were already hard at work on his monograms and his crest, and the uniforms of his honour guard, hand-picked from the ranks of the German-trained Jägers who had fought in the Finnish civil war. The carpets and fixtures for his palace (the former Imperial Palace, now the Presidential Palace) had already been ordered, and artisans from the Stockmann department store in Helsinki were already delivering his sofa.

It’s these elements that lend such weight to the Suomen Kuningas exhibition currently running in Tampere – not merely the story of the king that never was, but the sight of the chairs he had planned to sit on. These cool Deco items were a matter of some controversy – delivered for a kingdom that would not exist, no official of the new republic would pay for them, and Stockmann was obliged to put on a special sale of almost-royal furniture. The curators are to be commended for rounding up some surviving examples in this centenary exhibition, along with the designs for his crown, and his guards’ uniforms, and a snide pop song from the period about the man who would be king.

The almost-King of Finland died in 1940, as the Head of the House of Hesse. Two weeks after his funeral, an envoy arrived from the Finnish embassy in Berlin, and discreetly laid a wreath on his tomb.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. The Suomen Kuningas exhibition runs at the Museo Milavida in Tampere until October.

Kiss of Evil

Private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired to chase up a cold case. The police have given up on the 2009 murder of young Kerttu Malmsten, but her mother Asta (Outi Mäenpää) is prepared to pay thousands of euros if justice can be done. But when a second body is uncovered, seemingly linked to Kerttu, Vares begins to suspect that unless he solves the first two murders, a third might be in the offing.

The third film in the Vares franchise begins with a book launch, as author Luusalmi (Eppu Salminen) finally breaks his ten-year writer’s block. His new novel charts the misadventures of one “Juha Korppi” a tough, unflappable Finnish private eye, inspired by his best friend Vares. In other words, much as Maria Bello in The Mummy 3 shrugged her shoulders and suggested that Rachel Weisz in earlier films was a fictionalised version of her real self, the first two Vares movies have been gently slid out of continuity. As well they might, since not only has Luusalmi been replaced by a new actor, but so has Vares himself. There’s plainly been a lot of water under the bridge in the four years since 2007’s Frozen Angel – enough time has elapsed for Jasper Pääkkönen to be re-cast in an entirely different role. Formerly, he had an unforgettable turn as the sleazy lead singer of a metal band; here he returns as Antidote, a drug addict trying to go straight.

That’s not all that’s changed. The film blows a fair chunk of its budget on a grandstanding aerial shot that sweeps in on Turku from the Baltic Sea, catching it in summer glory and tracking around its cathedral. If the plan was to make Turku look like Miami in the trailers, it was money well spent, but unfortunately for a story in which a major plot point rests on changes in lighting, it’s abundantly obvious that the airborne footage was shot at the height of summer, while the bulk of the action takes place on distinctly greyer days.

New director Anders Engström has plumped for a very different version of Reijo Mäki’s laconic hardman, partly because the plot of Pahan suudelma (1998), the tenth book in the original series, seemed to call for it. Whereas the Vares we first saw in the movies was a man in a vest smacking people with a shovel, Antti Reini sports designer stubble and a carefully crumpled suit. This Vares has had a decade to get used to the modern world, and to adopt modern technology – he takes photos with a mobile phone; he investigates the time-stamps on digital photography, and he hunts his prey using social media. He seems completely at ease in his dealings with the Swedish-surnamed middle classes of Turku, unphased by encounters with ship designers and randy housewives, and far more accommodating to the police, with Inspector Hautavainio (Ilkka Heiskanen) now a cordial ally.

There’s some confusion as to whether this third “film” is a film at all. Despite movie-level production values, it was shot back-to-back with the next four entries in the franchise, and its own distributor’s website divides the cast into “regulars” and “guest stars”. From this point on, some instalments were premiered in cinemas while others went straight to video, with a central cast that would remain static from story to story, while cycling in some big names from Finnish film. In this instalment we have a cameo from Mikko Nousiainen (the best thing in Renny Harlin’s otherwise terrible 5 Days of War) as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who functions as a conduit of criminal goods to the Turku suburbs.

I rather miss the Vares of old. In the title role, new-guy Reini barely sucks down more than a gallon of beer and a couple of fags in the whole film. He carries a book in his jacket pocket and wears glasses to read through documents, as if the original blue-collar hero has been kidnapped by the pod-people of Turku. But there are still flashes of the original’s dark humour and off-hand misogyny – every woman is either desperate to hump him or go shopping for lingerie, and the Finnish underclass and underworld are always just two streets away from whatever gastropub he’s sitting in. Even his part-time chauffeur, taxi-driver Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi) conveniently moonlights as a stripper in order to economise on speaking roles and set up several scenes in a titty bar. But whereas the earlier Vares films were triumphs of low wit, Kiss of Evil heads sadly upmarket, delivering the sort of gumshoe thriller you can see anywhere else on primetime. Pietari Kääpä, in Directory of World Cinema: Finland, suggests that the Vares reboot was a deliberate attempt to muscle in on the Nordic crime market of Wallander and the Millennium series, but if that’s the case, Vares has had to sacrifice much of what made it so scabrously unique.

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


Over on the All the Anime blog, I write an article on Mari Okada’s striking directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, which has its UK premiere in Glasgow this Sunday.

“Okada… seems to regard the political struggles of her world with complete indifference, even though they would surely form the central narrative of such a story if it were directed by a man. She looks for a different kind of hero. Her characters find slavery in victory, and freedom in defeat.”