From Truant to Anime

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Mari Okada’s memoir of dismal schooldays and her escape to the not-that-glamorous world of anime screenwriting.

“Mari Okada’s memoir of two decades in the anime business begins and ends with the disastrous premiere screening of Anthem of the Heart in her hometown of Chichibu – a huge event in the middle of nowhere, inconvenient for all attendees, with a film that stops playing halfway. As the screenwriter, she fumes impotently as the patrons wait and flunkies try to look busy, and watches with head-shaking resignation as the celebratory fireworks, timed to coincide with the end of the film, are launched too early while the audience is still waiting for it to restart.

“From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart is her account of how she got to that place, as the writer of a standalone film. Her writing is distinguished by a constant resistance to the performativity of Japanese life, refusing to play the game of empty accolades and fake-news proclamations that all is well. Instead, she presents a compelling portrayal of a life (and industry) that constantly ‘fails up’, until she becomes one of modern anime’s rare hyphenate talents.”

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Tango of Darkness

At least, for once, we aren’t looking for someone who’s killed a girl. The six-year-old cold case Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) rakes over in Tango of Darkness (2012) is the murder of crooner Harry Koivikko (Jani Muurinen), found on the floor of a seedy flophouse in Turku. Like the partitive grammar case that fixes Finnish nouns if no other declension is available, Vares shambles through this movie picking up other people’s mess. His drinking buddy, journalist Ruuhio (Jussi Lempilampi) has already solved the mystery, but has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Vares must solve the case again in order to find out what has happened to Ruuhio, turning even the drama in this film into a case of reheated leftovers. Meanwhile, hard-man Veikko Hopea (Jussi Lampi), last seen locked in a fridge in Frozen Angel (2007) gets out of prison. “Hmm,” I said to the sofa, “I wonder if we’re going to watch him travel across Finland at occasional intervals throughout the film, only to arrive in the nick of time to save Vares from a bunch of other criminals?” No spoilers; I’ll let you guess. He also orders a room-service haircut from a Russian hooker called Olga, and then inveigles her into a blowjob, so… you know, that’s a bit of comedy business.

The film permits a brief glimpse into Finland’s tango culture, an odd relic of fifties nightclubs and dance-hall customs that continues to flourish in the domestic music scene. It does, indeed, launch a number of local pop stars, including Jari Sillänpää, a man with whose work I have become familiar with over the years because I am often mistaken for him by drunken Finnish cougars. The Finnish tango scene is big enough to support a number of artistes touring small-town venues with CDs in boxes, as long as they keep more or less to a repertoire that neither scares off the young nor annoys the old. Their lives, loves and scandals also seem to form the main material for the blue-collar press whenever a week goes by in which a ski-jumper hasn’t beaten his wife. Ballroom dancing’s enduring popularity, even in the 21st century, is a quaintly unifying element of Finnish life, responsible for, among other things, a bunch of guaranteed cross-generational floor-fillers at Finnish parties, as well as a talent show on Finnish television that I call Pixie Ballgown Accordion Smackdown. The quintessential Finnish dance-hall classic is “Satumaa” (The Fabled Land) written by Unto Mononen in 1955 and most famously sung by Reijo Tapale in 1962. It’s become a doleful staple of the male tango singers, and is a lament for a fairytale paradise forever beyond a man’s reach. At Kalevalanmaa, the centenary celebration of Finnishness put on by the Finnish National Opera in 2017, a performance of “Satumaa”, set at a country dance, was the cue for an audience singalong. In this film, it also lends its name to the hostel where Koivikko’s body was found, which has become a place of pilgrimage for his female fans.

The book on which this film is based, Pimeyden tango (1997) was published the year before the novel that was previously adapted into Kiss of Evil. In other words, beneath the skin, we are still dealing with a younger author writing a younger Vares, seemingly the sub-set of stories in which his job is to saunter in years after the police have given up, and inadvertently tie together the vital loose strands. Sometimes, as here, this is simply by presenting himself as bait to lure the criminals out of hiding, like a beer-soaked, gumshoe Christ. True to Reijo Mäki’s original novels, Vares is not present in several scenes in which motivations are explained and seemingly random deus ex machina events are set up. We, the viewers, know why certain events occur, but he presumably wanders off simply baffled by what has just happened to him.

As for the regulars, the biggest continuity change comes in the form of Vares’ neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), a sometime stripper and formerly his driver of choice, who is now apparently in a relationship with Ruuhio the journalist. Vares tools around town in another Volvo, suspiciously like the one that got blown up in Garter Snake (2011). “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if this Volvo will meet a similarly explosive fate.” No spoilers, right? Vares is tracking the supposedly unfaithful wife of a local businessman, unaware that his client is a nutjob liable to want him dead if he doesn’t deliver the right evidence. “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if the client will try to have him killed, but accidentally kill someone else who has just killed another person who was going to kill Vares?” Perhaps I am getting a feel for the way that plots work in the Vares films, but if so, I have miscalculated the degree of screwing that goes on in this one, with Vares failing to bed absolutely anyone on camera. He does spend a while flirting with the sassy back-up singer Donna (Lolla Wallinkoski), a woman whose sole job in this movie is to convincingly hold a tune, at which she spectacularly fails. “Do you want to hear my new single?” she says to Vares as they drive along in his doomed Volvo, before turning on the stereo and subjecting us all to a caterwauling crime against music. She’s the 1997 Miss Scandinavia, although Finland isn’t in Scandinavia, so your guess is as good as mine how that happened.

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

Solo

Budgets were cut back for the tail-end of the Dredd audios. In order to have full casts in some of the other episodes, Big Finish asked me how small I could go. I wrote Pre-Emptive Revenge for just three actors, but there had always been a running gag that Toby Longworth could do all the voices himself… and then the director John Ainsworth said: well, why not? So I wrote Solo, in which Toby plays literally every part, and that freed up a couple of actors to bulk out the casts on someone else’s script.

It began as a pastiche of Chinatown, but then I was inspired by a powerful image in the Korean movie Joint Security Area (a body lying on the border, since ripped off by The Bridge and The Tunnel), and something I read in a book called Rattling the Cage, about the case for animal rights. The rest just happened… It’s really Toby’s masterpiece, right down to the moment when the Solo tries to cross the border towards the end, and I wrote the direction: “Solo replies, with the voice of Toby Longworth.” That’s the only time you’ll ever hear him out of character… or characters…

Ignoring Anime

Eiga Geijutsu (Film Arts) magazine is not afraid to call a spade a spade, infamously publishing both a Ten Best and Ten Worst list each year about Japanese movie releases. But in this year’s round-up of the highs and lows of 2017, editor Haruhiko Arai has refused to consider animated works.

The films that have particularly irritated him will be familiar to many readers of NEO magazine. One is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which prompted Arai to ponder at a screening whether the enthusiastic movie-goers enjoying themselves around him had seen any other films recently.

Well, no they hadn’t. The huge box office figures for Your Name imply that many people who went to see it were either coming back for seconds or had not been to a cinema for a while. But how on Earth is that a reason to exclude it from consideration? It is surely an indication that Arai’s movie ratings are ignoring the opinions of the public. I, myself, make a living out of ignoring the opinions of the public, but Arai has not even afforded Your Name the backhanded compliment of calling it crap. He just stuck his head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t there.

Ignoring things, says Arai, is part of the problem with modern anime. He is disgusted by Your Name’s uplifting spin on tragedy, and regards it as a betrayal of history. He feels much the same way about In This Corner of the World, for presenting a childish innocent as a victim of war.

His reasoning is unexpectedly sound – frankly, it’s thought-provoking criticism. Your Name does indeed flaunt bad-taste brinkmanship by offering a reset button on an allegorical Tohoku earthquake – part of Shinkai’s incredible achievement lies in getting away with it. And ITCOW does rehash that old anime staple that regards WW2 as some sort of inevitable natural disaster visited upon the unsuspecting Japanese. But neither comment justifies pretending that the entire animated medium isn’t there anymore! In discounting two of the best anime of 2017 on spurious ideological grounds, Arai risks consigning his own magazine to the doldrums of film criticism. Instead, he argues that anime viewers are somehow cine-illiterate, unaware of trends and tropes in film itself, dumbly consuming pointless pap without any understanding of film as a medium. So I guess that tells us all where Miyazaki can shove his Oscar.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #175, 2018.

Gambling Chip

There were moments in Lauri Törhönen’s film Gambling Chip (2012) where I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on. Luckily, neither did our leading man, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini), much of whose relationship with this instalment’s guest star is glossed over in a massive alcoholic blackout. Down on his luck and running low on cash, Vares is rude to a pretty woman who takes too long at a cash machine. Feeling guilty, and quite possibly motivated by her sports car and evident wealth, he uses his private eye skills to track her down and… nope. Blackout. He wakes up the next morning on her sofa, all records of their conversation erased from his mind and from the film.

That’s okay, Sole (Maria Haapkylä) is a bit weird, and wants to bang him now, and before you can shake yourself awake, they’ve become a couple. Vares starts showing up to the pub in a clean shirt, and his drunken buddies scoff that he’s become little more than a gigolo. But this is a Vares film, so something is bound to go wrong. Sole disappears for three days and turns up dead in the forest, leaving Vares as one of the prime suspects in her murder, and honour-bound to find her killer.

Uhkapelimerkki (2007) was one of the more recent Vares novels, in which our hero is less of a bar-room bruiser, and more of a lothario with a laptop. But our hero remains dwarfed by the big picture, as he so often is, stumbling seemingly by accident on the big financial scandal that lurks behind the case he thinks he is chasing. As ever in Vares stories, the main death either goes unsolved or is closed with a huge fatberg of reasonable doubt; a bunch of secondary murders are sort-of explained, but only in passing, a much tougher deus ex machina super-criminal visits rough justice on the small fry, while the white-collar kingpin behind it all seems to get away scot-free. In this case it’s Natunen (Kaarina Hazard) a sinister woman with her own cat-food canning plant, who’s been running an insider-trading scam using the names of people at an old people’s home.

As for the titular gambling chip, it’s a distracting affectation for a supposedly professional hitman, who spends so much time fiddling with it, you wonder if he has time to set the scopes on his sniper rifle. Finnish reviews for this entry in the franchise were particularly damning, possibly because Maria Haapkylä, star of the Maria Kallio police series and hence something of an antithesis to Vares in Finnish media, is pretty much wasted as Sole, a mentally-troubled heiress who may have initiated a whole chain of strikes and counter-strikes in the Finnish underworld out of a fit of man-hating spite. But the critical reaction may also stem from the lost possibilities that Mika Karttunen’s script seems to side-step, including Vares as a police suspect, the possible involvement of one of his old colleagues in some of the subsidiary crimes, and a bizarre sub-plot about the victim’s brother falling in love with cougar barmaid. Vares is something of a bystander for much of the film – his sole contribution to the action for almost half of it is simply being the victim’s boyfriend. He does, eventually, put some crucial clues together, but as in several other Vares films, ends up as little more than a witness to two criminal factions as they follow their own protocols of vengeance.

Perhaps the novel was similarly confused. Its original publication followed the entirely unexpected Vares story, the near-future sci-fi elegy Hard Luck Café (2006) which leapt a generation into the future to a Finland wracked by global warming and overrun with refugees. But such excitements were discounted once more, written off like a bad dream as we returned to Vares’ low-level sleuthing in this story — perhaps our hero has suffered more than one catastrophic blackout, and I will have more to say about this as we continue our Vares movie watchathon. There is, it seems, no career path for our hero. He remains trapped in the wainscots between middle-class Turku and his drinking buddies on the wrong side of the tracks. He never quite makes enough money to get an office, or an actual assistant. Success always eludes him; he’s always back where he started, getting hammered in the same pub, where the real-life owner, Tapio Korpela, has gradually insinuated himself into the action in ever larger walk-on roles, playing himself, here lurking uneasily at the edge of several scenes in a T-shirt that advertises Kukko lager, carrying a tray unconvincingly or making a meal out of operating a television.

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

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2018

All aboard, bonsoir et boa noite, beautiful creatures, for the 2018 Eurovision Shouty I-Spy, coming to you this Saturday from Lisbon, where the organisers have had A YEAR to write jokes that are funny, and make travelogue inserts that don’t make their country look like a school trip to the cork factory. Sadly, this year at the semi-finals we’ve already lost Switzerland’s slutty White Stripes take-off, and the attempt by Belarus to introduce the new sport of rose archery, but there is still plenty of mentalism for the Eurovision-lover or Eurovision-hater to get into. Finland’s gone a little bit Third Reich, Italy’s sent Scott Pilgrim and a man with a sore throat, and Portugal are trying too hard not to win again. But it’s been officially declared too gay for the Chinese, so well done, everybody.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights will be seen during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you see them first? Remember to shout it out. Party hosts will need to keep score of who gets what first, or otherwise dish out the forfeits to those that aren’t quick enough. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage, but this year you have to be quick to catch the subtlest of bimbles. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT!

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should look out for:

Plays imaginary musical instrument
The Croydon Facelift Backing Dancers
Dracula's piano coffin
Fake snow
Man wearing a leopard
Half Woman, Half Mountain!
Einstein a go-go! Mad scientist plays the flute.
Mismatched eyes
SHOW A LEG! (single leg poking out of costume)
Jacket thrown into audience
Crowd-surfing guitarist
Lyrics: "I'm taking my Pikachu home."
Staircase on fire
It's the chest slapping dance
Man with a backpack
Country and western body popping
Croydon Facelifters again + Pound-Shop Beyonce
Barefoot singer
Lyrics: "Pam pam pa hoo, Turram pam pa hoo"
Spinning wheel of death
Creepy rentboy threatens to "dance you off"
The wigglebum dance trio
MAN-BUN!
Hands make a heart (on or off-stage)
Lyrics: "bop-whop-a-lu bop on his wood bamboo"
Girl impersonates chicken
Shell Suit!
Samurai shoulderpads
Lyrics: "Scoo-bee-doo-bee bap bap"
Tuck your shirt in!
WINKING
Did she just say "MadaBaka", or...?
Waving the white flag
COSTUME CHANGE
Trust fall (I hope they catch her)
Lyrics: "Na na na na na na ne"
KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
Throwing imaginary objects into the audience
The music stops! Was that planned?
Tormund Giantsbane singing about peace and love
Bimbling*
ORBITAL CLEAVAGE**
Buddha Jazz Hands***
FLAME ON! (every time there's pyrotechnics)

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion)(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup)

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)

BONUS SCORING

Cyprus gives Greece 12 points Greece gives Cyprus 12 points
Finland gives Sweden 12 points
Chicken impersonation from foreign judge.
Eastern European delegate makes ominous comment about friendship
CLANG! Portuguese host is as funny as a road accident.

Apologies to American readers, who will have to just imagine what the world’s biggest, gayest song contest is like. Just imagine, for one day every year, Europe gets to behave the way that Japan does all the time.

Gold Remi

Season three of National Geographic’s Route Awakening, in which I wander some of the ethnic minority communities of modern China, has just snagged the Gold Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival for “TV: Information, Cultural or Historical.” You can see the trailer here. Seasons one and two won the same award in 2016 and 2017.