Wrapped at Christmas

After six weeks of shooting and over 1,500 miles of driving, I’m on my way home having wrapped on season five of Route Awakening for National Geographic, taking in two lost kingdoms, a forgotten emperor, several sets of grave robbers, and your correspondent trying to learn the steps to the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. Yes, I was working on Christmas Day. That’s the way I like it. Look out for more details on the topics of season five coming in spring 2019. Also coming in the New Year, my latest book: A Brief History of China from Tuttle Publishing, which begins with cavemen and ends with reality television.

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The Assessor’s Woman Troubles (1937)

The cantankerous Alfred (Aku Korhonen) loses his long-serving housemaid and makes life hell for her replacement Vieno (Laila Rihte). He writes to his lady friend Matilda (Siiri Angerkoski), newly returned from America, and asks her to take over, but the love-struck Matilda mistakes his invitation for a proposal, and packs for a permanent stay. Misinformed that Matilda has already arrived, Alfred hides out on the night train to Viipuri, arriving to discover that he is penniless, and that he must lean on unexpected friends for assistance.

Based on a play by “Agapetus” (Yrjö Soini), Asessorin naishuolet is a disappointment all round, presented as a box-ticking exercise in formulaic farce with the usual Finnish over-confidence in the comedy value of drunk scenes. From the very first scene, in which he wakes up and demands his newspaper in bed, Alfred is a horrid, tantrum-prone man-child, ranting and raving at the tearful Vieno because she’s put the sugar bowl on the wrong side of the breakfast tray. It makes it hard to care in the least whether he finds the love of a good woman or not, rendering much of the later drama pointless. Seemingly shot on sets for the original play with little more than backdrops to denote changes in scenery between Helsinki, Vaasa and Viipuri, the film is short on location work and offers little to the modern viewer except a glimpse of the tribulations of 1930s maidservants, and of the social atmosphere of pre-war Helsinki, wreathed in cigar smoke. In an unwelcome musical interlude, singer Annikki Arni stages a pitch invasion at a restaurant, where she warbles at resentful patrons who glare at her as if she is holding them hostage.

Ester Toivonen, as ever, reliably easy on the eyes, appears in a half-hearted subplot about a lawyer’s daughter Aino who falls for a painter she sees in the park. The two stories clunkily dovetail in Viipuri, when the painter Veikko (Jorma Nortimo) comes to the rescue of Alfred, thereby winning over his reluctant father-in-law to be. Ilse Erkkilä puts on a memorable turn playing Toivonen’s teenage sister (barely suppressing her excitement at the sight of her sister’s suitor), as does Kaarlo Kartio in a minor role as a shopkeeper, a character actor who has thus far demonstrated the widest range of anyone on Suomen Filmiteollisuus’s books, looking palpably different in every film he is in, but increasingly fading into the background after his leading role in 1935’s Scapegoat. But little can save this tired rehash of formulae already dragged out in several previous works from the same studio.

All is supposedly well that ends well, with Alfred proclaiming his love for the gleeful Matilda, who signifies her cosmopolitan status by cramming English words into every one of her lines, Yes, Yes, Wonderful. Aino gets hitched to Veikko, and the cast presumably celebrates by biting the ends off another set of cigars, since cigar-cutters seem not to have made it to Helsinki yet.

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

One Bad Apple

Anders Gonsalves da Silva lit up the Twittersphere in September with a screed aimed at Apple, accusing them not only of deleting films from his iTunes library without warning, but also offering him nothing but a couple of “rentals” in compensation. The Interweb was soon out in the street with pitchforks and torches, decrying the theft of a consumer’s property.

A few days later, someone pointed out some critical missing information. Da Silva had recently moved house, not just down the road, but from Australia to Canada. He had paid for his videos in Australia, but the sale of an Australian version did not amount to the sale of an identical Canadian version. But it wasn’t until the three films were named – Cars, Cars 2 and Grand Budapest Hotel – that I realised what had happened. Apple did not delete his films. He deleted his right to the versions he had bought, by moving to a territory where they were no longer the same films. They were not actually “identical” at all.

Yes, indeed, we’re back in the world of territorial lockout – familiar to anime fans in days of yore – whereby the tape or disc you buy to watch in one territory is only watchable in that territory, unless you have a special player. The digital version, however, seems a little more complicated.

I can’t speak as to the international variance for Grand Budapest Hotel, but having bought copies of Cars in several different countries, I can see precisely why the film rights would be slightly different. Many Pixar films drop in a little bit of targeted hyper-localisation, effectively turning each territory’s version into a unique work. In the original Cars, for example, Lightning McQueen’s off-screen agent Harv is played by Jeremy Piven in North America, plainly reprising his character as Ari Gold from Entourage. But in the UK release (which is presumably the one released in Australia), Harv’s voice is provided by Top Gear’s producer-punching petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson, struggling a little to be quite as Californian.

As the Internet ire has died down, it seems that da Silva can “easily” access his films again by moving back to Australia, or by convincing Apple that he has done so with the use of a VPN and an Australian home address on his credit card. But since it would be cheaper to just buy them again in Canada, I guess that’s where we are. If he’s just stuck to DVDs, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Before you ask, in the Japanese dub of Cars, Harv is played by the late Tomoyuki Dan, an actor best known in the anime world as Ishikawa in Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, and as the Japanese voice of Ben Stiller.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #182, 2018.

Out of Tune

Music producer Akihiro Tomita has fired a warning shot at anime financers with a comment about the decline of the anime theme song. Speaking at an event in Shinjuku on 9th September, Tomita observed that Netflix’s habit of chopping off the credits was a binge-watcher’s dream, but diminished the relevance of the traditional 90-second opening and ending songs.

Their purpose has been a matter of debate for generations. They used to be handy announcements that your show was starting, reinforcing the ritual of appointment television. But producers fretted that a long theme song might lure trigger-happy channel-hoppers to see what was on the other side. This was particularly an issue in the 1990s American market, where viewers might sit through the theme song to, say, Friends, only to have to then endure another commercial break before the show began. Will & Grace saw its theme tune squashed and occasionally reduced to nothing but a musical sting if the action overran in in an episode. Frasier’s opening was just a few bars on a vibraphone – lasting just seven seconds. Anime themes, however, have remained notably long, turning into a veritable juke box of tie-ins and product placement.

Tomita’s comments quietly assert the bargaining power that Netflix is enjoying behind the scenes. The online behemoth’s ability to call the shots threatens the delicate balance of many an anime production committee, most of which feature a record company among investors. So they’ll chip in 10% of the budget, but they want their new pop idol singing the theme song. And the animators don’t mind, because 90 seconds off the top and tail of every episode means they only have to make those bits once, giving them a week off every season.

Since record companies are still substantial players in the Japanese market, they are liable to want their airtime some other way. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters, for example, on which Tomita was musical director, was made by Polygon Pictures, which is part-owned by King Records. If theme songs phase out, get ready for excuses for musical interludes elsewhere within anime shows, possibly even anime musicals that make watching the songs part of the action, and animators complaining that they have to work even harder to fill up the time. But I, for one, hope the old style of theme tune stays, because I still like that ritual quality. I might even sing along, occasionally with my own made-up lyrics. You should hear me do Evangelion. “Lots of robots / And people in misery / There’s a penguin but please don’t ask me what for…” [That’s enough – Ed.]

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo. This article first appeared in NEO #181, 2018.