Juurakon Hulda (1937)

Lured by tales of bright lights and the big city, country girl Hulda Juurako (Irma Seikkula) comes to Helsinki to make her fortune, but finds herself the object of study in the salon of judge Soratie (Tauno Palo), where girls like her, migrating to urban areas, are regarded as “the pinnacle of social problems.” The outspoken and sharp-witted Hulda bristles at the class divisions of 1930s Helsinki, where servants are not permitted to use the same entrance as their masters, and buries herself in studies in the hope of bettering herself.

She does so, with Pygmalion-like success, despite the patronising attitude of the men around her, and the outright hostility of the women of Helsinki parlour society, who regard her as an upstart hick, devoid of manners or class.

The release of a complete Suomi-Filmi box set late last year, to complement the previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus box already in use, means that this blog can now start interpolating the works of two Finnish film companies from the 1930s, beginning with this, the first of several in which director Valentin Vaala adapted originals by the author Hella Wuolijoki.

This film has had a wild ride in terms of critical reception. It sold a million tickets at the box office in 1937, a tall order in a country with only three million inhabitants, while many of the locations became tourist spots in their own right. Some praised it as a piquant puncturing of bourgeois tastes, while some home-owners forbade their servants from watching it, lest they get dangerous ideas. The film was denigrated during the 1970s, but rediscovered in the 1990s, quite possibly because its approach to upstairs-downstairs interactions, while mansplainy and naïve by today’s standards, was nevertheless fiercely progressive when compared to similar films of its era. Certainly, Seikkula is an actress ahead of her time, boldly claiming her space on the screen, parading around the kitchen with her hands in her pockets and speaking with her mouth full, but most notably giving as good as she gets in fast-paced arguments with the menfolk. The film was remade in Hollywood as The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), for which Loretta Young won an Oscar, and in the 1990s, Kari Uusitalo selected it as one of the Top 100 Finnish films of the twentieth century.

But there’s more, because the class tensions of this film have, deep, deep roots in Finnish identity, back to the Red-versus-White conflict of the Civil War, and even further to the Fennicisation of its upper class in the late 19th century – Mr Soratie, it is revealed, was once the more Swedish-sounding Mr Sanmark, but changed his name along with many other Finns. Author Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954) was a vehement left-winger and Communist sympathiser, and long suspected by the Finnish police of being a Russian sleeper agent. She would, eventually, be arrested for harbouring a Soviet spy in 1943, and sentenced to life imprisonment, although she only served a few months before her release, and soon after becoming a politician in the Finnish People’s Democratic League, a king-making left-wing alliance in post-war politics.

All of which seems a world away from a spunky country girl, singing to herself as she washes the windows while perched precariously on a sixth-floor balcony, but let’s not forget that in the same year, the rival company Suomen Filmiteollisuus released The Assessor’s Woman Troubles, supposedly a light-hearted comedy, promoted with a shot of Aku Korhonen literally raising his fists to a cowering Laila Rihte. Hulda is a creature from a different dimension, who believes that a simple education will turn her into a better person, ready to stand up to the braying ninnies in the parlour who think that they are smarter than her because their husband bought them a nice necklace. She is shown climbing the steps of the polytechnic in a seasonal montage, inadvertently foreshadowing a similar march of progress in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex (2018). She is in fact, the first of several powerful women to appear in screen adaptations of Wuolijoki’s books plays, although the following year’s The Women of Niskavuori (1938) would not have quite such a happy ending.

[The DVD of this film also came with a seven-minute documentary Vaala’s Film Rolls, about the work of the director Valentin Vaala.]

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

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Animated Encounters

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Daisy Yan Du’s new book about the inspiration and influences of Chinese animated films, which includes substantial detail on cross-pollination with Japan.

“Du’s concentration on Chinese animation in an international context is a rewarding account not only of films released, but of unexpected influences and projects that never happened. She regards the Wan brothers’ Princess Iron Fan (1943), for example, as’“far more influential in wartime Japan than in wartime China,’ but also reports that when Japanese animators came to Shanghai in 1988 looking for subcontractors on the Saiyuki TV anime, the Shanghai Animation Studio refused to work on it, because the Japanese version of the legend of the Monkey King deviated too far from acceptable norms.”

Money for Nothing

Hayao Miyazaki’s fluffy forest spirit Totoro has been around in China for thirty years, sneaking in through Taiwanese or Hong Kong DVDs, or stowing away in kids’ luggage on return trips from Japan. But his first official cinema outing in the People’s Republic did not come about until December 2018, when he suddenly burst out on 3,000 screens.

Interpreting the numbers, Totoro had a fantastic opening weekend, making $12.9 million and beaten only by Aquaman. But by the end of its second week in Chinese cinemas, its takings had slumped 75%. I’m writing this article on New Year’s Eve 2018, as Totoro’s total Chinese box office takings edge over the $20 million mark.

You might not think that $20 million is a lot of money, especially considering that half of that money stays with the Chinese distributors and exhibitors, and fair old chunk probably went on marketing. But Studio Ghibli certainly hasn’t lost any money by belatedly releasing its much-loved classic in China. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Totoro only made $5 million on its original Japanese release, and that was on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Thirty years on, this is money for nothing. The Chinese box office last month counts for 80% of Totoro’s global lifetime theatrical takings!

But as long-time readers will know, movie accounting is often not about those numbers at all. It’s about a bunch of other issues, including the fact that the Japanese 2012 Blu-ray of Totoro created an all-new, cleaned-up pin-sharp copy of the film, ready for duplicating on 3,000 hard-drives to open on 3,000 Chinese screens. It’s about the fact that, unlike creaky old TV shows or low-budget video fare, movies have a much longer shelf-life, and a period piece like Totoro, with a rural setting and a feel-good tone, seems tailor-made for the Chinese provinces.

Meanwhile, with the suspension of the One-Child Policy, there are suddenly twice as many Chinese children to form a market. Children’s entertainment, along with clothing and toys, is a surging new growth area in modern China. Even considering the vast piracy of Ghibli products over the last few years – and I have never seen a Chinese video pirate who isn’t selling Totoro, usually a knock-off of the Taiwanese dub – there’s a whole new generation of Chinese kids who have never seen it, who now get to see it in cinemas, ahead of a roll-out of other Ghibli products. And is someone eyeing up the blueprints for Japan’s new Ghibli theme park, and wondering if they could transplant something similar to Shanghai Disneyland…?

[Since this article was published, the Chinese box office takings for Totoro climbed to $25.75 million]

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.

Top Men

At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was assured that his priceless, powerful archaeological find was being looked after by ‘Top Men’. But as the credits began to roll, we saw it nailed into a crate, dumped in a giant warehouse full of similar boxes, forgotten and abandoned. The image was Lucas and Spielberg’s homage to Orson Welles, a little piece of Citizen Kane recycled for a modern audience. But in Japan, Hiroshi Takashige asked himself: what was in all those other crates? And more importantly, who were these Top Men?

In collusion with artist Ryoji Minagawa, he decided that they were a secret, self-sustaining unit within the Pentagon, tasked with nabbing any weird and wonderful artefacts that come to light, many of which had been left behind by an ancient, highly-advanced civilisation. They began work on the comic project that would become Spriggan, only to find themselves influenced by real-world events.

They were writing at the time of the First Gulf War; a very difficult prospect for the Japanese. A nation, supposedly sworn to avoid violence and military aggression, was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch while the rest of the world got involved in a conflict about resources in the Middle East, the cradle of civilisation, resources that Japan itself needed as desperately as everyone else. It resulted in such tales as the desert robot combat anime Gasaraki, and in an interest, partly fuelled by The X Files, in presenting the Pentagon as the bad guy.

There is more than one agency searching for these artefacts. The Pentagon competes with the KGB, and both are in opposition to ARCAM, a global corporation that wants the artefacts for itself. Its crack, super-powered agents are spies-cum-archaeologists named after ancient Celtic temple guardians, the Spriggan.

Minagawa and Takashige initially wanted to feature an adult agent, but ended up selling their concept to an anthology magazine aimed at boys. Consequently, they moved their original lead into the background, and concentrated on his teenage nephew, Yu Ominae.

Rights for a movie adaptation were soon sold, and Spriggan went into production as an anime. The film-makers plumped for a script that emphasised the Indiana Jones parallels, chasing after a different Ark (Noah’s, in this case) at Mount Ararat, with cyborg Pentagon agents roughing it up with the ARCAM Spriggans in an action-packed thriller.

As Ominae, producers cast Shotaro Morikubo, better known in Japan as the movie-dub voice of Johnny Depp. Originally intended to go straight to video, the budget received a massive injection of cash, sufficient for a movie, when Katsuhiro Otomo announced he would be ‘involved.’ Akira creator Otomo was supposed to be working on his own project, the long-delayed Steam Boy, but fancied Spriggan as a kind of busman’s holiday. In fact, he is rumoured to have been the director in all but name; his fingerprints are all over Spriggan, in the design of the space-faring Noah’s Ark that the agents unearth, in the blue-skinned Pentagon child-telepath General MacDougall, and in the large amount of night-time shooting – an expensive luxury in animation that relies so heavily on light coming through the cels, but one that Otomo often enjoyed for the artistic hell of it. The credited director, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, has not had another movie to his name since, only emphasising the impression that Otomo’s more nebulous title of ‘General Superviser’ may have been adopted for contractual reasons. But for those in the know, there was no mistaking who the Top Man on the Spriggan production really was.

This article first appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine #236, 2005, and was subsequently reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. A new adaptation of Spriggan has just been announced, forthcoming from Netflix.

Law & Justice

In case you missed it up on the All the Anime blog, my review of the academic collection Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture: From Crime-Fighting Robots to Duelling Pocket Monsters.

Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture is packed with interesting concepts and articles. It will prove particularly useful as a wildcard for the savvy college tutor – something to throw into the reading list in order to engage with young students about the implications of Pokémon fights or the way that the best sci-fi anime can suggest new and prickly areas of legal dispute. It also offers valuable details on some of the peculiarities of the real-world Japanese legal system, as seen through the way they influence the plots of thrillers, and even the assumptions that fictional characters make about the nature of right and wrong.”

Gods of Egypt

There were times, at Akhnaten, when I wondered what everybody else in the audience made of a man in fake boobs and jodhpurs, repeatedly shouting “Haaaaa!” while a dozen jugglers threw balls around him, but hopefully they already knew enough of the story to follow what was going on. That strangest of incidents in the mists of history, an Egyptian pharoah suddenly proclaiming there was only one God, smashing the old order and writing a hymn to the Sun.

There were wonderful moments — the priests clad like doctors, huddled in the shadows around the mummified Amenhotep III as they prepare him for his funeral, lights shining from their heads; Queen Tye in permanent shock, her hands red with blood from holding Amenhotep’s heart, staring in mute horror at the sky as if hoping to catch a glimpse at his departing soul; the constant presence of the Scribe, creator and curator of what little we know, his body often held in a rictus of despair. And a libretto drawn, like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, from fragments of found material — the Hymn to the Aten and a letter from a troubled general, asking for military assistance, from which an entire reign has somehow been extrapolated.

My mind wandered, as I suspect it was supposed to, to other things. As I watched Akhnaten’s six daughters, their matted hair entangled like rat-tails, dragged away in slow motion, I wondered if Philip Glass would ever consider a sequel about Ankhesanamun, Akhnaten’s daughter, wife and daughter-in-law, married to the boy pharoah Tutankhamun, and author of the melancholy letter sent to the Hittites: “My husband is dead and I have no son…. I am afraid.” As Akhnaten and Nefertiti advance slowly across the stage towards each other to share a kiss, their long crimson silk trains entwine, recalling Chie Shinohara’s Red River, a story which does indeed include the story of Ankhesanamun’s letter arriving in Anatolia, and the failed mission to send her a prince as a husband.

The animal-headed gods on the rooftop transform into a class of idle students, misbehaving while a tweeded academic bumbles his way through a tourist guide to a desert ruin where there is almost nothing to see, and offers handy tips for the ferry. One student tries, and fails to juggle with balls of paper, a faint mockery of the constant juggling throughout that has been symbolic of the rise and fall of the sun disc. Akhnaten himself is redressed, as if for his coronation, but now he is a figure in a museum… and then he comes to life once more, wordlessly comiserating with the ghosts of Nefertiti and Tye at the ruin of their world, as a river of time washes past them.

Akhnaten is playing at the Coliseum in London until 7th March.