Japanese Media Cultures

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review the new collection Japanese Media Cultures in Japan and Abroad — it’s often highly technical, but all the more valuable because it doesn’t demand that you take out a bank loan before accessing it.

Pricing in academic publishing is often a contentious issue in my book reviews. I don’t mind paying £80 for a book, but if I do, it had better be worth it, and if it’s not, I will say so. There are those who take me to task for “forgetting” that academic books are usually bought by libraries rather than members of the public. But libraries have limited funds, too, and librarians could do with fuller and franker appraisals of the books they spend their money on. So you can wait a year or more and wriggle behind an academic paywall to read a journal review of the books I cover. Or you can read what I say about them right now. Or, you know, both, because I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m just a guy who can look over the fence.

The Culprits? (1938)

In an unnamed coastal town, college lecturer Aare (Joel Rinne) is sweet on haberdashery assistant Emmi (Kaisu Leppänen), walking the street hand-in-hand, and taking bracing hikes in the woods. You might be forgiven for thinking that you had already walked in on a happy ending, but the townsfolk do not agree. Already in the opening scene, a passer-by scowls at the backs of the loving couple. Aare’s boss at the college hems and haws about “suitable companions”, and the women at a swish dinner party are aggressively flirtatious with a man who is supposedly spoken for, as if they regard him as their rightful property and his paramour as a risible diversion.

Aare has broken the rules, falling in love with a woman on the other side of the class divide, although as with the earlier The House at Roinila (1935), the nuances in behaviour and language are difficult for a foreigner to spot. Much of the storytelling is conveyed by the sets, contrasting the well-appointed society lounges of Aare’s circle with the grim, rooming-house clutter of the bedsit Emmi shares with her time-worn family, including brother Erkki (Eino Kaipianen).

The script for Syllisiäkö? is based on a 1933 play by Toivo Pekkanen, written and directed for the screen by former actor Jorma Nortimo, who makes a notable effort to push into the action, not only with the commonplace and distracting close-ups of his fellow Finnish directors, but with more intimate, over-the-shoulder angles, rather than a locked-off camera recording a play like so many Finnish films of the preceding decade. Although often defeated by the distractingly inexact jiggles of his focus-puller, Nortimo tries for literal kitchen-sink drama, contrasting Erkki scrubbing his face at a basin with Aare relaxing in an honest-to-goodness bath – more of a rarity in Finnish homes, which even today are more likely to use the same household space for a sauna.

The storyline’s 1933 origins are betrayed in part by some odd staging in a bar that suggests that Pekkanen’s original made more of flaunting the rules during Prohibition, although much of the scandal is diminished in a film version made six years after booze was legalised in Finland. In fact, since a fight at a drunken dance is what precipitates Aare’s fall from grace, we might argue that the entire drama somewhat misfires when restaged in an era when being drunk is no longer a crime. The preoccupations of the previous decade are also suggested when, 25 minutes into the film, Emmi suddenly starts singing to her mirror about her predicament, as if this were supposed to be a musical but someone had lost the memo until that moment. Kaarlo Kartio, as usual, criminally underused, turns up in a brief cameo as a shifty sailor selling stolen goods, another allusion that seems more suited to post-war 1920s austerity than the time in which the film is purportedly set.

“He’s a young man, and she’s a nice girl,” shrugs a gentleman at the ball-room, as if to ask if his dining companions if it’s really any of their business. In this case, it’s the womenfolk who tut and scowl about Emmi, although soon after, Emmi is harassed by men who presume she’s a part-time hooker. Putting a brave face on the trouble, she drags Aare away from the waltz to a working-class knees-up, only for the locals to similarly hiss behind their hands about her inappropriate choices.

The Culprits? is a departure from the Suomen Filmiteollisuus company’s contemporary run of a light-hearted comedies, pushing instead for an element of social realism and chin-stroking speculation. Its question mark is an integral part of the title and the poster design, challenging the audience to consider who is truly to blame for the drama that unfolds. Is it the snooty Finnish middle class, themselves unlikely to be more than a generation off the farms, or the sneering shop-girl frenemies who imply that Emmi has ideas above her station? Or is it the lovers themselves, pursuing a doomed romance despite “obvious” warning signs? Pekkanen’s original theatre script was called Siblings, suggesting a focus more on Emmi’s pugnacious brother Erkki (Eino Karpanen), whose confrontation with Aare at a dance makes it into the local newspaper, and takes the scandal public.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of noteworthy names among the faceless students in Aare’s class – a first appearance on camera for future film star Hannes Häyrinen, and a walk-on for Unto Kumpulainen, then a teenage camera assistant, but destined to become a cinematographer himself in years to come.

The Culprits? is a refreshing change from the norm in the chronology of Finnish cinema. Nortimo’s pursuit of realism is also a welcome innovation, not merely in his camerawork but in the presentation of a conflict that is relatively mundane and hence easy to identify with. That is, at least, until the final 20 minutes, when everybody starts to act as if another forgotten memo has been retrieved, telling them that everything is the end of the world, and nothing will ever be the same again, and the likelihood swiftly escalates that someone is going to get stabbed.

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

Women’s Manga etc.

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Women’s Manga in Asia and Beyond, a collection of academic essays that somehow manages to be less than the some of its parts, not through any fault of the contributors, but seemingly due to an editorial policy that refuses to acknowledge nuances in translation.

“The elision of the words manga and comics is commonplace in Japan, where the language doesn’t really distinguish between them, but definition is vital in English if Anglophone research is going to have any value. As noted by Casey Brienza in Manga in America, there are all sorts of devious applications and contractual loopholes available to someone prepared to agree that “manga can come from anywhere,” but I expect a good deal more rigour in the wording employed by academia. Otherwise, what is it for?”

The Bells of Old Tokyo

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Anna Sherman’s book The Bells of Old Tokyo.

“Sherman’s investigation throws in all number of intriguing asides – not merely her red-herring quest to locate forgotten bronzes, but the many places in which the story of time crosses over with Tokyo life. There’s that little ‘xylophone lullaby’ that chimes every now and then, a familiar sound to anyone in the Tokyo streets, but also revealed here as a test for the city’s emergency broadcast system. There’s the business of the Japanese calendar, which changes its name and numbering with each imperial reign. And there’s the grass-roots resistance to foreign ideas, like Summer Time, which was imposed by the US Occupation forces and led to street protests.”

Bitter First, Sweet Later

Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.

Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.

This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.

She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.

Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.

By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chop Suey Nation is published in the UK on 26th September.  

Mutant Mash-Up

To Ibaraki, where a man has been arrested for selling customised dolls. The unnamed criminal, 39, had modified anime character goods, committing such heinous acts as removing the head of a Love Live doll, and sticking it onto the body of a Girls und Panzer character, before selling the mutant result online for up to £100.

Ibaraki police bragged that they uncovered the crime during a “cyber patrol” last autumn – I imagine because that sounds cooler than admitting someone in the office was Googling teeny-bop merchandise. The cops swept down on his home, confiscated a thousand dolls, and commenced a proctologically unpleasant audit of the suspect’s bank records. This produced evidence of £58,000 in “suspicious” payments over the last three years, suggesting that he had been running his cottage industry for some time.

If you’re wondering why this is a problem, you would not be the first. Is it not a consumer’s right to do whatever they want with the merchandise they own? Toy Story’s neighbourhood bully, Sid Phillips, might have been presented as a bad guy, but when he modded his toys, he wasn’t actually breaking the law… right?

Many countries have a “first-sale doctrine” that allows consumers to do whatever they want with the products they buy. You can tinker with your Blu-ray player, although that might invalidate your warranty. You can write the name of your favourite pop star on your pencil case. You can even, should you desire, put Hitler moustaches and cat ears on all the writers’ pictures on the NEO contributors’ page (please don’t do this). This is true over most of the planet… but in Japan, trademark owners enjoy more leeway in enforcing how their products are resold. A fan in his bedroom is free to sell a doll to someone else, but not to take money for modifying it in such a way as to potentially tarnish the intellectual property. The anime companies charge a lot of money for the licences to sell merchandise, and, on paper at least, selling a Love Live und Panzer mash-up would require a double licence, and double approvals from the makers. Fortunately, the lawmen of Ibaraki are on hand to stop such sordid perversions, and hopefully have also found the time to catch murderers and stuff.

This article first appeared in NEO #187, 2019. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.

Makoto Ogino (1959-2019)

In case you missed it, my obituary of Makoto Ogino over at All the Anime.

“Late in life, he finally seemed to find a happy groove with Oboko (2003), the tale of a plucky girl who inherits her father’s fishing boat, and finds herself renting it out to a handsome schoolteacher with a vocation for environmental activism. In one of the cruellest twists of fate, editors at the recession-hit Business Jump told him that new policies found it to not have enough sex and violence for their readership.”