The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938)

New recruit Hemminki Aaltonen (Kaarlo Angerkoski) over-sleeps at reveille, he is late for drills, and he brings up the rear on speed-marches, complaining about his rheumatism. During training at a forest camp, he takes the delicate academic Lauri Auermaa (Leo Lähteenmäki) under his wing, inadvertently blundering into a burgeoning romance between the soft-spoken professor and the Captain’s daughter Elli (Ansa Ikonen).

Rykmentin Murhenkryyni (1938) began as a 1933 stage play by “Topias” (Toivo Kauttanen) but benefits greatly in cinema form from its real-world location work, affording valuable glimpses of the men and materiel of the Finnish army just before the outbreak of the Winter War. Most striking for me is the degree to which horses still form the engine of the army, with nary a tank or armoured car in sight. This is certainly a military tale as told by a generation that hasn’t seen any real conflict. The sergeant major who turfs the young recruits out of their bunks is ridiculously nice and soft-spoken, while the drill sergeant who berates Aaltonen for being late is a cartoonish caricature; this is more Stripes than Full Metal Jacket.

A cynic might suggest that this is all part of the plan in increasingly tense times, softening the image of military service until it looks less like a dangerous job, and more like a summer camp with some outdoor sports, a bit of marching and some hearty grub. These are not the men that, barely a year later, would be slitting the throats of Russians in their sleep, and dynamiting icy lakes to drown tank divisions. Instead they are friendly guardsmen standing behind rickety barriers and indulging in gentle banter with passing carters, while the daffy cadet Auermaa prances around the parade ground with a butterfly net, and asked if he can have a spin on a cavalry horse. With that in mind, remarkably little happens in the film, with the plot often playing second fiddle to prolonged scenes of marching, swimming, training and goofing off – not since Our Boys in the Air (1934) has the Suomen Filmiteollisuus company spent quite so much time poking around the everyday life of military personnel.

Despite being a comedy, this is the first time that Suomen Filmiteollisuus has had to face issues common to dramatic war films, too – once they’re in uniform, all the men look the bloody same. Unless some is shouting or malingering, it’s often difficult to work out which of the bumbling soldiers is which. Aku Korhonen, his head shaven like a billiard ball, is all but unrecognisable as Captain Routanen, and I wasted a whole minute trying to remember which soldier was the one in glasses in the mess hall, until I realised that it was Auermaa with his jacket off.

It takes twenty minutes before Ansa Ikonen suddenly appears as the love interest, trilling a jaunty song at the piano. Ikonen has been a regular feature in the last year or so of films from the company, but here seems ill at ease as the comedy ingénue, barking her lines at her fellow actors as if comedy is determined solely by volume, and seemingly blocking herself so that her face is perpetually ill-framed by the camera. She also wanders around in silly jodhpurs and a distractingly shiny satin blouse, but at least it’s obvious who she is! This, perhaps, is part of the plan, as half an hour later she dresses up as a captain herself, and manages to fool her suitor that she is a shouty male officer. Well, I did say that the uniforms made everyone look the same, and in Auermaa’s defence, without his spectacles on the, newly arrived “captain” is just a blur to him, and it is presumably not all that unusual in Finland for a deep-voiced woman in uniform to demand that snivelling underlings clean her jackboots.

Eventually, the comedy is shut down by the arrival of the Major-General (Jalmari Rinne), a dour and authoritative figure who cuts through the various knots into which the cast have got themselves, and gets to yell the big punchline: “What kind of garrison is this? The Captain is a girl and the sergeant-major is mad!” This presumably had a whole extra level of fun for Finnish audiences at the time, since actors Rinne and Ikonen were conducting a scandalously public affair. Barely a year later, Rinne would get a hasty divorce, and with presidential permission, eschew the usual legally-mandated delay to marry Ikonen before her pregnancy bump really began to show.

But I digress. It takes another twenty minutes of running around in the forest before Auermaa proposes to Elli. He is so shy that he only achieves this with Aaltonen standing behind him in the guise of a drill sergeant, commanding: “KISS NOW! KISS NOW! KISS NOW!” You might think Finland is still like this, to a certain extent, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

A final coda shows Aaltonen in happy domestic bliss with his own love interest, Mimmi (his real-life wife Siiri Angerkoski), heartily singing a military tune as he toils in the field, all malingering gone. The message is two-fold, that military life is good for you, and one day all this will be over – stirring stuff considering what was lurking just around the corner for Finland. The Winter War would break out thirteen months to the day after this film’s premiere.

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

Blood Will Tell

The nosebleed, long a sign of suppressed lust in manga, has taken on a whole new meaning, in a controversy that has now been running for five years, and left a stain on what should have been the triumphant ending of a successful series.

Tetsu Kariya’s Oishinbo (“The Gourmet”) has been running for three decades in the pages of Big Comic Spirits, drawn by Akira Hanasaki. “Thirty years,” wrote its author ruefully, “is long enough for anything,” and there were rumours afoot that with failing health and entirely reasonable weariness, he was planning on bringing the story to a close. However, Oishinbo bowed out suddenly and unexpectedly, after a May 2014 storyline about reporters covering the nuclear accident at Fukushima.

Oishinbo was one of the most successful manga in Japan, running to 111 compilation volumes, every one of them a million-plus best-seller. It is one of the last hold-outs of the “gourmet” trendiness of Japan’s 1980s bubble era, and an encyclopaedic introduction to the world of Japanese food and society. But Kariya’s final storyline before a sudden (and apparently planned “hiatus”) featured a character who suddenly develops a nosebleed after coming home from a Fukushima fact-finding mission, despite claims by the authorities that there should be no side-effects. “I myself began to have nosebleeds suddenly at dinner next day when I came back from coverage in Fukushima,” wrote Kariya on his blog, also citing sudden and inexplicable fatigue: “It felt like someone was trying to drag my spine to the ground.”

Kariya, who has lived in Australia since 1988, is a Japanese opinion-former with a large audience, but he seemed to make a lot of enemies. All twenty phone lines at his publisher, Shogakukan, were jammed for a solid fifteen hours – he blamed “pro-claimers”, a term for thugs hired to disrupt corporate activities. He subsequently got into a mud-slinging match with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, who called his comments irresponsible and defamatory after Japan had received the much-needed economic boost of the 2020 Olympics. Last month he published an update on his blog, detailing further incidents of harassment and stone-walling directed against him and his publishers over the last five years.

“This was not a thing I heard from someone,” he wrote. “nor me repeating some rumour. This is something I experienced for myself.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #190, 2019.

Last and First Idol

Over at All the Anime, I chronicle the controversial debut of Gengen Kusano, who recently snagged his second Seiun Award for science fiction.

“Mere months before Last and First Idol was nominated for the Seiun, it had previously appeared in an amateur press publication called School Idol Fictionally, where its true colours were revealed as a work of Love Live! fan fiction. Kusano’s original took a degree of icky glee at describing the sudden death of the idol Nico Yazawa, a gruesome operation to salvage her organs, and her subsequent transformation into a super-being with godlike powers.”

Route Awakening S05

Season five of National Geographic’s Route Awakening begins its broadcast run in China on 23rd August. Other territories to follow soon. But for viewers in China, this will be your chance to see me delving into sacrificial rituals at the Wastes of Yin; oracle bone scripts and divination in the Shang dynasty; the violent art of the Dian kingdom; Nanjing in the middle ages; the golden treasures of a deposed emperor; the immense cathedral-like complex built around a relic of Buddha’s skull; burial customs of the lost Yelang kingdom, and the shipyards of Admiral Zheng He.

British Museum Manga

“As the exhibition winds down, its catalogue is going to form much of its historical footprint. On shelves and coffee tables in years to come, this hefty 350-page book is going to transform into a resource and an aide-memoire, a place for people to remember and revisit what they saw. Undoubtedly, it will form the germ of some new fans’ first appreciation of what manga is.”

Over at the All the Anime blog, I examine the heritage and likely legacy of the British Museum Manga exhibition.

Gaijin Nude

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Ian Buruma’s snapshot of the literary scene in 1970s Japan: A Tokyo Romance.

“Buruma’s Tokyo tales are a wonderful collage of ghastly poseurs and jocular racists, avant-garde theatrical performances, peep shows and strip clubs, forgotten circus celebrities and lost districts, which he wanders with the same melancholy interest as his literary hero Kafu Nagai. It is a lurid, lost Tokyo before the transforming influences of social media or wi-fi, where one must find books by reaching out and picking them up, and make appointments by speaking to human beings. It is also a world almost as insular as the Shogun’s Japan. Few Japanese, Buruma notes, had the means to leave the country, turning its capital into a side-show of theme-park mockeries of the Other and Far Away. ‘There was something theatrical, even hallucinatory about the cityscape itself, where nothing was understated; representations of products, places, entertainments, restaurants, fashion and so on were everywhere screaming for attention.'”

Miyazakiworld

The new issue of Science Fiction Studies is out, including my long review of Susan Napier’s Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.

“Perfectly judged for the undergraduate reader, Napier’s book offers a commendable balance of analysis and insight, production gossip and historical contexts. Its references diligently cram in signposts for delving deeper into untranslated sources, but not in such a way as to alienate scholars who can only work in English. There is sufficient material here to turn a fan into a critical viewer, but also to inform artistic appreciation of films that are already well-loved. It is sure to become part of the introductory toolkit for many a course on anime, not the least for its nuanced coverage of the life and works of Japanese animation’s most famous creator.”