Over at All the Anime, my obituary for Hisashi Katsuta, the man of a thousand voices. Although maybe half of them were Professor Ochanomizu in Astro Boy.
It looks like Christmas came early for Tsuburaya Productions, after the Los Angeles Court of Appeal ruled in the company’s favour in the first week of December 2019. The studio that most famously gave the world the Spandex-clad superhero Ultraman has been locked in a legal battle for twenty-three years with Sompote Saengduenchai, a Thai director who claimed that the late Noboru Tsuburaya, son of studio founder Eiji, had sold him the rights to exploit Ultraman outside Japan.
The judgement affirms a ruling already made in 2017, that the contract Sompote has been waving around since 1996, and claims to have signed in 1976, doesn’t have Noboru Tsuburaya’s real signature on it, and even if it did, makes several suspicious errors regarding the names of Tsuburaya properties. Sompote, meanwhile, has behaved with entertaining evasiveness, refusing to provide the original of the passport that, he claims, “proves” he was in Japan in 1976, and being hand-wavingly vague about what exactly Tsuburaya is supposed to have received in return for this deal.
While all this has been going on, Sompote’s company Chaiyo has not only been making its own Ultraman movies, but also selling merchandising deals and even licensing the rights for US DVD releases with reputable companies. The battle has been fought not only in Thai courts, which ruled in Sompote’s favour in 2009, but also in China, which found the whole thing so confusing that Beijing courts ordered the setting up of an Ultraman Copyright Study Group, and finally swung in Tsuburaya’s favour when it was brought to America.
The mystery remains – did Sompote really travel to Japan in 1976 and somehow secure an international rights deal from Noboru Tsuburaya, a deal which conveniently went unmentioned by anyone, Sompote included, until after Tsuburaya was dead? Or is he lying? Or did he meet someone who claimed to be Tsuburaya, who proceeded to sell him the Japanese TV equivalent of London Bridge? If so, that would make Sompote the victim, and the entire, prolonged shambles merely the fall-out from a scammer blagging a few free lunches.
You might think it all unlikely, but Sompote wouldn’t be the first. I know of one prominent Captain Harlock fan who spent several happy hours getting drunk in a Tokyo bar with a “Mr Matsumoto”, unaware that the real Leiji Matsumoto had given up waiting for him in the hotel lobby and gone home after 45 minutes.
That is a map of China, but it’s also a cocktail menu at Opium, a speakeasy in London’s Chinatown that offers a set of mental drinks based on Chinese cities — the Beijing that comes with a calligraphy set and strawberry ink, the Macau that comes with pineapple chunks and a set of safety instructions, and the Urumqi, that comes with pistachio nuts and an eggshell filled with saffron joux. Barman Vincent even managed to do something to make baijiu palatable. I’m writing a history of Chinese food. This sort of counts.
Sysmäläinen begins with a playful prologue in which a young Arvid (Kalevi Koski, who would grow up to be Finland’s top dentist) is mercilessly taunted by a young Brita (Tuulikki Schreck) about their betrothal. The pair are married when still children, before a 15-year-time jump to Turku in the mid-17th century, where a grown-up Arvid (Olavi Reimas) is a swashbuckling nobleman, obviously modelled on the same year’s Errol Flynn Robin Hood. He’s barely finished his lunch before he is in a spirited sword-fight with some German guy, while a serving girl swoons with glee. There’s lots of hearty quaffing and tankard clashing, while we wait, twiddling our thumbs a little, for the story to begin. It does when Brita (Sirkka Sari) rides by, and Arvid fails to realise that she is his wife.
Valentin Vaala’s camera absolutely loves Sirkka Sari, last seen in The Women of Niskavuori, who first appears with a fantastic cavalier hat, riding a horse in a manner that is snooty, contemptuous and oddly alluring. Arvid, who doesn’t recognise her, falls for her hard, to the extent that he sends a message to the child-bride he hasn’t seen for years, telling her he wants an annulment because he loves another. Oh, the irony! So Brita disguises herself as a boy and becomes his servant.
So she wins his heart when she’s in a dress, but is Just Some Guy when she puts some trousers on. Some further suspension of disbelief is required over the matter of the dialogue, since one might reasonably expect the ruling class in 17th century Turku to all speak Swedish. Jalmari Finne’s original 1910 novel seems somewhat out of its time, a Walter-Scott frippery when war was just an excuse to dress up in high boots and swirly cloaks, while Arvid’s predicament could have been oh-so-easily avoided form the outset by Brita simply telling him her fecking name. The pina-colada fancy of a jaded old idiot, spurning his wife only to fall in love with her when he thinks she is someone else, was already pretty old. But it is the shadow of Errol Flynn that falls most obviously over this film, in everything from Arvid’s moustache to his habit of wandering around the woods looking for a fight.
As Johanna the perky serving girl, Kerttu Salmi steals all her scenes with a constant patter of doormat philosophy about how real men “start with scolding and end with love.” She has already decided that Arvid will be hers, and throws herself at him with entertaining abandon. Meanwhile, Sirkka Sari is desperately unconvincing as a boy called Adolf, despite looking awesome in her musketeer get-up. Naturally, she bests Arvid with a rapier, but that’s just Finnish girls all over. Because it wasn’t surreal enough already, “Adolf” agrees to dress as a woman in order to persuade Johanna to leave the manor and stop pestering Arvid.
I’m disappointed that the Finns haven’t revisited this story in some sort of post-modern spoof. They could call it A Girl Called Adolf, and relentlessly take the piss out of all the cross-dressing nonsense, which is surely only a thing in drama because it was convenient for Elizabethan playwrights to get their female impersonators back out of drag. In the woke 21st century, the transvestite angle takes on a new prospect, since Brita runs rings around Arvid from the outset, and is plainly the one who wears the breeches in that relationship, now and forever.
This DVD came with English and Swedish subtitles.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.
Shout out to Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway, makers of the West Wing Weekly podcast, which has just come to an end after four wonderful years. When it started, it was a welcome diversion as I walked home each morning along a frozen lakeside. In more recent months, it’s been my companion on many a flight. But I’ve been with it from the beginning, as they go through each episode of The West Wing, with guests from the cast, crew, and real-world influencers, and it’s been a great experience reliving the entirety of a much-loved TV show, one episode at a time, with the people who made it and the people whose lives it changed.