Film Classics: Spirited Away

“At 20,000 words or thereabouts, a BFI Film Classic is roughly the length of a feature-film commentary track, which means that in many cases, film-lovers have options to hear entire ‘audio books’ on DVDs, often by the people who made the films themselves. I, for one, have spent many happy hours as Chris McQuarrie laments the fate of his Way of the Gun in real time, or listening to James Schamus and Ang Lee relentlessly take the piss out of their own movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In other words, since only a few years after the inauguration of the Film Classics list, it has faced serious competition from the movies themselves, as the nature of DVD extras began to favour very similar, in-depth accounts of a movie’s construction.”

Over at All the Anime, I write about the BFI Film Classics list, and the recently re-issued volume on Spirited Away.

God’s Judgement (1939)

Jumalan tuomio turns upon a tawdry series of events, in which a local lawyer takes pity on a fallen woman – fallen through no fault of her own, but because her brother is a convict on the run. Helena (Ansa Ikonen) is packed off to Helsinki to study, where she falls for the judge’s son Aarne (Tauno Palo), who soon dumps his fiancée for her. But with opposition to their love, Helena considers marrying Mr Peltoniemi (Wilho Ilmari), her fallback beau.

Aarne, also a lawyer, undertakes to clear the name of Helena’s brother, but that’s not the only court case that unfolds around her, as Helena is accused of murdering the illegitimate baby to which she gives birth, alone, in a deserted barn.

In an incredibly complex denouement, testing one’s grasp of Finnish tenses to the limit, Helen confesses to drowning her child, although she is later found to have merely dropped it into the water and fainted from grief when a passer-by failed to help her rescue it. The case turns around the prospect that Helena wanted the child – evidence is presented of the baby clothes she was happily making – and to what extent any of this is anyone’s business but God’s, hence the title. But she is still wracked with guilt, and on a trip to the bridge where the child fell, she throws herself into the water and kills herself. The menfolk who have variously failed her, played her, bedded her and deserted her are left to wring their hands about how they could have played things better.

Although the above synopsis makes this film sound like a tense indoor drama, Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta’s eleventh and last film as co-directors makes much of outdoor location work, with several Helsinki street scenes, and an expensive interlude in which Helena and Aarne go sailing. Although the dialogue is stagey and melodramatic, the effects work is impressive – not only is Helena’s bridge jump a believable and stomach-churning stunt, but the film ends with her body lying in state and a halo forming around her head. So I guess that’ll be God’s judgement.

The original 1937 stage play by Arvi Pohjanpää was set in the immediate aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. This movie adaptation deliberately stretches the time frame up to the 1930s, in order to give it a certain modern resonance.

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

Chinese SF

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I update the comprehensive “China” entry with details of the recent China Film Administration paper on the future of sf movies.

“Politically, this could be seen as the statement of a case for sf as a worthy contributor to modern Chinese society, pre-empting a backlash like that of 1983; practically, it risks adding little to the genre in China except an additional level of management.”

Yanis Varoufakis

“Much of Varoufakis’s work can be seen as an engagement with the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) as if it were a foundational text in an Economic sub-genre of science fiction: that Marx himself offers a stinging critique of capitalist society, but no actual alternative. ‘I still believe,’ said Varoufakis in his 2019 Taylor lecture at Oxford University, ‘we face a stark choice between (A) science fictions that are being deployed to maintain a clinically deceased dystopia and (B) science fictions that can help a realistic utopia be born.'”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Yanis Varoufakis, definitely in my top ten Favourite Greeks. Also: nice shirt.

Reader, She Didn’t Marry Him

“Sittenfeld’s Rodham (2020) is an alternate history that takes as its Jonbar Point the refusal of a young Hillary Rodham to marry Bill Clinton. The timeline thereby ensuing came under fire from some critics for retaining the importance of Clinton in the heroine’s life thereafter, although this was part of Sittenfeld’s narrative point – that both of them were destined to be major figures in political history, as were Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and indeed Donald Trump, whom the novel’s Hillary fatefully attempts to groom as a useful idiot.”
Over at the SF Encyclopedia, I write up Curtis Sittenfeld.


When people are indoors with literally nothing to do except read books, listen to the radio and watch movies, it is a tad disingenuous to refer to the media as a “non-essential” industry. I’m pretty sure it’s kept a fair few of you sane over the last three NEO-free months.

There’s been some confusion about the degree to which the animation world has been affected. Amid press reports that many anime productions have shut down, there are also news stories proclaiming the exact opposite, and that animation is ideally suited for remote workers. Certainly, there have been a few hiccups in production this spring, but a remarkable number of people have rolled with the punches. Your correspondent, for example, has suddenly become the proud owner of a 4K-compatible home film studio, to do all those pesky media interviews without leaving the house. I was shocked at how cheap it was – and it paid for itself in three days!

Lockdown viewing has created some odd patterns in media consumption. The new Ghost in the Shell series just slipped out under the wire, becoming one of the few shiny new things available to a captive audience. Trolls World Tour was a lockdown hit with parents trying to keep their kids entertained, leading Universal Pictures to promise more straight-to-streaming premieres, and the cinema company AMC to proclaim that if they were going to be like that, they weren’t going to screen any of their films ever again.

It is the exhibition sector that is feeling the pinch the worst. Theatres and cinemas are the great social-distance hazard zones, and that means tempers are easily frayed among stage actors, musicians and festival organisers of my acquaintance – practically my whole family.

But we are not through COVID-19 yet, and there are still many twists and turns to come. I suspect one will be “festival fatigue”, as the migration online of what were once local events starts to create something of a crowd on your desktop. It will probably not surprise you at all to hear that there were more than ten film festivals a week last year. It didn’t trouble you, because unless you lived in Yamagata, or Sao Paulo, or Stockholm, none of them were noticeable. But now it seems that all of them are a click away, clamouring for your attention. Choose wisely. By which I mean, choose Scotland Loves Anime this autumn!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #199, 2020.

Manga in Arts Education

“There is a whole book to be written on this subject someday, for all sorts of reasons. One is that non-Japan specialists (and as is clear from this book, quite a few Japanese people) are often unaware of the political manoeuvring behind the scenes, which has led certain Japanese authorities to make grand-standing claims for manga that are not supportable. Another is that many writers on manga are so woolly and incoherent in their ability to define it that they sound like idiots. Still another is that the word manga has become such a touchstone of editorial confidence, such a killing-word of marketing power, that publishers even in academia seem to want to shove it onto any book related to Japanese media. Inevitably, this forces some contributors into shifty-eyed equivocation, presenting perfectly interesting and worthy topics, but having to name-check the word ‘manga’ every page or so, as if it is lurking, threateningly in the room like Donald Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton at a presidential debate.”

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about manga in arts education, among other things.