Oishii: The History of Sushi

“One medieval text… mentions a ‘sushi’ dish so sour that if you accidentally threw up in a barrel of it, it was possible to mix the vomit in and leave nobody any the wiser.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Eric C. Rath’s exhaustive and entertaining Oishii: The History of Sushi.

Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939)

At the garrison in Lappeenranta, Cavalryman Erkki Kallio (Uuno Lakso) and “Kalle Kallola” Mäkinen (Matti Lehtilä) are colossal wastes of space, workshy layabouts who hope to make it through their whole military career by being so incompetent that they are pushed away from active duty to potato-peeling and swine-herding. So far, their plan has worked well, and they have been demoted to work so far down the military scale that they are essentially servants to the housekeepers and cooks at the barracks.

But Erkki and Kalle are not the only malingerers – the master of the horse, Kalpa (Kalevi Mykkänen) has taken so many personal days to “visit his sick aunt” that the colonel in charge of the regiment demands that he prove the woman has not already died of numerous ailments. Both men are thrown into a series of intrigues at the barracks, as their boss Mrs Westergren (Valma Lahtinen) enlists their help in discovering the intentions of the attractive young Hilja (Tuulikki Paananen, radiant as ever), a soubrette who has suddenly started lurking flirtily around the unattached colonel. Meanwhile, Kalpa enlists Kalle’s real Aunt Loviisa (Martta Karlo, in a series of ridiculous frocks) to pretend to be his aunt, in order to get the colonel off his case, and prove that he did not merely make her up.

Hoping to marry the colonel off to her own daughter, Mrs Westergren does everything she can to push Kalpa and Hilja into each other’s arms, including a series of lessons in Understanding Women in which she comedically reads out sections of the manual for handling horses. Kalpa, however, makes the fateful error of admitting to the lustful Hilja that he was coached to act indifferent until she tried to seduce him.

Mrs Westergren, realising that her attempts to hitch her own daughter to the colonel have come to nothing, decides to quit the barracks, and Kalle arranges a parade for her by setting off an alarm to cause the soldiers to assemble just as she is leaving. Hilja is revealed as the colonel’s niece (although since Mrs Westergren is the colonel’s cousin, surely she would have known this!), thereby freeing her to marry Kalpa, their previous altercation having been smoothed over. Kalle arranges for the young lovers to elope.

Despite appearing like a piss-poor copy of The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938), Rakuuna Kalle Kollola began life as a play that even pre-dated the theatre version of that story, The Beloved Uniform (1932, Rakas univormu) by Jalmari Finne. It was the first production from the newly formed company Sampo-Filmi, itself backed by a bunch of investors based in Lappeenranta, who obviously thought that it would be a neat idea to capitalise on the local scenery and availability of military personnel as extras – there are many scenes of dashing horsemen doing dashing things. In doing so, the crew from Sampo-Filmi ram-raided the staff of the other film companies then operating in Finland. The script was written by Suomi-Filmi’s Ilmari Unho under a pseudonym, the sound equipment was rented from Suomi-Filmi, the lights were rented from Elo-seppo, and director Kalle Kaarna was dragged in from Jäger Films. In a triumph of jammy-bastard luck, the film was rushed into cinemas weeks ahead of the actionably similar Red Trousers (1939), which was also shot in Lappeenranta (with Unho as director!) just before the crew of Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman arrived to begin production. As a result, cinema-goers in the summer of 1939 were saddled with not one, but two silly military romantic farces.

The press was suitably annoyed, hammering the fledgling company for making light of military men in tense times. The Helsingin Sanomat damned it with faint praise, noting that it lagged far behind The Regiment’s Tribulation, but that “people always like to see their soldiers.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to. Cavalryman Kalle Kollola is free to watch online.

Koichi Yamano

“Yamano decried Japanese sf for living in ‘prefabricated housing’ of American construction, alluding to the powerful influence of US mass media on post-war Japan. Naming names, he argued that he saw no originality in the works of Aritsune Toyota and Fujio Ishihara, that Shinichi Hoshi and Ryū Mitsuse had reached the limits of the restricted conceptual areas they had established for their fiction, and that Sakyō Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutsui, while achieving greater literary merit, were still merely ‘remodelling’ a paradigm established in the ‘US petit-bourgeois opportunism’ and ‘banal realism’ of authors like Robert A Heinlein, or the ‘optimistic logic of great powers’ he claimed to see in the works of Isaac Asimov.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the New Wave advocate Koichi Yamano, who also wrote stuff about princes from a sunken kingdom and a runaway haunted train.

Spirited Away at 20

‘”My favourite scene from Spirited Away is actually when they are wandering through the town in the beginning, because for certain audiences it creates an incredible sense of tension,” says Clements. “The English-language version doesn’t translate the signs all around Chihiro’s family in the street, but they are all goblin-market-level creepy. That’s not an opticians, it’s an ‘eyeball shop’, and it’s even advertising FRESH ONES just in…’

Over at BBC Culture, Arwa Haider interviews me about the long-term appeal of Spirited Away. Bit crazy for them to keep sticking my title in the pull-quotes, but a nice piece nonetheless.

Masami Fukushima

“Unfortunately for Fukushima, the authors he insulted in 1969 became the chief representatives of Japanese science fiction of the late twentieth century, and ultimately the custodians of its historical memory, turning his posthumous footprint into an occasional walk-on role in the memoirs of others.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the founding editor of SF Magazine in Japan, a critic brought down by karma…?

Best Books on Chinese Food

Over at the recommendations site Shepherd, I provide a list of my top-five books on Chinese food — or at least, my top five books today, including the peerless Fuchsia Dunlop, the educational Hsiang Ju Lin, and the America-focussed Liu Haiming. It was particularly hard picking just one book from the American ones, and just one novel, but I did my best to be objective.

Are you not entertained? Shepherd recommends all sorts of listicles, from issues in pre-modern race, to the Parthian Empire, to the Soviet space programme.

Grave of the Fireflies

“Grave of the Fireflies was rushed out unfinished, with one scene still uncoloured in the initial print – such a shameful embarrassment that Takahata’s career was proclaimed over (again), until Miyazaki rescued him by promising to be the producer of his follow-up. If Miyazaki is jokingly known as the Guy Who Keeps Trying to Retire, I might suggest that Takahata is the Guy Who Keeps Getting Told ‘You’ll Never Work in This Town Again.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Alex Dudok de Wit’s BFI Film Classic on Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies.

Ryu Mitsuse

“Published shortly before his death, Ihon Saiyūki [“An Alternate Journey to the West”] was written from Mitsuse’s hospital bed, and reimagines Wu Cheng-en’s novel Xi You Ji [“Journey to the West”] — a.k.a. Monkey. Mitsuse’s version both demythologizes and remythologizes the text, stripping away the pious Buddhist tone of the original to suggest that the true story was not one of a medieval monk travelling to India in search of sacred scrolls, but of an agent sent to Samarkand in search of scientific and technical knowledge, accompanied by three condemned men whose sentences will be commuted if their mission is somehow successful.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the author Ryu Mitsuse (1928-1999).

Sociology of Anime

Sneaking out at the end of 2020 in Japan, Sociology of Anime: On the Cultural Production of Anime Fans and Anime Producers is a fine collection of academic chapters edited by Daisuke Nagata and Shintaro Matsunaga. It’s the best collection of new Japanese-language work on Japanese animation by Japanese authors that I have seen since Anime Studies (2011), and contains some fascinating gems of research.

Two of the essays focus on animation during the Pacific War. Mayumi Yukinaga revisits the story of the Shadow Staff, the animators who made instructional films for the military, by unearthing what appears to be a script for one of the instalments of the lost Principles of Bombardment. All such films were presumed destroyed in 1945, but Yukinaga has unearthed this document sandwiched in between a bunch of German and Japanese aviation manuals on a microfilm.

Similarly exciting is Takashi Kayama’s deep-dive on the infamous “AIUEO song” from Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, which, as I noted in my book on the film, was not written for the project, but was a pre-existing indoctrination aid in use in schools throughout the Japanese empire.

Although there are also a couple of chapters on historical issues such as the rise of anime on video cassette, the bulk of the rest of the book is taken up with accounts of creative production among fans and animators. There’s a tantalising polemic from Hiroaki Tamagawa on the unsustainability of the “Cool Japan” initiative and a piece by Ryotaro Mihara and Kazuo Yamashita about the business of making and selling anime overseas, particularly in China. Similar transnational issues are pursued in Kim Taeyon’s account of the history of anime in Korea.

Closer to home, both Shintaro Matsunaga and Tomoya Kimura write about the nitty-gritty of an animator’s life, drifting almost into the realm of anthropology in their account of what it is like to live on 150,000 yen a month (about £991) as a low-ranking animator. Several other authors grapple with the life-cycle and customer journey of fans, to create a marvellous anthology of contemporary writing on Japanese animation.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

One More Time, One More Chance

“‘One More Time, One More Chance’ also became the subject of an urban myth, with some members of the public coming to believe that it had been written in memory of a lover who had died in the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. This was not true, at least not for Yamazaki himself, although it is possible that at least part of the film’s 1990s success was that other listeners associated it with their own sense of bereavement.”

Over at All the Anime, I delve deep into the backstory and the historical resonances of the song that just drops into Makoto Shinkai’s Five Centimeters Per Second right at the end, which I regard as the musical equivalent in Japanese pop culture of Haruki Murakami’s “On Meeting My 100% Woman One Fine April Morning” (for which see here).