Sanpei Shirato (1932-2021)

“I had a beggar girl set fire to herself,” he remembered, “becoming a signal beacon in order to warn the warrior who had previously saved her life. Should I only draw the beauty of her spirit? Or the ugliness of a burnt corpse? I chose not to turn away from the dead body.”

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Sanpei Shirato, a key figure in the rise of the ninja, and in manga’s grittiest historical materialism.

The Tenant Farmer’s Girl (1940)

Siiri Angerkoski and Aku Korhonen are angry parents berating their daughter Helga (Regina Linnanheimo) for having a child out of wedlock. But she drops her case against Pekka (Joel Rinne), the father of her child, in order to spare him the pain of perjuring herself, leading a local family to take pity on her and hire her as a housemaid.

Helga becomes a witness to the goings on at the home of a well-to-do household, where heiress Hildur (Ester Toivonen) is due to be married to local boy Mauri (Tauno Palo). When Mauri comes to believe that he has drunkenly murdered someone (we’ve all been there), his confession causes his betrothed to reject him, only for Helga to turn up with evidence that acquits him. By that point, Mauri has decided that Helga is the girl for him – her insanely high standards of piety and righteousness trump any physical attractions of the radiant Hildur, and the two of them are married.

The opening credits boast that the film is based on Selma Lagerlöf’s “world-famous” story, presumably because earlier Swedish-language adaptations of her novella were shown in the United States. Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1909), but this forgettable melodrama was surely one of her minor works. We have to view it through a series of filters – a story written originally from a Swedish perspective now dragged into a Finnish world; a story dating from 1908, suddenly forced into entertaining us in May 1940. Even at the time of its Finnish release, the press was dismissive of an old-fashioned tale about old-fashioned mores when Finns had other issues to deal with. “Particularly at a time like this,” commented Paula Talaskivi in the Helsingin Sanomat, “it’s difficult to get invested in the atmosphere required by a romantic love story.” The provincial press was more forgiving, with several reviewers commenting that a tale of simpler times was a welcome diversion.

Linnanheimo is a miserable protagonist, grizzling in the woodshed about her predicament, while the film has presumably been cranked out under understandably austere conditions – it’s shot on a limited number of sets, with exteriors largely limited to what appears to be someone’s backyard in a forest somewhere, presumably shot in the summer of 1939. Anything else interesting arrives as reported speech, read out of a newspaper at dinner or otherwise happening off-screen.

In something of a new direction for Ester Toivonen, she only appears to be the romantic lead. In fact, her character Hildur is destined to reject Mauri, thereby becoming a bit of a heel. We see her fretting at the dining table, surrounded by gossiping old wives, her wedding crown set tantalisingly before her. In this role, Toivonen becomes oddly beguiling, discovering perhaps that she enjoys being a disdainful posh girl more than she ever liked being the ingénue. At the end, it’s Hildur who drives Mauri to meet Helga on the road, where he proclaims his love for her, and the two of them rub cheeks like robots trying to attach their facial SCART leads. As Helga getting her happy ending, Linnanheimo tries to smile, but she looks like she is trying to thoughtfully pass a gallstone.

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.

New Audiobooks

Out now on Audible, unabridged editions of my Brief History of Khubilai Khan and Brief History of the Martial Arts. As with the earlier audiobook of my Emperor’s Feast, I insisted on doing the recording myself, because I was getting tired of narrators who couldn’t pronounce any of the words in Chinese or Japanese… or as it turns out in these two, Tibetan, Mongol and Vietnamese as well. Some proper tongue-twisters in these two, as well as my impersonation of a London taxi driver describing the exploits of the Danish karate team.

Pattern Recognition

I recently stumbled across someone on the internet who had taken it upon themselves to try to transcribe my Death Note audio drama Pattern Recognition. I figured it would do no harm to put the actual script online for curious readers, rather than lead to the usual drifts in meaning and intent. I’d rather you saw what I actually wrote, rather than what someone thinks I did.

I wrote the 12-part audio adaptation of Death Note in 2017-2018. It was released by Audible in both German and French, and although I was contacted two years ago by an Audible producer looking for casting advice for an English version, I have heard nothing since, so I have no idea what’s going on there. But for those who might be interested in seeing the script for the first episode, here it is. I’m not sure I can get away with posting all twelve, but you get the idea.

This first episode is a good indicator of the changes that I started making to the original in order to reflect a different time and different medium. My Death Note is more of a police procedural than the anime (and yes, it was specifically an adaptation of the anime, not the manga), and also deals with certain changes in technology that would have otherwise ruined some elements of the original story — this is played for laughs in episode two, when Light goes in search of a “pocket television” and has to deal with a salesman determined to give him a smartphone. It also gender-swaps some characters and introduces some new ones, specifically Paula Virilio, the head of Interpol, who is parachuted in to help staple some scenes together, but also to add a stronger female voice to the sound mix.

Audience Award 2021

And we’re back at All the Anime for just one more podcast, as I talk about this year’s festival with Andrew Partridge, the festival director, and Andy Hanley, who managed much of the day-to-day logistics. Although mine was the main face everybody saw on stage and in the pre-recorded director interviews, there were a dozen people working all year behind the scenes to actually get everything done, whereas I was a mere sock puppet, designed to distract the crowds while projectionists were kicking projectors and blowing the dust off hard-drives and all the other arcane things that projectionists do. The SLA staff are usually much more apparent in cinemas, running crowd control in their distinctive red shirts, but were asked to stay away this year on covid grounds.

In something of a surprise, the Audience Award at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime goes to Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Sing a Bit of Harmony, which I have unapologetically described as Ghost in the Shell meets Glee. As noted on Sunday’s podcast about the Golden Partridge award, the jury had serious misgivings about this film, which might also be parsed as Skynet: the Musical, but most punters in Glasgow and Edinburgh absolutely loved it. I, for one, really enjoyed the way that Yoshiura interrogated the tropes of teen anime by repeatedly wrecking them for comedic purposes.

Golden Partridge 2021

“After a tie in the first-round voting between two films, votes swung 5:1 for Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, for its density of plot and incident, the heart and realism with which it addressed its blue-collar environment, and its quirky willingness to indulge in flights of animated fancy. The jury felt that, of all the works in competition this year, it best succeeded at being the film it was trying to be.”

This year’s Scotland Loves Anime jury prize, the “Golden Partridge”, controversially went not to the favourite, Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, but to the slice-of-life dramedy, Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko. Over at All the Anime, the new podcast features Meghan Ellis, Claire Forrest and Suzanne Reilly discussing their deliberations in depth.

Or you can watch it on Youtube.

Mixed Media

Jingdezhen was, for many centuries, the world capital of porcelain. The local clay and glaze were what’s known as “cousin materials”, with an affinity that would fuse them at an atomic level. Jingdezhen porcelain didn’t just comprise baked clay with a shiny glaze. The two would vitrify under extreme heat, creating translucent, beautiful colours and clear, ringing tones. Europeans would spend decades trying to work out the secret of porcelain, unaware that at least part of the secret was Jingdezhen itself. It was the source of much of the imperial tableware for several dynasties.

Jingdezhen also suffered from immense fluctuations in fortune. The Mongol conquests gave it access to both Middle Eastern markets and Afghan cobalt, creating a new industry in blue and white tableware – the Chinese of the 14th century thought it was vulgar, but it found a ready export market. There were riots among the labourers in the early 1600s over poor conditions and pay. In 1675, a generation after the Manchu conquest, the town fell to Wu Sangui’s forces during the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Jingdezhen was almost totally destroyed, and for many years afterwards, canny managers at the kilns fired pots and plates without a Manchu emperor’s reign date on them, in order to avoid any more iconoclasm in the event of another revolt. It suffered again with the influx of foreign competition, forced to modernise and downgrade its principles when facing an influx of imports from Industrial-Revolution Europe.

In 1911, the final entry in the porcelain ledger of the Forbidden City details a command by the Last Emperor to send a certain kind of tableware to Beijing. The potters’ reply is a blank refusal, confessing that they have forgotten the skills required. They could knock him up some plates with dragons on them, if he liked, but the glory days were gone.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Jingdezhen’s fortunes revived after the Revolution. Somebody had to make tea sets for the Communist Party grandees, and Jingdezhen seemed like the perfect place for workers’ crockery and porcelain statues of Chairman Mao.

“They were lucky during the Cultural Revolution,” says Eric Kao, the American who has been the director here for six years. “Not because it didn’t do terrible damage to their livelihood, but because it only lasted ten years. When it was all over, some of the artisans were still alive. They could come back. They could teach a new generation.”

Eric surprises me by revealing the thing that almost killed Jingdezhen for good – capitalism.

“When Deng Xiaoping’s reforms came in in the late 1970s, there was a real boom. They weren’t making ceramics for the Emperors any more, or for the Party. They were making it for private clients, for commissions, for hotels and restaurants. There was a huge surge in interest and business, but then the potters started competing. I’ll charge a hundred, so you charge 90. So I charge 80, so you charge 70. By the time we’re down to 50, I can’t actually afford to live off the proceeds unless I downgrade the quality of my work. The output turned sloppy. It turned unreliable. The Chinese want a bargain, and if they get a bargain, they’ll put up with the fall in quality. By the 1990s, Jingdezhen was a wasteland. We couldn’t give the pots away. The rent here was minimal because nobody wanted to be here. That’s where The Workshop came in.”

Eric was hired because he had two degrees in ceramics, and spoke both Chinese and English. His work is on display in the showroom, but he’s really here about the message – and the message has been written by Caroline Cheng, another overseas Chinese who first started the cooperative in Shanghai in 1985. The Pottery Workshop has only been in Jingdezhen for the last ten years. The more Eric tells me, the crazier he sounds, but in a good way. We walk through a market of little stalls selling bespoke pottery products. There are sublime, teardrop-shaped tea-pots; little bowls decorated with cute animals; vases with real leaves under their glazing.

“We hold this market every Saturday, from nine till twelve. That’s it. We won’t run it for longer or for more often, because we want to maintain the quality of the goods on sale. This is a juried marketplace. There is a waiting line to get in to one of the 80 stalls, and Caroline checks their material every month. If they don’t meet the right standard, or the quality of innovation slips, they’re out.”

The market shoppers are obvious potters from abroad – women in Doc Martens with flashes of garish hair; intense, smouldering boys with ponytails and smocks; wiry, white-haired old ladies in sensible sweaters. There are a bunch of loud students from West Virginia, and nervy-looking girls who seem to have have found a sensual fulfilment in kneading mud. Meanwhile, the Chinese are a breed apart – girls in trilbies and thigh-boots; boys in waistcoats, conspicuous yuppies and hipsters. They move among the Chinese-owned stalls that sell not only ceramics, but also handbags and bracelets, trays and purses, cutlery and coats.

“Oh, you mean the other media,” laughs Eric, using media in an entirely proper but rather unexpected way. “We introduced that strand last year. Ceramic is just a material. It’s just a way of making an object and fulfilling a purpose. But part of what we do here is exposing students to each other’s work, and the work of local craftsmen. Our Residency programme doesn’t just put foreigners here to use our facilities, it gives them an interpreter and lets them wander the city. We want everything to cross-pollinate. So we thought: let’s bring in the guys who sell copper spoons; let’s bring in the wood-carvers. Let’s see if they don’t spark some sort of new solution to a problem for the potters. Mixing the media.”

I ask the price of a bowl on one of the stands. The answer is so mind-blowingly low that there is the sound of a palpable scramble as the rest of the crew run to get their wallets. The students are practically giving these pieces away.

“We encourage them to get their work out there,” says Eric. “They spend the week making these items, and make a subsistence income, but those items are then spread as far as possible.”

I note that all the students have QR-codes on their stalls, allowing passing trade to instantly get their online contact details.

“We’re very big on social media, too,” says Eric. “We make them have properly up-to-date resumés, proper online contacts. These are apprentice pieces that get them recognised, and we make sure that they have portfolios to hand for commissions and repeat business.”

“We’re under pressure to expand, but we want to maintain the quality of the goods. There have been weeks where Caroline doesn’t let the market to happen at all if the students’ work isn’t up to scratch. But we’re asked if we can make it all-day Saturday, all weekend, all week. We won’t do it. The quality of the work won’t take the strain.”

I try to get as much of his business model on tape because it is so madly and beautifully counter-intuitive. It’s like he is actively trying to lose money, but also to create an entire generation of master potters.

Eric shows me the public kilns, communally-owned ovens where the locals have always been over to rent space for their own firing, even back in the imperial days.

“You don’t need your own kiln,” he explains. “You don’t need to wait until you have 200 bowls to fire. You can just buy a square foot on one of our firings, and we’ll cook them out every day.”

I touch the side of the kiln, which looks almost exactly like half a transport container with metal tubes leading into it. It is not hot at all, even though inside the temperature is 600C and climbing to the required 1300C.

“Oh, we’ve lined the inside with ceramic fibre,” Eric says. “It’s the same stuff they use on the space shuttle. We crash-cool this kiln: we fire it until it’s done, and then we just turn off the gas and open the doors. That would crack the glaze on a lot of ceramics, but not Jingdezhen. It’s different in the big industrial factories. There, they have tunnel kilns that are 70 metres long. The pots go through on a conveyor belt, and the centre is firing 24 hours a day. They heat up gradually, get to the hottest point, and then cool down by the time they get out the other end. That’s where they make all the Starbucks mugs.”

As we leave the compound, I see another kiln, made of simple brick, set on a patch of grass near the exit. I wonder if it’s some sort of traditional construction from previous dynasty.

“Oh no,” says Eric. “that’s for pizza.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).

Titan of Cinema

“…the lovingly curated exhibition wanders through all of Harryhausen’s works, from obscure Puppetoon stop-motion fairy tales, for which he made multiple heads with different expressions, through to his most famous feature work on the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts and his final film, Clash of the Titans.”

Over at All the Anime, I visit Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, currently running at the Scottish National Museum of Modern Art, in Edinburgh.

For Whom the Belle Tolls

Gutted I can’t be at the UK premiere of Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle at the London Film Festival tomorrow, although I will be at its Edinburgh screening next week in both personal and avatar form, interviewing the director via Zoom for the post-film Q&A. Topics include animating under covid conditions, the importance of Disney’s Beauty & the Beast in his own artistic inspirations, and what kind of crappy cartoons a world-class animator’s kids force him to watch at home.

In the meantime, you can read my article about the film here at the All the Anime website.

“Hosoda’s own mother died shortly before he completed Summer Wars, after a long illness that lasted for eight years. Her shadow loomed over his next film, Wolf Children, and indeed over Mirai, which examined the degree to which a child could relate to a dead grandparent. Belle, too, obsesses over a lost mother, but also over the opportunities of a digital age.”