Art of War

Unlikely achievements part 311221: discovering my 2012 translation of the Art of War is #1 in Amazon’s Ancient Chinese History Chart.

Part 311222: discovering that Amazon has an Ancient Chinese History Chart.

Part 311223: Discovering that of the other books in the top ten, one is a comic, another is about the middle ages, and the rest aren’t actually about China at all.

Part 311223: Noticing that the biographical data on the page describes me as “James” Clements.

This is yet another example of something.

The Incredible Tide

“Man-made ecological disaster is not a single event, but an ongoing cycle of ever-greater deprivation and compromise, Conan’s generation simply have to live with it, prefiguring the controversial storyline of a much later anime, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Alexander Key’s The Incredible Tide.

The Heir of Tottisalmi (1940)

Baron von Sumers (Paavo Jännes) is worried about his legacy. His grandson Klaus (Kalevi Koski) is displaying oddly violent and aggressive tendencies, and seems to have little sense of his obligation to be kind to his underlings, staff and servants. Fretting that Klaus needs to be taught about noblesse oblige before it is too late, the Baron tries to arrange for him to visit a local pastor’s family, where Klaus predictably acts like an entitled dick, and fights with the pastor’s boy Yrjö (Raino Hämälainen). But Yrjö isn’t the pastor’s son, he is the pastor’s ward, whose past increasingly obsesses the Baron.

Klaus is the child of the Baron’s daughter. But the Baron had a son, who was cast out and disowned twenty years earlier over a misunderstanding. Could it be that Yrjö is the Baron’s long-lost grandson, sired by the son in exile, and hence, technically, the true heir of Tottisalmi?

Well, yes, he is, but not if the scheming locals have anything to do with it. The Baron’s horrible son-in-law Frederik (Sasu Haapanen) is the guilty party who framed the heir all those years ago, now fretting that his machinations will be found out. Apparently unaware that the best thing to do when stuck in a hole is to stop digging, he instead enlists his servant Jonas (Hugo Hytönen) in a scam to frame Yrjö as a thief, before the bright and sunny boy wins over any other members of the family.

Not unlike the same season’s The Tenant Farmer’s Girl from rival studio Suomen Filmiteollisus, this Suomi-Filmi production displays all the signs of a company scrabbling for something to offer comfort under austerity conditions. Turning aside from the miseries of contemporary life, director Orvo Saarikivi instead delivers a slice of old-world aristocracy, itself deriving from Anni Swan’s 1914 children’s novel, featuring the producer’s ten-year-old daughter, Tuulikki Schreck in one of the lead roles, and even using the Schreck family’s home and furniture. Originally intended as a Christmas film in 1939, but postponed by the Winter War until it shuffled out in April 1940 to widespread indifference, it took several years to earn back its production costs, despite really obvious corner-cutting, such as a running time of a mere 66 minutes, and that’s with a 90-second opening overture that plays over an entirely blank screen.

Again, as with The Tenant Farmer’s Girl, the transplant of a 19th-century story to a 20th-century setting only serves to accentuate the vast gaps in culture and expectations in the intervening period. In particular, the fact that the original story called for Yrjö’s father to die in the Battle of Navarino, during the Greek War of Independence in 1827. This explains how he ends up to have a posthumous son, born to a Greek woman six months later, and why a bunch of Greeks (Turo Kartto and Evald Turho, wearing fezzes because fezzes are cool) descend upon Tottisalmi to lend weight to Yrjö’s claim and, ultimately, spirit him back home to his mother in the Aegean. Presumably, von Sumers junior has been reimagined as some sort of volunteer in the First World War, but that would have just meant he dodged any involvement in the revolution and Finnish Civil War back home, and would hardly have endeared him to older viewers.

Little was written about it in a Finland still recovering from the Winter War, and by the time it appeared on television in 1975, the world had changed even more. “This is a film that has had its day,” wrote Mauri Taviola in the Helsingin Sanomat. “The children bang briskly through their lines like they are reciting verse at a six-year old’s birthday party, but you can hardly call it acting.”

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.

The Exorcists

Buick want us to showcase their latest model on this trip. I should be able to tell you all about it, but all I can say for sure is that it will be released in America in 2017, and that it is a red one. And the one we have been supplied by the Songyuan Buick dealership unhelpfully has National Geographic decals plastered all down the sides, having previously been part of this year’s journalist junket convoy. So the director orders a trio of idiots (me, the fixer and the D.O.P.) to take it out and get it cleaned, preferably in such a manner as to generate some interesting footage that will also fill up this episode’s quote of product-placement car shots.

She is hoping for an automated car wash, so she can get a sequence of me glumly sitting behind the wheel while big spongey rollers splash on the windscreen. My colleagues and I unanimously decide that what we really need is a Bikini Car Wash, where they can photograph me trying to look glum while perky Chinese girls rub their soapy boobs on the windscreen. This turns out to be a non-existent service in arctic Songyuan (or indeed, anywhere in China, indeed possibly in the world… I might have dreamt it). The best we can hope for is two men with low-hanging trousers and a high-pressure hose, blowing hot water on it in a garage. This, however, fogs up the lens every time he gets close, so we are getting very little footage.

The fixer’s phone rings. Even I can hear the irate voice yelling at him from the speaker. It is the manager of our hotel.

“What the fuck are you doing? Your wizards are out of control!”

We are, indeed, currently in charge of an octet of shamans, who are supposed to be setting up in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. It is an opulent, pointlessly baroque Chinese suite, decorated with pictures from the life of Khubilai Khan, overstuffed sofas, and for reasons that only a Mongol can explain, an astroturf pasture scattered with one-quarter-scale models of goats. And apparently, the shamans are “smoking and spitting on the floor.”

I find this hard to believe, not the least because there are eleven ashtrays in the suite, which seems to imply that smoking isn’t that big a deal. Indeed, even though smoking indoors is now at least officially illegal in Beijing and Shanghai, up here in the frozen north the people of Manchuria can regularly be seen chuffing indoors, in the warm. In fact, back at the room, a forensic investigation confirms that only one person, our liaison Mr Bao, has lit up at all, on the basis of his girly Huang Shan fag-ends in the ashtray. Even the director has not smoked anything while we were away. But the hotel’s complaint isn’t really about alleged smoking and notional spitting. It is about the presence of eight shamans on the premises, plainly up to no good.

Tonight they are performing an exorcism ritual, or chu gui, which requires them to dance in circles with drums and tambourines, chanting spells in Mongol, while the central shaman, a lady called Furong, whirls and hyper-ventilates while setting fire to a small doll that looks like My Little Ku Klux Klansman.

In order to hang onto the suite, we have had to order dinner, which sits untouched on the Lazy Susan in the dining area while the ritual continues. The waitresses stare in stony disapproval, and tut as the sofas get moved. “We don’t care for their sort,” mutters one.

“‘Their sort?’” snarls Coral Red, a poet who happens to be sitting in. “THIS IS YOUR CULTURE, YOU STUPID HUSSY.” After that, the waitresses leave us alone, and when we need water, I have to go outside to the shops.

Meanwhile, the chanting and drumming reaches a crescendo. Furong’s long black hair now surrounds her face, completely obscuring it, and she is panting and muttering, her eyes rolling. She eats the embers from the fire she lit around the Ku Klux Klan doll, and is drooling black gunge from her mouth. She collapses onto the sofa and is fed 60% proof Mongol booze, which she spits across the room, muttering to herself in Old Mongol, a language that she has never learned.

“WESH!” she shouts hoarsely, “WESH!” She is drooling more black slime, and spitting out more firewater, her eyes wide, and staring at me across the room. “WESH!” she shouts. “WESH!”

Suddenly Furong’s henchman shouts at our assistant producer, who is standing by the exit, clutching at her head.


She opens the door, and suddenly there is silence.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).

Anime’s Identity

“Stevie Suan’s new book, Anime’s Identity, cannot resist telling a story from the production of King’s Avatar (above), a 2019 Chinese animated series that subcontracted some of its animation work to a studio in Japan, only to send back the materials on the grounds that the Japanese work was not of high enough quality. That was definitely a bad day at the office for someone, but was it trolling for the hell of it, or a sign of a true sea-change in quality control and expectations?”

Over at All the Anime, I review a great book about Japanese animation and its place in the world.

Sayaka Kanda (1986-2021)

‘Taking the pen-name Alice from one of her mother’s songs, she wrote the lyrics to Matsuda’s “Love is Always 95 Points,” a fact not revealed until sometime later. Her lyrics deftly capture the doubts of a girl for whom romance is itself a performance – a tense preparation before the mirror, an agonising choice on costume, and an entrance into public space, ever fretful that her date is going to laugh at her.’

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Sayaka Kanda, the actress, singer and lyricist who fell to her death at a Hokkaido hotel yesterday.

Approaches to Evangelion

Anime Studies: Media-Specific Approaches to Neon Genesis Evangelion is a delightful collection of fresh scholarship on all sorts of intriguing aspects of anime, as revealed through various angles to a famous and much-loved series, itself given a new lease of life and a new legion of fans thanks to Netflix. Published by Stockholm University Press, but organised out of the University of Vigo in Spain, it is a well-curated volume that will provide much food for thought for anime scholars and the more chin-strokey of fans.”

Over at All the Anime I review the second open-access anime publication from Stockholm University Press.

El Hazard

“So, if you’ve ever wondered why nobody goes to the toilet in sword-and-sorcery movies, why all alien queens fall simpering at the feet of dorks from Earth, or why no-one ever asks the Narnia kids how many pairs of pants they’ve packed, El Hazard is for you.”

Over at All the Anime, I’m singing the praises of the anime El Hazard, with an article that I originally wrote so long ago that it is one of the oldest legacy Word documents on my hard-drive, originally for either Anime UK or Anime FX way, way back when.