See You, Space Cowboy

And so it’s farewell to the live-action Cowboy Bebop, coldly cancelled by Netflix a mere twenty days after its much hyped premiere. That’s the thing about Netflix, they’re very much about going big or going home, and dropping an entire season online not only fuels the binge-watchers, it also supplies overwhelming statistical evidence that allows for a fast executive decision.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop notched up 74 million hours worldwide in the three weeks since its November activation date, but it seems that many of those hours were people watching the first episode and not coming back for more. Unlike in the bad old days of terrestrial telly, when people might nickel-and-dime and campaign and, say, give a show another week, binge-level content provision requires a binge-level response out of the gate, otherwise it shows up on the Netflix stats as a dead dog.

The same algorithms that pointed to Cowboy Bebop as a much beloved anime show with a twenty-year fandom and a massive footprint in the American market, that same box-tickery that put John Cho in the lead and brought back Yoko Kanno’s iconic score, all that robot number-crunching that tells Netflix what to do and how to do it, reported back in record time that Cowboy Bebop did not justify a greenlight for season two.

But do not despair, a whole bunch of people are still sitting pretty. At a very basic level, the cast and crew of Bebop got paid to make their show. But the real winners from the whole debacle are the owners of the anime. Because while fandom is carping about the remake, the hype over it has functioned as a massive advertising campaign for the original. My inbox lit up for weeks with journalists in search of anime punditry, and even NEO got in on the act with that lovely cover story. That’s not bad attention for a show that is 23 years old, and which is still just as good, just as fresh and just as fun this month as it was last month.

Like every disappointing remake, it stands a good chance of bringing in thousands of new viewers to appreciate the original, which has to be a good thing. And if people are wondering what all the fuss is about, they can even see the original right now… er… on Netflix.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #216, 2022.

In the Kitchen (1940)

Engineering student Ari Karma (Tauno Majuri) tries to pitch an innovative motorcycle design to industrialist Mr Virmala (Hugo Hytönen) but is laughted out of the presentation. Undeterred, he vows to create a motorcycle that will trounce the Salama (“Lightning”) factory model at the next big race. Meanwhile, Virmala’s spoilt daughter Arja (Helena Kara) heads off to the beach in a colossal sulk, because her father’s declining factory profits have deprived her of the all-expenses-paid trip to Paris that she was promised. Complaining to her increasingly distant boyfriend Jali (Ville Salminen), she rashly accepts a wager from her friends that she will be unable to work in a real job for more than three months.

These initially unrelated plots soon merge at Hauka Manor, where Arja, already fired from her first job for failing to correctly make coffee, is now working as the world’s worst kitchen maid, while Ari is moonlighting as a chauffeur in order to use the mansion’s garage as a place to build his wonder-bike. Amid a series of backstairs romances and kitchen disasters, Ari and Arja fall for each other, only for Jali to show up at a dinner party where Arja is a server. Ari misunderstands their conversation, and leaves in a rage, convinced that Arja is having an affair.

In the fateful motorcycle race, Arja shocks her father by not cheering for the Salama rider, but for the unknown Ari with his home-made bike. Ari’s design beats Jali on the Salama factory model, and in the celebrations, Ari and Arja are reunited, their true identities revealed.

Based on a 1932 Swedish film, itself deriving from a 1930 Norwegian novel by Sigrid Boon, In the Kitchen’s incredibly dull English title somewhat unfairly dooms it to sound like a crappy home farce, rather than, a multi-location comedy, shot not only in several Finnish towns, but also across the water in Tallinn at the Kloostrimetsa race track — the first “international” Finnish film I can recall in this watchathon. The film went into production shortly after the success of the similar Have I Arrived in a Harem? (1938), and was originally set to star Olavi Reimas, who has been similarly chasing posh totty in Rich Girl (1939) and Green Gold (1939). However, filming was split on either side of the Winter War, during which Reimas was wounded, leading to his replacement with Tauno Majuri. But Majuri does fine in his new role, while Helena Kara, ever bright-eyed and perky onscreen since her star-turn in The Bachelor Patron, is a fine foil.

Kara, in fact, was paused on the brink of meteoric success in Finnish film. She was already a popular star, and was one of three actresses put on a permanent salary by Suomi-Filmi, each of them notably without a background in theatre. However, her former flatmate Sirkka Sari died in a tragic accident on location for Rich Girl, while the third actress, Tuulikki Paananen from The Jaeger’s Bride (1938) fled for America with the outbreak of war. This left Kara as the undisputed queen of Suomi-Filmi, a role she sealed early in 1940 by marrying the studio head and sometime director Hannu Leminen, with whom she would work on a dozen later films.

Not for the first time, Finnish film flirts with the difference between “upstairs and downstairs” as a poor little rich girl cosplays as a working-class servant, learns a little bit about life (in particular, the powerlessness of the subaltern class to defend itself against accusations of theft), and eventually gets the rich boy she deserves. The press reacted with customary Finnish understatement, with Eila Paicheff in Ilta-Sanomat damning it with the faintest of praise: “Two hours spent In the Kitchen is undeniably fun,” she conceded, “and it probably fulfils its purpose.” Latter-day critics have been far kinder; the same newspaper’s Heikki Kataja observed in 1977 on its television broadcast that it featured “witty romance, carefree beautiful people, and pre-war domestic film-making at its most typical, if not least-worst.” Displaying what, for a Finn, was unbridled exuberance, Arto Pajukallio in a 1989 issue of Katso admitted that it was “in some places, a little bit fun, in others, even thrilling.”

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.

Married by Mistake

Congjiang was our former base when we were filming with the Kam at the beginning of this season, but as I have noted before, the Kam pushed another tribe, the Miao even further into the hills. Sure enough, in the highlands outside the Kam centre of Congjiang, there is a cluster of Miao villages.

These particular Miao pride themselves on their unique garb. They wear black clothes that are treated with egg-white to make them shiny, and everybody else in the world has been too polite to point out that this makes them all look like they are walking around wearing suits made out of bin bags. The men have ribbons hanging from the back of their belts that are called heartsick tokens. They look like brightly-coloured friendship bracelets, and each represents the possibly-unrequited attention of a lady. They are also the only ethnic minority whose national dress includes a flintlock musket, which all the men sport and let off at inopportune moments.

A Miao man, at least among these Biasha Miao, can be identified by his topknot, which represents the trees of his ancestor, and the fact that the rest of his head is entirely shaved. The Biasha Miao pride themselves on having nothing to do with the Chinese. They rarely venture out of their village, make their own clothes and their own entertainment, and are entirely self-sufficient in the food they grow on their mountain slopes.

Well, that’s the story. I spy legions of Biasha Miao girls sneaking away from their corn-shucking and pig-feeding to buy iced tea at the local café; everybody is tooling around on motorcycles, and the main activity of much of the village appears to be turning up thrice-daily to the village square to perform a bunch of dances for tourists. Visitors have to pay at the gate to get into the village, so one presumes that the entire town has made a tourist selling point of its claim not to have any tourist selling points.

Our press liaison is a perky girl who tries to feed me grasshoppers at lunchtime, and introduces me to the breezily minty local laowa tea, which in the assistant producer’s assessment tastes like Deep Heat, and in the director’s, like Listerine. I love it, but there is none for sale in the shops. They make it themselves from leaves they find on the mountainside.

Having recently been among Miao who take things a lot more seriously, the crew are entirely unmoved by a marching column of Biasha Miao girls pretending to blow into mantong bass instruments. We can see from the front seats that the mantongs don’t even have holes to blow in. Regardless, we dutifully film a hoppy-steppy dance with a bit of whirling, and witness the shaving of one of the men’s heads – from the looks of them, they take turns with each performance, which means that everybody gets a haircut about once every four or five days.

The MC then announces that they will demonstrate the marriage customs of the Miao by picking a member of the audience to marry a local girl, a tiny little thing with big silver earrings, wearing what appears to be a tablecloth.

The Miao bride inevitably scurries straight over to me, and I am dragged out amid the cat-calls of the crowd. I am then made to participate in a Miao wedding ceremony, which involves putting on a silly hat, holding a flintlock rifle, and then holding hands with my nameless new bride while we exchange three ceremonial cups of booze. We then each eat a handful of glutinous rice, and apparently we are married. We then wander around the crowd selling glutinous rice from a basket.

I try to keep a straight face on camera, which is difficult because the director is wetting herself laughing in the shadows, particularly when the announcer reveals that any new Miao groom is obliged to spend three years in the village before he is truly accepted. I’m already booked to spend three years with a Mongol witch. This is supposedly some sort of great cultural decision by the Miao, but it sounds like a good excuse for doing a runner, as indeed I plan to do. The new Mrs Clements doesn’t seem too bothered by it, as she will be marrying somebody else at the 3pm show. She didn’t even say goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E06 (2018).

A Time of Roses (1969)

“Helsinki, Finland, in the year 2012 is a prosperous, peaceful society ruled by a meritocracy of technicians. The somewhat smug researcher Raimo (Tuominen) embarks upon a project to compare his time with that of his ancestors, by making a drama-documentary about the life of a figure from the past. He settles upon the life of Saara Turunen (Vepsä), an uneducated saleswoman in the chemicals industry and part-time erotic model, who met with a tragic end in 1976. His mistress and collaborator Anu (Markus) alerts him to the existence of Kisse (also Vepsä), a contemporary woman who bears a striking resemblance to the historical Saara, and who is persuaded to take on her role in the film.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the 1969 Finnish oddity A Time of Roses.

Christ’s Samurai

Over at History Hack, I regale the squad with tales of the Shimabara Rebellion.

In 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

Yes, He Cannes

“So, what does it actually mean when Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle received a 14-minute ovation at Cannes [last] summer? It means, presumably, that French audiences rated it much higher than Moonrise Kingdom (2012, 5 minutes), and more than Twin Peaks (2017, 5 minutes). It means that, by some odd metric of hands smacking together, it was worth more than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, 7 minutes), better in some way than BlackkKlansman (2018, 10 minutes), and a smidgen more entertaining than Bowling for Columbine (2002, 13 minutes).”

With Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle receiving its UK-wide cinema release this Friday, I thought it was a good time to re-link to my article about it from October over on All the Anime.