The Child is Mine (1940)

Laundry-worker Elsa (Kaisu Leppänen) marries Antti (Harry Sinijärvi) after a whirlwind one-day courtship, only to suffer for three years of constant failures to have a child together. Increasingly obsessed over getting pregnant, she goes away to the countryside to stay with Antti’s sister Katri (Lilli Sairio), only to enter into a torrid and ultimately fertile romance with local labourer Rannikkolainen (the ever-smoldering Eino Kaipainen). Protesting that she still loves her husband, but cannot keep away from Rannikkolainen’s rugged charms, she continues their affair, despite words of warning from Katri that village gossips are talking about her.

When the ailing Antti comes to visit, Elsa confesses to Rannikkolainen that she is pregnant, but that her child “…is neither yours nor my husband’s. The child is mine.” After Elsa chooses to return to the city with her husband, a heartbroken Rannikkolainen begins a relationship with Kaisu (Regina Linnanheimo), a local girl who has carried a torch for him for years. Elsa, meanwhile, confesses to her dying husband that she is pregnant, and asks for his forgiveness. She returns to the countryside in search of Rannikkolainen, but he has already agreed to marry Kaisu. Accepting her fate, Elsa congratulates Kaisu and returns to the city and her job in the laundry, asking her infant son not to judge her.

Well, that escalated quickly. Drawing on Helvi Hämälainen’s 1937 novel The Empty Embrace (Tyhjä syli), scenarist Arvi Kivimaa delivers a surprisingly progressive account of what was sure to be a recurring social issue in post-war times – a spate of unwed and/or widowed mothers recalling the scandals and tragedies seen before in The Women of Niskavuori (1938), Green Gold (1939) and God’s Judgement (1939). The early scenes of this Suomen Filmiteollisuus film are particularly good on the drudgery of blue-collar work, as Elsa, her biological clock ticking like timpani, pouts and sighs her way around the grim, back-breaking work of washing Finnish bedsheets in the days before washing machines. But as the script makes clear, she is not desperate – she rejects the advances of the handsy chauffeur Nieminen (Ossi Elstelä), so it’s not like she is ready to plight her troth with the first man to blow in her ear.

Not that Antti is a dreamboat hero, sweeping her off her feet. When he proposes to her, with the twin, thin rings of Finnish tradition (one for engagement, the other to be added at the wedding itself) she acts as if he has just run over her cat, and, somewhat gauchely, immediately starts wittering about how this her chance to have a child. In a charmingly Finnish moment, when her fellow washerwomen see that she has got engaged, they line up to shake her hand enthusiastically, bellowing their congratulations – no squeals and squees here. In fact, the no-nonsense, go-getting strength of Finnish women is a constantly recurring theme in this film, showing up in all manner of set-ups, such as the time that Elsa bodily ejects a drunken, abusive man from a tenement, and where she, with her powerful washerwoman’s arms, elects to row a boat on the lake, leaving even the manly Rannikkolainen to meekly hold the tiller.

Actor-turned-director Jorma Nortimo concentrates conspicuously on the joys of the Finnish countryside, as if delivering a celebration of all that is wholesome and good about agrarian life, almost as if suggesting that the sickly Antti was an urban, modern failure – a dud who would have died on Elsa sooner or later anyway, and that Rannikkolainen is something of a noble savage, part-Heathcliff, part-Mellors, doing his bit for posterity by helping to make little Finns. He is helped greatly in this by the casting, since Eino Kaipainen had been a Shatner-esque leading man for years, while Harry Sinijärvi had only appeared in two previous films, and is hence something of a non-entity. Kaipainen, in fact, is so magnetic on-screen that he even manages to get a smile out of Regina Linnanheimo, who as previously noted on this blog, usually looks like she is chewing a wasp. He first appears, driving a horse-drawn milk cart standing up, like a Ben Hur of the Finnish countryside, and is no less gropey with her than the city-man she had previously rebuffed.

Nortimo, meanwhile, tries every trick in the book to inject the film with symbolism and subtleties, such as a scene in which Elsa is filmed through the mesh of a fisherman’s net, as if she, too, is entrapped by her circumstances, or where Elsa and Rannikkolainen’s embrace is shot in silhouette, criss-crossed by telling barbed wire. There are some lovely stills kicking around from this production, suffused with the light of a forgotten Finnish summer, the exteriors presumably held off until the very last days of shooting, in order to make the most of June-July, and have the film ready for its release in September 1940.

The Finnish press of the time was guardedly positive about a “sensitive subject”, although the Swedish-language newspapers seemed to latch onto it as a quintessentially “Finnish” theme, as if only Finnish country bumpkins got up to this sort of thing, and Swedes would never dream of it.

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.

Paws for Thought

As a parent, one of the surprising things about my daily life is how many cartoons I end up having to sit through. I know, right? The irony. And I’m wondering what it is that is the cartoon of choice among the kids at Mamoru Hosoda’s house.

“Oh,” he says, “they are mad for PAW Patrol. It’s PAW Patrol all the time at our place.”

Blimey, I say to the director of Summer Wars and Belle, that must be awful.

“Oh no, it’s great,” he says graciously. “All these little dogs and it’s kind of like a sentai show. They love it.”

I personally can’t imagine the horror of being a world-class animator, who comes home after a tiring day making films to discover that your kids are obsessed with Canadian cartoon dogs, but Hosoda is determined not to be That Kind of Animator.

“I don’t make a big deal about being The Guy Who Made the Films,” he says, despite literally being the guy who made the films. “I did take my daughter to see Belle at the cinema, and there was one of those UFO Catcher machines at the cinema, which had Belle dolls in it. She was keen enough on the film to ask me to win her one. I must have put three thousand yen [£20] into that machine!”

At this point, I have to point out to him that he wrote and directed Belle and owned all the licences. If he wanted a box of Belle dolls dropped on his doorstep that night, he only had to make a phone call.

“Yes,” he says shyly, “but I’m not the kind of guy who says I directed the film. I’m the kind of Dad who wants his daughter to see him win something.”

It’s a lovely little window into his character, and into how sweetly he puts family ahead of work. But with the sight of both Belle and PAW Patrol: The Movie on the Oscars Best Animated Feature longlist, will there be a ceremonial burning of doggie merchandise at the Hosoda home?

“I think if my kids were voting members of the Academy, they would be voting for PAW Patrol without a second thought,” he grimaces. “But luckily, they’re not.”

[Peace was preserved when neither film made the shortlist] Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #217, 2022.

Anime in the UK

Anime in the UK: the History, Cultural Context, and Evolution of UK Anime Fandom by Leah Holmes is the culmination of over a decade’s work, an M.Phil thesis that covers 30+ years, most crucially of the 1990s, before the internet singularity so vastly increased the amount of data (and noise) available. A super-fun read for anyone who was there, and something of an eye-opener, I expect, for anyone who wasn’t.


Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Simon Amstell’s 2017 satire Carnage.

“Echoing the rhetoric and “cancel culture” of the 2010s, with such disruptions to the status quo as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Amstell offers a conceptual breakthrough: that it is not veganism that is odd, trendy or cranky, but ‘carnism’ – a shared delusion of humanity that meat-eating was acceptable, with no consideration of the ethical implications.”

Roof Licking

It’s Saturday, so we must be in Weihai, a city I have hoped to visit for 20 years. It was formerly Weihaiwei – The Guard Against the Majestic Sea, site of an ancient fort that warned against Japanese pirates, and a redoubt for the Qing dynasty navy. It was where Admiral Ding Ruchang stood up to the Japanese invaders even though he knew he stood no chance, and went to his death by imperial command, proclaiming to his sailors: “Fight on, though your swords be broken.” Later on, it became a forgotten backwater of the British Navy, the summer anchorage for their Asian fleet, mourned by its magistrate, Reginald Johnston, former tutor of the Last Emperor, as the “Cinderella of the Empire.”

But I’m not seeing any of that, because we are out on a spit of land dotted with wind turbines, looking at seaweed. The village here is full of little thatched cottages, their roofs made of dried sea grass. Mr Wang the brown-skinned village elder hugs me like an old friend, and shows me the piles that look suspiciously like hay, but actually comprise marine produce.

“We used to just grab it from the beach,” he says, “but there isn’t any left anymore, so we have to buy it from people who demolish old cottages. I honestly don’t know how we are going to repair our roofs when we run out of recycled stuff.”

He is desperately proud of his thatching, proclaiming that it is warm in winter and cool in summer, wonderfully waterproof and even fireproof. When I tell him that can’t possibly be true, he pulls out his lighter and sets fire to a few strands, which resolutely refuse to burn.

Frances is supposed to be interpreting for the other Jonathan (the director), but has trouble following Mr Wang’s Rongcheng accent, a form of Chinese with harder tones and simplified vowels, suitable for shouting from ship to ship. Oddly, it doesn’t trouble me at all, and makes no more or less sense than any other Chinese, and it has echoes of the classical forms and southern dialects. He doesn’t say jia for house, he says gya. He says gyu instead of jiu for old. Instead of Nihao for hello, he says Niho. I don’t regard any of these shifts as particularly earth-shattering, but for Frances, who is from Taiwan, he might as well be speaking Martian.

I explain that I often can only pick out a couple of words from a fast Chinese sentence and have to fill in the blanks on the fly, so it really makes little difference to me what someone’s accent is.

“That’s kind of how I listen to you and Jonathan talk.” she admits. “All these British terms are very hard. I keep having to wonder, what is a bollocks? What makes someone a muppet? And is it good if they are having a larf?”

I am going to have to climb a rickety ladder onto a rooftop in order to do something practical. Wang, who is in his seventies, refuses to come up, but is filmed standing at ground level snickering at my incompetence. Jonathan’s colleague, Yu the Chinese director is deeply fretful that making me climb onto the roof of a cottage is beyond the call of duty, but I explain that it is precisely the duty that I have, and eagerly climb up the roof to perch on the apex with a deeply sun-tanned old man in a baseball cap with a super-extended brim to hold off the hot sun.

“Who the hell are you?” he asks, and Frances shouts up that I am a foreigner come to learn about his culture. Thatching a Chinese roof with seaweed turns out to be rather easy, as you simply stretch it out into parallel lines and then jam it into the roof with your body weight – a resource I have in abundance. We laugh on the roof together as the drone circles us, and I ask him if he even stops to admire the view – the long lines of wind turbines, and the sea that reaches all the way to Korea. Oh yes, he says, although I can’t stop for a fag up here. Don’t listen to Wang. This stuff isn’t as fireproof as he thinks.

The Chinese director acts like I have been juggling chainsaws for the good of the production, but in truth I have been in far less danger on the rooftop than the crew, who are hanging by their fingertips – the A and B cameramen are only prevented from tumbling off by their assistants holding their belts, and Boomer the Boom Mike is perched on a ledge like a monkey.

“Here, try some of this,” says the unnamed roofer, passing around some strands of the sea grass. “Seriously, just lick it.”

Me and the B Cameraman gingerly tongue the hundred-year-old seaweed, requisitioned from a demolished cottage somewhere else in the bay.

“See. It’s still salty. After a century!” he proclaims.

Lunch is an open-air seafood banquet with Mr Shouty, a man whose entire life has been spent yelling up at the topmast on fishing boats, and who seems to have no volume control. But he is beaming when his wife and daughter put the food on the table and I proclaim it in all truth to be the best sea food I have had in my life. There are whole crabs, clams and oysters, freshly gathered that morning, and fish caught with a line. Speaking as someone who often cannot tackle seafood without retching, it is a revelation, even better than the food I had in Hainan. The crew have helped me by loading me up with baijiu beforehand, on the assumption that if there is anything dodgy about the seafood, the alcohol will kill it. We sneak some more firewater into our glasses whenever the crew change their batteries, and Ruby the Interpreter looks on longingly – she is obsessed with clams and mussels, and if left unsupervised, can often found behind an entire midden of empty shells.

We end the day on a nearby beach, where I deliver a speech about what Shandong must have meant to the people of Confucius’s day. Chinese civilisation was centred on the Yellow River valley, which must have made the coastline seem like a magical place, the end of the world, where there was nothing to see towards the east but ocean. It was on a beach like this, I suggest, that the First Emperor met the Daoist priest who suggested to him that if he had conquered the world of the living, the new frontier was surely to conquer death itself, an experiment that he could invest in by sending a fleet of ships into the rising sun, in search of the isles of the immortals.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

Going for a Song

Wang Zengyu has a historian’s frustration with the media, irked beyond words by some of the liberties taken by authors who think “ancient China” just means a few thees and thous. “Few producers,” he fumes, “bother to pay attention to historical facts and detailed nuances of a specific historical period, so that a large number of productions are so carelessly made that they simply drive historians crazy.”

Wang is credited last on the cover, but appears to be the prime mover behind this superb collection of essays about all aspects of life in China’s Middle Ages. A Social History of Middle-Period China: The Song, Liao, Western Xia and Jin Dynasties is an incredible 700+-page guide to marriage customs, rituals, forms of address, food, hairstyles… pretty much any topic you care to consider. It is a veritable Dungeon Master’s Guide for anyone seeking to plunge into recreating the world not only of the Song dynasty, but of the several other polities that jostled for supremacy in the area we now call China.

Because Wang his co-authors refuse to take the shilling of the grand narrative of one dynasty following another, and argue that the Tibetans, the “Savages” of the south, the Jurchen invaders and the Tangut neighbours all had just as much a claim of being part of Chinese history as the better-remembered Song dynasty. Separate sections outline the wide diversity in China between the 9th and 12th centuries and it’s all brilliantly, cogently translated into English by Bang Qianzhu. The result is one of those books that makes me wish I was writing about the Song dynasty, because I’d have all the local colour at my fingertips.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

It is known…

Where the mountains meet the sea, there is a valley that leads down to the rocky beach. A giant bronze statue of Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, stands overlooking the coast, his left hand pointed up to heaven, his right hand towards the earth.

“What’s that about?” I ask the Abbot, who looks a bit like David Duchovny with a wispy beard.

“The left hand is upwards, because it is yang. The right hand is downwards because it is yin. Yang Heaven and Yin Earth, and what is between them? You are,” he says.

He is clad in sky-blue robes that have not changed a whole lot in the last two thousand years, when the first Daoists reached this high point on the coast and decided to site their temple here. His hair is tied in a topknot that pokes through the top of his hat. And we are sitting cross-legged on a rock that juts out above the forest and the crashing sea, where he is supposed to be showing me how to meditate.

“Empty your mind,” he says, “and concentrate on the sounds of the natural world around you.”

The sounds of the natural world currently include a crew of two dozen people: the clapper loader, the director, the assistant director, the A cameraman, the B cameraman, their various grips, the battery guy, the sound guy with his little hostess trolley full of gubbins and wires, with two giant aerials like shark’s fins, Mitch the producer, who is trying to describe the plot of a film called G.I. Executioner, in which a topless girl falls into a fishnet in the middle of a gunfight, Frances the fixer showing pictures of her cat to some random passer-by, and several runners telling everyone to keep quiet. Meanwhile, there is the chainsaw buzz of the drone as it hovers around us like an angry dragonfly.

“Hurry up!” shouts one of the tour guides. “The tourists will turn up soon, and then it will get noisy.”

With a messy clatter, the drone crashes into a tree and stays there. With weary sighs, two members of the Drone Team begin the long walk down to the car park to get their ropes and ladders.

I am getting a sixth sense about interviewees. These days, I can tell usually at first glance whether someone is going to be like getting blood out of a stone, or a fun and easy conversationalist. Abbot Huo is mercifully one of the latter, ready to answer any question with a well-argued speech. He tells me about the origins of Daoism, the practices of their rituals, and his own version of the famous meeting between Confucius and Laozi. Or as it turns out, not so famous.

“Confucius was a pupil of Laozi. It is known,” says one assistant like some ill-informed Dothraki.

“They met once, apocryphally,” I say, and she sulks for the rest of the day. There are some mumblings that she has “read some books”, but they plainly aren’t the actual books that I am passing around in the bus on my Kindle – The Book of History and the Zhuangzi, which are the places where the story of Confucius’s meeting with Laozi is actually told. That’s because this is my job. That’s why I have marked those passages, because National Geographic require two printed sources, not something someone overheard at a party once.

In the grounds of the temple, there is a statue of Confucius meeting Laozi, with an inscription next to it telling the story.

“This is from the Analects,” says a camera assistant, trying to help.

“It’s from The Book of History,” I tell her, pointing at the words Book of History on the inscription. I do this for a living and have no time for the Twitter version. It is my job to show up at dawn for the reconnaissance mission, see what there is to talk about, and then to wait, sometimes for hours with nothing to do, until the moment when I am obliged to leap into action and deliver a 20-second speech with no mistakes, about an obscure matter of classical Chinese philosophy. Everybody has a difficult job to do, but this is mine.

The Abbot walks with me through a grove of camellia trees, discussing his childhood love of the Chinese opera The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, and the opposition of his parents towards his chosen, celibate profession. All of a sudden, I realise that this origin-story could have been told at any point in the last three hundred years.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“A Daoist never tells,” he replies.

How I wish all interviewees were like him, ready with a quotable, editable answer, keen to explain things, experienced enough to know that having to repeat an action thirty times is not unknown in the television world. Although I am resisting orders as much as possible, and conducting interviews in Chinese, the director is demanding that I ask the main questions in English, which the Abbot does not speak. The Abbot suggests that we prime him with a list of subjects, and that I ask the next one along in English after he unobtrusively flips his right sleeve during an answer. It means we get through the whole interview in a single long take, and I can ask him anything I want with the audio recording as we walk through on second and third pick-ups for different lenses.

He shows me how to hold my hands in the Daoist symbol of respect – an immortal gang sign I find myself flashing at nuns and monks for the rest of the day. He explains that the chanting from the earlier ceremony was the three names of the Daoist Emperor-Officials: The One Who Confers Blessings, The One who Absolves Sins, and The One Who Eliminates Misfortunes. He shows me the acupressure points on my legs to relieve the pain of sitting cross-legged on a rock for half an hour, and he gives his own version of the story of Confucius’s fabled meeting with Laozi.

I do my version at the statue, leaping between the two philosophers’ statues like a sarcastic umpire, relating the story as it is set down in the Zhuangzi – the longest variant, while a series of gawping Chinese tourists shuffle pass and pretend to know what the inscription says.

“It’s from the Analects,” says one, wrongly.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

A Short History of Beijing

Before China’s capital became a sprawling megacity and international centre of business and culture, its fortunes fluctuated under a dozen dynasties. It has been a capital for several states, including those headed by Mongolian chiefs and the glorious Ming emperors, whose tombs can still be found on its outskirts. And before all that, it was a campsite for primitive hominids, known as the Peking Man.

A Short History of Beijing tells the story of this remarkable city, from its more famous residents – Khubilai Khan, Mulan, and Marco Polo – right up to the twenty-first century, as modern construction wipes out so much of the old city to make way for its twenty-million-strong population. Through his timely and intimate portrait of the world’s most populous capital city, Jonathan Clements reveals the history of China itself.

This first paperback edition includes several new sections that take the history of Beijing up to the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Order direct from Haus before midnight on 8th March using the code MARCH20 and receive a 20% discount and free UK postage.

Praise for the earlier hardback edition:

“This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

“…direct, well-written history, that travels at a steady pace from Peking Man to the ill-fated opening of a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City… if you’re after some interesting facts to impress friends and visitors with, this is the book for you.” — That’s Beijing

“Jonathan Clements evocatively captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Beijing while rooting the city in its broader historical context … Covering such a wide swathe of territory is no easy task, but Clements does so skilfully and often wittily, weaving together myth, factual data and vivid details …” — Times Literary Supplement

Confessions of a Mask

“But as director Yuasa notes, the war was not merely a time of catastrophic conflict, but a spur to artistic creation, as travelling bards began recording martial deeds in song, in saga-like chronicles like the aforementioned Tale of the Heike. It was, Inu-Oh suggests, a crisis that helped form the Matter of Japan, a terrible national event that only healed over the centuries as later generations processed the trauma at first as a form of exorcism, and later through the creative arts.”

Over at All the Anime, and with a little help from Carl Sagan, I explain the complex historical origins of Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh — cursed swords, samurai spirits, forgotten rock stars and no business like Noh business.