Twinned with Wuhan

Dropped in yesterday on Manchester’s Chinatown, graced by an authentic Chinese gateway erected in 1987, shortly after the city was twinned with Wuhan. There’s an immense sampan picked out in bricks on the side of the car park and few of the tat shops that are slowly taking over London’s equivalent. Lunch was heavenly vegetarian mock duck at the Little Yang Sing.

Did Emma Laugh at the Sergeant? (1940)

In this pointlessly convoluted farce, company director Tobias (Uuno Laakso) tries in vain to persuade tailor and officer reservist Hesekiel (Reino Valkama) to sell him his property so that he can expand his factory. Meanwhile, at the garrison, the impossibly handsome Lieutenant Raimo (played by the impossibly handsome Kullervo Kalske) wants to marry the colonel’s daughter Helvi (Lea Joutseno), but her mother will have none of it, because she wants Emma to marry a poet, not a military man. In a vain attempt to win over the impossible lady, Raimo commissions his adjutant Asko (Oiva Sala) to knock up some terrible poetry, and to keep bombarding her with it until she admits Raimo is a better bet.

Meanwhile… look, everything’s “meanwhile” in this film, everything happens at once and while it is all sort of tied up with a bow like a well-greased episode of Seinfeld, there are an incredible number of moving parts and childhood associations, and somehow Tobias’s medical records are mixed up with someone else, and he ends up conscripted into the military, where the only person who can save his bacon is the very same tailor he has been harassing, who happens to be an old friend of Raimo. Amidst all this, the colonel’s maid Emma (Irja Rannikko) apparently laughs at something, which seems an odd thing to hang the whole film on.

Based on a 1939 novel of the same name by “A.V. Multia” (in fact, serving military officer Akseli Viljasalo), this baffling film is a return to the barracks larks of Cavalryman Kalle Kollola (1938) and The Red Trousers (1939). Critics were unimpressed, shrugging off something that they regarded as old hat, and not much in a mood to laugh at a soldier’s life so soon after a war. It was, however, lapped up by Finnish audiences, presumably now almost universally close to matters military, and happy to see it all treated so lightly.

In the closing scene, in a parody of military protocol, the colonel orders Raimo to stand to attention, face left and then kiss his daughter, which is all very well, but surely audiences of the time will remember seeing the same joke in The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938)?

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.

100 Animated Feature Films

“The question of why Osmond needs to bother goes to the larger issue of why a book like this exists in the first place. It is not quite the populist clickbait of “A Hundred Cartoons You Need to See Before You Die”, but rather a carefully curated collection that imparts a sense of what animation is and where it can go.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the new edition of Andrew Osmond’s 100 Animated Feature Films.

Chekhov’s Gonads

“Russell T. Davies, in fact, introduced me to a useful term in modern criticism – the ‘heterosexuality’ of mainstream drama, in which is it assumed that if a woman and a man are onscreen together, there needs to be some acknowledgement of chemistry (or lack of it) between them. In other words, it’s Chekhov’s Gonads, and if people have got them, popular tradition demands that they must be used.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Erica Friedman’s landmark history of lesbian anime and manga.

Great Bu’s Up

Our hotel in Huaibei is a carnival of lies. The crew veritably fought each other to get into the elevator for breakfast, eagerly awaiting the bagels, coffee and toast promised in the lobby posters. They arrived to find nothing but the usual dumplings, stodgy bread sticks and warm orange juice.

Huaibei is famous for one thing, and that is Kouzijiu, a popular form of alcoholic spirit. The process for making it is not dissimilar to the process for making soy sauce. Men with shovels mix a mushroom yeast into piles of sorghum grains, before leaving them to set for two months. Then, they are steamed in a giant vat, and the water that condenses at the other end is not water at all, but 60% alcohol.

Usually, the grains and yeast are spread and mixed by a machine on rails, but the shovels are out because a widget has broken on it. The shovellers walk back and forth over the warm grains, treading them into the floor with impunity. The air is rich with an earthy tang, like a sugar-coated fart.

A man called Bu brings a tray of fresh baijiu straight from the condenser, but he is obliged to wait for a whole hour while we faff with our shots. There needs to be one of me walking in, me describing the fermentation process, and me explaining that although it is only drunk in China, baijiu is still the world’s biggest selling spirit category, with annual turnover in excess of $23 billion.

Eventually, after Bu has been lurking for an hour in the shadows, the director decrees that we are done with documenting the making, and now we must move on to the sampling.

“Great,” she says at last. “Bu’s up.”

Mr Bu is to proffer a tray of the little thimble-glasses of baijiu, and I am to take one, and explain to camera how the Chinese show sincerity by draining their glass. Then I am to drain another one to show I am really sincere… then another.

I am, consequently, somewhat the worse for wear when I the local propaganda office insists on taking us for dinner. Three of their minions have been kicking their heels for an hour in the lobby, while our fixer shows them everything she can think of on her laptop. I am getting flashbacks to Bossy Lady in Yunnan, who was simply incapable of understanding that the last thing anybody wants to do after a 12-hour working day is sit across from her all evening chewing inedible local delicacies. Mr Fan from the propaganda office, however, is very keen to display the charms of Anhui, and drags us to a restaurant VIP room big enough for all nine of the crew, him, and the usual Chinese bunch of interlopers – a handful of people who may or may not also be propaganda office employees, but who sit at the table staring at their phones all evening.

Mr Fan opens up the first of many bottles of Kouzijiu, each one in a green ceramic bottle shaped vaguely like a fish, and decorated with a pattern of millet seeds. Everybody has a little thimble-glass by their plate, along with a small glass jug for booze. The toasting starts.

I am used to all this, so I know what to do. I know that I must drain my glass to show sincerity. I know that I must hold my glass slightly below my toaster’s, in order to show humility. I am not aware, until tonight, that when the Chinese go for a full-on blowout, they stop bothering with the thimble-glasses and start draining the jugs. Before long, they are all red-faced and giggly, trilling the joys of booze, and debating which country drank the most.

“We had a bunch of people a few years ago from Finland,” says a lady who is wearing a red leather jacket like a refugee from a 1980s Michael Jackson video. “They drank an awful lot.” Her name, it turns out, is Xi Feng, literally Western Phoenix – what are the odds that a woman from Anhui’s primary distillery town would be named after the competition in Shaanxi? It’s like meeting a man whose name is Jack Daniels.

Finally we are permitted to go back to our hotel, where we must pack for tomorrow’s journey to Shanghai – another ten hours on the road.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

Hikaru: In the Light

“Matsuda’s rags-to-riches tale is a quiet protest about, well, the whole idol singer industry. Everywhere in the modern world, but particularly in Japan, the politics of mass media entertainment favours the sort of algorithm-based dole that works enough to make money for corporations. Matsuda uses manga and talento, two of the most commodified and over-saturated media ever, to mount an argument for better things.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Mai Matsuda’s Hikaru: In the Light.

Ranking of Crims

Claiming that “readers” had pointed out typographical errors and issues, the e-publisher BookLive suspended its ongoing translation of the manga Ranking of Kings. There was, however, somewhat more to it than that. This wasn’t a case of a few commas in the wrong place and a quibble about whether to keep an honorific in the dialogue.

And it was one “reader” in particular, Katrina Leonoudakis, herself a professional translator of some years’ standing, who had brought the case to light by tweeting a damning multi-part analysis of the Ranking of Kings English version. In it, she demonstrated that the script, provided to BookLive by an outsourcing company called Dragon Digital, had lifted huge chunks of an unofficial fan translation.

Now, in terms of criminality, a “ranking of crims” if you like, complaining about this is a bit like a burglar complaining he’s been shot while invading your home. The fan translation is itself an infringement of the Ranking of Kings copyright, and some might think that nicking it was a bit of canny move on Dragon Digital’s part, stealing from the stealers. Except they hadn’t been paid to do that, they had been paid to produce a professional translation.

This has happened many more times than people are prepared to admit. In fact, I vaguely remember the first cases, in the late 1990s, dropping the going-rate so low that companies were only paying peanuts, and ultimately getting monkeys. What this has meant, over the years, is that translation has either become a labour of pure fannish love, or a grim, business-like triage as a minion tells themselves that they will need to turn around x episodes per day in order to make a living wage. Yes, quality suffers. No, I am not surprised.

The act of lifting scanlations has also been substantially more widespread than people care to admit. It wasn’t that long ago that I caught a well-known publisher blatantly lifting a scanlation for something they charged money for in English. When I innocently asked who had translated it for them, they hemmed and hawed and muttered something about bodging something together from “French and German sources.”

I lacked the time or energy to get as forensic as Leonoudakis about it, but it’s safe to say that her discovery has opened a can of worms that is going to wriggle all over the manga industry for some time.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #220, 2022.

Ni Kuang (1935-2022)

“Hong Kong remained his home thereafter, but his antipathy for the Communist regime did not slacken in later years. In a 2009 interview, he provocatively announced that he was less afraid of China during the purges of the Mao era, since the worst possible danger to the world would be presented by a predatory capitalist system run by a dictatorial elite.”

Ni Kuang, who died yesterday, is the subject of a long entry I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

None Shall Sleep

One of Master Wei‘s children has gone into business with one of the nephews, thereby proving that although they look normal, they are just as much mentalists as Master Wei. They have set up a bespoke restaurant that only serves products that have been made with tea. The clientele is somewhat exclusive, restricted to coach parties of tea nutters doing the Tea Tour, as well as visiting Party bigwigs and foreign film crews.

Chef Chen, the cousin, has drawn elaborate displays on each plate, picking out the National Geographic logo in custard, and drawing a map of the Silk Road in chocolate sauce. He shows me around his brushed-steel kitchen, and fires up the volcano stove, so named because it whooshes into life like a lost jet engine, and heats up his wok in half a minute .

Chef Chen is decked out in all his funny-hat finery, and a chef’s hat is found for me as well so that I can look ridiculous next to him. He treats me to a selection of amuses-bouche, many of which have the slightly desperate taint of a man trying to find an excuse to put tea in things. There are deep-fried tea leaves in batter; goose feet braised in tea, lamb soup with a tincture of tea… you get the idea. I am forced to down far too many spoonfuls of his deep-fried bee larvae with crisped tea leaves for my liking, and there is no beer. Only… tea.

What first appears to be some sort of candy for dessert turns out to be balls of deep-fried salad cream, lightly dusted with… tea.

“You place them here on this map I have done in chocolate that shows the Silk Road,” he says. “There’s Quanzhou, where we are now, and Hong Kong, and Indonesia, Thailand… where are you from?”

“England,” I say. “So on this scale, that should be somewhere over there behind the fridge.”

For a lot of the time, I am mercifully excused from the kitchen while the crew film B-roll of Chef Chen at work concocting his masterpieces from ingredients that might as well have been randomly selected with a dartboard. This leaves me downstairs in the plush foyer, decorated with golden statues of elements of the tea-making process, and photographs of Master Wei shaking hands with a bunch of Chinese people I don’t recognise. There are also displays of the various Iron Guanyin teas that can be bought from the Wei family collective, including the infamous £36,000/kilo “Wei 18,” the most expensive tea in the world.

This leaves me for an hour in the company of the Wei son and his cronies, who while away the evening sipping little cups of… wait for it… tea, made by a prim young lady in business attire. My experiences in Yunnan have taught me the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony, and so I watch as she goes through the motions of cleaning, refreshing, boiling, washing… all seemingly quite common sense to me now, although they seemed impossibly intricate only a month ago. The men witter about nothing, while their serving girl remains impassive and silent. The time passes pleasantly enough, until midnight, when we are then informed that Chef Chen has now finished the food preparation for the documentary, but that now he expects us to eat it.

A tense and malevolently quiet banquet then ensues as we all try to force down as many bee larvae and deep-fried salad cream puffs as we can, before we are finally permitted to leave.

It is half past midnight, but that is of little help to us, since we have been consuming TEA all evening. I don’t get to sleep until 4am.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).