Finland, Our Dear Native Land (1940)

Wounded in the Winter War, Karelian soldier Eino (Eino Kaipainen) is granted leave by his senior officer to visit his dying mother. He finds her in Antila, central Finland, just in time to bid a final farewell, but his late mother’s landlady Annikki (Ansa Ikonen) says he can stay if he works at the manor. Reluctant to rely on others’ charity, but fearing a lifetime of sofa-hopping and vagrancy, Eino takes her up on her offer, and starts renovating a nearby cottage.

He encounters his old war buddy, Janne (Vilho Auvinen), and they sing old songs from their lost homeland. Eino clashes with Annikki over her earnest offer of donating some old clothes to him, and eventually comes to realise that the various odd jobs he is performing are not intended to better the lives of the locals, but to prepare some of the manor land for a profitable sale.

Mika Waltari is back after his triumph with The February Manifesto (1939), and it never ceases to amaze just what a different a real writer can make. Oi, kallis Suomenmaa was based on his own article “Sotilan paluu” (The Return of the Soldier), published in the wartime bulletin Sotainvaliidi, a call for how things should be, “”a description of Finland in 1940, with its sorrows, struggles and hopes for the future.” Renamed to allude to the stirring Heikki Klemet anthem that plays over its ending credits, it is a fascinatingly modern treatment of the refugee condition, delving deep into the experience of being removed from one’s homeland and dumped in a faraway place, uprooted from all support. There is a certain irony, particularly in the English title for this film, Finland, Our Dear Native Land, since the Karelians are both natives and not-natives, “real” Finns who nevertheless hail from a place that has suddenly been turned into part of Russia. The fascinating story of how several hundred thousand Karelians were welcomed and somehow incorporated into free Finland in the 1940s is a story rarely told or referenced today, but Waltari’s script offers a form of up-close reportage of what it must have been like. Eino and his colleagues are variously welcomed, pitied, exploited and even pushed towards criminality by their experience, while the locals in their new home have to come to terms with the needs and wants of these very different people in their midst.

In a particularly moving scene, Eino and Janne run into the old kantele player Aku the Karelian (Toppo Elonperä), whose appearance will recall to any Finn watching the mythical poet of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen. But the bearded Aku is reduced to little more than a busker on the streets of Heinola, his hat on the ground conspicuously empty of any coins from the uncaring passers-by. He lurks in the rest of the film as a Gaimanesque phantom, an echo of ancient times somehow observing and participating in the modern world.

Ultimately, Eino’s hard work pays off, and he wins both his croft and the hand of fair Annikki, ending with the young lovers gazing down on the lakes and rolling fells of their beloved land. Director Wilho Ilmari ably steps up to the task, pausing the film wherever he can to point the camera literally and pointedly at the land of Finland itself.

There was a slew of films that touched on the Karelian refugees in the latter part of 1940, and Oi, kallis Suomenmaa was arguably the best when set against the likes of Anu and Mikko or Foxtail in the Armpit. Critics in the press were nowhere near as happy with it, decrying it for being too close to its material, too sentimental, and too naively patriotic. Leo Schulgin in the Helsingin Sanomat opined that it would take time and distance from the war to truly document events in dramatic form, but the story of the Karelian evacuees is one that remains scandalously undertold, even today. Writing for the Karjala newspaper in Lappeenranta, Erkki Paavolainen complained that its portrayal of Finland as a glorious pastoral paradise was one-sided, and rather avoided the burned-out homes and blackened forests of Karelia itself – a rather pointless criticism that seems to wish Waltari’s script had been about something else altogether. Notably, Waltari’s original script did begin with a montage of war-torn Karelia, but Ilmari cut it in pre-production. Only the unimpressable Paula Talaskivi in the Ilta Sanomat was actually impressed, praising the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio for “tackling a delicate and demanding subject with excellent tact and consideration.” She also noted the strong use of Karelian music, an audio evocation of what the men have left behind, in its way just as expressive as Paavolainen’s wish-list for wreckage and ruins.

There are all sorts of lovely touches in this film, including Annikki’s fantastic expression at Eino’s mother’s graveside, as Eino puts his mother’s wedding ring on her finger, and she visibly struggles to contain her glee at what is supposed to be a sombre event. The camera pans across the other graves nearby, double-exposed on footage of marching soldiers, as if to say: this is why we fought.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Gone Fishing

There are roosters crowing during the night. This is considered bad luck by the Kam, and the only remedy is to hack off the rooster’s head with a cleaver, so I guess it will be chicken tonight.

“I’m getting some ducks in,” says Mr Wu over our garlicky noodle breakfast. “You know, for the festival.” I don’t know, but I am sure I will find out. Daniel the cameraman returns from the drum tower in the morning light to say that the first ox of the mass slaughter has already been dispatched, and the place is awash with blood. Rather than film the aftermath, the director waits for them to clear it up, and decrees that this morning Pan will take me fishing, as practice for tomorrow’s fishing contest.

Never ones to do anything the sane way, the Kam prefer to catch their fish by hand, which is how I find myself knee deep in a rice paddy, sticking my arms into the muddy water in search of a helpful carp. Pan manages to snag one almost instantly and throws it over to me, so that I can do a good impersonation of a man trying to hang onto a wriggly fish.

He snatches one from the water, and observes that it is not wriggling enough. He shoves his little finger deep into its mouth, and its starts to thrash about, as you might well do if Pan shoved a digit in one of your orifices.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events features in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

Pirating the Straw Hat Pirates

To Ghent, Belgium where conceptual artist and provocateur Ilan Manouach has thrown the cat among the pigeons with a new artwork that reprints 21,450 pages of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece manga as a single, unreadable book in a slipcase, with the word “D’oh!” prominent in Japanese on its end.

“Online participatory culture and the medium’s new networked possibilities have intensified the nature of comics beyond the scope of professional, established expertise with new and disruptive forms of entrepreneurial fan culture,” writes Manouach on his website. “Readers now actively scan, translate and distribute online their favourite manga series. ONEPIECE is a product of this expanded digital production belt.”

I think what he means to say is that his artwork has been made in reference to the glorious world of scanlation, but if that’s his intention, he is walking right into a copyright minefield. Japanese publishers are unsurprisingly unsupportive of scanlations, since they amount to copyright theft. Nor can Manouach trot out the facetious old saw about “exposure”, because the worldwide bestseller One Piece does not require his help in finding readers.

In a thorny legal area, he implies that his artwork is safe because it is unreadable, and therefore not infringing anyone’s copyright. Except nothing has stopped manga publishers selling “unreadable” books before (don’t get me started…!), and Manouach is offering copies of his supposedly unreadable book for €1900 a throw, in a very limited print run of 50.

“The product you mentioned is not official,” said Keita Murano of the rights department at Shueisha, One Piece‘s publisher. “We don’t give permission to them.” Or in other words, if Manouach expects to coin in €95,000 from selling an unlicensed edition of One Piece, unreadable or not, Shueisha is going to come down on him like a manga hammer.

As a work of art, ONEPIECE is fantastically thought-provoking – a material evocation of what it means today for a single “story” to run on into multiple volumes, which either clutter up one’s bookshelves or sit, unnoticed on e-readers. Manouach, who recently earned a PhD in comics epistemology from Aalto University in Finland, adds it to a list of similar intellectual stunts, including his Topovoros books, which are designed, printed, bound and distributed exclusively within a single district of Athens, and Tintin akei Congo, an edition of Tintin in the Congo translated with anti-colonial verve into the Congolese language. You have not heard the last from him, I guarantee it, but he has not heard the last from Shueisha.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Blue Thermal

“I want animation to be something that enriches the lives of its audience,” he said. “In this work, I wanted to emphasise the value of having a positive attitude even if life throws you into situations you don’t like. Now I’m a grown-up, I can appreciate that some people go to the movies to escape things they don’t like about their lives, so I guess that what I really want is that you come to see this movie, and for a while afterwards, you feel good about yourself.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Masaki Tachibana’s Blue Thermal, the first of the movies in competition at next month’s Scotland Loves Anime.

Staged Data

Last month’s big news might have been about Crunchyroll shutting down free simulcasts, but there are other ructions in the streaming world that have drawn less comment from the anime world. In part, that’s because right now, it doesn’t seem to be anime’s problem.

Amid press speculation about a drop in subscriber numbers, Netflix has suddenly started cutting back on some of its animation projects in development. So, that isn’t like shutting down the live-action Cowboy Bebop after twenty days; that’s choosing not to make a bunch of shows at all, as if someone at Netflix woke up one morning and decided: “Wow, that Meghan Markle cartoon series was a bad idea. What was I thinking!?” So out goes Markle’s Pearl, along with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Lauren Faust’s Toil and Trouble, and the actual head of animation development at Netflix, Phil Rynda, fired along with a bunch of his staff, before any of the projects can see the air.

Netflix is feeling the pinch, as its model of presumably infinite expansion starts to hit a wall. People are sharing accounts. People are not signing up by the million any more, because they already have. And that means that the money train risks coming off the tracks unless the channel stops throwing cash at everything and starts focussing on real money-spinners.

Elizabeth Ito, the director of City of Ghosts (pictured), griped that Netflix manipulated its own stats to prove whatever it wanted to, a phenomenon that she called “staged data.” I’ve noted in the past that it’s difficult to work out what Netflix means when they say something oddly worded like “at least one anime watched a year by every household in x territory.” Those are vague comments – one whole series of a Netflix exclusive, for example, is a bit more of a guarantor of blue-chip value then ten minutes of a Miyazaki film that someone didn’t finish. And “household” is a vague thing as well – it would mean that because my son inexplicably likes Moomins, my whole household, including its Moomin-hating Dad, would somehow be tagged as Moomin lovers.

But Ito’s complaint was that Netflix were similarly evasive behind the scenes, carefully labelling pie charts or cutting off graphs in order to tell people like her that their show wasn’t doing as well as they thought it was, and that hence they had to cut corners, even if someone was winning awards.

The irony is, however, that this news tells us one thing we couldn’t be sure of before. Anime really is doing well for Netflix. We know this because, so far, the anime shows on Netflix have been largely untouched by the long knives. For now, at least.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article appeared in NEO #221, 2022.

My Friend’s Sister…

“…even as the characters bumped into each other, stammered their true feelings, walked in on each other on the loo and obsessed about boobs, several of them were ready to pop their heads over the parapet and suggest that this was all nonsense.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Ghost Mikawa’s My Best Friend’s Little Sister Has it In For Me.

Japanese Food in America

“…the fatty parts of tuna, vital for high-class sashimi, were once discarded in the United States as only suitable for cat food, while the ‘bloody-red flesh’ of tuna was ‘considered too strong-tasting and smelly.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Gil Asakawa’s breezy Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.

The Flying Knives

If you need to avenge yourself against your enemies, you will need a basin filled with water and two knives used for killing pigs. Place the knives in the water and get your sorcerer to chant the correct incantation over the bowl. If he’s doing his job right, the knives will turn into fish and the water will turn into blood, and you will know that your enemy is not long for this world, because he will be killed by the “flying knives”.

Alternatively, stick pins in a doll and bury it on his birthday. Or kill a rooster, and stick pins in its head, on his birthday. Kam people don’t like to tell you when their birthday is.

Eric the camera assistant likes to say we are among the “Southern Barbarians”, an oddly medieval construction that recognises so much of this part of China is a very different culture. The Kam are just one of the peoples in this area, who plainly migrated from somewhere else, pushed south by the Han Chinese themselves, and who have only partly got used to the idea of huddling on remote hillsides. They are all incredibly short, quite dark and often quite impassive. Pan, our local fixer, has taken two days to come out of his shell, and only then revealed to the director that he was married with a kid, and that he would be taking us to meet his family.

Pan’s village is called Tang-an. To get there involves a 40-minute drive from Congjiang, the nearest big town, through Zhaoxing, the “capital” of the Kam, because it has five drum towers – any more than one in a Kam town is liable to be a family tower to mark the presence of several households with the same surname. And then out into the mountains beyond Zhaoxing, along a winding mountain road, up into the heights, when Tang-an is stretched out on the slopes above the rice paddies.

In the evening, we lurk around until half past nine, waiting for a practice session for the song contest that is coming up in the village. But none of the people who are supposed to be involved appear to be doing anything. Eventually an old lady called Lan Big Sister says she will take me to meet her friends, a bunch of cackling grannies who are singing a song in Kam in a dilapidated house near the fish pond. Matters are somewhat confused because Lan doesn’t really speak Mandarin.

“Here is some guy from Yinland,” she says, apparently not knowing where that is.

“Come in, come in!” shout the grannies. “We are singing a song in Kam about the benefits of government subsidies for pensioners.” So I try to sing along in a nine-tone language which sounds like the Bulgarian Shepherdesses falling down some stairs, while a heifer in the stalls next door keeps on letting out long farts that are picked up by my microphone.

Halfway through, a granny who has gone out for a dump comes back in to find the squalid room brightly lit with lamps, and a National Geographic film crew crouched in the corner while I perch on a little stool and try to sing a chorus that has two glottal stops.

“What the actual fuck is going on?” she gasps.

“Just pretend we are not here,” says the director.

It is past eleven at night before we struggle back through the streets, pausing only to help a villager carry a moped over a large pile of bricks that has been left in the middle of the narrow mountain road. My limbs are aching. I have a headache from our landlord Mr Wu’s moonshine, and we still don’t know what we are supposed to be filming tomorrow.

The director reveals that there is possible a mass slaughter of oxen at midday tomorrow. And before that, I shall apparently be jumping into the fish pond to hunt carp with my bare hands. What could possibly go wrong?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

Galway, JFK and Roger Moore

I’m in Galway, Republic of Ireland on a secret mission (Codename Blackbird) and today I stopped in at the cathedral to be confronted in the Chapel of the Resurrection with a mosaic depicting John F Kennedy, at prayer with the Irish martyr Pádraig Pearse, shot during the Easter Rising.

Lunch a block or so away at Re’Nao, a Chinese restaurant serving Xi’an food, which was authentic when I ordered it because I knew what was supposed to be in it. The restaurant offers so many customisation options on its food that it is possible for the overly picky client to turn everything into something completely different. I also had an authentic roujiamou meat bun (“rogermoores” as they are known in our house), although there were so many Have It Your Way options that I could have easily transformed it into a chicken bap with ketchup.

Re’Nao was one of three Xi’an establishments withing spitting distance of one another in Galway, all owned by the same Xi’an expat. For more about Chinese food in Ireland, particularly the never-ending quest for authenticity, you can click on my interview with Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals.

Cannon Fodder

Memories, released in the year of Windows 95, was made on a technological cusp of the expansion of computing power and the rise of digital processes. Some of the techniques included in the final print were literally impossible to achieve three years earlier when the film commenced production, throwing Otomo and his staff into a constant game of catch-up with new developments in processing and materials. In a sense, his celebrity in the anime world forced him into the role of an early adopter, tinkering with new technologies when they were still expensive and untried.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Cannon Fodder” in the Memories anthology.