Department Store Lapatossu & Vinski (1940)

Workshy layabouts Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen) and Vinski (Kaarlo Kartio) are reduced to reading recipe books to stave off hunger, when they suddenly find themselves inheriting a department store. They throw themselves into swindling the public by over-charging for material goods instead of their usual hustles, only to be plunged into a price war with Senttinen (Toppo Elonperä), the dastardly owner of the rival store across the street. Senttinen, meanwhile, hopes to seduce the innocent Kirsi (Laila Rihte) a woman who mistakenly believes that her beloved Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has been killed in the war.

The critic for the Helsingin Sanomat was unforgiving – noting that while there was indeed an actual plot, huge chunks of Tavaratalo Lapatossu & Vinski were devoted to bloated comedy sidebars, as well as two pointless musical interludes, common in Finnish film since the late 1930s. This seems a trifle unfair on the Lapatossu franchise, both former instalments of which followed a similar pattern of letting Korhonen and Kaartio steamroller a series of comedy set-ups through the middle of an otherwise gormless romance among the supporting cast.

In fact, it’s the pointless comedy business that supplies the most memorable moments of this film, particularly in the opening reel, as Vinski pleads that they should find some work so they should not go hungry, only for Lapatossu to grimly intone that work is a serious business, as if his companion has just proposed strolling into Mordor. Lapatossu and Vinski capitalise on the locals’ love of lining up for bargains (Finns, as the saying goes, “will stand in line for a free bucket”), by creating a fake queue for a non-existent sale. They then make their way back down the line, selling their places in the queue, before announcing that the “sale” has ended before anyone can get in. Similarly, once they take over the store, they try to tart themselves up as salesman, resulting in a pair of camp toadies like the “Suits-You-Sir” tailors, ably assisted by Jacob Furman (last seen as a tap-dancing telegram boy in SF Parade) and a robot dancing instructor.

Whereas Lapatossu & Vinski in Olympic Fever (1939) clocked in at a surprisingly short running time, this sequel is bulked out by a far more cunning means, stretched to feature length in part by a long, rambling closing speech, as Lapatossu ties up the plot strands and leaves his store to the young couple. Director Toivo Särkkä shoots the whole address in a single take – Lapatossu is giving a prepared speech and so is even permitted a crib sheet in front of him – and tries to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with occasional cutaways to the crowd plainly filmed at a different time. It’s a clever way to stretch out the film by eight minutes, but it is also a tediously Finnish way of doing so.

After the film’s opening in November 1940, there was a certain degree of excitable trilling in the press about the surname-less newcomer “Annakaarina” (in fact Kaarina Salonoja, who had been previously glimpsed in Have I Arrived in a Harem? and The Culprits? both in 1938), whose Karelian accent was a bit of over-the-border exotica for the Finns, not unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones going full-on Welsh. But despite an electrifying smile and killer cheekbones, she, like her co-star Laila Rihte, is somewhat defeated by frumpy austerity-era fashions and servant headscarves, and it doesn’t help that the script takes her ingénue role to breathless, Bible-thumping extremes. I confess I had a bit of trouble following the Karelian lines, which sounds like Finnish put through an Estonian wringer, but clearly the cast have much the same problem, too, with Vinski reduced to smiling and nodding at some of Hilma’s weirder vocabulary. The sudden presence of Karelian accents in Finland, of course, was a matter of some contemporary notice, with so many refugees from east Finland flooding into the country – a phenomenon also referenced in the same year’s Anu and Mikko and Foxtail in the Armpit.

The whole film is tinged with tragedy, starting with its matter-of-fact incorporation of the recent (and as it would turn out, ongoing) war into the romantic subplot. Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has lost his arm in the conflict, and mistakenly believes that his betrothed Kirsi (Laila Rihte) will no longer love him. Ihantala, the Karelian village where much of the action takes place, would prove to be the site of the apocalyptic battle of Tali-Ihantala four years after this film was released. It, along with 10% of the rest of pre-war Finland was trimmed off by the Soviets, drastically altering the shape of the map that forms this film’s opening shot. Today, as part of the lost lands of Karelia, it is the Russian town of Petrovka. And this would prove to be Kaarlo Kartio’s last film, since he would die before completing his next. Confined to character roles since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), the Lapatossu films were his last chance to shine as a leading man. At least in this one he got the girl, if only for about half a minute.

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.

Garden of Remembrance

That’s director Naoko Yamada and her entourage slipping not-entirely-invisibly through the streets of Edinburgh for the premiere of her new short film Garden of Remembrance at the Cameo cinema. We’ve spent a merry couple of days getting her thoughts on film about love, and loss, and the mess people leave when they went away, as well as cucumber horses, aubergine cows, the mystery of dog poo bins and the dilemma of Marmite.

I had an additional duty, thrust upon me when the lyrics for the title song, which itself forms the sole script of the movie, turned up untranslated in Scotland with only a couple of days to go before the premiere. So that was a a frenzied few hours as I wrestled with Lovely Summer Chan’s lyrics until they made sense in another language.

Both Yamada and I spent the day of the premiere ridiculously over-dressed, because we knew we wouldn’t have time to change clothes before the event began. Shortly after we were mistaken for a wedding party at the hotel, I showed her the translation of the lyrics and she started crying. Which hopefully was a a good sign.

Aim for the Top

I don’t expect your sympathy. Anime for you is a free choice. You find something to love and then you love it day after day, hour after hour. Modern technology has created binge fandom, consuming entire serials in marathon sessions. Some anime, like Gantz, seem tailored to this market, designed to be watched in real-time, without week-long gaps between episodes. Which is great, if you like it to begin with. Some anime, however, feel like you are trying to pull out your own teeth.

You can switch off. You can dismiss the awful Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and move on to something else, all memory gone of your wasted 25 minutes. I have to keep watching; it’s my job. Which is why I do my very best not to pull the term “classic” unless I’m really going to use it. A classic shouldn’t be some antique show the distributor acquired by accident and feels obliged to hype. It shouldn’t be some old has-been, shuffled onto a small screen where the age doesn’t show so badly. It should be something that stands the test of time. Something like Gunbuster.

For its wartime echoes and its maudlin pathos; for its superb voice-acting and peerless script; for its kamikaze students and its red-haired Russian bad girl; for the misleadingly dumb beginning, which lurches into a gripping space war drama; for all these things and more, Gunbuster is my favorite anime.

Gunbuster has shadowed me through every step of my career, all around the world. When I was at college in Japan, Gunbuster was the anime shown in Sociology as a discussion point on the Japanese school system. When I lectured on anime translation in Scotland, the US edition of Gunbuster was my object lesson in excellence; at an animation conference in Wales, I used it to demonstrate jiggling fan service at work; at a Norwegian film festival, it was my clip to demonstrate wartime analogies; at a Finnish convention, the last episode was used to show the power of black-and-white filmmaking. Ten years ago, Gunbuster was the litmus test of my independence, when, much as I adored it, I refused to work on a UK version that I disapproved of – missing footage, with pathetic extras and a poor transfer.

It was only a few years ago that a translator told me Tokyo audiences would simply not comprehend my references to Gunbuster. It was old news, he said. It was an obscure video show from the late 1980s, gone and forgotten. Now that the otaku generation are running the anime business, the latest edition of Gunbuster comes complete with scholarly sleeve notes calling it a landmark in anime history. Critic Ryusuke Hikawa argues that Gunbuster is the grandfather of much in modern anime – it has the passion of Evangelion, the yearning of Voices of a Distant Star, and the “fan service” and self-referentiality of Genshiken. It placed the token female of anime cliché front and center, cunningly twisting the traditions of girls’ entertainment for a new and unexpected purpose – entertaining boys.

Gunbuster has been hard to find for many years, tied up in rights issues. I’m glad it’s coming back. It feels like I’ve been waiting 12,000 years.

This article originally appeared in Newtype USA, October 2006. Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Asia History Mountain Great

Alexander, I call to my son, but he does not respond.

Alexander, Iskander, Olixandu? Yalishanda, 亞歷山大. Usually, by the time I get to Mandarin, he is ready to acknowledge me, because Asia-History-Mountain-Great is the best variant of all, and the name by which he was known in China. So yes, of course, I was going to go to the Alexander: Making of a Myth exhibition at the British Library, where I was sure to like all the things that the Guardian reviewer hated.

The British Library exhibition, which collates multiple versions of the Alexander story, from an account’s report in cuneiform, to a letter he may have written to Aristotle, to the medieval Alexander romances, is fearless about following the myths of Alexander the Great into our age. So alongside the armour of King James I’s heir, Prince Henry Frederick, decorated with images of Alexander in India, there’s the called Reign: The Conqueror, putting Alexander in space, and the Bollywood epic called Porus, telling the story of his life from the point of view of the Indian king he fought against in the Punjab; Assassin’s Creed reimagining his tomb, and Deva, a Russian-born, Vietnam-based artist, imagining him snogging Bagoas. The British Library exhibition charts the legends of Alexander through medieval romances up to modern-day comics and movies.


Wu Meilun is an old lady in her seventies who has put on her posh Kam clothes to welcome us. Kam girls in the past would make their own costumes, and wear them on festival days to show off their skills to the mensfolk. Traditionally, Kam women would sit at their spinning wheels and spin into the night, with the old ladies retiring at around nine o’clock. The younger girls would then stick something called a “cat’s ear” onto their spinning wheel, so it suddenly started making a klickety-klack sound, advertising their presence to the local youths, who would pop over to chat them up, keep them company and “sing.” Spinning could then go on until the small hours, with occasional breaks for cups of tea, chat and “singing.”

“But that doesn’t go on any more,” sighs Meilun wistfully. Now everybody just vegs out in front of China’s Got Talent and looks at cat videos on their iPhones.

Meilun is here to show me how to make paper from citron bark, which she mashes up and mixes with natural gum, and spreads it out on frames to dry in the sun. I say citron bark, because that’s what the dictionary tells us it is, but the word in Chinese is goupi, which sadly also means dogfart. There is considerably merriment from the crew every time I get my tones wrong.

How long will it take to dry, I ask her.

Only two hours, she says.

We wait two hours. The paper is still wet. It turns out that the Kam of Dimen have as little appreciation of time as the Kam of Tang-an.

We can’t do any driving shots in the afternoon because Pan has taken the Buick into the hills to hunt wild boar. So instead we shoot a piece at the vending machines, in which I discuss the likelihood of me being suddenly overcome in the dead of night by the sudden desire for a toy sword, clockwork dinosaur or 50-pack of tampons, and rushing to the vending lobby to buy some.

“Let’s buy a plastic monkey!” I enthuse, feeding my five kuai into the machine to get myself a pointless monkey that lights up in the dark. Probably not a day we will win an award for.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).

Her Blue Sky

“The band’s first performance is sure to put goose-bumps on the skin of Japanese (and British) viewers of a certain age. For old-timers like me, and anyone else who saw the NHK TV show Monkey on BBC re-runs or Blu-ray in the years since, the opening bars of Godiego’s ‘Gandhara’ are unmistakeable, along with its doleful yearning for an unattainable utopia, tying it directly to the concerns of the film.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Mari Okada’s Her Blue Sky.

Atom: The Beginning

Several months ago, Motoko Tamamuro and I embarked on a massive multi-volume translation project for a couple of intriguing manga serials. The first volume of the first of those is out now. Atom is written by Masami Yuuki and drawn by Tetsuro Kasahara, and is a prequel to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, reimagining the older characters from that classic show back in their college days.

Ready for My Close-up

One of the unexpected holdovers from the COVID era has been an increased willingness to pre-record interviews to run after the films at Scotland Loves Anime. So instead of lurking in the wings, or sitting through something I’ve already seen at least twice, or standing alone on a stage and desperately filling for five minutes while the staff drag someone out of the scarf shop (naming no names), I can introduce a film and then go home, secure in the knowledge that I will be popping up onscreen when it’s over and chatting to the director.

This, however, has created a whole load of new requirements – my home studio now boasts a camera that go up to 4K footage, lavalier microphones, a Noco jump starter that doubles as an independent power source, and a family used to me shouting “Everybody shut up for an hour. Mamoru Hosoda is back to talk about Paw Patrol.”

Back in the National Geographic days, I had a whole bunch of staff to faff with things like lights, lenses and sound. In the impoverished world of anime extra-filming, though, it’s just me, and a bunch of sarcy comments on Twitter about the state of my office bookshelves.

Funeral Direction

I am down in the hostel hosing the mud off myself when the next event happens, so I am not there for the bullfighting. This apparently involves two drunken bulls (force-fed booze if necessary) incited to charge at each other by letting off firecrackers behind them. Frankly, I don’t know much more than that, so the first I find out about it will be at the same time as you, when I see the finished episode. By the time I am scrubbed clean and ready to stumble back up the hill, the event is over, substantially earlier than planned. It’s only later on that we realise this has caused all the other events to be moved half an hour earlier than scheduled. This, in turn, means that the singing contest starts early, and so my grannies from the other night with their song about subsidy incentives were the first on, before any of us knew the competition had started.

It is annoying. The whole evening comprises picturesque Kam tribeswomen, in their traditional black robes and silver head-dresses, singing about all sorts of polyphonic anthems. But my grannies have already been and gone. After such a great morning, with my catering show quips over a pit of boiling stomach juices, and my mud-fight star-turn being pig-piled in a pond by a bunch of idiots, we had managed to log maybe ten minutes of useable footage – half an episode. But the lack of a pay-off for my granny story means we can probably only talk about them for thirty seconds instead of three minutes. It’s not just today’s footage that we have lost, but any meaningful use for the night before’s.

Mr Wu is deep in his cups at the hostel by this point, having chuffed his way through an entire packet of the director’s fags, and what appears to be a litre of moonshine. The director is trying to entertain him by taking Instamatic photos, but his mates insist on getting me to down a beer in one every time she takes a picture. The evening continues with predictable results, which we will pick up again the day afterwards, after six hours standing around.

This is because Pan has located the Holy Grail for our shoot – an honest-to-god Kam funeral, happening at the next village. Someone whose name is also Pan, has died, and the ceremony is happening today, which will allow us to fulfil our Circle of Life brief this season. The Kam will be the Death episode, and the funeral will provide that difficult-to-find Death part. But this creates a whole new set of nightmares, because if you were burying a relative, the last thing you would want would be a film crew from National Geographic shoving a lens in your face and asking you about the origin of your local traditions. So I am obliged to spend much of the rest of the day sitting on a pile of logs being hassled by the village children, who regard the logs as their playground and food storage vault. The rest of the crew embed themselves deep in the crowd to get footage of the white turbaned mourners, the cortege preceded by sweet-throwing and firecrackers, the long march up through the rice paddies, and the various booze throwing and firecracker-slinging associated with a Kam funeral. All I can do is whisper a few pieces to camera about the dichotomy between documenting cultural traditions and taking a vacation in other people’s misery.

Funerals are a hot topic in China at the moment after a controversial government initiative that proscribed all burials. Henceforth, said the Party, what with all the land we need for crops and stuff, people can’t be buried any more – everybody has to be cremated. This directive is actually quite old, and Chairman Mao himself tried to initiate that for his own funeral, only to be overruled by his successors, who have kept him above ground in his mausoleum ever since. But it’s caused even more of a kerfuffle among the peasantry, since people like the Kam tend to commission coffins from their own carpenters years, even decades in advance, and live with them in their houses. When old people in the provinces refused to give up on the idea of coffin burials, some heavy-handed cadres sent around thugs with pickaxes to break the coffins up.

So, here’s the thing – among the Kam, and certain other tribes, cremation is reserved for people who die from unnatural causes. Taking away their right to burial is like condemning them to an afterlife separated from both their ancestors and descendants, leading a bunch of old people to hang themselves or drink pesticide in order to die ahead of the wrecking crews and the change in the law. This protest eventually swayed the Party, which countermanded its own order. Although I would like to point out that suicide counts as unnatural causes, so if anyone was a stickler for Kam lore, the old people in question wouldn’t have been buried anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).