Future Boy Conan

Commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the television channel NHK, Future Boy Conan (1978) was the first and last time that Hayao Miyazaki would oversee a television production from start to finish. A ratings disappointment on its initial broadcast, it became one of the focal points of early anime fandom, and shows the early signs of many tropes and ideas Miyazaki would use in his later works.

Jonathan Clements and Andrew Osmond trace the dramatic story of the “directorial debut” of anime’s most famous visionary, taking the reader on an analysis of this landmark television series, its production, release and historical footprint.

The second part of Anime Limited’s Future Boy Conan complete set includes a 90-page book by me and Andrew Osmond, tackling the history of the series within the anime industry and the career of Hayao Miyazaki. For those that have been asking, unlike my solo work on the life and work of Mitsuyo Seo, this will not be available separately as a Kindle edition — for legal reasons, we were only allowed to write it as an extra in a box set, not as a third-party book in its own right.

Just a Night Watchman (1940)

Virtanen (Aku Korhonen) is an aging widower who works as a watchman at the Kuusela textile factory, and dotes on his daughter Aino (Regina Linnanheimo), who is dating the boss’s son Veikko (Unto Salminen). Mr Kuusela warns his son that relationships across class lines rarely work out, but Veikko assures his girlfriend that love will win in the end.

Virtanen surprises a would-be burglar, but lets the man go when he realises he has a family of four to feed. Later that night, he dozes off and has a premonition that Mr Kuusela will be in a car accident. Kuusela laughs it off, but is sufficiently spooked that he decides not to risk driving home drunk from the gentleman’s club. He takes a taxi instead, which probably saves his life, but ashamed of people laughing at his hangover the following day, Kuusela dismisses Virtanen for having clearly been asleep on the job – otherwise, how could he have had a prophetic dream?

Virtanen struggles to find another job, hobbled by his age and the fact he was fired for dereliction of duty. Veikko adds to everybody’s troubles by getting Aino pregnant and then spurning her. Aino runs away, but the womenfolk at the factory band together and threaten strike action unless the Kuusela family rallies around.

Finns have a remarkably odd attitude towards Christmas, and the sharp-eyed observer can see much pagan fatalism lurking in the local festivities, not the least in the local carols, which are mournful dirges about death and despair. So it should come as no surprise that this supposed “Christmas” movie reduces much of its festive spirit to an observation of people fallen on hard times, and a vaguely prosaic Christmas “miracle”, in which the Kuusela family is brought to its senses by a car accident not unlike the one that Virtanen had prophesied. Alone and reading a hefty Bible by candlelight, Virtanen hears carol-singers outside singing “Silent Night.” He has a vision of Aino, arriving at the head of a column of beaming factory girls and her new husband Veikko to assure him that all is well. If this were a Japanese movie, the final shot would show us that Virtanen had died, but instead this turns out to be actually true, and all ends well.

Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti condemned it for “American sentimentality” and its unlikely plot, although let’s be honest here, it’s set at a time of the year when the country celebrates a virgin birth. The left-wing press was more approving of the social message – Aino is a working-class girl poised on the cusp of societal levelling up, almost defeated but somehow winning through, which was a subject that appealed to Toini Aaltonen of the Suomen Sosiaalidemokraatti – it is interesting, in fact, to see what is essentially a plot that ends in tragedy in God’s Judgement (1939), and in defiance in The Child is Mine (1940), here assigned a more conservative and frankly miraculous solution.

Several reviewers noted that the film stood or fell on Aku Korhonen’s performance. The film had, in fact, been written by Erik Dahlberg with Korhonen in mind, and, not for the last time in Finnish film, the casting of a comedian in a melodramatic role pays huge dividends. Only a few weeks earlier, audiences had seen him larking about in Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store, and yet here he is, carrying a whole drama on his capable shoulders.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there are a couple of dance interludes, including an elegant performance of “La Cumparsita”, in which dancers Orvokki Siponen and Klaus Salin light up the screen. But even that comes tinged with melancholy, if you know the actual lyrics that accompany the tango classic: “The parade of endless miseries marches around that sick being who will soon die of grief.”

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

Summertime Blues

To Suzhou, China, where the slow clamber back to post-Covid tourism suffered an embarrassing knock this August, when a woman was arrested for wearing a kimono. She had been cosplaying as Ushio Kofune from Summertime Rendering, and was berated by a police officer for dressing up as a Japanese person.

Apparently, everything would have been fine if she had been wearing Hanfu, or traditional Chinese dress.

“If you came here wearing Hanfu, I wouldn’t say this,” he can be heard yelling on snatched phone footage. “But you are wearing a kimono, as a Chinese. You are a Chinese! Are you Chinese?”

The woman’s social media handle was Shi yingzi bushi benren, “This is a shadow, not my real self,” which seems like an aptly self-aware comment on the nature of costuming. Such subtleties, however, were lost on the authorities, who questioned her for five hours until 1am, searched her phone and took away her costume.

One wonders about the context of such an arrest, in a city that, until now, has been famed for its laid-back quality and friendly attitude. My sole encounter with the authorities in Suzhou’s shopping precincts was when I was photo-bombed by a security guard who then pranced off, giggling. But that was in 2017, and a lot has changed over the last five years. Attitudes towards Japan have certainly frosted over, particularly when it comes to cosplaying, which has come to be seen in some quarters as some sort of badge of sedition.

Clearly, clampdowns on Japanese media in China can’t have been that draconian, as otherwise how would she even know what Summertime Rendering was? Yasuki Tanaka’s manga first appeared five years ago, but one assumes the sudden interest in Suzhou was occasioned by Ayumu Watanabe’s anime adaptation, which only ran on TV Tokyo in April this year – both manga and anime versions are accessible in China through the online service BiliBili.

If anything, Summertime Rendering is a cultural ambassador for China, since one of its episodes is essentially a history lesson about how sushi originated there, and is not a Japanese creation by any means. You would think that the Chinese would be super-excited about such as assertion, but instead social media is awhirl with people asking if even dressing up is now off the table.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #224, 2022.

Chasing Waterfalls

While reading about the botanists of the early twentieth century, I stumble across a reference in the works of Joseph Rock, a man whose prose is described by his own biographer as “brutally unreadable”:

“Between Dü-gkv and Nvlv-k’ö is a meadow called Mbamä. Here a large spring called Bao-shi gko-gyi issues from the mountainside under a grove of century-old maples where Na-khi sorcerers perform Zä-mä, a ceremony for the propitiation of the Llü-mun (Serpent spirits).”

The ceremony in question supposedly grants fertility to those who drink from its waters. Mack the fixer and I puzzle over the quasi-Tibetan Romanisation, and eventually work out that the place in question is now called Xuesong – the Snow Pines. Since we have nothing better to do, and any mention of “fertility” is a step closer to successfully completing the episode, we drive over to the spring, which is now an area of sheltered parkland, in the grounds of a temple.

We walk through shady forest paths around ponds and lakes of a clarity I have never seen before. The carp in the pond seem to be floating in mid-air, and the waters are crystal clear all the way down, linked by a series of bubbling waterfalls. The park is remarkably quiet and peaceful, thanks largely to the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people in it, and we climb mossy stone steps to a little shrine in the hillside. Here, between a golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and a stone statue of the Earth Mother, there is a hole in the rock where the spring of the Crown Prince God bubbles to the surface, watched over by the fat effigy of a young naked boy, swaddled in red ribbons. From here it cascades down the hillside, through several ponds, around a water wheel, and then into a fountain in the temple grounds, where locals can be seen filling up with buckets. This is an ideal place to film… and it is locked.

“GO AWAY,” shouts a horrible old lady through the grille. “WE’RE CLOSED.”

You can’t be closed, reasons Mack. This shrine is the focus of the entire park and we’ve all paid twenty kuai each to get in. What time do you close if the gate is still open at the front…?

There is a long pause while the old lady thinks through the ramifications of her various possible answers, any one of which requires her admitting that her daily routine comprises of knocking off early and putting her feet up. But we have filming permission from her boss at the front gate, who plainly expects the shrine at the top of the ridge to be open for another hour, otherwise he wouldn’t have let us carry our gear up the mountain.

In a great sulk, she lets us in and then hunches over the balcony, fuming at having been caught out. I dash off a piece to camera about the spring, and we are gone. It could have been a substantially more sedate piece, with me walking in the picturesque surroundings and talking about Naxi culture, but the hostility of the “caretaker” has kind of put us off.

I wish I’d taken a picture of those fish, seemingly hovering, so you would believe me. But there is rarely time or opportunity for me to point a camera, or even carry one. I am in the car feverishly revising Mandarin technical terms for an interview, or swotting up on the next location. I am pacing up and down in a forest, trying to parse my lines. I am in a hotel room carefully trying to make sure my face and hair and clothes all look the same from day to day. Or I am thousands of miles away, trying to remember it all before it fades.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

Charlie Reads The Emperor’s Feast

“Clements has an engaging and chatty writing style, and knows his audience: Liu Bang has a ‘frenemy’, Confucians are a ‘bunch of whiners’, we encounter a ‘Chinese Basil Fawlty’. I was rather surprised when, discussing the ‘world’s largest turnip’, he passes over the opportunity to make a Blackadder reference.”

A pleasant surprise over at the book blog Charlie Reads China, as the erudite Charlie encounters my history of Chinese Food, The Emperor’s Feast.

Xiang Kairan (1889-1957)

Marvellous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes (1923) focused on Xiang’s lifelong obsession with ‘rarity’ in fiction, which here manifested itself as a concentration on the pseudoscience of martial-arts super-powers. Ridiculed by leftist authors such as Lu Xun for its quixotic and regressive reliance on magical solutions, it nevertheless became immensely popular. Its 65th chapter formed the basis for The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) a watershed work in the history of martial arts film, in which magical forces were represented with early special effects, spawning seventeen sequels.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the influential author Xiang Kairan, a.k.a. Pingjiang Buxiaosheng.

Missing Xi’an

This picture was taken five years ago a conference/knees-up to celebrate twenty years of the faculty at Xi’an Jiaotong University. I’m pretty easy to spot in the front row, since I am the only white face present. I’d flown in to deliver a lecture about “The British Perspective on the Belt and Road”, which was something of an eye-opener for the audience, as I delved into the history of other nations’ outreach initiatives, and some of the likely unwelcome consequences. I predicted, accurately as it turned out, that Gwadar in Pakistan would prove to be one of the more obvious flashpoints, and that the Balochi independence movement would soon start targeting the Chinese. For saying so, I was reprimanded by an earnest Party member who didn’t think I should be rocking the boat.

The next day, I hang out with my friend Dr Qiao Zhilin, who has been racking his brains in search of a historical site in Xi’an that I had yet to see. We wander up to the city museum and then along to the Blue Dragon Temple, sited on a shoulder of land a couple of storeys above the surrounding terrain – Tang dynasty maps tend not to have contour lines, so the fact that medieval Chang-an was not as flat as a pancake often eludes scholars. The view from one of its halls would have rivalled that from the Great Goose Pagoda itself, and you would have seen the whole checkerboard of Chang-an stretching out to the north and west.

Zhilin is irritated that the view now looks like everything else. Climb the hundred or so steps to the gate, and all you can see is skyscrapers all around. The temple sat in ruins for centuries, until the place was mobbed by Japanese tourists in the 1980s. It turned out to be the place where Kukai, one of the most famous Buddhist missionaries in medieval Japan, had studied. He would return to Japan and establish the Shingon sect.

Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, the Chinese bodged the temple back together again, and in 1985 the people of Shikoku (Kukai’s birthplace) donated an entire forest of cherry trees, so it would look suitably Japanese every spring. Online information about the precise place where he studied is very confused. Wikipedia thinks that almost everything of any note in Buddhist history happened at the Ximing Temple, which I have never heard of, and seems to be a confused conflation of a bunch of institutions in the shadow of the Great Goose Pagoda. But Buddhist temple tourism is a fierce competition for the attention of tourists to go to a bunch of places that are all effectively the same, so the ability to say “Famous Monk Slept Here” is worth something, as is an entirely arbitrary forest of cherry trees, that only looks good for two weeks a year but is all any visitor seems to talk about.

The park is full of Chinese dicking around with badminton racquets and shuttlecocks, and a troupe of Uyghur dancers doing their hand-wavy dance thing. Nobody pays any attention to the museum in the inner temple area, although it fast becomes apparent why, as the guards have installed a loud alarm that beeps constantly if there is anyone inside. This helpfully tells them if anyone is on the premises, but makes it incredibly difficult to examine exhibits about enlightenment and harmony if you are actually there. It’s as if Westminster Abbey hired a clown with a bullhorn to stand next you and go HONK-HONK every time you looked at something.

We retreat to a sutra room near the back of the temple, where we are waylaid by a crazy-eyed security guard who wants to talk about Buddhism. Mr Yang has an odd aura about him that I remember all too well from the clientele at a religious bookshop where I once worked. He asks me “What sutras you have in England?” Diamond, I tell him. “Awesome,” he replies, “that’s my favourite sutra” and launches into a diatribe about how all religions are the same beneath the surface, and anything was okay except atheism, which was plainly a poison on the face of the Earth.

I think, I observe to Zhilin as we leave, that we’ve just met someone whose parents said he couldn’t be a Buddhist priest.

But he is just a security guard, protests Zhilin.

Is he, though? Is he?

Clinging by his fingertips to any reason not to be at the conference, Zhilin insists on accompanying me to the bullet train station, and pads after me all the way to the security gates.

“I really have nothing else to do!” he says, staying until I disappear up the escalators and he can no longer see me. At least, I assume he went home after that. Maybe he is still there.

I haven’t seen him since. Filming on the fifth season of Route Awakening did not take me to Xi’an. An invitation for a speaking gig in Japan lured me away in the autumn when I would have otherwise dropped by. And then there was a pandemic, and one thing led to another…. My six-year visiting professorship officially lapsed, since it is the sort of thing that is renewed in person at a conference banquet. The postgraduate faculty has moved twenty miles west, so not even the buildings are the same. And the people I knew have gone.

For five years, Xi’an was a huge feature of my life. The overnight plane became as commonplace as a bus. I got to see several intakes of students come and go — for many of them, my family being the first foreigners they had met. But the five years since means almost everybody has gone — the newly arrived bachelor’s students who sat in the front row of my lecture, would have graduated two years ago. If I turned up on their doorstep tomorrow, maybe only a couple of postgrads would even know who I was, and even then only vaguely. All those many dinners and outings and lectures and encounters are all lost, like tears in rain. Three different professors at that December 2017 banquet suggested I might like to be a visiting lecturer at their universities, too, but these things take time, and application, and will, and more than anything else, legwork. It took years to build the trust of the faculty at Xi’an, to prove that promises to return were not empty platitudes. Qiao Zhilin and I still wave at each other occasionally on social media, and tell each other that someday soon normality will be restored, but we can never really go back.

My son, who grew up surrounded by an adoring cloud of Chinese girls, has pre-teen schooling obligations that mean he can’t just wander away to China for three months anymore. His mother, who was the reason we went to Xi’an in the first place, is not my wife any more, and she is also struggling with the logistics of returning to a place that is no longer the same place, with people who are no longer the same people, and is now lacking a free spousal interpreter.

As of this week, I have been gone for as long as I was there. The last time I was in Xi’an, the deputy mayor offered to make me an honorary citizen of the city. The next time I go, I expect I will just be another tourist.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China and The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

Chinese Food on Taiwan

Photo: Nick Kembel — 20 Best Night Markets in Taiwan

Some years ago, I walked into a new “Taiwanese” restaurant in London’s Chinatown with my friend Andy. The waitress shuffled over and imperiously announced that Taiwanese food wasn’t like any other food we had ever had.

“I doubt that,” said Andy to her in Mandarin. “We both lived in Taipei when we were students.”

The waitress visibly blanched and called over her colleague.

“We’re both from Shanghai,” she confessed, huddling closer. “We don’t know what any of this stuff is!”

She could have used a copy of Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, a truly exhaustive account of the multiple cuisines not just of the city, but of the entire island, from the various delicacies of its aboriginal peoples, through the foods and crops brought in by various settlers – including the Dutch, Spanish, Cantonese, Fujianese and Hakka – and local food’s many modern transformations. Their book takes in the powerful, enduring influence of Taiwan’s fifty years as a Japanese colony, as well as the austerity era of the mid-twentieth century juan cun emergency housing, when Taiwan was flooded with refugees from the mainland, and the modern logistics of everything from pork transportation to convenience-store microwave cookery.

“Those who live in the mountains eat what they can find in the mountains; those who live by the sea eat from the sea.” Crook and Hung begin with subsistence foods, before delving deep into indigenous folklore in search of reasons for multiple conflicting tribal taboos. When the Chinese first arrived on the shores of Taiwan, they were disgusted at the natives’ penchant for deer’s intestines, while the aborigines were aghast that the Chinese ate chicken. They are nicely focussed on etymologies, including a long discourse on why the humble frog became known as the “water chicken.” The natural assumption, they suggest, is that it is a euphemism designed to conceal the origins of an icky food from disapproving diners. But Taiwanese diners love frogs’ legs – it is far more likely that the new name arose to get around a Song-dynasty government ban on killing frogs, not because they were taboo, but because they were of higher value in eating insects in the rice paddies.

Of particular interest is the sudden rediscovery of indigenous dishes in the 1990s, after the rise to power of the nativist Democratic Progressive Party pushed the mainland-focussed Chinese agenda aside. At the inauguration banquet of president Chen Shui-bian, diners were treated to milkfish ball soup and óaⁿ kóe (“bowl pudding”), a savoury porridge. Both were common dishes in Chen ‘s hometown, and the president would go on to troll his guests in later dinners by pointedly serving taro to represent those who were not native to Taiwan (i.e. the descendants of 1940s refugees), and sweet potatoes to represent the Chinese who had lived there for hundreds of years previously.

Except, of course, the sweet potato is itself a new arrival, only showing up in south-east China in the 16th century, a New World food arriving via the Spanish Philippines. It, along with hundreds of other foodstuffs, was entirely alien to the island, but now forms part of Taiwan’s vibrant food culture, which incorporates vast swathes of Cantonese and Fujianese foodways, but also vestiges of the home cultures of multiple groups of refugees. Crook and Hung explain why Taiwanese bread is often so sweet – the predominant style arrived with the Japanese, who tended to regard it as a dessert rather than staple. They detail the menu of a standard military breakfast, the transformations of sushi brought about by the availability of local fresh fish, and the impact of Western food franchises in the late twentieth century.

They are also fantastically informative on the metadata of Chinese food. When Taiwan joins the World Trade Organisation in 2002, one of the unexpected fall-outs is a sudden, five-fold leap in the price of cooking wine, an entirely benign and vital condiment, now classed as an alcoholic beverage and subject to a tax hike. Crook and Hung chronicle the ripple effect this has, not only on the family kitchen, but on the black economy, as gangsters and spivs rush to fill the hole in the market with ersatz replacements. Similarly, the authors devote an impressive page-count to the multiple puns and euphonies of festive dining, explaining just why certain foods are popular with superstitious locals on particular family occasions and festivals.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai is published by Rowman and Littlefield.