Out of Tune

Music producer Akihiro Tomita has fired a warning shot at anime financers with a comment about the decline of the anime theme song. Speaking at an event in Shinjuku on 9th September, Tomita observed that Netflix’s habit of chopping off the credits was a binge-watcher’s dream, but diminished the relevance of the traditional 90-second opening and ending songs.

Their purpose has been a matter of debate for generations. They used to be handy announcements that your show was starting, reinforcing the ritual of appointment television. But producers fretted that a long theme song might lure trigger-happy channel-hoppers to see what was on the other side. This was particularly an issue in the 1990s American market, where viewers might sit through the theme song to, say, Friends, only to have to then endure another commercial break before the show began. Will & Grace saw its theme tune squashed and occasionally reduced to nothing but a musical sting if the action overran in in an episode. Frasier’s opening was just a few bars on a vibraphone – lasting just seven seconds. Anime themes, however, have remained notably long, turning into a veritable juke box of tie-ins and product placement.

Tomita’s comments quietly assert the bargaining power that Netflix is enjoying behind the scenes. The online behemoth’s ability to call the shots threatens the delicate balance of many an anime production committee, most of which feature a record company among investors. So they’ll chip in 10% of the budget, but they want their new pop idol singing the theme song. And the animators don’t mind, because 90 seconds off the top and tail of every episode means they only have to make those bits once, giving them a week off every season.

Since record companies are still substantial players in the Japanese market, they are liable to want their airtime some other way. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters, for example, on which Tomita was musical director, was made by Polygon Pictures, which is part-owned by King Records. If theme songs phase out, get ready for excuses for musical interludes elsewhere within anime shows, possibly even anime musicals that make watching the songs part of the action, and animators complaining that they have to work even harder to fill up the time. But I, for one, hope the old style of theme tune stays, because I still like that ritual quality. I might even sing along, occasionally with my own made-up lyrics. You should hear me do Evangelion. “Lots of robots / And people in misery / There’s a penguin but please don’t ask me what for…” [That’s enough – Ed.]

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo. This article first appeared in NEO #181, 2018.

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The Ostrobothnians (1936)

There’s trouble on the Harri family farm. Someone called the farmer’s daughter Maija a whore, and now her fiancé Antti (Jorma Nortimo) is going to stand trial for defending her honour. Meanwhile, Maija (Irja Aholainen) has embraced an extreme, dour form of Lutheranism, and spends her time in the dining room fulminating about God’s will. Her brother Jussi (Eino Kaipainen) stands up to a bunch of marauding thugs, only to discover that Antti has absconded during the fight. Falsely accused of aiding the prisoner’s escape, Jussi gets into a fight with the local Sheriff, leaving both of them mortally wounded.

Considering how quickly the plot of The Ostrobothnians can be summarised, it’s amazing how long it takes to limp through it. Part of the problem is the interminable singing interludes, left-overs from the musical version of the original 1914 stage play by Artturi Järviluoma, as well as far too much time spent trying to wring humour from the sight of men drinking. Opera singer Irja Aholainen is supposedly the female lead, but is oddly mannish in the role, out-bloking many of her male co-stars, all of whom seem to be wearing more eyeliner than she is. Laila Rihte tries to take up the ingénue slack as Jussi’s would-be girlfriend Liisa, but appears to have got dressed in the dark at a tablecloth factory, wearing a distracting clash of checks and stripes like a human test card.

Jorma Nortimo, who thus far had only played cads for Suomen Filmiteollisuus, here manages a heroic, understated turn as Antti, a man who thinks Siberian exile will be worse than the awful farm he currently lives on. Eino Kaipainen is the stand-out performer as the put-upon Jussi, railing against injustice in a skin-tight sweater like a young William Shatner, and challenging a bizarrely well-dressed bunch of singing thugs to a wrestling match to save his village from a rumble. As the Russian-appointed Sheriff, Swedish actor Thorild Bröderman speaks Finnish like the foreigner that he is, adding to the disjuncture between the 1850s crofters and the aristocracy that lords it over them.

Directors Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta do their best with the material, lifting it out of its original staging for some set pieces of dance meetings and outdoor locations, but The Ostrobothnians was a much-loved Finnish work because it was the closest thing that the country had to a national opera at the time. Ripping out most of the songs and trying to make it more filmy was never going to work, particularly when the best the film-makers could do was some point-of-view camera trickery to present a drunk’s-eye view of some of the scenes. And this wasn’t even the first time someone had tried it – there was already a film version ten years earlier, which apparently wasn’t enough.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

Armchair Tokyo

“Clements both mourns and celebrates a constantly changing parade of lost and reborn Tokyos, layered onto and fading into each other, leaving only fragments of each incarnation behind. It’s a vista that will tempt many an armchair traveller to go and see for themselves” — Helen McCarthy, All the Anime

Published today by Haus, an Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo presents the modern capital of Japan from the first forest clearances on the Kanto plain, through the wars and intrigues of the samurai era, up to the preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

Repeatedly destroyed by fires, earthquakes and war, remnants of old-time Tokyo can still be found amid the modern city’s urban sprawl, where the sites of ancient temples and forgotten battles sit beside run-down boom-era boondoggles and modern malls.

As with other Armchair Traveller guides, a Gazetteer offers detailed information on sites of tourist interest, including the hidden etymologies of familiar locations on the metro map, stripping away the modern streets to reveal stories behind the lost valleys, post stations, castles and gravesites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, Anime: A History and biographies of Admiral Togo and Prince Saionji. His recent books include Modern Japan: All That Matters and Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion.

 

Japan Station 03: Sacred Sailors

Over in Hawaii, I’m interviewed by Tony Vega for the Japan Station podcast about the incredible story of Japan’s first animated feature, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1943).

“In this episode we discuss the origins of Japanese animation and its fascinating history. We particularly focus on the making of Japan’s first feature-length animated film: Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (桃太郎 海の神兵, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei). Clements talks about how this World War II era Navy funded propaganda film got made, the challenges faced by the film’s director Seo Mitsuyo, the influence of Western animation like Popeye and the 1941 Disney film Fantasia,and what people today can gain by watching this sometimes strange and often unsettling work.”

Fred Patten (1940-2018)

My obituary for anime’s First Fan in America, Fred Patten, is up now on the Anime Limited website.

‘Fred was soon scooped up by a Japanese company, Hiro Media, which hoped to off-load straight-to-video anime on the American market, although his earnest efforts to interest American fans were hampered by two issues. “Firstly,” he wrote, “they weren’t very good.”’

Death Note auf deutsch

My Death Note audio adaptation is finally available for sale in Germany.

Already out in German are:

1: Pattern Recognition

2: Collateral Damage

3: Frenemy Mine

Coming next month:

4: Virtue Signal

5: Deal Breaker

6: Gray Scale

And in 2019:

7: Double Agents

8: Live Feed

9: Legacy Code

10: Karma Police

11: Old Flames

12: Apex Predator

At the moment this is a German-only production. There are supposed to be English and French editions in the works, but I haven’t heard any details of those yet.

All Kinds of Guests (1936)

When the young lady of the manor Irma (Ester Toivonen) goes off on a trip, her feckless nephew Erkki (Jorma Nortimo) hits on a money-making scheme with his new-found drinking buddy Mauri (Toivo Palomurto). Posing as hoteliers, they rent out rooms in Irma’s country mansion, persuading the gullible house-maids that all the new residents are long-lost friends. Comedy, such as it is, arrives with the titular All Kinds of Guests, including a honeymooning couple, a hypochondriac lawyer and a randy retired colonel.

This adaptation of Kaikenlaisia vieraita, a 1934 stage play by “Agapetus” (Yrjö Soini) is not quite as low on laughs as the earlier Scapegoat (1935), but nevertheless struggles with a cast so large that it sometimes forgets where the plot should be going. Matters are not helped by a tediously unfunny ten-minute sequence in which Erkki misses his train and gets falling-down drunk, watches a drunken Finn murder “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and is then mistaken for a thief when he sneaks into his aunt’s house at night. There are, however, some genuine laughs to be had from the servants – stern Finnish farm-girls who collapse into giggles at the sight of a handsome man – and the widow Mrs Salo (Emmi Jurkka), who is at first repelled by, then extremely enthusiastic about the overtures of the bawdy Colonel Sora (Aku Korhonen).

Still struggling after the death of its founder, Erkki Karu, the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio seemingly slapped this together with whomever and whatever it had lying around. Nominal director Toivo Särkkä shares the credit with Yrjö Norta, although the film is notable for a surfeit of camera trickery, as if the cinematographer has been left to his own devices and wants to play with a new toy. The first sign comes in the opening credits, as each on-screen card transitions out with a wipe. This innocuous innovation is soon creating special effects between matched shots, such as a “magic trick” in which newly-wed Paavo (Kaarlo Kartio) gets his wedding ring to jump between his fingers, or a stunt in which he hurls a record across the room to land squarely in place on the gramophone. The most obvious use comes in the dual role of Laila Rihte, who is called upon to play both the honeymooning Hilkka and the house manager’s daughter Elli, whose identical appearance is introduced as a costly but ultimately minor plot device. Rihte’s sister Lea occasionally appears as a body double in long shots featuring the two – presumably, the crew were planning on making much more of the peas-in-a-pod subplot, but gave up on it partway when the set-ups proved too fiddly.

Gently stereotypical humour pivots on the minor characters, including a fat German couple (Uuno Montonen and Eine Laine), who descend on the dinner buffet like vultures. Writer and future director Turo Kartto has a supercilious turn as The Englishman, a monocled twit who is aghast at the state of Finnish food and frustrated by the Finns’ inability to speak English. Even in silence he exudes a snooty desire to be elsewhere, fishing from the back of a boat while the rest of the cast try to enjoy a day out. His spouse, played by director Särkkä’s real-life wife Margarita, remains silent throughout, possibly because as a Russian-Lithuanian, she wouldn’t have sounded very English if she spoke.

Inevitably, the lady of the manor returns – Ester Toivonen sporting Nosferatu eyebrows – and wryly plays along with Mauri as he flirtatiously tells her she can have the best room in his “hotel.” Surprisingly forgiving of the man who has invaded her home and sold the contents of her larder to strangers, she falls for him in what passes for the film’s romantic denouement; one of several couples formed in the course of the story. All is revealed, of course, when Erkki comes face to face with his aunt – he runs off into the distance in cartoonish double-time; the second occasion in this film where the cinematographer plays that trick.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland