Hisashi Katsuta (1927-2020)

“Wow! Those foreigners on telly speak brilliant Japanese. That’s amazing!”

Over at All the Anime, my obituary for Hisashi Katsuta, the man of a thousand voices. Although maybe half of them were Professor Ochanomizu in Astro Boy.

Ultra Scam

It looks like Christmas came early for Tsuburaya Productions, after the Los Angeles Court of Appeal ruled in the company’s favour in the first week of December 2019. The studio that most famously gave the world the Spandex-clad superhero Ultraman has been locked in a legal battle for twenty-three years with Sompote Saengduenchai, a Thai director who claimed that the late Noboru Tsuburaya, son of studio founder Eiji, had sold him the rights to exploit Ultraman outside Japan.

The judgement affirms a ruling already made in 2017, that the contract Sompote has been waving around since 1996, and claims to have signed in 1976, doesn’t have Noboru Tsuburaya’s real signature on it, and even if it did, makes several suspicious errors regarding the names of Tsuburaya properties. Sompote, meanwhile, has behaved with entertaining evasiveness, refusing to provide the original of the passport that, he claims, “proves” he was in Japan in 1976, and being hand-wavingly vague about what exactly Tsuburaya is supposed to have received in return for this deal.

While all this has been going on, Sompote’s company Chaiyo has not only been making its own Ultraman movies, but also selling merchandising deals and even licensing the rights for US DVD releases with reputable companies. The battle has been fought not only in Thai courts, which ruled in Sompote’s favour in 2009, but also in China, which found the whole thing so confusing that Beijing courts ordered the setting up of an Ultraman Copyright Study Group, and finally swung in Tsuburaya’s favour when it was brought to America.

The mystery remains – did Sompote really travel to Japan in 1976 and somehow secure an international rights deal from Noboru Tsuburaya, a deal which conveniently went unmentioned by anyone, Sompote included, until after Tsuburaya was dead? Or is he lying? Or did he meet someone who claimed to be Tsuburaya, who proceeded to sell him the Japanese TV equivalent of London Bridge? If so, that would make Sompote the victim, and the entire, prolonged shambles merely the fall-out from a scammer blagging a few free lunches.

You might think it all unlikely, but Sompote wouldn’t be the first. I know of one prominent Captain Harlock fan who spent several happy hours getting drunk in a Tokyo bar with a “Mr Matsumoto”, unaware that the real Leiji Matsumoto had given up waiting for him in the hotel lobby and gone home after 45 minutes.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #196, 2020.

 

Opium

That is a map of China, but it’s also a cocktail menu at Opium, a speakeasy in London’s Chinatown that offers a set of mental drinks based on Chinese cities — the Beijing that comes with a calligraphy set and strawberry ink, the Macau that comes with pineapple chunks and a set of safety instructions, and the Urumqi, that comes with pistachio nuts and an eggshell filled with saffron joux. Barman Vincent even managed to do something to make baijiu palatable. I’m writing a history of Chinese food. This sort of counts.

The Man From Sysmä (1938)

Sysmäläinen begins with a playful prologue in which a young Arvid (Kalevi Koski, who would grow up to be Finland’s top dentist) is mercilessly taunted by a young Brita (Tuulikki Schreck) about their betrothal. The pair are married when still children, before a 15-year-time jump to Turku in the mid-17th century, where a grown-up Arvid (Olavi Reimas) is a swashbuckling nobleman, obviously modelled on the same year’s Errol Flynn Robin Hood. He’s barely finished his lunch before he is in a spirited sword-fight with some German guy, while a serving girl swoons with glee. There’s lots of hearty quaffing and tankard clashing, while we wait, twiddling our thumbs a little, for the story to begin. It does when Brita (Sirkka Sari) rides by, and Arvid fails to realise that she is his wife.

Valentin Vaala’s camera absolutely loves Sirkka Sari, last seen in The Women of Niskavuori, who first appears with a fantastic cavalier hat, riding a horse in a manner that is snooty, contemptuous and oddly alluring. Arvid, who doesn’t recognise her, falls for her hard, to the extent that he sends a message to the child-bride he hasn’t seen for years, telling her he wants an annulment because he loves another. Oh, the irony! So Brita disguises herself as a boy and becomes his servant.

So she wins his heart when she’s in a dress, but is Just Some Guy when she puts some trousers on. Some further suspension of disbelief is required over the matter of the dialogue, since one might reasonably expect the ruling class in 17th century Turku to all speak Swedish. Jalmari Finne’s original 1910 novel seems somewhat out of its time, a Walter-Scott frippery when war was just an excuse to dress up in high boots and swirly cloaks, while Arvid’s predicament could have been oh-so-easily avoided form the outset by Brita simply telling him her fecking name. The pina-colada fancy of a jaded old idiot, spurning his wife only to fall in love with her when he thinks she is someone else, was already pretty old. But it is the shadow of Errol Flynn that falls most obviously over this film, in everything from Arvid’s moustache to his habit of wandering around the woods looking for a fight.

As Johanna the perky serving girl, Kerttu Salmi steals all her scenes with a constant patter of doormat philosophy about how real men “start with scolding and end with love.” She has already decided that Arvid will be hers, and throws herself at him with entertaining abandon. Meanwhile, Sirkka Sari is desperately unconvincing as a boy called Adolf, despite looking awesome in her musketeer get-up. Naturally, she bests Arvid with a rapier, but that’s just Finnish girls all over. Because it wasn’t surreal enough already, “Adolf” agrees to dress as a woman in order to persuade Johanna to leave the manor and stop pestering Arvid.

I’m disappointed that the Finns haven’t revisited this story in some sort of post-modern spoof. They could call it A Girl Called Adolf, and relentlessly take the piss out of all the cross-dressing nonsense, which is surely only a thing in drama because it was convenient for Elizabethan playwrights to get their female impersonators back out of drag. In the woke 21st century, the transvestite angle takes on a new prospect, since Brita runs rings around Arvid from the outset, and is plainly the one who wears the breeches in that relationship, now and forever.

This DVD came with English and Swedish subtitles.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

What’s Next?

Shout out to Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway, makers of the West Wing Weekly podcast, which has just come to an end after four wonderful years. When it started, it was a welcome diversion as I walked home each morning along a frozen lakeside. In more recent months, it’s been my companion on many a flight. But I’ve been with it from the beginning, as they go through each episode of The West Wing, with guests from the cast, crew, and real-world influencers, and it’s been a great experience reliving the entirety of a much-loved TV show, one episode at a time, with the people who made it and the people whose lives it changed.

I’ve had less time for podcasts in recent weeks while I work on my new book, so I have neglected Script Notes, Savage Love and 99% Invisible. I guess I should walk more.

Chinese Antiquities

lovejoyAs an antique-dealer’s son, I have long been used to the world where loveable rogues wheel and deal over flintlock pistols and meerschaum pipes, and occasionally solve crimes and/or bed baronesses. Everything you see in Lovejoy is true; just ask my Dad, but stand well back when you do. My Dad, meanwhile, as the father of an oriental linguist, has gained a new-found second-hand ability to make sense of Chinese in later life, and whenever I drop by his stall at Portobello Road, I am beset with exhortations to date Kangxi pottery or read the inscriptions on opium scales.

Audrey Wang takes such larks to new levels in Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market, published by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s, in which she outlines the state, scandals and securities of the modern trade in Chinese artifacts. The assistant director of Sotheby’s course on the Art Business, Wang is predictably good on the antiques market as a form of bank, where investors seek to stash their money by crystallising it in bronzes and watercolours. Although, of course, the value of investments can go up as well as down, as the British Rail pension fund discovered when it backed Ming vases just before their value slumped.

She has lots to say about the spats in the art world over the right of modern owners to sell pieces pilfered from China. There is some space, for example, devoted to the infamous 12 bronze animal heads from a baroque fountain at the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan), which are about as “Chinese” as Beyoncé, and were in fact once ordered removed by a Manchu princess who thought that they were ghastly. It is, Wang notes, ironic that pieces so untypical of Chinese culture should have come to become so symbolic of it. As noted elsewhere, not the least in a knockabout action movie starring Jackie Chan, the loss and recovery of these bronzes has become emblematic of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” and its long marathon back to international primacy.

I’ve long been aware of the army of Chinese agents who scour the world in search of antiquities to repatriate. But as an auction-house insider, Wang has a particular antipathy for the rarely mentioned gazumpers, who place winning bids on big-name artefacts, and then refuse to pay out of some sense of national revenge. Such actions consign antiquities to an unsold limbo, with auction houses pursuing their seller’s fee on a sum now redefined as £0, and sellers unable to off-load their property because its ownership is now a multi-faceted legal tangle.

Wang is not afraid to point out the elephant in the room, which is that some of the most prolific thieves and fences of Chinese antiques have always been other Chinese people. She observes, for example, that in 1913 “the imperial family offered to sell the imperial collection in its entirety to the American industrialist JP Morgan for $4 million,” but the trade was halted by his death. Had it gone through, presumably the Forbidden City would have been left entirely empty, and would have been turned into a Mao-era car park. In 1924, after the imperial family was pushed out of the Forbidden City, a suspicious number of antique dealerships opened up in Qianmen, “flooding the market with imperial artworks that had been secretly appropriated over the years.” There is, in fact, an entire 1926 volume, used as a sort of I-Spy book by Chinese collectors, called The Catalogue of Books, Calligraphy, and Paintings Lost from the Palace Collection, which continues to remind us how much has been removed. One of my favourite books of recent years, Who Collects the Yuanmingyuan?, attempts in a beautifully post-modern way to reassemble the Garden of Perfect Brightness by tracking down its extant fragments, built into other buildings, adorning swimming pools in Los Angeles, or gracing a French hotel lobby. Wang’s book deals with such issues deftly and dispassionately, while opening a window on the hard-nosed business world where ancient bronzes are used as storage devices for modern capital.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

An Unhappy New Year

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On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.

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Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.