Japan at War

Japan’s sudden, speedy modernization after 1868 turned into a scramble for resources and influence on the Asian mainland. As foreign powers fought over the spoils of the dying Chinese empire, the Japanese became under-dogs, allies, and then rivals of the other imperial powers – first praised as the plucky ‘British of Asia’, then reviled as unwelcome upstarts and feared as savage foes.

Jonathan Clements chronicles the 80 pivotal years which set Japan on a course for world war, steered by a military clique that used assassination and coercion as political tools. He charts the evolution of a state dedicated to conquest, and the influence of military fanaticism on everything from Japanese culture to food and fashion – including the propaganda songs and anthems of a martial nation. He examines daily life in the Japanese Empire at its peak in 1940, and the grotesque colonial experiment of Manchukuo, a state funded by drug-dealing and supported by forced labor.

Looking beyond the polarized narrative of the Second World War, Clements examines the motivations and beliefs of Japan’s leaders, as well as policy decisions couched in terms of Pan-Asianism, the exclusion of the Japanese from immigration, and the effects of trade sanctions and embargos. A final chapter details the dismantling of the old order during the Allied Occupation, and its echoes in the present day.

Available now to pre-order.

SF Parade (1940)

Taxi driver Tanu (Tauno Palo) is in love with Ansa (Ansa Ikonen), but she is suffering the unwelcome attentions of her tour-bus driver Jopi (Joel Rinne). After she rebuffs Jopi’s handsy molestations, Jopi feigns ignorance of the bracelet she is wearing – she had told him that it was lost property awaiting return to its owner, but he allows her boss Mr Anger (Kaarlo Angerkoski) to believe that she has stolen the bracelet from a tourist. Fired from her dream job, Ansa ends up working back in her mother’s kiosk, where she slowly warms to the earnest and similarly hard-up Tanu.

With a plot that could have been written on the back of a beermat, a title that might as well have been Finnish Film Company Film, and a cast that doesn’t even bother to come up with names for their characters, SF-Paraati is an odd confection, shot during the summer of 1939, but mothballed for a year as the Finns were plunged into the Winter War. Although surely beaten to the punch by The Two Vihtors (1939), it was intended as “Finland’s first musical film” by writer Tapio Piha – a plot as a thin excuse for a “revue”, cramming as many songs as possible into the narrative, and utilising the regular players of the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio. Piha was so sure of who he wanted for most of the roles that he wrote in the real actors’ names as place-holders, most of which survived into the film’s final cut. The original title, however, Helsinki Sings, was changed at the last moment.

It was released in May 1940, after the Finns had fought the Russians to a standstill in Karelia, and signed away a huge chunk of their borderlands. This unexpected development adds a particular note of pathos to the film’s subplot, which Toppo (Toppo Elonpëra}, a Finn from the Russian side of the border, arrives in town in search of his missing brother Aku (Aku Korhonen). The film is also the last appearance for Kaarlo Angerkoski, who died shortly after his shots were completed, and for teenage tap-dancer Jacob Furman, who would leave cinema behind and go on to become a jazz drummer.

Owing much to the let’s-do-the-show-right-here attitude of the US hit Footlight Parade (1933, released in Finland under the title of Shanghai Lil) SF-Paraati was planned as an international film to wow visitors and would-be visitors for the Helsinki Olympics, scheduled for 1940 but cancelled because of WW2. Much is made of the multinational flags adorning the boulevard in Central Helsinki, with the Nazi swastika given pride of place, and Ansa Ikonen effortlessly switches between English and German as she tells her tourist clients that she will show them “the capital of Finland” – although if they hadn’t worked out where they were by the time they were on a bus in the centre of town, I’d say they were past helping.

For the first five minutes we are treated to Ansa’s bus tour of the Helsinki sights, including Kaivopuisto, the statue of Mänttä, and the Kappeli esplanade, where kiosk owner Siiri Angerkoski (suddenly and shockingly white-haired) and florist Aku Korhonen dance like a pair of bell-ends to a military marching band. We see the street that would soon be renamed Mannerheimintie, and even the 1931 parliament building, which is apparently the “most up-to-date parliament in the world.”

But this is all set dressing for the musical plot of the film, as Tanu and Ansa become known throughout Helsinki for their self-penned duet, “The Song of Love.” They briefly fall out when they argue over how the music should be locked down, leading to a live stand-off between two rival orchestras, with Tanu conducting the boys on brass, and Ansa conducting the girls on strings, and the whole song turning into a garbage fire. They are, of course, both ultimately proved right, with their variant tunes functioning as point and counter-point when they are eventually forced to sing them both together.

For a film that makes such a big deal of music, the visuals are oddly ignorant of how music actually works. As in the earlier Red Trousers (1939), footage of marching bands show soldiers excitably banging drums that are making no sound, while Tanu is somehow able to stop playing his saxophone in the middle of a number without any noticeable change to the tune when he does so. But Tanu and Ansa are made for each other, since both of them are obsessed with songs, singing snatches at each other as if they are in a Baz Luhrmann musical, not out of any evasion of copyright, but because they are trying to come up with the hit of swinging Helsinki for the summer.

SF-Paraati is a sweetly endearing film. It is truly remarkable how little central Helsinki has changed in the last eighty years, and the grungy focus-pulling, which is often a few seconds behind the action, makes the whole thing seem as if it was snatched on the run. Much of the music is diegetically convincing – we see Tanu putting his song together in pieces, and then see it as it spreads like a meme through the population, sung at first at an outdoor piano near Ansa’s kiosk, and then picked up all over Helsinki, heedless of the class divide, sung by mothers to their babies, and secretaries in a typing pool, before getting the big band treatment at a dance hall. In a moment of meta comedy, Tanu is chewed out by the police commissioner for writing songs instead of doing his job, although you had to know that the commissioner is played by the film’s composer, Georg Malmsten, to understand why this is funny.

Inevitably, the film ends with big song-and-dance number, prolonged for two or three minutes, it seems, solely so that the pretty violinists can dance around in their underwear to take the film over the line to feature-length. Ansa and Tanu kiss and make up, their song is a big success, and their friends and family cheer them on from the audience. The Karelian brothers Aku and Toppo are also finally reunited, but in a feature of the film’s outdoor-broadcast quality, they drift in and out of focus and their dialogue stumbles over itself, as if not only their joy and surprise is real, but so, too is the unreadiness of the cameraman, who has had to scramble to capture a moment that is spontaneous and unexpected.

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.

When I Called You Last Night From Glasgow…

Off to Glasgow today, ready for tomorrow’s big onstage interview with Mamoru Hosoda at the Glasgow Film Theatre. This will actually be the fourth time I interview Hosoda about his film, Belle. We’ve joked about the second time being a “disappointing sequel” after his revelations about Paw Patrol, but he decided to surprise me by talking about an anime called Gunbuster, which as some of you may be aware, I am a bit of a fan of, which made the second one even better, and then he started talking about the Rolling Stones, and the third one trumped the others. But if a series of interviews were the Star Wars films, this fourth outing will be our Phantom Menace, which would make me Jar-Jar Binks.

Time Travel Footnote: So this turned out to be the first ever Q&A I’ve been involved with to get a standing ovation, but that may have had more to do with Hosoda’s first footfall in the country being in Glasgow (“the Osaka of Scotland”) rather than That Fancy Edinburgh.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain

“England the bumptious gaijin transforms into a living culture clash, not only chronicling an excruciating catalogue of faux pas, but also the oddities of Japanese PR through foreign eyes – he is, for example, comically aghast at what passes for a “special event” in Japan, where fans are expected to shell out £100 for a ‘sneak preview’ and a jigsaw. In a world where Japanese production executives are notoriously thin-skinned about absolutely everything, I almost spat out my coffee imagining how one of them might react to the revelation that the bento boxes supplied by Toho apparently all ‘suck ass,’ even if England does put such a review in the mouth of an unidentifiable crewmember.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Norman England’s new memoir of life in the rubber-monster movie business.

The Backstory of Bebop

Evangelion had effectively broken the mold for prime-time TV, and there was a scramble to make some kind of follow-up that did something different,” Clements explains. “Cowboy Bebop went for a sci-fi future without giant robots” — again, defying the conventions of science fiction anime at the time.

Over at Entertainment Weekly, I am one of the talking heads in Tyler Aquilina’s introduction to the Cowboy Bebop anime and its long history with the American mainstream.

A Short History of the Samurai

Up now on Noiser podcasts (for free!), A Short History of the Samurai, featuring that Paul McGann as the narrator, and that Jonathan Clements as the talking head. For those who want to know more, of course, there’s always my Brief History of the Samurai (which is £3.99 on the Kindle, so still a bargain).

I actually broke down for a bit while retelling the story of Dannoura, as I usually do, but they very discreetly snipped out me sobbing.

Mud Fight

The area around the drum tower is thick with people. Tourists from all over the province, Kam youths and twentysomethings on vacation from their urban jobs – hipster girls from Canton pretending that this is all jolly larks, and their boyfriends in basketball shirts and baseball caps, like inflatable gangsters that have yet to be attached to a pump nozzle. All are clustered around the carp pond in the village centre, munching on melons and chanting the Chinese equivalent of Why Are We Waiting, while old men chuff on cheroots and the grannies wonder if anyone is coming in for lunch.

If you wish to hold a Kam fishing competition, you will first require a rancid area of water the size of a tennis court. Be sure to throw all your trash in it through the year, and for extra fun, try slaughtering half a dozen cattle the day before and hosing their terrified bowel evacuations into the water.

You will then need to get drunk. I mean, really drunk. I mean, try to make sure you can barely stand, and that the only thing which can hold you upright is the possibility that one of your mates is leaning in the opposite direction and you can cancel out each other’s collapse.

Smear mud on each other’s faces, then dress up. Leaders might like to wear a nice blue ballgown, others might prefer an Indian feather headdress, a policeman’s uniform, or perhaps a comical construction worker’s outfit. Because this is rural, tribal China, absolutely nobody will draw the obvious conclusion that you have just turned yourselves into a blackface parody of the Village People, accompanied for some reason by Jason from Friday 13th and a bunch of men banging gongs and letting off firecrackers.

Then jump in the pond, and RELEASE THE CARP!

The village men completely ignore the carp, and instead turn on each other in a free-for-all, splashing each other and the crowd, dumping mud on each other’s heads, and occasionally paying a vague homage to the idea that they are supposed to be feeling in the water for fish, in the manner that Pan taught me up in the rice paddies the other day.

Some of the observers, not dressed as the blackface Village People, but certainly locals, also jump in. Then, two of the locals grab one of their friends and push him in. I look around me to see if we are filming, and see instead Pan, our local fixer, sprinting straight for me. I turn with him and we jump together into the pond, whereupon everybody starts splashing us and whooping.

This is, it turns out, what happens. All new arrivals are thoroughly drenched by everybody else for a while, until people get bored and return to the job at hand, which is supposedly looking for the carp. At the time, however, I don’t know this, and presume simply that the entire nation of the Kam has turned on me and flung gritty, muddy water into my eyes. Somebody dumps mud on my head, and I chase around after Pan like a big muddy bear.

I am sure it all looks quite spontaneous to the crowd, although I have been preparing for this for weeks. I have arrived at the pond wearing my aqua shoes, not my boots, and although I look no different to an outside observer, I am actually wearing old clothes from last year’s shoot – one of the advantages of having five identical outfits. I am not wearing my watch and my pockets are empty, and I know I have a complete set of fresh clothes waiting down at the hostel.

Pan, however, hasn’t thought this through quite so hard, and sloshes over to the edge of the pond to dump a muddy confection in the director’s hand, which turns out to be his wallet, phone and keys.

The Village People Construction Worker has caught a fish. He brandishes a golden carp to the cheering crowd, and then flings it at them, eliciting squeals of delighted anguish from the Cantonese hipsters. Behind me, I hear girlish shrieks, and see that a trio of mud wrestlers have leapt out of the water and grabbed our Camera Assistant, who is protesting in terror as they threaten to throw him and the priceless lens bag into the water. Luckily his pleadings fob them off just before the filming would have been prematurely ended by the ruining of half our equipment.

The fight continues, with further findings of carp. I, however, come out with little more than a pencil, two empty bottles and a soggy cigarette packet. When the director adjudges that I look sufficiently ridiculous, I slosh out of the water and stand in front of the camera to do a piece to camera about tribal traditions. I then slosh off through the crowd down to the hotel.

Mr Wu is deep in his cups with his drinking buddies, who have also discovered the joys of the director’s French menthol cigarettes. They are off their faces by the time I reach the hostel, and he looks up to see me standing outside the terrace like a mud-spattered spaniel. I salute him.

“Ah,” he says in the best English he can manage, “gooder.”

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).

A Spoonful of Vomit

“I don’t think I want you to go in the mud fight,” says the director. “Or rather, I think contractually I can’t make you do it. The pond looks disgusting. I wouldn’t get in there. And production-wise, if you get tetanus or ringworm or something, or a rash, it will compromise the rest of the shoot.”

Yes, I say, but if National Geographic send me to the Kam mud fight and I stand at the back reading a newspaper, you might as well not have sent me at all. Isn’t this what a presenter is for? Looking like an idiot?

“We’ll talk about this later,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ve found you this nice apron with puppies on it.”

Mr Wu has fired up the stove, and thrown extra wood into the oven. The oil is crackling in the wok, and I am wearing a fetching gingham apron that has the words MY PLAYMATES written on it in large, friendly letters, above a picture of three puppies whose names are apparently Bobby, Oscar and Keith. I’m just saying: somebody had a meeting about that.

Today we shall require some roughly chopped red and green chilies, some ginger, some leek leaves, and some cubes of beef, as well as our magic ingredient: the intestinal juices of a recently slaughtered cow, wrung out from the grass of its last meal, itself ripped from the intestines in the middle of a tribal free-for-all. If you can’t find a recently slaughtered cow, feel free to use the intestinal juices of any creature in your vicinity, particularly one that eats grass, as it’s a good way to get that lovely green colouring. And I thought they only smelt bad on the outside.

Mr Wu boils up the niubie in his wok, then sets it to one side while he fries up the beef in the chilis. Then he pours the niubie over the top and dumps it all in a bowl. He offers me a spoon and I gingerly take a sip… It tastes like a soup made with chili and pepper and… oh, wait, there’s that burning aftertaste at the back of your throat like you just threw up a little bit in your mouth.

The director glares at me and I think of something else to say, vaguely suggesting that there is a Joycean uric tang.

It is only then that Mr Wu realises that he can’t find his blood.

“Where’s my blood?” he bellows?

“What blood?” squeaks Mrs Wu, who is trying to wok up a lunch for a group of eight tourists in the restaurant.

“The big bowl of blood with all the spices in it. We only scooped it out of the cow yesterday. I was going to cook xiehong for the foreigners.”

“Oh that,” says Mrs Wu, the dim dawn of realisation starting to glimmer on her face. “I thought that was waste, so I threw it out.” Mr Wu goes ballistic, since now he has to go and find some blood from somewhere else, like a five-foot vampire on a charity mission.

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