The Unruly Generation (1937)

After years buried among his books and papers, the leading mathematician Reinhold Varavaara (Uuno Laakso) pronounces his academic work complete, only to discover that the world has moved on. His wife is a stranger to him, his three children are carefree teenage tearaways, and his family has got so used to his absence, that all they care about is the prospect of the money he might earn by getting an award. The only person who seems to “get” him is Marja (Ansa Ikonen), his son’s girlfriend, in whom Varavaara increasingly seeks counsel and solace.

Ironically for a story that supposedly huffs and puffs about “kids today”, The Unruly Generation (Kuriton sukupolvi) is a rather timeless situation, Mika Waltari’s 1936 play made it swiftly to the screen, but it would be reprised twenty years later with a different leading man, fulminating about different youth habits and popular music, beatniks and atom bombs. Finnish critics are divided about the extent to which the story is autobiographical, with some pointing out that the professor’s name seems to be a hybrid of several tutors that the young Waltari had at the University of Helsinki. Others go further, suggesting that Waltari, then only 28 but already a husband and father, saw himself in the character of the daffy Professor Varavaara, emerging from his study after a marathon writing session, to discover that the world has changed around him. Life was certainly imitating art – the story goes that the workaholic Waltari wrote the play after his wife taunted him that he was incapable of writing a comedy. On the basis of this talky, drawn-out dirge, Mrs Waltari might have had a point, at least this time.

Waltari is one of the most fascinating creatives in Finnish culture, a ridiculously prolific author who seems to be a little overlooked today because many of his most famous works were international in outlook, rather than focussed on the Matter of Finland. He wrote The Unruly Generation fresh after finishing his play Akhnaton, Born of the Sun, which would transform some years later into the work that made his name internationally, Sinuhe, The Egyptian – later adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Yul Brynner. But Waltari did write many works focussed on Finland, several of which would be adapted by Suomen Filmiteollisuus, not merely A Stranger Came to the Farm (Vieras mies tuli taloon, 1938), but also the better known Inspector Palmu series

The Unruly Generation presents a chaste and romanticised notion of a happily married man, tempted by but ultimately resisting a giddy infatuation. Adapting his own script, Waltari delights in the opportunity to shoot on location – the film begins with a prank in which the professor’s son is caught herding cattle at the Helsinki parliament building. He throws away numerous scenes to make space for such larks (jettisoning the play’s reconciliation between husband and wife that leaves the film version a little more ambiguous), but crams so much in that his screenplay originally topped out at 259 pages. Even with cuts, it drags on seemingly forever, with little to offer the contemporary viewer except a glimpse of 1930s Finnish youth culture: singalongs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, energetic ballroom dancing, and a hard-drinking generation fervently embracing the lifting of Prohibition since 1932.

By this point, Suomen Filmiteollisuus was ramping up its production schedules, because there are a bunch of new faces both in front of the camera and behind it. Wilho Ilmari directs for the first time for the company, and although there are some familiar faces in the cast (blink and you’ll miss sometime leading man Jorma Nortimo as a waiter, and cinematographer Eino Kari as a gambler), the cast is largely drawn from the players of the original stage version. One notable exception is the actress Rauni Luoma (last seen here in The House at Roinila), the smouldering beauty upon whom Waltari supposedly developed a crush not unlike that of his fictional Professor Varavaara on the vivacious Marja.

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

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Elegantly Wasted

Had he been born in our era, Li Bai (701–762) would have surely been a rock star, wrecking hotel rooms and bedding groupies he met on a drug-fuelled stage-dive. In Tang dynasty China, he still enjoyed a reputation as a wild-child poet, lionised for his quick couplets and witty juxtapositions, summoned even to the Xuanzong Emperor’s entourage.

That was when he blew it. After dithering for days among a crowd of hangers-on, he got his moment to shine, called in as a script doctor on a court performance that needed punching up. Instead, he drunkenly tried flattering a prickly consort. With all the self-destructive tendencies of a heavy-metal frontman, Li Bai dissed the chief eunuch and back-handedly complimented the famously plump Yang Guifei for being as gracile as a legendary stick-thin kingdom-wrecker. It took a while for courtiers to unpick his cheeky insults, but his career at court was essentially over before it had begun.

In his new book, The Banished Immortal, poet and novelist Ha Jin offers a slick and readable biography of China’s most famous poet – his wives and concubines, his dissolute life, and his flirtations with power and politics. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal that both evokes Li Bai’s talent and his ghastly, narcissistic disregard for others. “So long as the host can get me drunk,” he slurs in one epigram, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.” We’ve all got a friend like Li Bai… we just wish he’d warn us before he rings the doorbell and asks if we’ve got any booze.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away – one gets a strong sense with Jin’s text of the sheer, daunting size of China. A man of privilege who never seems to have to really work, Li Bai’s travels separate him from his wife for years on end, and he only writes to her on a couple of occasions. Her own letters never find him, defeated by the sheer length of lines of communication. In one amusing incident fit to fill an entire episode of Star Trek, a communiqué arrives from a people so remote that nobody at court understands it. Only Li Bai, who grew up in western China and may even have been born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, can decipher it, and reveals that it is a declaration of war.

Jin is at his best when dealing with Li Bai as a fellow creative – he makes no boast to be his equal, but has an informed insider’s grasp of the perils of poetry. He is not afraid to point out those places where his subject is just phoning it in, and is ready to suggest when certain “off-the-cuff” couplets have been composed in advance. This poet’s-eye view of another poet is Jin’s greatest contribution, cutting through the hagiographies and unmitigated praise of other authors to the heart of Li Bai’s true talent. The author, an exile who has spent much of his adult life in America, clearly identifies with the peripatetic Li Bai, excluded from high office and ever unsure of his situation, “a fish trapped in a roadside puddle, dreaming of returning to the ocean.”

Jin makes a strong case for Li Bai as a man of letters ousted from what might have been a more productive calling, an alcoholic genius who inevitably puts a foot wrong in the Tang court, and a late-life careerist who disastrously backs the wrong horse. We share in Li Bai’s elation when he hears that the new emperor, Suzong, has pardoned him, and in his disappointment when he tardily realises this was not a recognition of his eloquence, but a blanket amnesty. Jin digs down into the hidden messages of love poems, and the subtle asides contained in what first appear to be fawning songs of praise.

There are, nevertheless, some odd missteps in the prose. Jin writes at one point of the “Nan dynasty”, which never existed – any Chinese speaker can see that he is referring to the “Southern Dynasties”, but this error has been allowed to stand. The Xianbei tribe is archaically referred to as the Sien-pi. Jin bafflingly recounts the death of the concubine Yang Guifei as suicide, when most accounts agree that she was strangled. In what I can only assume is a sop to the American market, Jin praises the work of Ezra Pound, who spoke no Chinese and left scraps of Japanese gibberish in his “translations” from where he copied out a crib sheet. He guardedly acknowledges the earlier work of Arthur Waley, conceding that while dated, it still has weight – I would suggest that many of Waley’s translations retain a majesty and harmony that is often lacking here. But this is not Ha Jin’s fault – all but truly bilingual translators usually work into their native language, not out of it.

For the reader unfamiliar with Chinese, Jin’s explanations can open whole new worlds between the lines, although sometimes only patchily. He notes, for example, the allusion in the last line of the poem “Zhan Chengnan” to an epigram from the Dao De Jing, but omits to mention that the opening lines are obviously a nod to “We Fought South of the City Wall”, a famous protest song from the Han dynasty. When examining “A Lament of the Leaving Woman,” Jin interprets it as a poem that reaches out to Li Bai’s disenchanted live-in lover. But considering the hostility with which other poems rail against “that stupid woman,” it is surely more likely that this poem is a toxic masterpiece of passive-aggression, taunting her for losing her looks and having nowhere else to go, a “cheap concubine.” Jin flinches at pointing out just how good his subject was at being bad.

However, these are discussions to be had, rather than outright statements of incontrovertible fact. Jin has consulted a number of Chinese-language books on Li Bai, and his text valuably distils much of their arguments for an Anglophone audience. While he often quotes trenchant third-party observations, beyond his intuitions as a jobbing poet, he rarely gives evidence of a source-critical reading of these other authors – he is insightful on Li Bai’s poetry, but hands-off regarding his historicity. Repeatedly, he refers to these other works as if they are a unanimous chorus of approval, whereas a more historically minded author might have tried a little forensics to make sure these other sources weren’t largely citing each other.

Regardless, the field of popular biographies of medieval Chinese figures is shockingly small. Li Bai’s life spanned a rich, transformative period in the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road and the brief florescence of a truly diverse China. Ha Jin’s biography will introduce this poet to a whole new generation, suffused with examples of his philosophy and verse.

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

Vital Statistics

Continuing to make a mockery of the supposed four-panel format is I Love the Best Boobs in the World by Wakame Konbu. Yes, that’s a pseudonym, since it means Seaweed Seaweed, and you’d probably want to hide your real name if you were writing a comic about a kind-hearted teenager, Chiaki, who is best friends with classmate Hana, whose mammary glands are apparently the top of the tit tree. In this month’s instalment, our two heroines go shopping for bras, which allows the implied male reader a delicious, erotically-charged peek at what goes on in lingerie shop changing rooms. Chiaki, in fact, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – as a girl, she gets a free pass into such inner sanctums, although she secretly has a fetish for large breasts, and loves to be around them.

Because NEO leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of Japanese culture, it’s time to talk boobs. The Triumph company has been logging Japanese bust-sizes since 1980, allowing statisticians to plot a curve of Japanese… curves. The story it tells is a compelling one born from changes in Japanese dietary habits (particularly dairy products containing bovine growth hormones) and trends, suggesting that A, B, and C cup sales have been dropping for a generation. Whereas A-cups in 1980 were worth 58.6% of all Japanese bra sales, now they’ve fallen to 4.1%. 2016 was the tipping point – the first year in which D, E and F cup sizes represented more sales in Japan than A, B, and C.

However, before you rush off to impress your friends with this news, some things to bear in mind. Firstly, Japanese bra sizes are not the same as other countries’. A Japanese E-cup, for example, is the same size as an American D-cup or a British DD.

Even allowing for these differences in definition, there is still a palpable change in bra-buying in Japan since 1980, but this does not necessarily mean that Japanese women are suddenly bustier. Triumph cautions that it may simply mean that women with bigger chests buy more bras, either as a feature of their struggle to find one that fits properly, or possibly because they are more likely to work in a sector that requires what we shall gingerly call performative lingerie exhibition.

University undergraduates who have suddenly decided on their final essay topic while reading this page are also advised to bear in mind that many Japanese bras are also aspirational – you might be a humble A-cup, wearing a padded C-cup because you think it will get you noticed. In that regard, the changing statistics may have less to do with changes in body type, and more to do with 21st century standards of beauty.

Jonathan Clements is the author of  A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared as part of the Manga Snapshot column on Comic Cune in NEO #180, 2018.

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.

The Curse of the Muramasa

Urban myths of the late eighteenth century suggested that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been troubled by the constant recurrence of the name of one particular swordsmith among his enemies. Late in life, he developed a superstition that blades made by the sixteenth-century school of Muramasa had been specifically cursed to do damage to the Tokugawa family. The reasoning for this, at least as far as the rumours went, was that Ieyasu’s grandfather had been killed by one, his father had been stabbed by one, and Ieyasu injured himself with one when he was a child. His worries only increased when he discovered that in the case of two executions, that of his adulterous wife and supposedly treacherous adopted son, the executioner’s blade had been a Muramasa, too. Over time, Ieyasu came to believe that every one of the generals who had opposed him had wielded a Muramasa blade, including Sanada Yukimura, who had supposedly dealt him a troublesome wound at the Battle of Tennōji in 1615. The attentive reader may note that sources from the time report that, if Ieyasu was wounded at all by Sanada, he was wounded with a spear, but no matter – the fiction was already more alluring than the already shaky facts.

Muramasa blades were highly prized, so it should have come as no surprise that they were in the possession of wealthy members of the aristocracy. Nor should it have been a mystery why aristocrats facing death would insist on their executioner using the sharpest, highest-performance blade available. But the stories about the ‘Curse of the Muramasa’ seem to have served another purpose in eighteenth-century Japan: delivering a chilling frisson to audiences with the reminder that there was a time when someone stood against the Shōgun, and that their legacy lived on, hidden within clans, buried in storehouses, and traded among sword-dealers.

Muramasa blades, it was said, were cursed. Their creator was half-mad, and the weapons he made could impel their wielders into murderous rages. One story tells of a young samurai, Gentaro, up in Edo as part of his obligatory domain service, who sees a Muramasa hanging among the other swords on a dealer’s rack:

Trembling, he withdrew it from its scabbard, and he forgot to breathe. The sword had hidden depths, like morning mist welling up within the metal. Light danced off the blade in the colours of the rainbow . . . Just by holding it in his hand, he could tell it was a masterpiece . . . an artefact suitable for a lord’s treasure house, fated never to come into the hands of a common samurai.

The samurai is even happier when the dealer offers to sell him the blade for a fraction of its true value, although he will not say why. Cheerfully, Gentaro brings the sword back with him to his home domain, where he shows it off to his fellow officers at the monthly sword club. Despite everyone’s gasps of awe, the club chairman tells him the sword is worthless. Suspecting that the chairman merely wants to buy it from him cheaply, Gentaro seeks a second opinion, and is told the whole sorry story of the cursed blades. In a spate of demises that prefigure the calamities of a modern horror film, most people involved in the story are dead within a week, as is the family servant told to throw the sword in a river, who unwisely plans to keep it for himself.

The legend achieved a wider audience in 1797 when it gained a prominent mention in a popular kabuki play Oblique Reflections of Brothel Lives (Satokotoba Awasekagami). Revived in 1815 and again in 1860 with slight variations, the story became a recurring staple of the Japanese theatre. The main narrative concerned a missing girl in the pleasure quarter, and an impoverished son of a merchant desperate to raise the money to buy his lover out of indentured servitude in a brothel. Mixed in with these basic plots are shadows of the Muramasa legend – a cursed Muramasa blade is sold by a hapless sword-dealer, who is soon murdered; it falls into the hands of one of the leading characters, and drives him into a serial-killing spree. As so often happened with kabuki theatre, real-world reportage is hidden within the melodrama. It drew inspirations from the collapse of an Edo bridge in 1807, and the 1820 murder of a capricious geisha by the man who had bankrupted himself to buy her freedom. By the nineteenth century, Muramasa swords were associated with a whole series of half-remembered macabre tales of murder and betrayal, and had come to be linked in the popular mind with the decline of samurai honour into bloody, inconsequential vendettas, and fights over bar-girls or petty debts.

Despite the superior quality of Muramasa blades, they became impossible to sell, and there are cases of some swords on which the smith’s name was doctored, Muramasa becoming altered to Masamune – another smith but without a tainted reputation. In fact, the anti-Tokugawa reputation of the Muramasa blades gave them an unexpected value among those who despised the government. Those few that survived the Tokugawa era, hidden in family vaults, are now worth millions.

Extract from A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements.

The Year of the Stag

“Clocks are harbingers of funerals; knives mean you want to cut a friendship; ties and necklaces are considered intimate embraces and should not be gifted to casual acquaintances.” Over at the Times website, I explain why whisky is the ideal Chinese New Year Gift. Also ideal for any day with a “y” in it. I mean, you can give me socks if you like, but…

Lapatossu (1937)

As the railroad slowly takes shape from Turku in the south to Vaasa in the north, construction bosses discover that their path is blocked by land belonging to the widow Laurila (Siiri Angerkoski), who will take some persuading. Unexpectedly, they find themselves leaning on the negotiating skills of Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen), an aging, workshy railway builder who reveals a previously unknown knack for disguises.

The Lapatossu stories were originally published at the turn of the twentieth century by the author Juho Nurhonen. The relation of these original tales, however, to Aku Korhonen’s portrayal of the character on film is tenuous at best, with only faint reminders that our easy-going everyman might be a noble fallen on hard times, or some sort of Holy Fool watching the modernisation of the Finnish countryside with wry bafflement. Lapatossu is an old builder on the new railway – in a triumph of unimaginative translation, the film can somehow be found referred to in English as The Old Railroad Worker. But there is so much more to him that that – he seems to slide with chameleon-like ease between the hard-pressed bosses and the happy-go-lucky navvies; he is respected by his fellow workers, and indulged by the cooks and housemaids.

Within the context of my film-by-film marathon of Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, Lapatossu is a sudden burst of creativity and experimentation. In one scene, the Finnish slang flies so fast that Swedish subtitles sneak onto the screen, to help all those urbane posh people who might have trouble following the gags. Elsewhere, the dialogue takes on a naturalistic tone, with actors interrupting each other or visibly trying to stop themselves giggling at Korhonen’s onscreen antics, while the camera flits between conversationalists, apparently unsure of who is going to speak next. This film has plainly been shot in the short Finnish summer, and the crew make the most of outdoor locations, figuratively shrugging at minor glitches in foley, audio and focus. The music, meanwhile, is oddly terrible, unless the Helsingin Teatteri Orkesteri was somehow deliberately playing the score flat and tunelessly, in imitation of an ad hoc band of amateurs.

There are some notable departures in casting. Jorma Nortimo, once a recurring dastard, more recently a romantic lead, transforms himself once again into the foppish milksop Heikki, by the simple expedient of putting on a pair of spectacles. Aku Korhonen, who played several character roles for Suomen Filmiteollisuus with varying degrees of success, suddenly gets to shine here in the loveable title role, finding a new sidekick in Kaarlo Kartio as Vinski. Lost in the supporting cast since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), Kartio gets to work as Korhonen’s foil, setting up numerous gags, and channelling Laurel & Hardy in a dance routine in which Korhonen camps it up by donning a shawl and playing the coquette. Korhonen is also visibly charming in his flirtations with the older actresses, shunting the usual half-hearted young-lead B-plot romance out of centre stage, to the extent that the fey Heikki’s ham-fisted wooing of the widow’s daughter Irja (Laila Rihte) is played almost entirely for laughs and cringes.

Lapatossu is somewhat defeated by the picaresque, episodic nature of its origins, as if a bunch of one-page vignettes have been clumsily stapled together until they bulk out to feature length. The saga of the missing cream is solved with broad humour when Lapatossu doses a jug with a strong laxative, while the widow Laurila is briefly won over when Lapatossu disguises himself as a visiting dignitary. But just when you think the film is done, Lapatossu and Vinski run away and join the circus for a pointless interlude in which he masquerades as a strongman.

Possibly because by the time this film was made, the railway had been a fact of everyday life for a generation, there is no sense imparted of the incredible engineering achievement of building a railway from south to north – Lapatossu and his fellow workers might as well be working on a building site. Taken out of historical context, Lapatossu is frankly forgettable, but it is a cut above most other Suomen Filmiteollisuus comedies of its era, and was made at a crucial point in history. Thanks to its 1937 success and the commissioning of two sequels, it and its leads were propelled to austerity stardom in the dark days of wartime. The title character, in particular, became something of an icon among the soldiers of the Winter War.

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