Troubles ANEW

I don’t imagine that this will be the last time this column talks about Cool Japan film financing boondoggles. It certainly isn’t the first – way back in NEO #60 we discussed the likelihood of bail-out packages; then in NEO #63 there was all that hoo-hah over the proposed Media Arts Centre. We’ve followed Japanese studios as they tentatively embraced not only crowd-funding but also charity for their underpaid staff, and the gravy train of J-LOP funding for copyright holders.

But producer Hironori Masuda has just behaved in a decidedly un-Japanese way by blowing the whistle on what he calls the “institutional corruption” of Cool Japan. The subject of his ire is ANEW, a film fund announced with great fanfare in 2011, promising $80 million for new projects. Recently rebuffed for a film funding application, Masuda followed the money trail, and discovered that there wasn’t any cash to be found. ANEW had been sold off in 2017 to venture capitalists for just $311,000, while all those millions injected into it to pay for movies had frittered away on administrative salaries and dead-ends.

ANEW had five or six film projects under its aegis, including a putative live-action adaptation of the anime Tiger & Bunny, but none of them have come to fruition. Then again, isn’t this precisely what you expect to happen when government quangos dabble in media manipulation? Cool Japan has always been a marketing-focussed, image-obsessed concept, in which officialdom has lumbered far beyond the real achievers, trying to reverse-engineer their success. You can’t just make a new Pokémon happen. If you could, Bandai would have already done it. Nor does Japan go for those tax-break film initiatives that so many countries have successfully parleyed into movie success. There’s a reason The Walking Dead films in Atlanta – they get massive tax breaks, as long as they come to Georgia to spend their money. But that doesn’t work in Japan, where a tax break won’t take away the language barrier or the red tape. Instead, the Cool Japan policy wonks tried to make Cool Japan happen by starting their own movie projects.

Some might say that Masuda is just sulking because he didn’t get a piece of the pie, or that it was unrealistic all around for anyone to think that a mere handful of movie ideas might generate the next blockbuster. Regardless, after seven years, it seems that ANEW has absolutely nothing to show for all its investment, an amount of money that if spent more judiciously, could have paid for four Spirited Aways! Not even the Japanese government can create its own luck.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #178, 2018.

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Terracottas in Liverpool

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Back from the Liverpool World Museum, where I spoke this week about Chinese Bronze Age burial customs, the oddities of the Qin state in ancient China (including its most famous song), and the enduring mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors. The exhibition itself has lots of interesting and quirky pieces, including a cauldron like the one that Duke Wu dropped on his foot, a barbarian brooch from Qin’s contacts with the western nomads, and a statue of a goose from the First Emperor’s bronze menagerie.

I asked the crowd if they could remember what they were doing back in July 2005, when “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt was number one, because that’s the timespan, just thirteen years, that separates the coronation of the First Emperor from the fall of his dynasty. The museum at the Terracotta Army site near Xi’an has already stood for twice as long as the dynasty it celebrates.

Drawing on the materials in my book on the First Emperor (which was doing a roaring trade in the museum shop, I am pleased to say), it’s only when you set the archaeology in context with the textual evidence from Qin documents (themselves often as recent a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors themselves), that the reason for every soldier having an individual face becomes clear.

Scapegoat (1935)

Boss-eyed wantwit Adalbert (Kaarlo Kartio) inherits nine thousand marks from his uncle. Deciding, for reasons unclear, that he really wants to open a milk shop, he finds a job at the swish Helsinki department store Sampo, in order to learn about sales. There, he is swiftly dragged into the schemes of the vivacious shop-girl Irja (Ester Toivonen), who persuades him to become the store’s in-house scapegoat. Whenever a customer has a complaint, Adalbert publicly takes the blame, thereby saving the more established staff from censure.

Adalbert soon tires of his role, but glumly agrees to work out two weeks’ mandatory notice, during which time Irja comes to realise the error of her ways, and that her suitor Mr Vaara (Jaakko Korhonen) is really the owner of the company, observing his wayward staff undercover.

Based on a 1930 stage play of the same name by Yrjö Soini (a.k.a. Agapetus), director Erkki Karu’s film displays an uncharacteristically ham-fisted grasp of the cinematic medium, alternating between locked-off shots of entire scenes from the stage version, occasionally invaded by sudden, poorly integrated close-ups. The contemporary Ilta Sanomat review pointedly noted its failure to utilise the potential of the movie camera. This looks and feels like what it is – an unimaginative restaging of the play, occasionally enlivened by location footage.However, Syntipukki (Scapegoat) is notable for its location shots, not only of what was then Heikinkadu in central Helsinki (thirteen years before the street was renamed Mannerheimintie), but also of the famous Stockmann department store, which itself was only completed in 1930, and doubles for the fictional Sampo. There are some touching moments of local colour, particularly a sequence of an army of cleaners, bashful before the camera, as they arrive to prepare the store for its morning opening, and a bunch of naturalistically irritating schoolboys in the street, who have plainly ignored the director’s exhortations to neither look at the camera nor get in the actors’ way. In a remarkably confident decision on product placement, Stockmann embraced the idea of a film that showcased its flagship store, seemingly shrugging off the depiction of the staff within as work-shy and corrupt. Compare this to the more modern sensibilities of the Reebok corporation, which sued TriStar Pictures for $10 million in 1996 after the Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire took money for product placement and then had its cast repeatedly shout “Fuck Reebok!” on camera.

No such worries appear to have bothered Stockmann, which is presented as a lavish paradise of consumption, complete with sequences of a catwalk model show where Adalbert is pursued by a female contortionist, and a café performance by the singer Mary Hannikainen. The cobbled streets outside have altered remarkably little; the fixtures within are similarly unchanged, except the famous Stockmann Clock, which was not installed until 1965. Considering the fetish that every guidebook and language textbook has for wittering about this supposedly iconic meeting spot, it is strange indeed to see shots of the outside of the store that do not include it. As the good-hearted innocent Adalbert, Kaarlo Kartio is a holy fool, his nose pressed literally against the glass of the shop windows in a scene that both allegorises his outsider status and milks it for comedy value. He represents the vast majority of Helsinki urbanites, only recently arrived from a “countryside” that suddenly finds itself on the outskirts of a modern city, baffled by the customs and mores of the metropolis, even though many of the people around him are likely to be only a generation or less removed from similar rural backgrounds.

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

Judge Dee Fights The Power

From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and the US. Recommended reading if you want to get the most out of Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee movie, in which Empress Wu launches a vendetta against her former ally.

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Judge Dee was rounded up with a number of other officials, and escorted to the investigators’ head office by the Gate of Beautiful Scenery. Lai Chunchen informed his captives that they had one shot at mercy – under plea-bargaining terms that Empress Wu had recently approved, anyone who immediately pleaded guilty could have their sentences commuted from execution to banishment. With that in mind, Lai Chunchen asked Judge Dee if there was a conspiracy. Dee’s reply was blunt and sarcastic:

[Wu’s] Great Zhou revolution has occurred, and ten thousand things are changing. Old officials of the Tang dynasty like myself are soon to be executed. You bet there’s a conspiracy!

Lai Chunchen would have preferred a straight yes or no, but took Judge Dee’s response to be in the affirmative. Dee was locked up for processing, although his stance managed to impress some of his captors. One investigator, doubting very much that Dee would be detained long in exile, asked him if the judge would put a good word in for him on his return, to which the judge responded by literally banging his head against a wooden pillar while calling the investigator a series of rude names.

The Judge, however, was not going to go without a fight. Waiting for a moment when he was left alone, he wrote a letter to his son on the inner lining of his jacket, and then prevailed upon his captors to take the jacket back to his home, so that his family could take out the winter padding.

On finding the secret message, Dee’s son immediately applied for an audience with Wu herself, and showed the empress the accusing letter. Lai Chunchen was called to explain himself, but argued that the letter was a forgery, since he had no record of the judge’s clothes being sent back to his house. There, Dee’s case might have foundered before it could have truly begun, but for a slave who approached Wu himself. The ten-year-old boy was one of many palace servants who owed their position to the alleged misdeeds of their elder family members. Uncaring that his words could lead to his own torture or death, the boy announced that his family was innocent, and that he lived his life as a slave solely because of the persecutions and lies of the ‘cruel clerks.’

This dramatic turn of events forced Wu to summon Dee to the palace to explain himself. She asked the judge why he had pleaded guilty in the first place, to which Dee replied that it was the only way he could avoid torture and death”

Cat-astrophe

At Tonghuamen station in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a man is dressed as Doraemon, the big, fluffy blue cat, hero of many a manga series, and known in China as Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he yells at me through the mouth of his costume.

“Indeed I do,” I say, not stopping. He starts to scurry after me, his big clown-cat-feet flopping on the dusty pavement.

“SAY MY NAME, THEN! WHAT’S MY NAME?”

“Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.” I resist the urge to add that the Chinese media have recently outed Ding-Dang as an agent of Japanese oppression, with an insidious soft-power message designed to distract them from the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Mainly because I don’t know the Chinese for soft power (it is ruan shili, for next time).

“NOT BAD! AND LET ME TELL YOU, LARGE FOREIGN FRIEND, YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD A TIME MACHINE IF YOU DON’T SIGN UP RIGHT NOW FOR ONE OF THE UNITS ON OFFER AT THE RENWEI TOWERS CITY DEVELOPMENT, COMING SOON RIGHT NEAR HERE.”

He has to shout because he is wearing an all-over velour suit designed to make him look like a giant blue cat. The thermometer is climbing towards 30 degrees today, so I think the heat might have driven him a little bit loopy.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

“TIME MACHINES AREN’T REALLY REAL, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY GO BACK IN TIME AND SIGN UP FOR THIS OFFER LATER ON.”

“In which case, how did you get here, Ding-Dang?”

There is a pause, while Ding-Dang the Time Travelling Cat thinks about this.

“TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN MARKETING. I AM REALLY HUMAN.”

“And if were you, Ding-Dang,” I add, “I’d be more worried about if you were legal.”

“OF COURSE I’M LEGAL—!”

“Because a Chinese court has just ruled that Robot Cat [Jiqimao], a trademark registered by a Fujian sportswear firm, is a blatant copy of Doraemon, so their right to use the image has been revoked, four years after they tried to register it.”

“Wow,” says Ding-Dang, his voice suddenly low and muffled. “They really did that…?”

“Yeah. Like nobody would notice!”

“Well, apparently nobody noticed for four years,” he observes.

“You got that right, Ding-Dang. I bet they wish they had a time machine now!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #177, 2018.

Our Boys in the Air (1934)

The men of the Finnish air force push their planes to their limits in long-distance tests, and train in preparation for future conflict. Pilots Jarmo (Joel Rinne, who would star three decades later as Inspector Palmu in the movie series of the same name) and Kalle (Fritz-Hugo Backman), are ahead in the distance challenge, but are forced to put their sea-plane down outside Vyborg for repairs. They are helped by local girl Kerttu (Marta Kontula, in legally actionable hotpants), with whom Jarmo soon falls in love. Kerttu happens to be the sister of his fellow pilot Erkki (Kaarlo Angerkoski), who himself is sweet on the starey-eyed Aino (Irja Simola, who looks at him the way a hungry dog looks at a sausage roll).

The pilots are roped into air reconnaissance during a forest fire, during which Erkki saves Aino’s sister Mirja from a burning building. In the process, he is hit on the head by a falling plank, and dreams of a future air assault on Finland. He wakes up to discover that all is well, although the storm clouds of war are gathering.

The first of the films included in the monster 232-disc Suomen Filmi Teollisuus box set, Our Boys in the Air, Us on the Ground (1934, Meidän poikamme ilmassa – me maassa) was actually the third in a trilogy of propaganda films made by director Erkki Karu, following on from Our Boys (1929) and Our Boys at Sea (1933). It presents a fascinating glimpse of Finland in the inter-war period, but has an impossible hill to climb in narrative and technical terms, since it was made in the shadow of Wings (1929), an American film on a similar topic, rightly lauded for incredible achievement – the winner of history’s first Oscar.

Karu had been forced off the board of Suomi Filmi, the company he had run for over a decade, unjustly carrying the blame for a slump in cinema attendance brought on by the Great Depression. With plenty to prove, he leapt back into action for his newly formed company with Our Boys in the Air, although it would prove to be one of his final films; he died in 1935, aged just 48. One of his leading men, Kaarlo Angerkoski, would not last much longer, dead from a heart attack at 33 four years later – the press blamed cigarettes and coffee.

Our Boys in the Air was made during the tense 1930s, during which the smart money in Finland was sure that the Soviet Union would stage an attack. It is hence less of a war film than a pre-war film, informing the population about military preparations and developments in technology. Under the guise of a lecture attended by the pilots, what appears to be an actual military training cartoon about relative bomb strengths is spliced directly into the film. Made with the cooperation of the actual Finnish Air Force, the film features prolonged aerial sequences, including a beauty pass across Hamina, the symmetrical, radial streets of which make for an attractive view, and Finland’s second city of Vyborg, fated to be lost to Russia in WW2.

There are many elements that mark the film out as a product of its age. The cast occasionally spring into song in exactly the same way that Finns don’t. The soundtrack is oddly lacking, with silent engines, slamming doors that make no noise, and very little foley – sometimes, all you hear are the actors’ voices. There is also a clear demarcation between actors trained in the theatre, who mug and twitch like they are on drugs, and stiffer amateurs who, ironically, come across as more naturalistic. One of these is Miss Finland 1933 (and Miss Europe 1934), Ester Toivonen, who was a teenager working in a bread shop only a couple of years earlier, but has been propelled in front of the camera by her beauty-queen career, and here plays a nurse, ahead of her first true starring role the following year, in Karu’s Scapegoat.

The film was praised in its day for the flying sequences, which even critics unswayed by its preachy nature had to admit were compelling. Today, however, it is most remarkable for  the 25-minute dream sequence in its final act, in which the unconscious Erkki experiences a prophetic vision of bombing raids, anti-aircraft batteries, civilians in gas masks running for an air-raid shelter, and firemen digging survivors from the rubble.

“Thank God it was just a fever-dream, and not real,” observes Erkki’s father when he wakes, although it would all prove to be far too real in 1939, when Soviet planes bombed Helsinki. They are not bombs, joked the Russian minister Vyacheslav Molotov, they are just bread baskets. The Finns would respond in kind, claiming that the petrol bombs they threw at Russian tanks were just cocktails for Molotov.

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