The Spectre Haunting Tokyo

Up on the Guardian website, my article about Masakado, the malevolent spirit said to be haunting modern Tokyo.

“Wary of his influence, in 1874 the new government officially proclaimed him an ‘enemy of the emperor’, ending his semi-divine status. Then the finance ministry burned to the ground in the 1923 earthquake. Masakado was blamed. Rumours then spread that the replacement building, too, was cursed: accidents, falls and mishaps claimed 14 lives in five years – including that of the finance minister himself.”

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Reset to Zero

Announced on 1st April, to give calendar makers a whole month to scramble to integrate it into their files, the new Japanese reign era will be: Reiwa (a subject first remarked up on on this blog here). 2019 will bridge the last four months of the outgoing Emperor’s Heisei era, as well as the first eight months of Emperor Naruhito’s reign, which is sure to be a colossal pain in the arse for lawyers trying to read Japanese copyright dates hereafter.

Previous era names have been drawn from Chinese classics, at least officially, although nobody dares to point out what a colossal fudge this is. The last era name, Heisei, was supposedly drawn from two, which is to say, one word from each. That’s such a half-hearted, hand-wavy justification that it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Naruhito’s reign should begin with a statement that lifts a phrase from a medieval Japanese poetry book, the Manyoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.

The words rei and wa crop up in the preface to a cycle of thirty-two poems about plum blossoms, translated by Edwin Cranston in A Waka Anthology as: “It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft.” Choice here doubles for proclamation, as an archaic term for the moon that proclaims the new season; soft for peace – I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the selected words weren’t “old geese” and “winecup”, which could have been the new era’s Boaty McBoatface.

This isn’t the first time that the Manyoshu has cropped up in NEO’s transom. The sadly obscure sci-fi series Blue Submarine No. 6 came spattered with quotes from it, and Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words drew its title from another of the poems. I spent most of April Fool’s Day manfully resisting the temptation to offer fake explanations online. Reiwa, written with different characters, also means “illustration”, which manga creators are sure to have fun with for the next few decades. Somewhat more ominously, it also means “zero-sum”, an apt but rather chilling portent of the struggles ahead in the 21st century, as nations get increasingly bullish over the allocation of resources in times beset by climate change and energy crises. Although one more chance pun probably has them doing the Macarena in celebration at Gainax, since their iconic anime character Rei Ayanami probably just got a whole bunch of new merchandise opportunities.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.

The Haunting of Mannerheim

Partway through the first act of Tuomas Kantelinen’s Mannerheim opera, our hero’s ex-girlfriends gate-crash his St Petersburg wedding like the three little maids from the school of hard knocks. Kitty, Maria and Betsy scandalise the family and taunt the bride with verses about how much he adores them, and how he will never love her more than he loved Annicka, the little sister who died as a child. Mannerheim (Waltteri Torikka) dismisses them with a cheeky shrug – left in penury by his faithless father, he is determined to marry the Russian heiress Anastasia (Johanna Isokoski), whose wealth will solve all his financial worries.

This opera moves fast. Within seconds, Anastasia is pushing a pram through a park, still dodging the taunting exes, before, in the space of a single aria, a decade has whizzed by and she has had enough of Mannerheim’s nonsense. She packs herself and her two daughters onto the train for Paris, and hisses at her estranged husband that everybody is afraid of him, except dogs and horses.

The sequence encapsulates the playfulness, humour and incisive understanding of Mannerheim’s life to be found in Laila Hirvisaari and Eve Hietamies’s libretto, as well as the many outrageous liberties they and director Tuomas Parkkinen take with historical characters. For starters, Kitty Linder (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano), one of Mannerheim’s most well-documented lovers, was only five years old at the time of his wedding to Anastasia Arapova, so I’m afraid it is rather unlikely that she would turn up at the party to sing about all the champagne they used to quaff. Nor was there much of a bunch of in-laws to scandalise – only Mannerheim’s father and brother showed up on the actual day, since everybody else thought that Anastasia was a “pop-eyed” bimbo.

But such howlers are so blatant that they may even be deliberate – the libretto lifts moments of undeniable provenance from Mannerheim’s life (such as a famous incident where a Bolshevik challenges him about the suspiciously high-ranking boots he is wearing), but also mixes in complete fabulations, such as an encounter with Puyi, the Last Emperor of China. This last incident is the prelude to revolution, signalled by the sudden display of a flag of the People’s Republic, forty years before it was actually hoisted. Such toying with history turns the opera into no less spirited a retelling than the controversial animated film Butterfly of the Urals or the schmuck-baity Kenyan “Black Mannerheim” remake Marshal of Finland, and despite a tone that is respectful and commemorative, it still manages to land some hard-hitting punches on its titular hero.

Mannerheim is a glorious celebration of the life of the most famous of Finns, but also smuggles in a remarkably subversive message about its subject. Far from being lauded as the father of his nation, Mannerheim here is a Faustian figure, wounded by his father’s infidelity, tormented by the death of his sister, and repeatedly bumping into a sinister coachman (Kristjan Möisnik) who makes him offers that come “at a high price.” In a neat below-stairs touch, his fate is interwoven with that of his housekeeper Ida (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano again), the deaths of whose son and grandson he inadvertently causes.

Despite much light-hearted humour – including a feud with a Russian officer played for laughs and a dance sequence in a clinic full of pregnant women – Mannerheim’s life is littered with corpses, at one point literally, as soldiers returning to the train station are outnumbered by a growing stack of coffins. He is haunted by the ghost of his sister Annicka (Annami Hylkilä), whose death we have witnessed in a melancholy aria about the boy she will never marry, and the daughter she will never carry. The polar opposite of the centenarian Aino from Kalevalanmaa, Annicka becomes the ghost of Finnish futures, forever frozen in time, unaware of the coming struggles of the Revolution or the Winter War, a symbol of Mannerheim’s carefree childhood in a simpler world. The first act finale finds Mannerheim literally with blood on his hands, lamenting the death of Ida’s son Toivo in the Civil War.

The second act makes a series of bold and unexpected dramatic decisions, starting with the striking recognition that the gallant young man of the first half was already a pensioner by the 1930s. It seems like only a moment ago we were snickering about his roister-doistering youth, but now he is a stuffy old man who needs his reading glasses, grumpily cutting ribbons for the opening of charitable institutions. Torikka’s Mannerheim is already infirm and slightly doddering, encouraging Ida’s grandson Kalle (Aarne Pelkonen) to join up, despite the dangers, presiding with increasing apprehension over a war that allows him to return to his glory days, at the expense of countless young lives.

We can all see what’s coming, as Ida sings her way through a letter from Kalle at the front, laughing at the recurring lyric “SENSUROITU” (censored), while Mannerheim tries to pluck up the courage to sign the telegram that will inform her that her son has died in action. But the opera’s greatest coup comes after the war, in a moment not of achievement but of denial, in which (SPOILERS SENSUROITU, highlight to read): Mannerheim is exhorted  to ascend a ladder to take his place atop the bronze horse statue on the street that bears his name – symbolically, he is being invited to become the icon that he is today, but he stops at the base of the ladder. Instead, he runs away, which leads to another iconic moment from the photo gallery of his life – the lonely park bench in Lausanne, where he literally waits for Death, and finds a final duet with Annicka instead.

I was at the opening night of this season’s run at the Ilmajoki Music Festival, where Mannerheim received a well-deserved standing ovation, not merely for the leads, but for star turns from the supporting cast. As Mannerheim’s mother Helena, Essi Luttinen has a few minutes to belt out an incredible swansong, before conveniently dying so she can sneak back onstage to play his paramour Betsy Shuvalova. As Ida, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano ably juggles her dual roles as comic relief and grieving grandmother, but it is difficult to single out anyone in the cast who doesn’t shine in their moment.

The Mannerheim opera is a fascinating set of decisions taken in adapting the life of its subject, intriguing not only for what it includes, but for what it leaves out. There is no press-baiting scene to be had with Adolf Hitler; no walk-on for the Dalai Lama; no treatment of the stillborn boy whose death spelled the beginning of the end for an already shaky marriage. The Far East alone in this opera is a single scene, about a place where Mannerheim fought a war against the Japanese, led a posse of dandy bandits, banged a mysterious lady in Vladivostok, and spent three years undercover pretending to be a Swedish anthropologist. Mannerheim sings of his loneliness in his later life, although this rather ignores the fact that he spent much of his retirement with his lady friend Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. And there was the hunting trip to India, and the coffee shop by the sea, and… I’ll stop. Mannerheim remains such a complex figure, and his life so packed with incident, that it really is possible to go back and write a whole other opera. I expect the Finns will, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, treat yourself to this one.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy. The opera Mannerheim is playing at the Ilmajoki Music Festival until Sunday 9th June.

Big Hitters

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write major new entries on some of the big hitters of anime and manga, including Rumiko Takahashi, the creator of Lum (pictured), Masamune Shirow, creator of Ghost in the Shell, and Tetsu Kariya, creator of Oishinbo. My Chinese and Japanese entries in the encyclopedia now amount to more than 160,000 words — that’s two book-length collections of articles.

The Jaeger’s Bride (1938)

1916: and a battalion of German soldiers are off to fight on the Eastern Front. Wait. German? No, these are Finns, trained in Germany as elite “jaeger” fighters, although if the opening scenes are anything to go by, they certainly haven’t learned any manners. Somewhere in Latvia, the dancer Sabina (Tuulikki Paananen) is struggling to board the jaeger train. Her new-found guardian, the monocled Baron Lichtenstein (Erkki Uotila) gets into a fight with the young jaeger officer Martti (Kullervo Kalske), which leads to Martti being carted away to the brig.

In nearby Libau, Martti languishes in jail, singing interminably all the while and drawing a picture of Sabina on his cell wall. He has, inexplicably, fallen in love. Sabina, meanwhile, dances at the Golden Anchor restaurant, a rowdy ale house frequented by the jaegers, as well as Isak (Sasu Haapanen), a Suspicious Jew. The talk of the town is “Merovich”, a Russian super-spy who is ruining the Germans’ chances on the front. Except we have already seen the Baron passing a coded message to Isak at the train station – the Baron is Merovich, and we have to sit through a bunch of songs and half-hearted dance routines while waiting for the Finns to work this out. Martti is an odd protagonist in that he spends most of the film in prison, singing about a girl he has only just met.

Risto Orko’s Jääkärin morsian is a notorious film in Finnish cinema history. It lionises the German-trained jaeger battalion that was fated to swoop into Finland after the Russian revolution and play a vital part in the liberation of the country from the Communists. As a result, by 1948 it was regarded as dangerously anti-Soviet propaganda, and after protests from Moscow it was effectively banned for the next four decades. Yes, it was a problematic film because it was anti-Russian, and not because of the shameful portrayal of Jews as craven, hunched, swarthy traitors. Your mileage may vary.

Baron Lichtenstein is clearly marked as the master-spy Merovich from the opening scenes, turning the film into a waiting game as we twiddle our thumbs through all the pointless singing, as his local paramour Sonja (Ritva Aro) fumes that he has found a younger woman, and the merry Russian serving wenches flirt and banter with the raucous Finnish soldiers. Eventually, the Finns work out who has betrayed them, and there is a horseback chase, a bomb rigged to blow up a manor house, and a bunch of people shot off-screen. In the role of the fiery Sabina, Tuulikki Paananen gets to show off the skill that first brought her to the attention of directors from Suomi-Filmi, which was apparently her party-piece of dressing up as a Mexican bandit and dancing to a tune that only she could hear, while the soundtrack plays something entirely different.

The fascinating thing about this film is the Eastern European world it depicts, thrice-destroyed in the twentieth century by the First World War, the Second World War and then a generation under the Warsaw Pact. Prussia just isn’t a thing any more, but here we see its restaurants, manors, peoples and fashions. There are foreshadowings here of some alternate-universe Casablanca, perhaps titled “Everybody Comes to Sonja’s”, in which the German dastards are here switched into heroes, and songs are clumsily integrated into the narrative while a pretty girl wanders through the action in a sombrero.

Although her dance sequences are ruined by a poorly synched soundtrack, Tuulikki Paananen smoulders impressively as the innocent dancer Sabina. The child of a Finnish father and an American mother, Paananen was raised in the United States and would return there soon after the outbreak of the Winter War in 1939. Local rumour in Finland held that she has been arrested as a spy, but in fact she was trying to carve out a career in Hollywood. In the 1950s, she moved to Honolulu, where she ran a hula school. You really couldn’t make this up.

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

International Shojo

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review a book of essays and interviews about Japanese comics, Masami Toku’s valuable collection International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Impact of Girl Culture. Topics covered include whether criticism of boys’-love manga is “gay enough”, the relevance of a job at Shake Shack to a pricey academic publication, and whether a manga in a magazine for housewives is really for “girls” at all.

The Elephant in the Room

I get a walk-on role in the art magazine Elephant‘s coverage of the British Museum’s new exhibit.

“Jonathan Clements… has published more incisive, entertaining insights about manga than any other writer in the UK. Clements’s Manga Snapshot column in NEO magazine has been going strong for fourteen years; his Schoolgirl Milky Crisis essays explore the behind-the-scenes drama of the manga/anime industry, and his latest book, Attack of the Red Panda, will be out this year.”