Archiving Anime

Over at All the Anime, I review Niigata University’s free publication on archiving Japanese animation materials, with special reference to their test case, The Wings of Honneamise.

“Other elements of the book include Dario Lolli on history and technology in Honneamise, Jaqueline Berndt on the history of overseas anime/manga exhibitions (written before the British Museum’s recent triumph), a revealing interview with Hiroyuki Yamaga about the financial underpinnings of Gainax and his own struggles with creating the characters, and Kim Joon Yang asking what archived materials can tell us about anime. He delves deep into some of the directions on storyboards, noting that, say, a Star Wars inspiration is far more arguable in an analysis if we have the director’s own scrawl in the margins, reading ‘Make this like that scene in Star Wars!'”

The Heath Cobblers (1938)

Cobbler’s son Esko (Unto Salminen) is excited about his forthcoming wedding to Kreeta (Ester Toivonen), but even as he delivers a monologue to thin air in his father Topias’s forest shack, he is clearly a few logs short of a sauna. Esko is a simpleton, kind-hearted but hapless, and his parents are trying to marry him off quickly before their foster daughter Jaana (Laila Rihte) gets hitched and qualifies for a long-coveted inheritance – I have no idea why the inheritance is contingent on two unrelated people racing to get married, but that’s the least of this film’s problems. Jaana has eyes for Risto (Vilho Ruuskanen, one of the worst actors I have ever seen), and the race is on to get to the church on time.

Originally written in Finnish by Aleksis Kivi, the stage version of Nummisuutarit won a national award in 1865, setting it up as one of the early examples of Finnish entertainment for the Finns, as opposed to art and literature forced on them in Swedish or Russian. I suspect that its pioneering role in Finnish-language drama left local audiences rather more forgiving of its clunky plot, but Toivo Särkkä’s dramatization for Suomen Filmiteollisuus does itself no favours by clinging to the small sets of the stage play without exploiting much of the potential of the camera. Instead, he acknowledges the power of cinema simply by zooming in on the leads’ faces while they declaim their lines. As the money-grabbing parents, Aku Korhonen and Siiri Angerkoski do their best with thin material, but it is difficult to love a “comedy” that derives its humour from the confusions of a retarded man and the lick-spittling greed of a pair of social climbers.

Aku Korhonen, however, steals every scene he is in, with Särkkä’s camera lingering lovingly on the gentle, sincere love he has for his son. Times change, and there was presumably nothing untoward about the characterisation of Esko as some sort of Holy Fool. Drunken old men witter about their plans for trading in young women, while as Septeus the sacristan, Eino Jurkka blunders through all the scenes wearing a ridiculous top hat like the king of the Oompa Lumpas. This, however, is not the most laughable headgear on show, since Ester Toivonen dons a massive spangly crown for her wedding (not to Esko, as it scandalously turns out), transforming herself into a human chandelier for a large chunk of the film.

I presume that the whole thing is supposed to be a celebration of Finnish culture and country life, but the whole thing seems like a ham-fisted school play, not the least when the big wedding scene turns out to be a half-hearted dance sequence to the music of an off-key fiddler.

All’s well, after an interminable series of delays, that ends well, with Jaana’s dad Niko (Yrjö Tuominen) turning out not to have been lost at sea after all, but blundering his way on a drunken journey (everybody is drunk) from Turku to Hämeenlinna. If this were the only artefact of Finnish culture to survive the apocalypse, you would be forgiven for thinking that Finland was a dismal backwater populated by addled old alcoholics and sulky ingénues, where the main topic of interest was who was going to marry whom, or who they really should have been marrying. It is difficult to imagine anyone liking this film, even the people who made it. What a load of cobblers.

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

Yoko Tawada

“Her most representative work in this mode is surely ‘Talisman’ …, in which an outsider in a European city muses on the reason, presumed religious or magical, why so many women have mutilated their earlobes in order to wear earrings.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write an entry on Yoko Tawada, whose Last Children of Tokyo I reviewed here.

Art, Culture and Commerce

“Hideaki Anno scoffs at the notion that otaku culture has been truly accepted by the Japanese mainstream…His words certainly seem to echo a certain sense one often gets in the Japanese media, that besuited presenters on NHK are gingerly making enthusiastic noises about weeb phenomena they despise.” Over at All the Anime, I review Mark Schilling’s new book.

Reviews: Brief History of China

Roxy Simons is first to publish a review of my Brief History of China, out now from Tuttle.

A Brief History of China deftly explores the global super-power’s past, examining its shifting cultures and competing ideals to create an enthralling read from start to finish. Instead of only telling the stories of the champions, curated to their own advantage to ‘fix’ any unfavourable events, Clements takes China’s history back to its diverse human core, immersing booklovers in a vast cast of characters and a gripping narrative, effortlessly easy to enjoy.”

In Other Words

Fandom is up in arms about the recent Netflix broadcast of Evangelion, because the all-new dub is missing several vital cues from the soundtrack. Some of them, such as background noise under an answerphone message, are liable to pass a lot of viewers buy, but the most noticeable omission is the ending theme – Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon”.

Ten months ago (NEO #181), this column reported on the slow creep of Netflix’s influence on anime theme songs. Now fandom has had its first full-on taste of what that might mean. Evangelion, the Japanese original and the original overseas release on VHS, was made in the 1990s before the advent of true binge-watching, and indeed before the days when distributors were likely to require global licences. One can imagine a bean-counter at Netflix flinching at the idea of paying the original composer and lyricist, plus multiple singers and arrangers, repeatedly, for single-use performances of a song that most Netflix viewers are liable to skip through anyway.

If you add together all the different iterations of Evangelion, the differing lengths of episodes in different formats, and the new versions dropped in for the DVD renewal, there are in fact 31 different versions of “Fly Me to the Moon” appearing in the Evangelion series, so there is no way that Netflix could have used all of them in just 26 episodes. They have, however, chosen to use exactly none of them – although the show still goes out in Japan (where rights were presumably cleared 24 years ago) with the 1954 ballad over the ending credits, Netflix in most other territories drops in a piece of orchestral music, “Hostility Restrained”, for which rights were presumably easier to clear.

I’ve been a little surprised at the intensity of the fan response to this alteration. Theme songs get switched around all the time, often without anyone noticing or caring (A “Chariots of Fire” pastiche, missing from a Gunbuster re-release was a rare exception reported in NEO #32), but this one seems to have struck a nerve, not the least with old-time fans with fond memories of the song’s gentle reverie, usually as they came down off whatever intense and visceral misery they had just seen in the episode proper. It serves as a reminder to us all that the media are never entirely fixed, and that the experience of one fan can be distanced from that of another by time, context, and even content.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 191, 2019.