Big Fish and Begonia

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write up the Chinese animated film Big Fish and Begonia.

“There are a lot of fishy comments in Zhuangzi – water and the creatures that live in it serve multiple purposes, as allegories for the workings of government, and for the place of living creatures in a grander universe. Some quotes are purported to be the work of Confucius, including the one that might serve as a nihilistic tagline for the film: ‘Fish live in water, but men die in it.'”

Advertisements

Vares

Professional con-man Kraft (Jorma Tommila) persuades gullible schoolteacher Eeva (Laura Malmivaara) to help him bust out of jail, smuggling a pistol into their wedding ceremony to fight off his guards. As they wait for their fake travel documents to arrive, Eeva discovers a little too late that Kraft already has the slinky sexpot Ifigenia (Minna Turunen) waiting for him on the outside, and that he intends to bump off his rescuer as soon as the time is right. With nowhere left to turn, Eeva calls Vares (Juha Veijonen), a private eye she vaguely knows from the army reserves, who comes to the rescue with extreme prejudice.

Based on The Yellow Widow, one of the 25 Vares novels by Reijo Mäki, Vares: Private Eye (2004) was a monstrous success in its native Finland, spawning eight sequels in such a pig-pile of productions that later episodes would replace the director and recast the lead. Set in and around the picturesque city of Turku, it largely ignores the medieval charm of Finland’s former capital, focussing instead on a grotty wainscot society of dive bars, sex shops and motels, beneath drab skies and pounding rain. It’s less like Nordic-Noir than a Finnish Elmore Leonard, with a rich cast of characters entirely unaware that they are in a comedy, most obviously in a scene where two men stand around trying to suck their way through a job-lot of 500 chocolate penises that a local entrepreneur is having trouble shifting.

Vares is cast very much in the mould of Harri Nykänen’s Raid, another Finnish anti-hero who flourished in print a decade earlier, and whose own eponymous movie hit Finnish cinemas in 2003. But whereas Raid was an outlaw with a heart of gold, Vares is a smidge closer to the right side of the law. Since lead detective Mikko (Samuli Edelman) is in the pocket of organised crime and cannot be trusted, freelance Vares determines to both rescue the lady and spirit her away from the police.

Helped greatly by English subtitling on the DVD that decompresses laconic Finnish dialogue into sardonic quips, Pekka Lehtosaari’s script delivers a grand guignol of ridiculous blue-collar failures – a criminal kingpin in a polyester kimono, a corrupt detective who projects all his guilty feelings onto his long-suffering wife, and a mullet-sporting getaway driver whose day-job is pizza delivery. Several cast members seemingly stumble through the entire exercise drunk, including the Mary-Sue novelist Luusalmi (Markku Peltola), a shambling alcoholic with stringy hair and the night-sweats, who blunders in and out of the plot to offer worthless barfly philosophy.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more Finnish than this film. A pair of inept hitmen wear plastic gloves at all times, because they are allergic to everything. There is a sex scene in a sauna and plenty of dialogue about pizzas. The protagonist turns up late to the movie that bears his name in order to smack people around with a shovel, while a bunch of Russians swoop in at the last moment to make off with the McGuffin. Best of all, a throwaway scene features a naked Finnish girl serving as a human table for a banquet of meat products, wearing Swedish meatballs on her nipples and a sausage on her chest. This film is much more fun than it ought to be, and is probably best enjoyed in a cinema full of drunken Finnish truck-drivers, who won’t question too much the hokier nature of the plot, such as the likelihood that shooting someone point-blank with a grenade launcher is liable to have adverse consequences.

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

Approaching Shinkai

A year ago, Motoko Rich interviewed me as part of the research for an article she was writing for the New York Times about Makoto Shinkai. Only a couple of soundbites made it in, so here is what I said in its entirety.


MR: Are you familiar with Shinkai’s earlier work, and if so, can you describe how he has evolved as a director?

JC: Your Name stands out in Shinkai’s work because it irons out many of the issues that have dogged his earlier work. 5cm/Second, for example, was hampered by a silly logistical issue, which was that it fell a few tantalising minutes short of feature length, and seemed to end with a pop video, as if the director had simply run out of time and money.

Much of Shinkai’s work can be parsed as variations on a theme from Haruki Murakami’s short story “On Meeting the 100% Perfect Woman One Fine April Morning” (“Shigatsu Aru no Hareta Asa ni 100 Percent Onna no Ko ni De’au Koto ni Tsuite”), and Your Name finally delivers the “happy” ending that fans of that story, and indeed of Shinkai’s variations on it, have been waiting for (see my article here).

Nothing is wasted in Your Name, everything has a pay-off. Every odd little observation feeds into the direction of the movie. It’s a proper, mature work from a director whose previous feature length work has been frankly wanting — proof that he has greatness in him.

What would you say are his distinguishing talents?

Shinkai is a master at depicting and investigating the distance between people. On Garden of Words, it is expressed in micro-expressions and gestures, inches on a park bench and the direction someone is facing as an indicator of their true feelings. In 5cm/Second and Voices of a Distant Star, it’s expressed through relativity and interstellar distances, but he excels at allegorising the way that human beings are separated by gulfs of yearning.

He told me that he works by laying down dialog and sound tracks in a digital storyboard and then compliments them with images he finds around the internet before inviting animators in to illustrate his vision. He said he doesn’t consider himself a particularly good illustrator. Do you know if anyone else works that way? How is it different from other well know anime film directors?

I don’t know of anyone who works specifically in that way, but his working method bears a resemblance to ways that image boards work in advertising and marketing. He makes no secret of his interest in a bricolage of real-world inspirations, which, I think, is an admirable way of admitting his own weaknesses as an animator, and then finding a way of making them irrelevant.

Is the “successor to Hayao Miyazaki” label fair?

No, it’s a horrible imposition to dump on the shoulders of a young animator, and nobody really knows what it is supposed to mean. At an exhibition level, in cinemas, it’s the distributors saying “we need someone who can put the same number of audience members in cinemas as that guy who’s been achieving big numbers at the box office from Princess Mononoke to The Wind Rises.” But at a reception level, among the audience themselves, it’s a meaningless term. Miyazaki was a one-off — any animator worth their salt doesn’t want to be the “new” anything, they want to be an original! Shinkai doesn’t even make films for the same audience as Miyazaki — he has a much more adult sensibility, so it’s a fallacy to expect him to suddenly make films with an all-family appeal.

When foreign distributors say they want a “new Miyazaki”, what they are asking for is a guarantee of quality that will allow them to release one animated film a year from Japan that will sell a certain number of copies and garner good reviews. They want that kind of imprimatur and they are hoping that someone — Shinkai, or Mamoru Hosoda, or one of several up-and-coming directors — can fill that role. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with style or content, it’s really about Blu-ray sales and tickets.

How do you think Your Name will be received in the west? Why was it such a breakthrough blockbuster in Japan?

Your Name will get positive reviews — it’s a great film; it’s a fun film; it’s a thoughtful film. It was well-received in Japan in part because it is undeniably a good film, but also because it tapped directly into an important part of the Japanese zeitgeist since 2011. Japan is full of people who lost someone dear to them; who lost their homes, who lost their families. I think Your Name‘s appeal, almost inadvertently, partly derives from the sense of hope and closure that events later in the film offer a large sector of modern Japanese society. Can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers!

“an exhilarating ride”

Lovely review of my Brief History of Japan from Steve John Powell, up online at Zoom Japan. I’ve never been called “admirably non-judgemental” before!

“…manages to make thousands of years of Japanese history both accessible and enjoyable…an exhilarating ride into the heart of how Japan works, behind the facade of the economic miracle…. this book couldn’t be more timely.”

The Samurai Primer

Quite unexpectedly, the Japan Times has just included my Brief History of the Samurai in a recommended list of essential reading for Japan-lovers. “Clements has a knack for writing suspenseful sure-footed conflict scenes: His recounting of the Korean invasion led by samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi reads like a thriller. If you’re looking for a samurai primer, Clements’ guide will keep you on the hook.”

The Big Finnish

First there was the ice, then came the reindeer – shambling, atavistic giants, pursued by men with spears. In a rush of eleven thousand years, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet’s Kalevalanmaa chronicles what happens next, as heroes fight over the daughters of the north, the land becomes the marches of Sweden and a grand duchy of Russia, and fights for its independence in a bitter civil war. Through it all, the Jack Frost-like child figure of Sisu, the embodiment of Finnish resolve, lurks at the sidelines, urging the characters into action.

Kalevalanmaa is Danish director Kenneth Greve’s parting gift as he concludes his term at the FNOB, a celebration of the Republic of Finland’s first century of existence, rooted in the prehistory of the land and its people. As the audience take their seats, a documentary plays in which dozens of Finns are asked to describe what Finland means to them. Interviewees include everybody from immigrants to farm-hands, and in a moment foreshadowing the bonkerballs about to unfold, a prolonged speech about financial security from a man with his cock out, leading two sheep on a leash. The answers are a flood of contradictory suggestions, a conflict that continues onstage as a master of ceremonies argues with a set builder. What should go into a show about Finland? What will the audience want to see? What will they need to see?

They need to see Värttinä. Take my word for it, if in doubt, throw Värttinä in – that bunch of certified mentalists who have consistently produced some of the best, most haunting music in Finland in recent times. They could have carried the whole show by themselves, and the stage lights up whenever they arrive, even if they’re singing a song about chickens. Backed by a full opera chorus, their “Oi Dai” takes on new meaning – it is both a traditional song and a 1991 oldie, repurposed here as a lament for the depopulation of the Finnish countryside in the 1950s. Värttinä gambol through the whole show like priestesses of cool, stalked occasionally by celebrity accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen.

The Kalevala is, of course, an artificial text – assembled in the 19th century by the folklorist Elias Lönnrot, it supposedly preserves the vestiges of Finnish legend, but arguably owes just as much to the writer’s own life and experience. Perhaps because of this, the creators of Kalevalanmaa have no qualms in shuffling the available imagery, creating the show’s strongest and most compelling subtext. The Kalevala does not stop, as the original does, with the coming of Christianity – religion, in fact, is conspicuously absent from this chronicle of Finnishness. Instead, the Kalevala bleeds into the modern world. The death of the ancient hero Lemminkäinen, and the iconic image of his grieving mother, are presented at the end of World War Two. Musically, too, snatches of song and symphony, Sibelius and Klami are dotted around, sometimes at the time they depict, sometimes at the time of their composition, sometimes at some later date where they seem newly prescient.

An entire troupe of swans from Tuonela, the land of death, swoop in at the end of the first half to lead the war dead away, while Aino, our everywoman, defiantly plants a Finnish flag in the ground. Ilmarinen, the legendary smith of the Kalevala, is seen in the second half building a post-war veteran’s house and shyly wooing a farm girl. I last spotted Väinämöinen, the god of songs and poetry, at the assembly line in a chair factory, a somewhat Gaimanesque touch as the old world thins and yet persists in the new.

Just as the Kalevala weaves its way into modern Finland, the Kalevalanmaa show invades the theatre itself. Soldiers drop a ladder into the orchestra pit to draft musicians as drummer boys. Tango dancers at a summer party drag the audience into a singalong of Unto Mononen’s “Satumaa”. A 21st century rave pelts the stalls with ticker-tape, and in the grand finale, members of the audience join the cast in dancing into the unknown future.

There were, one suspects, enough choices and compromises behind the scenes to make a “Making Of” documentary almost as fascinating as the show itself. I’d love to see the minutes of the meetings where the decision-makers decided what stayed, not only in terms of implied audiences, but what worked best for the story and the more prosaic consideration of what rights were available. It’s a shame, for example, in what essentially transforms into a juke-box musical about the Matter of Finland, combining the myths of the Kalevala with the icons of the long 20th century, that Aarno Raninen’s 1977 Eurovision toe-tapper “Lapponia” doesn’t get a look-in. When Eurovision looms on the stage, it whisks by in a moment of mime – Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah” would have presumably been a step too far for the Finnish National Opera. There are also enough odd moments of pacing to suggest that certain elements were bodged together, “not quite as well as Strömsö” as a Finn might say. A somewhat awkward prologue and epilogue threatens to ruin everything, at one point literally stopping the show with a Pythonesque apology for how sentimental it is. But this frankly self-destructive quality, hanging a lantern on the jokes and delaying one’s exit with five minutes of pointless faffery, is itself quintessentially Finnish. Greve’s grab-bag of Finnishness is affectionate even when documenting social problems – the men’s chorus get to deliver an impressively drunken rant about the rubbishness of modern life.

The show is framed as the reminiscences of Aino, a centenarian who hence is as old as the Republic of Finland herself, and who supposedly is the only person in the room who knows the Kalevala by heart. I suspect, however, that the true narrator’s perspective is that of the implied audience, and of many of the Finns sat around me – a Helsinki urbanite in her sixties, who thinks fondly of her heyday in the era of post-war reconstruction, and is faintly befuddled by the onrush of the 21st century. This raucous, exciting show is most certainly a gift for the Finns, not from them – you need to be steeped in Finnishness to see not only the touchstones before you, but the manner of their repurposing. In the midst of the Civil War conflict between Reds and Whites, a girl in a blindfold is carried across the stage on a stretcher. This is, any National Romanticist will immediately see, evocative of Hugo Simberg’s painting “The Wounded Angel”, but it is out of time, removed from its original context. My own experiences with Finnish history have taught me repeatedly that many such references are all too often lost on young Finns, although even they will see the significance of a dancing Angry Bird. This is not a show that will go on tour. It will fade away, like the northern lights, into the winter with the last show in February 2018. See it while you can.

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

Hear Me Now

I feature in two podcasts up recently on AlltheAnime. One is the pre-Scotland Loves Anime interview, in which I talk about the politics of hosting Japanese guests, and libel a bunch of industry figures while discussing their peccadilloes. Then, a week later, I appear at the jury chairman in the big jury hoedown, when festival judges Amelia Cook, Rayna Denison and Elliot Page discuss the four films in competition.