Shall We Dance? (2004)

“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.”

Quite by accident, I caught the 2004 remake of Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance, with Richard Gere standing in for Koji Yakusho, and Winnipeg standing in for Chicago standing in for Tokyo. It’s often a shot-for-shot remake of the original, complete with its celebration of platonic friendships and quirky obsessions, but Audrey Wells made several alterations to Suo’s script that I list here because that’s the sort of nonsense this blog covers.

1: It features a man torn between Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez, which is an unanswerable conundrum.

2: One of the characters is eventually revealed as gay.

3: Stanley Tucci, as the secret office dancer, gets a moment in which he twirls one of his tormenters, in a sort of kung fu dance vindication.

4: A scene is inserted in which Richard Gere conspicuously chooses his wife and his marriage over his hobby, only for her to insist that he goes off and indulges his hobby. It’s a little bit of a replay of the ending of An Officer & a Gentleman, and I suspect deliberately so.

5: Miss MItzi, the dance teacher, has her own redemption arc in which she is revealed as a struggling alcoholic who is weaned off the booze by her students’ successes.

Otherwise, it retains much of the humour and the narrative beats of the original, as well as two pointless voice-overs that could have been oh-so-easily shot as real scenes to show-not-tell. Notably, however, Gere and Sarandon have two children in this remake, not the only child of the Japanese original.

Transformations in Chinese Food

“Up to the Muslim Quarter for biang biang noodles for lunch. We luck into a relatively deserted Muslim restaurant where I can talk to camera about the history of this particular dish – international as it is, with American chilis and tomatoes, carrots and cumin from westwards on the silk road, noodles made from wheat, etc. The restaurant staff are also not camera-shy at all, and keen to let Alvin the cameraman film them at work. It is a national holiday, so outside it is utter chaos. But we get lots of footage in the can.”

So I wrote in my diary on the first day of filming on Route Awakening season two in 2015, but this passage, and the photo snapped in an upstairs room, are a historical record of a book as it started to take shape in my head. That sentence, in a sense, was the first to be written in what would become The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals, a subject I will be discussing once more on Monday 16th January in a Zoom lecture for the Gloucester Historical Association.

Monster Kids

“What really comes across is Dockery’s enthusiasm for telling a story about something that, for him as a child and for many of his likely readers, was initially just a hobby. In his investigation of all sorts of areas that ten-dollar wordsmiths might describe as historicity, technological determinism, and industrial economics, he provides his readers with a tantalising, alluring glimpse of the kind of fun you can have when you get to study what you enjoy.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Daniel Dockery’s lively account of the irresistible rise of Pokemon, and can’t resist the opportunity to also plug something that isn’t in the book, which is the terrifying Russian Pikachu song pictured above.

The Plucking Hell

Back up the mountain today, no clouds and tropical heat, to pick oolong tea with a bunch of old grannies, who are all wearing conical straw hats. The director thinks it would be great if I could get one, too. Do they have any spares?

There is a lot of tooth-sucking and shouting in Hokkien, and then one of them says:

“You can just put a bag over your head!”

“I’ll put a bag over your head, you cheeky c—” I begin, but the director kicks me.

A straw hat is found, and a woman shows me how to pick the leaves.

“You’re doing it wrong,” she says. “You’re just grabbing the top three leaves and snapping off the stem. That might bruise the leaves before they’re ready for processing, but more importantly, if you do that all day every day, you will sprain your fingers. You do it like this.” And she levers three leaves off the stem by lifting her arm, not her wrist. while resting the stem on her index finger. It’s a deceptively small nuance, but one of the little things that we are there to capture.

I start to explain to the camera what she said, demonstrating… until she grabs my arm and says: “No, no! You’re still doing it wrong!”

“Yes,” I say, pointing at the camera lens, “I’m showing them!” It is good television and looks very natural. One of the most difficult micro elements of filming on this show has been the public’s inability to grasp that we need to shoot everything wide and again in close-up; that even impromptu moments require a second take for reactions, and that when demonstrating something I have learned, I often need to first get it wrong again. This is not a problem on a closed set with just a few people; you can explain it and they get it. It is only a problem when a crowd gathers and gets in the way, and everyone appoints themselves an expert.

The cameraman switches to his macro lens so he can zoom right in on my fingers doing it wrong, and then doing it right. This means selecting tea buds that aren’t in shadow, and making sure we both know which one we are talking about, and then slowly rehashing the events that have already been shot at a distance, repeatedly.

However, for reasons that defy understanding, we have an audience that has swelled to eighteen people, thanks to a local fixer we call Mr Jangles because of the fistful of keys that hang from his belt. He is apparently some kind of bigwig from the Iron Guanyin Appreciation Society (don’t laugh – their online feed has 30,000 subscribers), who has decided to document our documentary by taking pictures with an outmoded Canon and his BINGBONG annoying mobile phone. The director has already shouted at him three times to get out of shot or stop jangling in the background of every scene. Plus the usual drivers and wingmen, several random tea-pickers, a guy who was passing on a motorcycle, and our entire crew, which is nine more people. Oh, and someone’s hatchet-faced Chinese girlfriend. who waits until I am halfway through the shot before yelling from the trees: “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”

I have nothing to do for hours on end, and then often a tiny window to perform every task planned, in the right framing, in the right light, with the right sound and background, without a passing motorcycle or granny with a hedge trimmer. The whole crew have done their level best not to cock everything up. All I have to do is say the words in the right order, without forgetting what they are, even though they are often in Chinese. If I get it wrong, then a light change (we are all hyper-conscious about the position of the sun, and the lag between takes is often enough for it to be palpable) or sound change will mean ten more minutes’ faffery. It wastes everybody’s time and concertinas our schedule later in the day, which will often mean a cancelled shot from the end. Time is money, and we will never return to this mountainside, so that idle heckle has just cost us a shot from the end of the day.

When I am talking to camera, I am trying to remember what I am supposed to say, obviously. A 20-second speech has to be carefully plotted so as not to accidentally imply that Taiwan isn’t part of China, or mix up oolong with pu’er, or forget to mention the right dynasty, or offend National Geographic’s Standards & Practices arbiters, who will make us throw a take away if they don’t like it. So the last thing I need is gesticulating, whispering, hand waving, or people dicking about with their phones (BINGBONG). It’s difficult enough to remember at all times to maintain eye-contact with the lens, rather than the director or cameraman, who are usually also in my line of sight, so the last thing I need is Mr Jangles poking his head out from under the tripod to try and sneak a photo.

Mr Jangles, in fact, has appointed himself the director’s assistant, and insists on “translating” anything she says and bellowing it up the hill in Hokkien. However, since he doesn’t actually speak English, he usually forgets the words “don’t” or “not”, and is the cause of several unwarranted mass exoduses of grannies, packing away of cameras, disappearing straw hats, and other continuity nightmares. But for some political reason I don’t comprehend, we can’t get rid of him, or any of the people he is shepherding around in his car. He then reveals that he has already been uploading his pictures of us straight to the internet, which is not his right to do, and technically contravenes several terms in our contracts.

I have been thinking a lot today about Gwyneth Paltrow, and the kerfuffle that once erupted after she supposedly demanded to be taken a mere few dozen metres from her trailer to the set of Shakespeare in Love in a golf cart. Some media outlets condemned this as prima-donnish behaviour, although the Clements contingent immediately noted that she was wearing an Elizabethan dress and facing a football pitch’s worth of muddy ground, so her decision was probably intended to save her wardrobe mistress three hours of late-night laundry.

Similarly, Tom Cruise is notorious for having banned extras from his eye-line on film sets. This has been regularly touted as evidence that he is quite mad, really, but I will observe that as the producer of his own films, it is his own money he is wasting if a take is ruined because someone tries to snatch a selfie, suddenly slaps a mosquito on their neck, or downloads the contents of their left nostril into a nearby ditch. If I had a way of napalming the grove of trees next to the tea plantation today, and could thereby rid myself of a bunch of jangly, muttering interlopers, I would have happily done so.

Up the mountain one more time, to shoot me carrying 40 kilos of tea on a shoulder balance, stumbling along the ancient pathway that winds through the hills to Quanzhou, the sea, and the world. The director wants to drone me alone on the hillside, which entails lugging my hefty load for half a mile through the terraces, pretending that I can’t see the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon as it whirrs above me. It then slowly pans up and out, leaving me a receding speck in the sunlight, stumbling through the neat green steps of tea trees, as the sun sets on the distant hills. This will probably be the closing shot of the whole tea episode.

There is no more time. We were supposed to record my closing homily in the sunset, but Mr Jangles and a bunch of other issues have chipped a minute here and a minute there, until we have lost an entire set-up. The sun has gone down, so it’s a 90-minute drive back into Quanzhou, livened up in the Buick by the sound of the director watching the drone footage and discovering that Mr Jangles turns up in it, trying to take a picture of me from the trees with his bloody phone.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

Future Boy Conan

Commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the television channel NHK, Future Boy Conan (1978) was the first and last time that Hayao Miyazaki would oversee a television production from start to finish. A ratings disappointment on its initial broadcast, it became one of the focal points of early anime fandom, and shows the early signs of many tropes and ideas Miyazaki would use in his later works.

Jonathan Clements and Andrew Osmond trace the dramatic story of the “directorial debut” of anime’s most famous visionary, taking the reader on an analysis of this landmark television series, its production, release and historical footprint.

The second part of Anime Limited’s Future Boy Conan complete set includes a 90-page book by me and Andrew Osmond, tackling the history of the series within the anime industry and the career of Hayao Miyazaki. For those that have been asking, unlike my solo work on the life and work of Mitsuyo Seo, this will not be available separately as a Kindle edition — for legal reasons, we were only allowed to write it as an extra in a box set, not as a third-party book in its own right.

Just a Night Watchman (1940)

Virtanen (Aku Korhonen) is an aging widower who works as a watchman at the Kuusela textile factory, and dotes on his daughter Aino (Regina Linnanheimo), who is dating the boss’s son Veikko (Unto Salminen). Mr Kuusela warns his son that relationships across class lines rarely work out, but Veikko assures his girlfriend that love will win in the end.

Virtanen surprises a would-be burglar, but lets the man go when he realises he has a family of four to feed. Later that night, he dozes off and has a premonition that Mr Kuusela will be in a car accident. Kuusela laughs it off, but is sufficiently spooked that he decides not to risk driving home drunk from the gentleman’s club. He takes a taxi instead, which probably saves his life, but ashamed of people laughing at his hangover the following day, Kuusela dismisses Virtanen for having clearly been asleep on the job – otherwise, how could he have had a prophetic dream?

Virtanen struggles to find another job, hobbled by his age and the fact he was fired for dereliction of duty. Veikko adds to everybody’s troubles by getting Aino pregnant and then spurning her. Aino runs away, but the womenfolk at the factory band together and threaten strike action unless the Kuusela family rallies around.

Finns have a remarkably odd attitude towards Christmas, and the sharp-eyed observer can see much pagan fatalism lurking in the local festivities, not the least in the local carols, which are mournful dirges about death and despair. So it should come as no surprise that this supposed “Christmas” movie reduces much of its festive spirit to an observation of people fallen on hard times, and a vaguely prosaic Christmas “miracle”, in which the Kuusela family is brought to its senses by a car accident not unlike the one that Virtanen had prophesied. Alone and reading a hefty Bible by candlelight, Virtanen hears carol-singers outside singing “Silent Night.” He has a vision of Aino, arriving at the head of a column of beaming factory girls and her new husband Veikko to assure him that all is well. If this were a Japanese movie, the final shot would show us that Virtanen had died, but instead this turns out to be actually true, and all ends well.

Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti condemned it for “American sentimentality” and its unlikely plot, although let’s be honest here, it’s set at a time of the year when the country celebrates a virgin birth. The left-wing press was more approving of the social message – Aino is a working-class girl poised on the cusp of societal levelling up, almost defeated but somehow winning through, which was a subject that appealed to Toini Aaltonen of the Suomen Sosiaalidemokraatti – it is interesting, in fact, to see what is essentially a plot that ends in tragedy in God’s Judgement (1939), and in defiance in The Child is Mine (1940), here assigned a more conservative and frankly miraculous solution.

Several reviewers noted that the film stood or fell on Aku Korhonen’s performance. The film had, in fact, been written by Erik Dahlberg with Korhonen in mind, and, not for the last time in Finnish film, the casting of a comedian in a melodramatic role pays huge dividends. Only a few weeks earlier, audiences had seen him larking about in Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store, and yet here he is, carrying a whole drama on his capable shoulders.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there are a couple of dance interludes, including an elegant performance of “La Cumparsita”, in which dancers Orvokki Siponen and Klaus Salin light up the screen. But even that comes tinged with melancholy, if you know the actual lyrics that accompany the tango classic: “The parade of endless miseries marches around that sick being who will soon die of grief.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Summertime Blues

To Suzhou, China, where the slow clamber back to post-Covid tourism suffered an embarrassing knock this August, when a woman was arrested for wearing a kimono. She had been cosplaying as Ushio Kofune from Summertime Rendering, and was berated by a police officer for dressing up as a Japanese person.

Apparently, everything would have been fine if she had been wearing Hanfu, or traditional Chinese dress.

“If you came here wearing Hanfu, I wouldn’t say this,” he can be heard yelling on snatched phone footage. “But you are wearing a kimono, as a Chinese. You are a Chinese! Are you Chinese?”

The woman’s social media handle was Shi yingzi bushi benren, “This is a shadow, not my real self,” which seems like an aptly self-aware comment on the nature of costuming. Such subtleties, however, were lost on the authorities, who questioned her for five hours until 1am, searched her phone and took away her costume.

One wonders about the context of such an arrest, in a city that, until now, has been famed for its laid-back quality and friendly attitude. My sole encounter with the authorities in Suzhou’s shopping precincts was when I was photo-bombed by a security guard who then pranced off, giggling. But that was in 2017, and a lot has changed over the last five years. Attitudes towards Japan have certainly frosted over, particularly when it comes to cosplaying, which has come to be seen in some quarters as some sort of badge of sedition.

Clearly, clampdowns on Japanese media in China can’t have been that draconian, as otherwise how would she even know what Summertime Rendering was? Yasuki Tanaka’s manga first appeared five years ago, but one assumes the sudden interest in Suzhou was occasioned by Ayumu Watanabe’s anime adaptation, which only ran on TV Tokyo in April this year – both manga and anime versions are accessible in China through the online service BiliBili.

If anything, Summertime Rendering is a cultural ambassador for China, since one of its episodes is essentially a history lesson about how sushi originated there, and is not a Japanese creation by any means. You would think that the Chinese would be super-excited about such as assertion, but instead social media is awhirl with people asking if even dressing up is now off the table.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #224, 2022.

Chasing Waterfalls

While reading about the botanists of the early twentieth century, I stumble across a reference in the works of Joseph Rock, a man whose prose is described by his own biographer as “brutally unreadable”:

“Between Dü-gkv and Nvlv-k’ö is a meadow called Mbamä. Here a large spring called Bao-shi gko-gyi issues from the mountainside under a grove of century-old maples where Na-khi sorcerers perform Zä-mä, a ceremony for the propitiation of the Llü-mun (Serpent spirits).”

The ceremony in question supposedly grants fertility to those who drink from its waters. Mack the fixer and I puzzle over the quasi-Tibetan Romanisation, and eventually work out that the place in question is now called Xuesong – the Snow Pines. Since we have nothing better to do, and any mention of “fertility” is a step closer to successfully completing the episode, we drive over to the spring, which is now an area of sheltered parkland, in the grounds of a temple.

We walk through shady forest paths around ponds and lakes of a clarity I have never seen before. The carp in the pond seem to be floating in mid-air, and the waters are crystal clear all the way down, linked by a series of bubbling waterfalls. The park is remarkably quiet and peaceful, thanks largely to the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people in it, and we climb mossy stone steps to a little shrine in the hillside. Here, between a golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and a stone statue of the Earth Mother, there is a hole in the rock where the spring of the Crown Prince God bubbles to the surface, watched over by the fat effigy of a young naked boy, swaddled in red ribbons. From here it cascades down the hillside, through several ponds, around a water wheel, and then into a fountain in the temple grounds, where locals can be seen filling up with buckets. This is an ideal place to film… and it is locked.

“GO AWAY,” shouts a horrible old lady through the grille. “WE’RE CLOSED.”

You can’t be closed, reasons Mack. This shrine is the focus of the entire park and we’ve all paid twenty kuai each to get in. What time do you close if the gate is still open at the front…?

There is a long pause while the old lady thinks through the ramifications of her various possible answers, any one of which requires her admitting that her daily routine comprises of knocking off early and putting her feet up. But we have filming permission from her boss at the front gate, who plainly expects the shrine at the top of the ridge to be open for another hour, otherwise he wouldn’t have let us carry our gear up the mountain.

In a great sulk, she lets us in and then hunches over the balcony, fuming at having been caught out. I dash off a piece to camera about the spring, and we are gone. It could have been a substantially more sedate piece, with me walking in the picturesque surroundings and talking about Naxi culture, but the hostility of the “caretaker” has kind of put us off.

I wish I’d taken a picture of those fish, seemingly hovering, so you would believe me. But there is rarely time or opportunity for me to point a camera, or even carry one. I am in the car feverishly revising Mandarin technical terms for an interview, or swotting up on the next location. I am pacing up and down in a forest, trying to parse my lines. I am in a hotel room carefully trying to make sure my face and hair and clothes all look the same from day to day. Or I am thousands of miles away, trying to remember it all before it fades.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

Charlie Reads The Emperor’s Feast

“Clements has an engaging and chatty writing style, and knows his audience: Liu Bang has a ‘frenemy’, Confucians are a ‘bunch of whiners’, we encounter a ‘Chinese Basil Fawlty’. I was rather surprised when, discussing the ‘world’s largest turnip’, he passes over the opportunity to make a Blackadder reference.”

A pleasant surprise over at the book blog Charlie Reads China, as the erudite Charlie encounters my history of Chinese Food, The Emperor’s Feast.