Rich Girl (1939)

Based on a 1921 novel by Kersti Bergroth, Rich Girl premiered in September 1939, just before the Soviet Union would bring peace tumbling down. It is suffused with flapper-era jazz, born both from its 1920s origins and a certain, desperate attempt to feel good in the face of impending conflict.

Anni Hall, no really, is the titular rich girl played by Sirkka Sari, revealed in a prolonged montage of wakings, dressings, washings and nights out, as she busies herself with the apparently exhausting job of doing nothing in Helsinki.

“All this riding and dancing is starting to feel retarded,” she says – the English subtitles presumably also belonging to a less enlightened age. But her friend Lea (Lea Joutseno) suggests that they go off somewhere exciting and strange. For a moment, there is a tantalising prospect that his film will take Finns off to Morocco or Iceland, but no, things take a different turn when Anni’s horse is spooked by a car in the road, and the upheaval causes her and her friend Lea to meet the handsome Mr Vinter (Olavi Reimas).

Love is in the air for the rich girls, but only once they have vaguely come to appreciate the message that money isn’t everything (although as the film inadvertently implies, IT REALLY HELPS). Particular fun is had at the expense of Edla (Eija Londén) a loan-shark’s daughter who cluelessly bounds over the class fences when she attracts the marriage proposal of the well-to-do Lasse (Uolevi Räsänen). At least there is something interesting about Edla – as the film relentlessly drives home, the main cast have nothing in their lives but sailing and riding, leaving them even boring themselves.

“What are your hobbies?” Anni asks Allan (Turo Kartto).

“Same as yours,” he shrugs, in a conversation liable to be repeated on Tinder all over contemporary Finland.

Anni attempts to take poor-girl Irja (Irma Seikkula) under her wing, but only frustrates her by offering solutions to her love life and career that require a privileged easy access to wealth. She pleads the potions and lotions she offers her are gifts, but is scolded for not understanding that Irja will not be able to afford to replace them once they are gone.

The film is infamous in Finnish cinema history for the tragedy that hung over it. After her star turns in The Women of Niskavuori and The Man from Sysma, this was Sirkka Sari’s third and last film, and premiered two months after its lead actress had died in a freak accident towards the end of filming. Finishing early one day due to bad weather, the cast retired to Hotel Aulanko in Hämeenlinna, where, Sari went to the roof to see the view with a man she had met. He took the elevator, she took the stairs. He arrived on the roof but found no sign of her.

Her body was recovered soon after from the hotel furnace, into which she had tumbled down a chimney from the roof. It has always been presumed that she mistook the chimney for an observation platform, discovering a moment too late that it had no floor. The film was completed without her, and she was buried in the church where she had planned to get married in 1940. Sari’s scenes were completed with a body double.

The grisly scandal did the film no harm at the box office, but is pretty much all it is remembered for. That’s something of a disservice to the young singer Olavi Virta (“Finland’s Bing Crosby”), who turns up briefly here crooning in a night club, and would go on to become one of the greatest Finnish stars on or off-screen.

Five decades later in 1993, Tapani Maskula in the Turun Sanomat argued that Rich Girl was a deeply under-rated film, far ahead of its time, praising its nuanced ability to see both sides of the class divide. I think that’s rather forgiving for a movie that ends with Mr Vinter revealing to Anni’s parents that he was only pretending to be a workman all along, and that their daughter has cleverly fallen in love with a Rich Boy.

The DVD includes a repeat of What is Suomi-Filmi?, as well as the short Pelle-Petteri and The Height of Fashion, an advertorial of some of the best in European fashions, just before the women of Europe would spend the next five years making their clothes out of old potato sacks.

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

Summer Days with Coo

“Flickering at the edges of Hara’s script treatment is a melancholy consideration of how much has been lost of the Japanese past. Recalling similar musings in Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994), Coo the kappa is a part of priceless Japanese heritage, hounded out of his natural habitat, orphaned by monstrous humans, and hunted through the streets with a price on his head.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Keiichi Hara’s overlooked Summer Days with Coo.

Cyber City Oedo 808

“From the opening shot, in which the camera pulls back from the view in Sengoku’s orbital prison cell, the production is marked out unmistakeably as a work by director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, much beloved by foreign audiences in the 1990s for his moodily lit, flashily shot works of urban gothic, and who would go on to make the fan-favourite Ninja Scroll.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s fan-favourite Cyber City Oedo 808. Pretty sure this is the largest and most comprehensive article anyone’s ever written on this, and this is but the prelude to the 50-page book that Anime Limited are including in their forthcoming Blu-ray collection. For more details, check out Andy Hanley’s wonderful one-hour documentary here.

Catfight

“As with the anti-heroes of Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club… to which Catfight might be regarded as a feminist response, the aggression of the belligerent leads derives from the crushing weight of the System, which turns each into an unhappy collaborator when times are good, and a resentful rebel when times are not.

“Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write a little entry on Sandra Oh and Anne Heche and their near-future parable Catfight, currently airing on Netflix.

My Heart Sutra

“This is not merely a book about the Heart Sutra. It’s about the stories that grew up around it, its journey through human civilisation like a self-replicating meme, a scrap of wisdom whispering in temples, shopping malls and movies. It includes the tale of Xuanzang, the monk who ducked out of 7th-century China on an impossibly long journey through the desert and over the mountains in search of Buddhist scriptures. It’s the story of the story about Xuanzang, not merely the historical reality of his life in the Chinese capital translating his hoard of sacred texts, but of the novel written about him by Wu Cheng-en.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Frederik L. Schodt’s latest book, which starts with a car crash and ends with Buddhist robots and John Lennon.

Empress Wu

Issue #140 of The Medieval Magazine includes an extensive interview with me about the life and times of Empress Wu, an ideal choice for a “Villains” special… or is she…?

“If we de-sex the story for a moment, what have we got? A leader without a mandate is desperately trying to hang onto power, while millionaires
behind the scenes try to exert their influence and stay in charge. But the Tang dynasty was incredibly fragile. It was only founded six years before Wu was born, and Taizong had to stab his way to the throne-room. Gaozong suffered a terrible attack in 660, perhaps a stroke or some form of multiple sclerosis, and Wu (still in her thirties) became his ‘interpreter’ for the next twenty years, telling the court what Gaozong was mumbling to her.”

An Introduction to Eromanga

“The book is a translation not only of Nagayama’s original 2006 book, but of its 2014 re-issue, which added an extra chapter on, among other things, the controversially restrictive Bill 156. Opposition to this 2010 piece of legislation was entertainingly diverse, as were its targets. In one incident that ably demonstrated the dangerously broad remit of its crusade against ‘harmful’ works, one Japanese politician tried to use it to ban Winnie the Pooh.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Kaoru Nagayama’s forthcoming Erotic Comics in Japan, with time out for bra engineering, censored canoes and vanilla smut.

Warning: very NSFW.

Wasn’t me!

I’ve just caught Mike Toole’s terrifying Dubs That Time Forgot panel at Cloud Matsuri (which everybody should definitely watch through their fingers), and discovered that he has been telling people all over Christendom that I was the ADR director of the UK version of KO Century Beast Warriors. Worse still, Anime News Network’s database seems to be backing up this claim! I have sent a message to correct them so that such slanders may cease.

Foundation of the Anime Nation

Out now in Japanese, Yusuke Nakagawa’s book Foundation of the Anime Nation 1963–1973: The Pioneers Who Built TV Anime is a welcome narrative not only of the revolution in TV production that led to Astro Boy in 1963, but of the rise and fall of the industry in its first phase. Created under false pretences, with some hand-waving accountancy voodoo that was never going to stand up to harsh scrutiny, anime on television enjoyed a brief boom-time as the number of available channels expanded, but then settled into a lingering downward spiral of reduced advertising returns and shrinking budgets, before the onset of a recession caused some vital corrections in course and planning.

Nakagawa’s book helpfully breaks down the decade into annual segments, beginning each with a chart illustrating who exactly is doing what – which anime are on television at the same time, and which studios are at work on rival products.

Although the book’s title promises a tight focus on television between the years 1963 and 1973, Nakagawa begins with the black-and-white propaganda cartoons of the 1940s, and the gradual accretion of Japan’s animation community in the 1950s. Nor does he ignore the very real influence of feature film animation in the same period, such as the bragging about Toei’s first colour feature, Hakujaden (1958), and the “first Tezuka anime”, which is to say, the Toei feature Alakazam the Great, for which Tezuka was a storyboarder. The film studios are very much a part of the history of TV, in part because, as detailed at length by Nobuyuki Tsugata, they hoped to cash in on advertising contracts, but also because they trained many of the animators who would then defect to TV.

The story of how Tezuka was tempted by his Toei experience to go it alone in the anime world is already well-known, not only in Japanese but also in English. The real value of Nakagawa’s book comes from when he pulls focus away from Tezuka, and looks at the activities in context in the other start-up studios that try to compete with him, such as Studio Zero, a reconfiguration of the community from the manga creators’ dormitory, the Tokiwa-so, or Tokyo Movie, a bunch of puppeteers trying to retrain in animation as it becomes the Next Big Thing. He brings in unexpected influences, such as the coterie of young SF authors whose script workshop formed a major resource for TCJ, makers of Tetsujin 28-go, a.k.a. Gigantor.

Piece by piece, we see elements of modern anime forming – the first female protagonist; the first giant robot, the first anime not to be based on a pre-existing property. The first merchandising spin-offs… all arise in real-time, their potential and impact often unnoticed by the people around them. Nakagawa also zooms in on several moments of crisis, such as the “Midoro Swamp Incident”, when Tezuka gave his staff a week off, contracted an episode of Astro Boy out to the fledgling Studio Zero, and came back to discover they had produced work so bad that he wanted it destroyed. There’s the Toei Lock-in Incident, when managers tried to freeze out union agitators, and a discussion of Just What the Hell Happened between Tezuka and his business manager Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the 1970s – did Nishizaki rip Tezuka off, or was he the fall-guy for an intricate scheme to keep Tezuka’s properties afloat behind a shell company?

Frustratingly, there are no citations, merely a bibliography at the back which gives little indication of which source supplied which nugget of information. So when Nakagawa calls Tezuka’s apprentice piece Tales From a Street Corner “unanimated anime” (ugokanai anime), it’s not clear to me if he is (fairly) assessing it as a piece that looked far better in books and newspapers than on screen, or if he is appropriating Eiichi Yamamoto’s term from several years later, used to describe the low frame-count on Yamamoto’s own Tragedy of Belladonna, made on a shoestring after Tezuka had robbed the kitty to bolster financial shortfalls elsewhere.

If you are a researcher hoping to delve deeper into such industrial matters, Nakagawa’s book offers a handy precis of particular moments in history, and a useful overview of how the landscape looked on a year-by-year basis. Its bibliography functions as a useful checklist of particular topics in the history of anime, but only for those scholars ticking through it to make sure they already have the sources themselves. Nor does Nakagawa’s reading seem to have included anything not in Japanese – Fred Ladd’s own account of the localisation of Astro Boy, for example, might have added a few more details and an additional perspective.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Anime Taikoku Kenkoku-ki 1963–1973: Terebi Anime o Kizuita Senkushatachi [Foundation of the Anime Nation 1963–1973: The Pioneers Who Built TV Anime by Yusuke Nakagawa is published in Japanese by East Press.

Lapatossu and Vinski in Olympic Fever (1939)

Workshy navvies Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen) and Vinski (Kaarlo Kartio) are fired from their jobs working on the new railroad. They are soon hired by local industrialist Mr Saro (Antero Suonio), who mistakenly believes that they are skilled sportsmen, and needs ringers in the company team to help win a bet with a rival company, run by the dastardly Karhi (Jorma Nortimo, the studio’s go-to dastard). There’s more than cash at stake, as Saro has rashly promised the hand of his daughter Raili (Laila Rihte) to another sportsman on the company team, much to the annoyance of Raili herself, who fancies Aarne (Unto Salminen), a cashier wrongfully accused of embezzling company funds.

Yrjö Norta’s film for Suomen Filmiteollisuus checks out after a mere 55 minutes, which probably helps. The presence of Lapatossu and Vinski, refugees from the earlier Lapatossu (1937), is rather superfluous, since they serve merely as comedy monkey-wrenchers who help to rig the various events at the athletics meet. It’s almost as if they were shoe-horned into an entirely different script, which could have easily gone on without them, although if it had, it would have been one of the usual unfunny Finnish comedies.

Karhi’s corporation is entertainingly festooned with crumpet. There is a typing pool right outside his office that is packed with perky Finnish girls, but for some reason he has set his sights on the rather dreary Raili Saro. A little comic relief is offered by Kaarlo Angerkoski in a ridiculous stunt moustache, who steals every scene he’s in as the unnamed secret policeman from “Eyes and Ears”, a private investigation company that suspects everybody and everything. In a lovely bit of unscripted comedy business, played entirely in mime, he pulls a long hair off Mr Saro’s jacket while talking to him, and gives him a suspicious side-eye.

The official English title of this film is Lapatossu and Vinski at the Olympics, which I regard as a step too far – the Finnish title makes no attempt to place them at the actual games, which would have been hard anyway, since the onset of the Winter War in September 1939 meant that Helsinki’s shot at the Olympics was postponed. This film, like Towards a New Horizon in the same year, was commissioned to capitalise on the forthcoming sporting event, but completed mere weeks before it was rendered irrelevant by world politics. How fortunate, then, that the original Finnish title referred only to Olympic fever, making it just about possible to get away with releasing it anyway, and turning the pound-shop Laurel & Hardy schtick of Aku Korhonen and Kaarlo Kartio into wartime box-office gold.

Shot in the sunny summer of 1939, and with a closing act almost entirely outdoors in a sports field, Lapatossu & Vinski in Olympic Fever channels a number of cartoonish Warner Bros moments, not the least when Lapatossu pours a handful of ants down Karhi’s shirt to distract him in the 400 metres race. Vinski inadvertently wins the marathon by falling asleep in the back of a cart, and as a reward for their shenanigans, the two layabouts win a car. They drive off into the sunset, bragging about how easy the summer has been, pursued by an angry widow that Vinski has somehow duped.

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