Mutant Mash-Up

To Ibaraki, where a man has been arrested for selling customised dolls. The unnamed criminal, 39, had modified anime character goods, committing such heinous acts as removing the head of a Love Live doll, and sticking it onto the body of a Girls und Panzer character, before selling the mutant result online for up to £100.

Ibaraki police bragged that they uncovered the crime during a “cyber patrol” last autumn – I imagine because that sounds cooler than admitting someone in the office was Googling teeny-bop merchandise. The cops swept down on his home, confiscated a thousand dolls, and commenced a proctologically unpleasant audit of the suspect’s bank records. This produced evidence of £58,000 in “suspicious” payments over the last three years, suggesting that he had been running his cottage industry for some time.

If you’re wondering why this is a problem, you would not be the first. Is it not a consumer’s right to do whatever they want with the merchandise they own? Toy Story’s neighbourhood bully, Sid Phillips, might have been presented as a bad guy, but when he modded his toys, he wasn’t actually breaking the law… right?

Many countries have a “first-sale doctrine” that allows consumers to do whatever they want with the products they buy. You can tinker with your Blu-ray player, although that might invalidate your warranty. You can write the name of your favourite pop star on your pencil case. You can even, should you desire, put Hitler moustaches and cat ears on all the writers’ pictures on the NEO contributors’ page (please don’t do this). This is true over most of the planet… but in Japan, trademark owners enjoy more leeway in enforcing how their products are resold. A fan in his bedroom is free to sell a doll to someone else, but not to take money for modifying it in such a way as to potentially tarnish the intellectual property. The anime companies charge a lot of money for the licences to sell merchandise, and, on paper at least, selling a Love Live und Panzer mash-up would require a double licence, and double approvals from the makers. Fortunately, the lawmen of Ibaraki are on hand to stop such sordid perversions, and hopefully have also found the time to catch murderers and stuff.

This article first appeared in NEO #187, 2019. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.

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Makoto Ogino (1959-2019)

In case you missed it, my obituary of Makoto Ogino over at All the Anime.

“Late in life, he finally seemed to find a happy groove with Oboko (2003), the tale of a plucky girl who inherits her father’s fishing boat, and finds herself renting it out to a handsome schoolteacher with a vocation for environmental activism. In one of the cruellest twists of fate, editors at the recession-hit Business Jump told him that new policies found it to not have enough sex and violence for their readership.”

Wellington Koo and Modern China

Ten years after the original publication of the English edition, my biography of Wellington Koo has been published in Chinese by CITIC as 顾维钧与现代中国 [Wellington Koo and Modern China], translated by Wang Huaihai and Hu Liping, and with an introduction by Her Excellency Xue Hanqin, Vice President of the International Court of Justice. She writes: “Only when a nation remembers its history can it better grasp the future of its people.”

This is the fourth of my books to be translated into Chinese, following my biographies of the First Emperor and Empress Wu, and my history of the Silk Road.

Have I Arrived in a Harem? (1938)

Admitting that their Helsinki apartment is in a terrible mess, three bachelors agree to hire some domestic help. Arvi the engineer (Joel Rinne) is struck dumb by the glamorous appearance of Helvi (Ansa Ikonen), the first girl to ring the doorbell, and agrees on the spot to whatever salary she demands. His flatmate Martti (Unto Salminen) is less easily impressed, turning away one flighty applicant before succumbing to the icy charms of the severe, English-competent Aili (Laila Rihte). Their journalist companion Salomon (Aku Korhonen) is counter-intuitively charmed by the bellowing, matronly Manta (Siiri Angerkoski), leading all three women to be hired as maids.

With a strong cast and a high concept that even the unfunny Agapetus would struggle to cock up, Oletko minä tullut haremiin? was based on his 1927 stage play, and had already been filmed once before by Suomi Filmi, in 1932, with Joel Rinne in the same role. I presume that since the 1932 version was directed by the late Erkki Karu, who would split from Suomi Filmi to found Suomen Filmiteollisuus in 1934, that the rights to this property rested with him, and not the company that he left behind. This remake initially received enthusiastic reviews in the Finnish press. Audiences, however, were less impressed, and its box office performance was low, quite possibly because the comedy relies not only on the usual cartoonish misunderstandings common to farce, but on sexist assumptions that belittle both men and women.

This is not even the first time that an Agapetus-derived script has tried to make comedy currency out of domestic service. The previous year’s The Assessor’s Woman Troubles had similarly tackled the dissonance between home and The Help, with many of the same cast. Comedy is supposed to derive from the utter inability of men to cope with household chores, and the fact that of the three maids, only Manta is the real deal – the others are a couple of rich girls slumming it for a laugh, hence Helvi’s inability to work out what the going rate is for a servant’s wages. Apart from a scene in which Manta mistakes Helvi for a fast lady who scandalously has her own key to the bachelors’ apartment, the film does not take a predictable route into workplace romance, since the girls already have suitors, and indeed, derive situational comedy from entertaining them in the freshly scrubbed apartment while the owners are out. The sauciest moment, at least from where I was sitting, was the sight of the girls leaving their shoes outside their doors, which in 1938 Helsinki seems to have carried the erotic charge of a belly-dance.

Before long, the hapless bachelors have been drafted in to help Helvi embark on a pointless deception aimed at her family, leading to the cringe-worthy moment when Salomon introduces himself to a scowling woman (Eine Laine) as Helvi’s father, only for her to archly introduce herself as Helvi’s mother. All’s well, inevitably, that ends well, with two of the bachelors getting brides, although one can hardly call it workplace harassment, since neither Helvi nor Aili appears to have actually done any work, instead leaving it all to the dour Manta.

Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta return to an odd directorial affectation of some of their previous adaptations from the stage, cutting to shots in which actors directly address the camera, as if delivering the viewer literally into the middle of conversations that were previously only viewed from the other side of a proscenium arch in a theatre. There are some momentary glimpses of Helsinki life, but none of the extended location work that made the earlier Agapetus adaptation Scapegoat (1935) so alluring to the modern viewer.

At least the film is mercifully short, but at 58 minutes it barely qualifies as a feature, whereas the 1932 version ran for 93 minutes. The modern viewer is left wondering what cataclysm of budget, or censorship, or scheduling, caused it to be so drastically truncated, particularly when an overture and opening song delays the start of the film proper for two full minutes. Two minutes before the end, everything stops for a sing-song around the piano, followed by a prolonged musical coda over a blank screen, reducing the effective running time of this light-hearted farce to a mere 53 minutes. Possibly it was this that put 1938 audiences off, as it hardly constituted an “evening” at the cinema.

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

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.”