Cat-astrophe

At Tonghuamen station in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a man is dressed as Doraemon, the big, fluffy blue cat, hero of many a manga series, and known in China as Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he yells at me through the mouth of his costume.

“Indeed I do,” I say, not stopping. He starts to scurry after me, his big clown-cat-feet flopping on the dusty pavement.

“SAY MY NAME, THEN! WHAT’S MY NAME?”

“Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.” I resist the urge to add that the Chinese media have recently outed Ding-Dang as an agent of Japanese oppression, with an insidious soft-power message designed to distract them from the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Mainly because I don’t know the Chinese for soft power (it is ruan shili, for next time).

“NOT BAD! AND LET ME TELL YOU, LARGE FOREIGN FRIEND, YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD A TIME MACHINE IF YOU DON’T SIGN UP RIGHT NOW FOR ONE OF THE UNITS ON OFFER AT THE RENWEI TOWERS CITY DEVELOPMENT, COMING SOON RIGHT NEAR HERE.”

He has to shout because he is wearing an all-over velour suit designed to make him look like a giant blue cat. The thermometer is climbing towards 30 degrees today, so I think the heat might have driven him a little bit loopy.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

“TIME MACHINES AREN’T REALLY REAL, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY GO BACK IN TIME AND SIGN UP FOR THIS OFFER LATER ON.”

“In which case, how did you get here, Ding-Dang?”

There is a pause, while Ding-Dang the Time Travelling Cat thinks about this.

“TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN MARKETING. I AM REALLY HUMAN.”

“And if were you, Ding-Dang,” I add, “I’d be more worried about if you were legal.”

“OF COURSE I’M LEGAL—!”

“Because a Chinese court has just ruled that Robot Cat [Jiqimao], a trademark registered by a Fujian sportswear firm, is a blatant copy of Doraemon, so their right to use the image has been revoked, four years after they tried to register it.”

“Wow,” says Ding-Dang, his voice suddenly low and muffled. “They really did that…?”

“Yeah. Like nobody would notice!”

“Well, apparently nobody noticed for four years,” he observes.

“You got that right, Ding-Dang. I bet they wish they had a time machine now!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #177, 2018.

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Our Boys in the Air (1934)

The men of the Finnish air force push their planes to their limits in long-distance tests, and train in preparation for future conflict. Pilots Jarmo (Joel Rinne, who would star three decades later as Inspector Palmu in the movie series of the same name) and Kalle (Fritz-Hugo Backman), are ahead in the distance challenge, but are forced to put their sea-plane down outside Vyborg for repairs. They are helped by local girl Kerttu (Marta Kontula, in legally actionable hotpants), with whom Jarmo soon falls in love. Kerttu happens to be the sister of his fellow pilot Erkki (Kaarlo Angerkoski), who himself is sweet on the starey-eyed Aino (Irja Simola, who looks at him the way a hungry dog looks at a sausage roll).

The pilots are roped into air reconnaissance during a forest fire, during which Erkki saves Aino’s sister Mirja from a burning building. In the process, he is hit on the head by a falling plank, and dreams of a future air assault on Finland. He wakes up to discover that all is well, although the storm clouds of war are gathering.

The first of the films included in the monster 232-disc Suomen Filmi Teollisuus box set, Our Boys in the Air, Us on the Ground (1934, Meidän poikamme ilmassa – me maassa) was actually the third in a trilogy of propaganda films made by director Erkki Karu, following on from Our Boys (1929) and Our Boys at Sea (1933). It presents a fascinating glimpse of Finland in the inter-war period, but has an impossible hill to climb in narrative and technical terms, since it was made in the shadow of Wings (1929), an American film on a similar topic, rightly lauded for incredible achievement – the winner of history’s first Oscar.

Karu had been forced off the board of Suomi Filmi, the company he had run for over a decade, unjustly carrying the blame for a slump in cinema attendance brought on by the Great Depression. With plenty to prove, he leapt back into action for his newly formed company with Our Boys in the Air, although it would prove to be one of his final films; he died in 1935, aged just 48. One of his leading men, Kaarlo Angerkoski, would not last much longer, dead from a heart attack at 33 four years later – the press blamed cigarettes and coffee.

Our Boys in the Air was made during the tense 1930s, during which the smart money in Finland was sure that the Soviet Union would stage an attack. It is hence less of a war film than a pre-war film, informing the population about military preparations and developments in technology. Under the guise of a lecture attended by the pilots, what appears to be an actual military training cartoon about relative bomb strengths is spliced directly into the film. Made with the cooperation of the actual Finnish Air Force, the film features prolonged aerial sequences, including a beauty pass across Hamina, the symmetrical, radial streets of which make for an attractive view, and Finland’s second city of Vyborg, fated to be lost to Russia in WW2.

There are many elements that mark the film out as a product of its age. The cast occasionally spring into song in exactly the same way that Finns don’t. The soundtrack is oddly lacking, with silent engines, slamming doors that make no noise, and very little foley – sometimes, all you hear are the actors’ voices. There is also a clear demarcation between actors trained in the theatre, who mug and twitch like they are on drugs, and stiffer amateurs who, ironically, come across as more naturalistic. One of these is Miss Finland 1933 (and Miss Europe 1934), Ester Toivonen, who was a teenager working in a bread shop only a couple of years earlier, but has been propelled in front of the camera by her beauty-queen career, and here plays a nurse, ahead of her first true starring role the following year, in Karu’s Scapegoat.

The film was praised in its day for the flying sequences, which even critics unswayed by its preachy nature had to admit were compelling. Today, however, it is most remarkable for  the 25-minute dream sequence in its final act, in which the unconscious Erkki experiences a prophetic vision of bombing raids, anti-aircraft batteries, civilians in gas masks running for an air-raid shelter, and firemen digging survivors from the rubble.

“Thank God it was just a fever-dream, and not real,” observes Erkki’s father when he wakes, although it would all prove to be far too real in 1939, when Soviet planes bombed Helsinki. They are not bombs, joked the Russian minister Vyacheslav Molotov, they are just bread baskets. The Finns would respond in kind, claiming that the petrol bombs they threw at Russian tanks were just cocktails for Molotov.

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

Remembering Paku-san

Look for the term Paku-san (“Mr Munchy”) – an affectionate nickname born of the late Isao Takahata’s habit of scoffing his toast on his early-morning studio rounds. It’s a common occurrence in Japanese-language reminiscences and studio memoirs. And reference to it often separated the wheat from the chaff in last month’s rondo of Takahata obituaries.

You’re in safe hands with NEO magazine, for which Andrew Osmond has fashioned a loving tribute this issue, but the coverage of Takahata in other publications has been of variable quality. It’s an interesting sampler not only of how far we’ve come (a lovely Guardian piece by Jasper Sharp, I see!), but of how far we haven’t – far too many clueless paste jobs from Wikipedia. Sadly, they don’t know who they are. Few obituarists, for example, noted that Takahata worked as a producer on both Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, many accounts of his box-office “failure” Little Norse Prince, made under hostile studio conditions and effectively buried by its own distributors, were hopelessly garbled, seemingly by writers who thought it would be easy to cram such a full life of achievements into a simple list of films he directed.

One news-hound from a well-known British broadcaster inadvisably spammed anyone on Twitter who had mentioned Takahata, asking them if they wanted to come in for an interview. Unfortunately for him, this was all publicly visible, so would-be pundits could see him sucking up to Some Guy With a Blog with precisely the same enthusiasm as he was to Respected Filmmaker. In a marvellous gaffe, he also tried to get an interview with Roger Ebert, who has been dead for five years.

In obituary terms, Takahata might look like an easy grade. There is, after all, a lot of secondary material about him. It’s not like Akira Daikuhara, who died without half of the anime industry even knowing how to pronounce his name. But Takahata is still oddly under-represented in English-language interviews and books. At least one attempt to write a book-length study of Takahata’s work was thwarted in the early noughties by studio recalcitrance – it is not necessarily the fault of English-language authors that some figures are under-represented. Whatever the reason, there’s no BFI classic on Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Kaguya. There’s no translation (yet) of his collected essays, Things I Thought While Making Films. In criticism, as in life, Miyazaki got the attention first, and his friend and mentor was all too often tabled for later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #176, 2018.

Sheriff

The Finnish police are left baffled by a double murder in a Turku house – a former cop ritually sacrificed and his girlfriend shot in the head. Private investigator Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired by the dead girl’s godmother to look for clues, and soon deduces that everybody has been looking in the wrong place. The police assume that the female victim was merely collateral damage; Vares realises that she was the real target, and her mutilated boyfriend merely a smokescreen. But why would anyone want to kill a highly-respected accountant?

The latest, and so far, last of the Vares films displays a visible stylistic shift from Hannu Salonen, a Germany-trained thriller director who would go on to make Arctic Circle (2018). It restores the comic-book freeze frames and mottos from the earliest films, and has a super-processed, enhanced look that fiddles with odd lens choices to stretch human figures or flatten out backgrounds. Audi is one of the film’s sponsors, but I don’t see any Audi product placement – perhaps it is worth more to the company to pay the Finns to repeatedly abuse, blow up and roll a bunch of Volvos.

Vares does some actual detective work, being ideally placed to notice that, like him, the murders sit on the borderline between the everyday and the criminal underworld. Through his druggie associate Antidote (Jasper Pääkkönen, presumably just before he got his role in Vikings), he is introduced to a council of criminal kingpins who bankroll ventures that fall outside the scope of the mainstream economy – deposits for contraband smuggling, down payments for getaway cars, and, if my own bitter experiences are anything to go by, mortgages for expats. His quest drags him into Finland’s black economy, with its own set of rules and protocols, and surreal daytime speakeasies where men sit on leather sofas and listen to Puccini. In other words, this the Vares series’ answer to Shadow Line, caught between the police and the criminals, each using their own methods in the pursuit of the murderer.

The new look and new director, not to mention the introduction of Shostakovich (Jukka-Pekka Palo), Vares’ self-styled patron from the underworld, could amount to a soft reboot for the whole series, since the novel Sheriff was the first of a sub-trilogy within the long-running novel sequence. Writer-director Salonen has made some brutal decisions with the regular cast, relegating Vares’ usual drinking buddies to a couple of cameos in the closing scenes, and recasting the journalist Ruuhio. Previously played by the clean-cut, ever-youthful Mikko Lempilampi, who presumably has better things to do shooting the same year’s Girl-King, he has suddenly been switched for my favourite Finnish actor, Mikko Kouki, who looks utterly ridiculous here as a gum-chewing slob with a man-bun. I don’t understand why they bothered to say this character was Ruuhio at all; it would have been surely been less disruptive to just give him a different name.

They certainly didn’t keep the original name of squeeze-of-the-week Milla (Karoliina Blackburn), a motorcycle-riding hacker who is swift to reveal to Vares that she only pretends to be a lesbian to hold off unwanted suitors. In the original book, she was known by the actionable pseudonym Harriet “Harry” Potter, the now-obscured origin of a joke in the script that points out the only thing she has in common with the schoolboy wizard is that they both like girls.

The publication of the English translation of the Sheriff book in 2015 permitted me the chance to read a Vares novel and to notice some asides that are not repeated in the film. For example, in the book Vares is momentarily troubled by a vision of himself, strapped to a bed in an asylum, while a nurse reads out newspaper headlines about catastrophic flooding on the Finnish coast. Is this a nightmare? Or is it a premonition about the events of the science fiction coda, Hard Luck Café? He is also brooding about a case that he failed to solve, the death of Mirjam in the snow a decade earlier, as chronicled in Frozen Angel. Meanwhile, an aside reveals that his friend, the author Luusalmi has only ever published a single book, making a mockery of numerous past claims about his erudition. It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost in this late addition to the Vares canon, as both author and hero look back over their past adventures and try to make sense of them all, dredging up some of their earlier claims for a bit of tardy due diligence.

Sheriff, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, is the Finnish title of the film better known in English as High Noon – one of many Western references buried within the Vares books. But Sheriff also seems like an attempt by author Reijo Mäki to engage with something that has been lurking at the edges of his world for years. Every now and then in Vares stories we get a glimpse of the wider criminal underworld, an entire wainscot society with its own rules, regulations and regulators. In Sheriff, Vares finds himself digging into the mechanics of one of the institutions of this shadow world, a criminal bank prepared to loan money at high rates to high-risk, illegal propositions. It’s not quite The Wire, but more John Wick, as Vares comes to realise the subtle codes he has ignored, inscribed on the very walls of some of the criminals he is chasing.

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

Civilisation

“Aboard the Dingyuan, the wounded, half-blind William Tyler stumbled through the carnage. His ears were still ringing from the blast, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Up ahead, he saw a friend of his, Lieutenant Wu. Even as they exchanged greetings, a man standing nearby was torn apart by an enemy shell, smearing gore and entrails across the deck.

“‘So this is civilisation,’ said Wu. ‘This is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us.’”

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements.

From Truant to Anime

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Mari Okada’s memoir of dismal schooldays and her escape to the not-that-glamorous world of anime screenwriting.

“Mari Okada’s memoir of two decades in the anime business begins and ends with the disastrous premiere screening of Anthem of the Heart in her hometown of Chichibu – a huge event in the middle of nowhere, inconvenient for all attendees, with a film that stops playing halfway. As the screenwriter, she fumes impotently as the patrons wait and flunkies try to look busy, and watches with head-shaking resignation as the celebratory fireworks, timed to coincide with the end of the film, are launched too early while the audience is still waiting for it to restart.

“From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart is her account of how she got to that place, as the writer of a standalone film. Her writing is distinguished by a constant resistance to the performativity of Japanese life, refusing to play the game of empty accolades and fake-news proclamations that all is well. Instead, she presents a compelling portrayal of a life (and industry) that constantly ‘fails up’, until she becomes one of modern anime’s rare hyphenate talents.”

Tango of Darkness

At least, for once, we aren’t looking for someone who’s killed a girl. The six-year-old cold case Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) rakes over in Tango of Darkness (2012) is the murder of crooner Harry Koivikko (Jani Muurinen), found on the floor of a seedy flophouse in Turku. Like the partitive grammar case that fixes Finnish nouns if no other declension is available, Vares shambles through this movie picking up other people’s mess. His drinking buddy, journalist Ruuhio (Jussi Lempilampi) has already solved the mystery, but has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Vares must solve the case again in order to find out what has happened to Ruuhio, turning even the drama in this film into a case of reheated leftovers. Meanwhile, hard-man Veikko Hopea (Jussi Lampi), last seen locked in a fridge in Frozen Angel (2007) gets out of prison. “Hmm,” I said to the sofa, “I wonder if we’re going to watch him travel across Finland at occasional intervals throughout the film, only to arrive in the nick of time to save Vares from a bunch of other criminals?” No spoilers; I’ll let you guess. He also orders a room-service haircut from a Russian hooker called Olga, and then inveigles her into a blowjob, so… you know, that’s a bit of comedy business.

The film permits a brief glimpse into Finland’s tango culture, an odd relic of fifties nightclubs and dance-hall customs that continues to flourish in the domestic music scene. It does, indeed, launch a number of local pop stars, including Jari Sillänpää, a man with whose work I have become familiar with over the years because I am often mistaken for him by drunken Finnish cougars. The Finnish tango scene is big enough to support a number of artistes touring small-town venues with CDs in boxes, as long as they keep more or less to a repertoire that neither scares off the young nor annoys the old. Their lives, loves and scandals also seem to form the main material for the blue-collar press whenever a week goes by in which a ski-jumper hasn’t beaten his wife. Ballroom dancing’s enduring popularity, even in the 21st century, is a quaintly unifying element of Finnish life, responsible for, among other things, a bunch of guaranteed cross-generational floor-fillers at Finnish parties, as well as a talent show on Finnish television that I call Pixie Ballgown Accordion Smackdown. The quintessential Finnish dance-hall classic is “Satumaa” (The Fabled Land) written by Unto Mononen in 1955 and most famously sung by Reijo Tapale in 1962. It’s become a doleful staple of the male tango singers, and is a lament for a fairytale paradise forever beyond a man’s reach. At Kalevalanmaa, the centenary celebration of Finnishness put on by the Finnish National Opera in 2017, a performance of “Satumaa”, set at a country dance, was the cue for an audience singalong. In this film, it also lends its name to the hostel where Koivikko’s body was found, which has become a place of pilgrimage for his female fans.

The book on which this film is based, Pimeyden tango (1997) was published the year before the novel that was previously adapted into Kiss of Evil. In other words, beneath the skin, we are still dealing with a younger author writing a younger Vares, seemingly the sub-set of stories in which his job is to saunter in years after the police have given up, and inadvertently tie together the vital loose strands. Sometimes, as here, this is simply by presenting himself as bait to lure the criminals out of hiding, like a beer-soaked, gumshoe Christ. True to Reijo Mäki’s original novels, Vares is not present in several scenes in which motivations are explained and seemingly random deus ex machina events are set up. We, the viewers, know why certain events occur, but he presumably wanders off simply baffled by what has just happened to him.

As for the regulars, the biggest continuity change comes in the form of Vares’ neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), a sometime stripper and formerly his driver of choice, who is now apparently in a relationship with Ruuhio the journalist. Vares tools around town in another Volvo, suspiciously like the one that got blown up in Garter Snake (2011). “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if this Volvo will meet a similarly explosive fate.” No spoilers, right? Vares is tracking the supposedly unfaithful wife of a local businessman, unaware that his client is a nutjob liable to want him dead if he doesn’t deliver the right evidence. “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if the client will try to have him killed, but accidentally kill someone else who has just killed another person who was going to kill Vares?” Perhaps I am getting a feel for the way that plots work in the Vares films, but if so, I have miscalculated the degree of screwing that goes on in this one, with Vares failing to bed absolutely anyone on camera. He does spend a while flirting with the sassy back-up singer Donna (Lolla Wallinkoski), a woman whose sole job in this movie is to convincingly hold a tune, at which she spectacularly fails. “Do you want to hear my new single?” she says to Vares as they drive along in his doomed Volvo, before turning on the stereo and subjecting us all to a caterwauling crime against music. She’s the 1997 Miss Scandinavia, although Finland isn’t in Scandinavia, so your guess is as good as mine how that happened.

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