Like Sleep or Shadow (1937)

The arrival of city-boy surveyor Yrjö (Jorma Nortimo) drastically disrupts the way of life in a remote Ostrobothnian village. He falls for Eliina (Ansa Ikonen), the disabled daughter of a local bigwig, whose devout sister Johanna (Ester Toivonen) is torn between two suitors, her life-long neighbour and betrothed, and a newer arrival of whom her father disapproves.

Kuin uni ja varjo was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Eino Railo, which was at the very height of its popularity – in 1937, it had been reprinted three times in the two years since it was published. Certain elements of it seem to break with Finnish filmic tradition, particularly the pat romantic denouements so beloved of Suomen Filmiteollisuus. Spoiler warning: only one of the two leading couples ties the knot by the end, in a miserable ceremony in which the bride and groom wear Gothic black, a man bitterly proclaims his religious faith after being blinded, and a jilted lover almost dies of consumption on the sidelines.

Much of the tension revolves around the clash of privileged newcomers rolling into a town where everybody knows everybody, and has assumed for years that fates are well and truly predestined. Life has not changed a whole lot in the countryside for decades – Yrjö’s arrival is a taste of things to come, as the horse and cart, the church as the centre of village life, and the expectations of Finnish youth are all about to be radically transformed. The wedding scene that closes the film is supposedly a happy ending, but is also a glimpse of a dying rural culture.

The likes of Yrjö serve as a sudden, unexpected wake-up call that there is a whole world beyond the edge of the village, and that things really don’t have to be the way that the villagers have assumed. The nuances of Ostrobothnian language fly right over my head, but are apparently a Thing here, as are a series of unintentionally ridiculous fight scenes, in which men heartily wrestle with one another as if nobody has ever suggested they try throwing a punch. It is also oddly jarring to see a 19th-century church congregation belting out a hymn, since my 21st century experience has been one of Finns staring glumly at their shoes while the church organist plods through the tune and a lone cantor sings along at the back.

Ansa Ikonen, a major stage actress who had thus far only appeared in bit parts for Suomen Filmiteollisuus (better known, in fact for films by the rival studio Suomi Filmi), gets top billing on the poster in the role of Eliina, for which she lurches around on crutches and simpers adoringly at Yrjö. In a scene that might seem clichéd today but was probably a winner in its time, she has a dream sequence at a village dance in which she leaps to her feet and dances with Yrjö, only to be woken from her reverie when her crutches drop loudly to the floor.

Ester Toivonen is winningly severe as the religious Johanna, although she disappears for entire stretches of the film, leaving her rival suitors to duke it out between them. The third big female name on the poster is Laila Rihte as the serving girl Kerttu, whom I barely noticed for the first half of the film, before she is suddenly parachuted into the drama as an alternate love interest. Blink and you also miss Kaarlo Kartio, as ever unrecognisable in another brief character role.

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

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Flowers of Edo

The Sumida River was sure to rise every year, either directly endangering the Low City slums or increasing the spread of rat- or fly-borne diseases. But in a town of close-packed wooden houses, every one with a hearth, the greatest danger was fire. Periodic conflagrations destroyed entire districts of the city, and could be kicked off by a single errant spark. The most boggling was the Meireki Fire of January 1657 (like many such events, it derives its name from the reign-period in which it took place), which began, like some horror movie foreshadowing, with a haunted kimono.

This article of clothing had been owned by three girls in succession, every one of whom had met with a sudden death. Believing the kimono to be cursed, its new owners ordered it to be burned at a Buddhist temple. A gust of strong wind lifted up fragments of the burning silk and deposited them on a temple roof, which soon caught alight. The flames jumped from temple to tavern, over bridges and storehouses, burning down six entire districts. In the chaos, a second fire started, perhaps from a neglected cooking stove or a dropped tobacco pipe. With the populace already distracted by the first fire, the second raged through the samurai district, burning the inmates of the city prison alive, and even destroying Edo Castle. Over 100,000 people, a third of the entire population, died in the two days of the Meireki Fire, not merely from the flames, but from the wintry aftermath. Even as the wreckage still smouldered, snow began to fall with mocking irony, dooming many newly homeless residents to death by hypothermia.

Fires were so commonplace and so feared that the locals did not even dare to call them what they were. With a customarily poetic fatalism, they referred to them as ‘the flowers of Edo’. Many houses gained rooftop crow’s nests to allow the occupants to see how close nearby fires were getting. A common feature of every district was the hinomi-yagura (fire-watching tower), which looks to modern eyes like a pair of telegraph poles placed close enough together that the rungs of a ladder can run between them. At the top was a bell and a tiny perch no bigger than a footstool, allowing residents to peer into the next city block to see how great the risk was whenever they smelled smoke.

Eventually, Edo gained a new class of ‘firemen’ although their job description was somewhat different from what one might expect. Exhibiting a certain resignation about the impossibility of putting out a fire, they instead ransacked the house, carrying out the valuables to spare them the flames. Private enterprises rather than publically-funded do-gooders, the firemen existed as multiple rival brigades, often leading to scrums of contending rescuers at any disaster scene. Standard bearers carrying the standard of a particular firemen’s guild would perch as close to the burning building as possible, so that everyone could see who had arrived. Fire-hoses, using a relatively meagre hand-pumped stream from the nearest canal, were intended not to dowse the flames, but protect the firemen as they worked.

Over the years, it became apparent that the best way to protect one’s business was to strike a deal with the firemen in advance, so that they were sure to come quickly in the event of trouble. In order to make allegiances clear, many businesses started to hang the standards of particular guilds over their doors. This was the origin of the decorated noren, the half-curtain that can still be found at the entrance to many a shop or noodle bar.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo by Jonathan Clements, available now (US/UK).

The Assessor’s Woman Troubles (1937)

The cantankerous Alfred (Aku Korhonen) loses his long-serving housemaid and makes life hell for her replacement Vieno (Laila Rihte). He writes to his lady friend Matilda (Siiri Angerkoski), newly returned from America, and asks her to take over, but the love-struck Matilda mistakes his invitation for a proposal, and packs for a permanent stay. Misinformed that Matilda has already arrived, Alfred hides out on the night train to Viipuri, arriving to discover that he is penniless, and that he must lean on unexpected friends for assistance.

Based on a play by “Agapetus” (Yrjö Soini), Asessorin naishuolet is a disappointment all round, presented as a box-ticking exercise in formulaic farce with the usual Finnish over-confidence in the comedy value of drunk scenes. From the very first scene, in which he wakes up and demands his newspaper in bed, Alfred is a horrid, tantrum-prone man-child, ranting and raving at the tearful Vieno because she’s put the sugar bowl on the wrong side of the breakfast tray. It makes it hard to care in the least whether he finds the love of a good woman or not, rendering much of the later drama pointless. Seemingly shot on sets for the original play with little more than backdrops to denote changes in scenery between Helsinki, Vaasa and Viipuri, the film is short on location work and offers little to the modern viewer except a glimpse of the tribulations of 1930s maidservants, and of the social atmosphere of pre-war Helsinki, wreathed in cigar smoke. In an unwelcome musical interlude, singer Annikki Arni stages a pitch invasion at a restaurant, where she warbles at resentful patrons who glare at her as if she is holding them hostage.

Ester Toivonen, as ever, reliably easy on the eyes, appears in a half-hearted subplot about a lawyer’s daughter Aino who falls for a painter she sees in the park. The two stories clunkily dovetail in Viipuri, when the painter Veikko (Jorma Nortimo) comes to the rescue of Alfred, thereby winning over his reluctant father-in-law to be. Ilse Erkkilä puts on a memorable turn playing Toivonen’s teenage sister (barely suppressing her excitement at the sight of her sister’s suitor), as does Kaarlo Kartio in a minor role as a shopkeeper, a character actor who has thus far demonstrated the widest range of anyone on Suomen Filmiteollisuus’s books, looking palpably different in every film he is in, but increasingly fading into the background after his leading role in 1935’s Scapegoat. But little can save this tired rehash of formulae already dragged out in several previous works from the same studio.

All is supposedly well that ends well, with Alfred proclaiming his love for the gleeful Matilda, who signifies her cosmopolitan status by cramming English words into every one of her lines, Yes, Yes, Wonderful. Aino gets hitched to Veikko, and the cast presumably celebrates by biting the ends off another set of cigars, since cigar-cutters seem not to have made it to Helsinki yet.

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

One Bad Apple

Anders Gonsalves da Silva lit up the Twittersphere in September with a screed aimed at Apple, accusing them not only of deleting films from his iTunes library without warning, but also offering him nothing but a couple of “rentals” in compensation. The Interweb was soon out in the street with pitchforks and torches, decrying the theft of a consumer’s property.

A few days later, someone pointed out some critical missing information. Da Silva had recently moved house, not just down the road, but from Australia to Canada. He had paid for his videos in Australia, but the sale of an Australian version did not amount to the sale of an identical Canadian version. But it wasn’t until the three films were named – Cars, Cars 2 and Grand Budapest Hotel – that I realised what had happened. Apple did not delete his films. He deleted his right to the versions he had bought, by moving to a territory where they were no longer the same films. They were not actually “identical” at all.

Yes, indeed, we’re back in the world of territorial lockout – familiar to anime fans in days of yore – whereby the tape or disc you buy to watch in one territory is only watchable in that territory, unless you have a special player. The digital version, however, seems a little more complicated.

I can’t speak as to the international variance for Grand Budapest Hotel, but having bought copies of Cars in several different countries, I can see precisely why the film rights would be slightly different. Many Pixar films drop in a little bit of targeted hyper-localisation, effectively turning each territory’s version into a unique work. In the original Cars, for example, Lightning McQueen’s off-screen agent Harv is played by Jeremy Piven in North America, plainly reprising his character as Ari Gold from Entourage. But in the UK release (which is presumably the one released in Australia), Harv’s voice is provided by Top Gear’s producer-punching petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson, struggling a little to be quite as Californian.

As the Internet ire has died down, it seems that da Silva can “easily” access his films again by moving back to Australia, or by convincing Apple that he has done so with the use of a VPN and an Australian home address on his credit card. But since it would be cheaper to just buy them again in Canada, I guess that’s where we are. If he’s just stuck to DVDs, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Before you ask, in the Japanese dub of Cars, Harv is played by the late Tomoyuki Dan, an actor best known in the anime world as Ishikawa in Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, and as the Japanese voice of Ben Stiller.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #182, 2018.

Out of Tune

Music producer Akihiro Tomita has fired a warning shot at anime financers with a comment about the decline of the anime theme song. Speaking at an event in Shinjuku on 9th September, Tomita observed that Netflix’s habit of chopping off the credits was a binge-watcher’s dream, but diminished the relevance of the traditional 90-second opening and ending songs.

Their purpose has been a matter of debate for generations. They used to be handy announcements that your show was starting, reinforcing the ritual of appointment television. But producers fretted that a long theme song might lure trigger-happy channel-hoppers to see what was on the other side. This was particularly an issue in the 1990s American market, where viewers might sit through the theme song to, say, Friends, only to have to then endure another commercial break before the show began. Will & Grace saw its theme tune squashed and occasionally reduced to nothing but a musical sting if the action overran in in an episode. Frasier’s opening was just a few bars on a vibraphone – lasting just seven seconds. Anime themes, however, have remained notably long, turning into a veritable juke box of tie-ins and product placement.

Tomita’s comments quietly assert the bargaining power that Netflix is enjoying behind the scenes. The online behemoth’s ability to call the shots threatens the delicate balance of many an anime production committee, most of which feature a record company among investors. So they’ll chip in 10% of the budget, but they want their new pop idol singing the theme song. And the animators don’t mind, because 90 seconds off the top and tail of every episode means they only have to make those bits once, giving them a week off every season.

Since record companies are still substantial players in the Japanese market, they are liable to want their airtime some other way. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters, for example, on which Tomita was musical director, was made by Polygon Pictures, which is part-owned by King Records. If theme songs phase out, get ready for excuses for musical interludes elsewhere within anime shows, possibly even anime musicals that make watching the songs part of the action, and animators complaining that they have to work even harder to fill up the time. But I, for one, hope the old style of theme tune stays, because I still like that ritual quality. I might even sing along, occasionally with my own made-up lyrics. You should hear me do Evangelion. “Lots of robots / And people in misery / There’s a penguin but please don’t ask me what for…” [That’s enough – Ed.]

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo. This article first appeared in NEO #181, 2018.

The Ostrobothnians (1936)

There’s trouble on the Harri family farm. Someone called the farmer’s daughter Maija a whore, and now her fiancé Antti (Jorma Nortimo) is going to stand trial for defending her honour. Meanwhile, Maija (Irja Aholainen) has embraced an extreme, dour form of Lutheranism, and spends her time in the dining room fulminating about God’s will. Her brother Jussi (Eino Kaipainen) stands up to a bunch of marauding thugs, only to discover that Antti has absconded during the fight. Falsely accused of aiding the prisoner’s escape, Jussi gets into a fight with the local Sheriff, leaving both of them mortally wounded.

Considering how quickly the plot of The Ostrobothnians can be summarised, it’s amazing how long it takes to limp through it. Part of the problem is the interminable singing interludes, left-overs from the musical version of the original 1914 stage play by Artturi Järviluoma, as well as far too much time spent trying to wring humour from the sight of men drinking. Opera singer Irja Aholainen is supposedly the female lead, but is oddly mannish in the role, out-bloking many of her male co-stars, all of whom seem to be wearing more eyeliner than she is. Laila Rihte tries to take up the ingénue slack as Jussi’s would-be girlfriend Liisa, but appears to have got dressed in the dark at a tablecloth factory, wearing a distracting clash of checks and stripes like a human test card.

Jorma Nortimo, who thus far had only played cads for Suomen Filmiteollisuus, here manages a heroic, understated turn as Antti, a man who thinks Siberian exile will be worse than the awful farm he currently lives on. Eino Kaipainen is the stand-out performer as the put-upon Jussi, railing against injustice in a skin-tight sweater like a young William Shatner, and challenging a bizarrely well-dressed bunch of singing thugs to a wrestling match to save his village from a rumble. As the Russian-appointed Sheriff, Swedish actor Thorild Bröderman speaks Finnish like the foreigner that he is, adding to the disjuncture between the 1850s crofters and the aristocracy that lords it over them.

Directors Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta do their best with the material, lifting it out of its original staging for some set pieces of dance meetings and outdoor locations, but The Ostrobothnians was a much-loved Finnish work because it was the closest thing that the country had to a national opera at the time. Ripping out most of the songs and trying to make it more filmy was never going to work, particularly when the best the film-makers could do was some point-of-view camera trickery to present a drunk’s-eye view of some of the scenes. And this wasn’t even the first time someone had tried it – there was already a film version ten years earlier, which apparently wasn’t enough.

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

Armchair Tokyo

“Clements both mourns and celebrates a constantly changing parade of lost and reborn Tokyos, layered onto and fading into each other, leaving only fragments of each incarnation behind. It’s a vista that will tempt many an armchair traveller to go and see for themselves” — Helen McCarthy, All the Anime

Published today by Haus, an Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo presents the modern capital of Japan from the first forest clearances on the Kanto plain, through the wars and intrigues of the samurai era, up to the preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

Repeatedly destroyed by fires, earthquakes and war, remnants of old-time Tokyo can still be found amid the modern city’s urban sprawl, where the sites of ancient temples and forgotten battles sit beside run-down boom-era boondoggles and modern malls.

As with other Armchair Traveller guides, a Gazetteer offers detailed information on sites of tourist interest, including the hidden etymologies of familiar locations on the metro map, stripping away the modern streets to reveal stories behind the lost valleys, post stations, castles and gravesites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, Anime: A History and biographies of Admiral Togo and Prince Saionji. His recent books include Modern Japan: All That Matters and Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion.