Birthday Wonderland

“The story is famous, not only for its critical acclaim and awards nods, but because it was considered by Hayao Miyazaki as his next movie project in 1998. When Miyazaki put the idea aside and went on to make the thematically similar Spirited Away instead, Kashiwaba’s illustrator Kozaburo Takekawa publicly accused the Studio Ghibli director of plagiarism.” Ahead of Birthday Wonderland’s UK premiere next month at Scotland Loves Anime, I write it up for All the Anime.

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The Trouble with Budori Gusuco

Over at All the Anime, I write up the path to the screen of Kenji Miyazawa:

“It is difficult to overstate the impact of the author Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) on Japanese literature, and anime. He was still in his thirties when he died, a largely unknown poet living in provincial obscurity, and only really read outside local newspapers after the publication of a Complete Works a decade later. In the post-war period, which saw most of the Japanese school curriculum bleached and purged of any authors with wartime associations, Miyazawa’s gentle, pastoral tales, suffused with Buddhist imagery, swiftly took root, becoming the set books of an entire generation of schoolchildren.”

Taiyo Fujii

“Characters… wear augmented-reality contact lenses, not to enhance their perspective but to deaden it against an onslaught of advertising and distractions. Fujii took this idea to a new level with Hello World (2018), in which hackers develop an ad blocker that can filter out government propaganda. This, in turn, proves to have revelatory and revolutionary implications in several foreign states, where the removal of fake news, spam and subliminal advertising creates conceptual breakthrough of immense consequence.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I contribute an entry on the Japanese author Taiyo Fujii.

Hiroshi Yamamoto

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the remarkable authorial career of Hiroshi Yamamoto, who started out as an elf-girl called Deedlit.

“In any other country’s sf community, an author like Yamamoto might have been the darling of the convention circuit for decades, and a regular sight at awards ceremonies. But in Japan, where his prolixity and varied output is notable but unremarkable, Yamamoto had to wait until Kyōnen wa Ii-nen ni Naru Darō [“Last Year Should be a Good Year”] (2010) to receive a Seiun Award for long-form fiction. Intimately involved in the post-911 zeitgeist, it imagines a world, but more pointedly an America, invaded by androids from the 24th century, determined to stop contemporary conflicts and terrorism as part of an operation in a much wider-ranging Changewar, the precise aims and consequences of which are hidden from inhabitants of the present day.”

The Night is Short…

I once lived in Kyoto. It was a magical time of my life, wandering temples and wooden-shuttered backstreets, side-eyeing geisha at the bus stop – the town that had been Japan’s capital for a thousand years, simmering in the summer heat. My history tutor told me to ring the doorbell of a fearsome, fortress-like building, and to announce to the occupant that I was his deshi. This simple watchword unlocked the bolts, and an antique dealer, feared by the locals, welcomed me with open arms and showed me prints of the war with Russia from a hundred years before. “I remember your teacher when he was your age,” he said. “Like it was yesterday.” But it wasn’t yesterday; it had been twenty years. I went to a barber and sipped gingerly at tea that tasted of fish, while a man who seemed to think it was still 1951 asked me if I wanted a “G.I.” haircut.

Sometimes I forgot what year it was myself. I felt that was how the whole town got along. There was a children’s playground next to a mount called Mimizuka, the “Hill of Ears”. But the name was a lie; it was full of noses, hacked off Korean soldiers during the samurai invasion that closed the 16th century. Every day I would walk across the bridge at Gojo, where my hero Yoshitsune had legendarily fought the monk Benkei. I bought manga and rock CDs next to a little temple, where Oda Nobunaga had made his last stand. I ate noodles near the spot where Yasuke, the black samurai, had overwhelmed his traitorous enemies. Of course, I was going to be a historian, so that others could see what I could see.

In a tea-house, a girl all in grey with shining eyes told me that we had been married once before, in “a smoky room”. The next day, she shaved her head and became a Buddhist nun.

Nobody ever stole my pants from me in a dark alley, though.

The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938)

New recruit Hemminki Aaltonen (Kaarlo Angerkoski) over-sleeps at reveille, he is late for drills, and he brings up the rear on speed-marches, complaining about his rheumatism. During training at a forest camp, he takes the delicate academic Lauri Auermaa (Leo Lähteenmäki) under his wing, inadvertently blundering into a burgeoning romance between the soft-spoken professor and the Captain’s daughter Elli (Ansa Ikonen).

Rykmentin Murhenkryyni (1938) began as a 1933 stage play by “Topias” (Toivo Kauttanen) but benefits greatly in cinema form from its real-world location work, affording valuable glimpses of the men and materiel of the Finnish army just before the outbreak of the Winter War. Most striking for me is the degree to which horses still form the engine of the army, with nary a tank or armoured car in sight. This is certainly a military tale as told by a generation that hasn’t seen any real conflict. The sergeant major who turfs the young recruits out of their bunks is ridiculously nice and soft-spoken, while the drill sergeant who berates Aaltonen for being late is a cartoonish caricature; this is more Stripes than Full Metal Jacket.

A cynic might suggest that this is all part of the plan in increasingly tense times, softening the image of military service until it looks less like a dangerous job, and more like a summer camp with some outdoor sports, a bit of marching and some hearty grub. These are not the men that, barely a year later, would be slitting the throats of Russians in their sleep, and dynamiting icy lakes to drown tank divisions. Instead they are friendly guardsmen standing behind rickety barriers and indulging in gentle banter with passing carters, while the daffy cadet Auermaa prances around the parade ground with a butterfly net, and asked if he can have a spin on a cavalry horse. With that in mind, remarkably little happens in the film, with the plot often playing second fiddle to prolonged scenes of marching, swimming, training and goofing off – not since Our Boys in the Air (1934) has the Suomen Filmiteollisuus company spent quite so much time poking around the everyday life of military personnel.

Despite being a comedy, this is the first time that Suomen Filmiteollisuus has had to face issues common to dramatic war films, too – once they’re in uniform, all the men look the bloody same. Unless some is shouting or malingering, it’s often difficult to work out which of the bumbling soldiers is which. Aku Korhonen, his head shaven like a billiard ball, is all but unrecognisable as Captain Routanen, and I wasted a whole minute trying to remember which soldier was the one in glasses in the mess hall, until I realised that it was Auermaa with his jacket off.

It takes twenty minutes before Ansa Ikonen suddenly appears as the love interest, trilling a jaunty song at the piano. Ikonen has been a regular feature in the last year or so of films from the company, but here seems ill at ease as the comedy ingénue, barking her lines at her fellow actors as if comedy is determined solely by volume, and seemingly blocking herself so that her face is perpetually ill-framed by the camera. She also wanders around in silly jodhpurs and a distractingly shiny satin blouse, but at least it’s obvious who she is! This, perhaps, is part of the plan, as half an hour later she dresses up as a captain herself, and manages to fool her suitor that she is a shouty male officer. Well, I did say that the uniforms made everyone look the same, and in Auermaa’s defence, without his spectacles on the, newly arrived “captain” is just a blur to him, and it is presumably not all that unusual in Finland for a deep-voiced woman in uniform to demand that snivelling underlings clean her jackboots.

Eventually, the comedy is shut down by the arrival of the Major-General (Jalmari Rinne), a dour and authoritative figure who cuts through the various knots into which the cast have got themselves, and gets to yell the big punchline: “What kind of garrison is this? The Captain is a girl and the sergeant-major is mad!” This presumably had a whole extra level of fun for Finnish audiences at the time, since actors Rinne and Ikonen were conducting a scandalously public affair. Barely a year later, Rinne would get a hasty divorce, and with presidential permission, eschew the usual legally-mandated delay to marry Ikonen before her pregnancy bump really began to show.

But I digress. It takes another twenty minutes of running around in the forest before Auermaa proposes to Elli. He is so shy that he only achieves this with Aaltonen standing behind him in the guise of a drill sergeant, commanding: “KISS NOW! KISS NOW! KISS NOW!” You might think Finland is still like this, to a certain extent, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

A final coda shows Aaltonen in happy domestic bliss with his own love interest, Mimmi (his real-life wife Siiri Angerkoski), heartily singing a military tune as he toils in the field, all malingering gone. The message is two-fold, that military life is good for you, and one day all this will be over – stirring stuff considering what was lurking just around the corner for Finland. The Winter War would break out thirteen months to the day after this film’s premiere.

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

Blood Will Tell

The nosebleed, long a sign of suppressed lust in manga, has taken on a whole new meaning, in a controversy that has now been running for five years, and left a stain on what should have been the triumphant ending of a successful series.

Tetsu Kariya’s Oishinbo (“The Gourmet”) has been running for three decades in the pages of Big Comic Spirits, drawn by Akira Hanasaki. “Thirty years,” wrote its author ruefully, “is long enough for anything,” and there were rumours afoot that with failing health and entirely reasonable weariness, he was planning on bringing the story to a close. However, Oishinbo bowed out suddenly and unexpectedly, after a May 2014 storyline about reporters covering the nuclear accident at Fukushima.

Oishinbo was one of the most successful manga in Japan, running to 111 compilation volumes, every one of them a million-plus best-seller. It is one of the last hold-outs of the “gourmet” trendiness of Japan’s 1980s bubble era, and an encyclopaedic introduction to the world of Japanese food and society. But Kariya’s final storyline before a sudden (and apparently planned “hiatus”) featured a character who suddenly develops a nosebleed after coming home from a Fukushima fact-finding mission, despite claims by the authorities that there should be no side-effects. “I myself began to have nosebleeds suddenly at dinner next day when I came back from coverage in Fukushima,” wrote Kariya on his blog, also citing sudden and inexplicable fatigue: “It felt like someone was trying to drag my spine to the ground.”

Kariya, who has lived in Australia since 1988, is a Japanese opinion-former with a large audience, but he seemed to make a lot of enemies. All twenty phone lines at his publisher, Shogakukan, were jammed for a solid fifteen hours – he blamed “pro-claimers”, a term for thugs hired to disrupt corporate activities. He subsequently got into a mud-slinging match with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, who called his comments irresponsible and defamatory after Japan had received the much-needed economic boost of the 2020 Olympics. Last month he published an update on his blog, detailing further incidents of harassment and stone-walling directed against him and his publishers over the last five years.

“This was not a thing I heard from someone,” he wrote. “nor me repeating some rumour. This is something I experienced for myself.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #190, 2019.