Games to Grunts

To San Francisco, where eigoMANGA, the typographically confusing content provider, has announced to the world that they will be doing their bit to support the troops by giving away 5,000 copies of Vanguard Princess. It’s not entirely clear to me whether these games, or rather, the freebie download codes for them, will be actually sent to soldiers on active service, since they are being dispatched via Games to Grunts, an organisation that describes itself as a Veteran Support Ecosystem. But whatever: either battle-hardened men (and women) fighting for their lives in a desert, or possibly old soldiers who like watching big-eyed girls punch each other, will now have something to distract them.

This is, by no means the first time that a company in the Japanese contents field has decided to do something for the military, although in the past people have been rather less brazen about it. Back in the days of the Gulf War, Kiseki Films used to send copies of their new releases out to the soldiers in the field, mainly because many of the staff at Kiseki used to be military men. Their marketing director, for example, once told me he used to drive a tank, although they took away the keys after he parked it on top of a captain’s car.

Manga Entertainment were similarly keen to “do something for the troops”, and would send crates of VHS tapes out to the Gulf, where they presumably entertained, disgusted or otherwise mystified bases full of squaddies desperate to know what happened in episode three of Magic Knight Rayearth.

In neither case, to the best of my knowledge, did either company ever try to make marketing capital out of it. It was a simple act of unsung charity, the sole evidence of which today is me telling you this. Although there was an odd coda several years later, when a handwritten letter arrived from a man in Baghdad, who revealed that some of the Manga Entertainment releases had been copied and re-copied so many times, that the anime fans of Iraq were very keen to buy legal copies, as the requisitioned pirate editions they’d been watching were almost unintelligible.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine that people who’ve been in a dug-out for six weeks dodging ISIS will have much of an interest in “ten girls with unique fighting skills” or using the story mode to “navigate the adventures of a Vanguard Princess.” But maybe eigoMANGA would like to send a copy to the US Army’s Commander-in-Chief…? I bet he’d tweet all sorts of fun things about it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #179, 2020.

Life in the Fast Lane

And why, you may be asking, has Helsinki airport suddenly got a “fast lane” down the main concourse? Nobody seems to pay it much heed. Those two ambling tossers up ahead are dawdling along like they’ve got all the time in the world, and one of them is walking into oncoming traffic. As I’ve been barrelling down it in the last few months, I have bulldozed through clouds of clueless pensioners and slowpoke Swedes, none of whom have bothered to look down at the Red Lines of Danger.

Helsinki’s “fast lane” is a laughable Band-Aid over a problem of Finnair’s own making, in which flights from smaller cities in Finland, transferring to the non-Schengen gates at the other end of the terminal, have often been assigned outrageous transfer times. I have been dumped on several occasions at Gate 4 as my London flight has already started boarding at Gate 42, a transfer time that the airport’s own signage assesses at 28 minutes.

On paper, it’s a 40-minute transfer time. In reality, if someone has trouble stowing their skis onboard in Kajaani and the plane’s just a few minutes late, you’re going to miss your flight. As it is, you sprint across the airport, risking a heart-attack and “fast lane” collisions. To add insult to injury, when I arrive, panting and sweating, at my connection, a text shuffles onto my phone warning me that it might be a bit tight. Yes, I KNOW, but if I’d stopped to read the message, I would have missed it. There is literally not enough time to piss. Something they might have liked to mention when they sold me the ticket.

Finnair will grudgingly offer new tickets to you if you miss your flight. On one occasion, I was told that the next flight had been cancelled, but if I wanted to wait at the airport for five hours, I could get aboard a four-hour bus home. I decided to pick up my luggage and just get the train, at which point I was refused any compensation, because of Reasons. And if you want to escalate any complaints to the ombudsman, you have to do it in Finnish.

So if you’re flying to or from the Finnish hinterland from abroad, via Helsinki, check the transfer times on your ticket. Forty minutes is a joke. Get another flight. Nowadays, I usually just get the train to Helsinki. It takes longer, but I am not flirting with death or discomfort by trying to meet their physically impossible transfer times. One day, this is going to kill someone. But not me.

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

The Stopgap (1939)

Suomi-Filmi celebrated its twentieth anniversary with this film, which plays with the concept of time from the moment that a bored schoolteacher decides to push the hands of his clock forward so he can sound the closing bell five minutes early. Priest’s daughter Vappu (Helena Kara) falls for college boy Jalmar “Jali” (Kullervo Kalske), a determined social climber who has eyes only for rich-girl Elina (Nora Mäkinen). When Elina ditches Jalmar for someone else, Vappu offers consolation, but several years later, when they meet each other as grown-up workers, they half-heartedly agree to marry each other.

An unhappy marriage ensues, with Jalmar finding increasingly ready excuses to go on business trips to Jokela, where he is pursuing local girl Linda (Liisa Kartto). Vappu heads up north and befriends Linda without revealing that she is the wife behind whose back Jalmar is playing around.

All’s well that ends well, with Vappu prepared to offer her wayward husband a divorce for his own happiness, only for Jalmar to come to understand the degree to which his “stopgap” spouse is a loyal and worthy companion. Vappu herself faces temptations from a man who is more ready to claim that he sees her value.

Apparently this was a comedy. I didn’t notice any jokes. The time-jumps that take us from wedding ceremony to baptism tantalisingly offer the prospect that we are moving into the near future, but The Stopgap (Hätävara) makes no attempt to establish that its ten-year span is anything but a permanent Now. It neither starts in the past nor finishes in the future. Everybody just bickers a bit more and the kids get larger.

Released on 15th January 1939 (but not making it to Jyväskylä or Vaasa for a further two months), a print of The Stopgap also somehow made it to Canada, where it was screened in cinemas for Finnish immigrants. The DVD came with Swedish subtitles, albeit not with Finnish ones, and three bonus shorts: What is Suomi-Filmi?, a collection of candid home-movie reels taken on the film set, and West Uusimaa, an entirely unconvincing travelogue unlikely to make anyone go anywhere near Espoo.

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

Ultra Scam

It looks like Christmas came early for Tsuburaya Productions, after the Los Angeles Court of Appeal ruled in the company’s favour in the first week of December 2019. The studio that most famously gave the world the Spandex-clad superhero Ultraman has been locked in a legal battle for twenty-three years with Sompote Saengduenchai, a Thai director who claimed that the late Noboru Tsuburaya, son of studio founder Eiji, had sold him the rights to exploit Ultraman outside Japan.

The judgement affirms a ruling already made in 2017, that the contract Sompote has been waving around since 1996, and claims to have signed in 1976, doesn’t have Noboru Tsuburaya’s real signature on it, and even if it did, makes several suspicious errors regarding the names of Tsuburaya properties. Sompote, meanwhile, has behaved with entertaining evasiveness, refusing to provide the original of the passport that, he claims, “proves” he was in Japan in 1976, and being hand-wavingly vague about what exactly Tsuburaya is supposed to have received in return for this deal.

While all this has been going on, Sompote’s company Chaiyo has not only been making its own Ultraman movies, but also selling merchandising deals and even licensing the rights for US DVD releases with reputable companies. The battle has been fought not only in Thai courts, which ruled in Sompote’s favour in 2009, but also in China, which found the whole thing so confusing that Beijing courts ordered the setting up of an Ultraman Copyright Study Group, and finally swung in Tsuburaya’s favour when it was brought to America.

The mystery remains – did Sompote really travel to Japan in 1976 and somehow secure an international rights deal from Noboru Tsuburaya, a deal which conveniently went unmentioned by anyone, Sompote included, until after Tsuburaya was dead? Or is he lying? Or did he meet someone who claimed to be Tsuburaya, who proceeded to sell him the Japanese TV equivalent of London Bridge? If so, that would make Sompote the victim, and the entire, prolonged shambles merely the fall-out from a scammer blagging a few free lunches.

You might think it all unlikely, but Sompote wouldn’t be the first. I know of one prominent Captain Harlock fan who spent several happy hours getting drunk in a Tokyo bar with a “Mr Matsumoto”, unaware that the real Leiji Matsumoto had given up waiting for him in the hotel lobby and gone home after 45 minutes.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #196, 2020.

 

The Man From Sysmä (1938)

Sysmäläinen begins with a playful prologue in which a young Arvid (Kalevi Koski, who would grow up to be Finland’s top dentist) is mercilessly taunted by a young Brita (Tuulikki Schreck) about their betrothal. The pair are married when still children, before a 15-year-time jump to Turku in the mid-17th century, where a grown-up Arvid (Olavi Reimas) is a swashbuckling nobleman, obviously modelled on the same year’s Errol Flynn Robin Hood. He’s barely finished his lunch before he is in a spirited sword-fight with some German guy, while a serving girl swoons with glee. There’s lots of hearty quaffing and tankard clashing, while we wait, twiddling our thumbs a little, for the story to begin. It does when Brita (Sirkka Sari) rides by, and Arvid fails to realise that she is his wife.

Valentin Vaala’s camera absolutely loves Sirkka Sari, last seen in The Women of Niskavuori, who first appears with a fantastic cavalier hat, riding a horse in a manner that is snooty, contemptuous and oddly alluring. Arvid, who doesn’t recognise her, falls for her hard, to the extent that he sends a message to the child-bride he hasn’t seen for years, telling her he wants an annulment because he loves another. Oh, the irony! So Brita disguises herself as a boy and becomes his servant.

So she wins his heart when she’s in a dress, but is Just Some Guy when she puts some trousers on. Some further suspension of disbelief is required over the matter of the dialogue, since one might reasonably expect the ruling class in 17th century Turku to all speak Swedish. Jalmari Finne’s original 1910 novel seems somewhat out of its time, a Walter-Scott frippery when war was just an excuse to dress up in high boots and swirly cloaks, while Arvid’s predicament could have been oh-so-easily avoided form the outset by Brita simply telling him her fecking name. The pina-colada fancy of a jaded old idiot, spurning his wife only to fall in love with her when he thinks she is someone else, was already pretty old. But it is the shadow of Errol Flynn that falls most obviously over this film, in everything from Arvid’s moustache to his habit of wandering around the woods looking for a fight.

As Johanna the perky serving girl, Kerttu Salmi steals all her scenes with a constant patter of doormat philosophy about how real men “start with scolding and end with love.” She has already decided that Arvid will be hers, and throws herself at him with entertaining abandon. Meanwhile, Sirkka Sari is desperately unconvincing as a boy called Adolf, despite looking awesome in her musketeer get-up. Naturally, she bests Arvid with a rapier, but that’s just Finnish girls all over. Because it wasn’t surreal enough already, “Adolf” agrees to dress as a woman in order to persuade Johanna to leave the manor and stop pestering Arvid.

I’m disappointed that the Finns haven’t revisited this story in some sort of post-modern spoof. They could call it A Girl Called Adolf, and relentlessly take the piss out of all the cross-dressing nonsense, which is surely only a thing in drama because it was convenient for Elizabethan playwrights to get their female impersonators back out of drag. In the woke 21st century, the transvestite angle takes on a new prospect, since Brita runs rings around Arvid from the outset, and is plainly the one who wears the breeches in that relationship, now and forever.

This DVD came with English and Swedish subtitles.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

What’s Next?

Shout out to Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway, makers of the West Wing Weekly podcast, which has just come to an end after four wonderful years. When it started, it was a welcome diversion as I walked home each morning along a frozen lakeside. In more recent months, it’s been my companion on many a flight. But I’ve been with it from the beginning, as they go through each episode of The West Wing, with guests from the cast, crew, and real-world influencers, and it’s been a great experience reliving the entirety of a much-loved TV show, one episode at a time, with the people who made it and the people whose lives it changed.

I’ve had less time for podcasts in recent weeks while I work on my new book, so I have neglected Script Notes, Savage Love and 99% Invisible. I guess I should walk more.