Mariko Miyagi (1927-2020)

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an obituary for Mariko Miyagi, the actress who supplised the voice of “anime’s first pin-up.”

“It was like being in love,” wrote one fan, Hayao Miyazaki, decades later, “and Bai-Niang became a surrogate girlfriend for me at a time when I had none… I was hooked when I saw Hakujaden, and I wound up choosing to become an animator because of it.”

Forbidden Fruit (2009)

Raised in the Laestadian religious sect in northern Finland, Maria (Amanda Pilke) decides to run away to the big city. Her best friend Raakel (Marjut Maristo) is dispatched by the local elders to bring her back, but finds new temptations in Helsinki that challenge the way she has been raised. Your mileage may vary. Dome Karukosken’s film is even-handed in its treatment of the different worlds of the Laestadian rural cult (which claims some 110,000 members in modern Finland) and Helsinki hipsterism, presenting both as frankly innocent worlds that embrace the simple joy of boys and girls hanging out together, albeit with slightly different ideas of what that might entail. The two worlds are united by the predatory presence of men, who do not differ all that much between town and country – in the north, they are pious family heads who swap daughters like Pokémon cards; in the south they are Swedish-speaking lotharios who cackle amongst themselves in English that they have rounded up a couple of teinihuorat (teenage sluts).

Laestadians shun television, cosmetics and pre-marital sex, although on the plus side they tend to get married as teenagers, so there’s not a whole lot of time to be sexually frustrated before you are a parent to six kids and too tired to care. Bicycles are apparently okay. Oddly, I wrote a similar story myself in 2010, in a Judge Dredd script called The Devil’s Playground, which was also about a religious cultist dispatched to a metropolis to find a lost friend. But in my version, she arrived to find that her friend had been murdered. I had been inspired by the same thing that surely inspired the makers of Kielletty hedelmä, which was the fact that American Amish deliberately send their children into the modern world for a year’s sabbatical, secure in the knowledge that they will reject it.

In a sweetly solipsistic touch, the joy of the modern world is represented through cinema, as Raakel meets her modern man at the movies, with Karukosken’s camera lingering on the flicker of a projector and flirting in the dark at arthouse matinees. The soundtrack contrasts the epic silence of the Finnish countryside with the din of city life. The irresistible temptations of Babylon are presented, variously, as cider, make-up and snogging, which gives the whole thing something of a Handmaid’s Tale feel, not the least when a trio of elders show up, intoning “Blessed Be” and trying to entice Maria back to a life of constant childbirth and kumbayah happiness. If I have any complaints about this film, and I can’t believe I am saying this, it’s that it isn’t gay enough, because although there are vague allusions to the possibility that the two teenage runaways might have feelings for each other, they spend rather a lot of time blowing hot and cold over the attentions of a couple of long-suffering Helsinki metrosexuals, who repeatedly apologise for groping them, when they only want to be groped 50% of the time.

Aleksi Bardy’s script ends up presenting them as a couple of girls who really don’t know what they want, with Maria eventually returning home to face the parentally-determined music, while Raakel cannot resist slapping on some lippy, which she surely knows will get her banished from her father’s table because make-up is apparently evil. Like cider. And snogging. In a final irony, by being sent to retrieve her wayward friend, she is lost to the religious cult, and finds herself banished, weeping on the bus back to the big city. That’s Helsinki, by the way, which really isn’t that big.

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

Sol Levante

Out now in Italian, my Brief History of Japan. Not to be confused with my Brief History of the Samurai, which was published in Italian five years ago.

“In questo libro Jonathan Clements ci guida alla scoperta della sua storia e delle sue contraddizioni, per conoscerne da vicino le vicissitudini, le tradizioni e gli sviluppi dalle nebbie della preistoria fino a oggi. Un percorso lungo tutto l’arcipelago giapponese il cui racconto si sofferma sui luoghi e i personaggi più significativi, per svelare i segreti di un paese che, dai tempi della mitica Cipango di Marco Polo, non smette di affascinarci.”

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