Kentaro Miura (1966-2021)

“I used to have the final moves planned out, but lately I’ve been thinking I’d rather figure them out when I come to it, so now it’s hard to say what could happen. Being the sort of person I am, though, I actually don’t think I could let such a long grim story end with a grim ending – like, say, having him suddenly die. I don’t really like that kind of entertainment.”

My obituary for the manga artist Kentaro Miura, creator of Berserk, is now up on All the Anime.

Call the Sushi Police

I’ve long given up expecting decent oriental food in the small town where I live, but sometimes even I get riled about the low expectations of the customers and the cooks. Exhibit A: the monstrous abomination that shuffled into view at the local sushi buffet, when the mainland Chinese who used to run it sold out to a bunch of Thais, and within days they were putting processed cheese on the maki rolls and leaving out platters of tuna sandwiches!

There are limits, and if there was such a thing as the Sushi Police, I would definitely have called them. In the anime series directed by Tatsushi Momen, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki are enforcers for the Japanese government, making sure that restaurants around the world are serving proper, traditional sushi, and none of these madcap overseas inventions. First screened in Japan in 2016, Sushi Police was commissioned amid a certain braggart mood in Japan that the Olympics were coming soon, and that the world was sure to become so obsessed with Japan that its far-flung corners would need an inspectorate to slap any slipping standards out of them.

One wonders, however, about where cultural policing disappears so far up itself that it becomes a cure that’s deadlier than the disease. Sushi started off as an utterly commonplace snack food in samurai-era Tokyo, slung together with fresh ingredients and a dash of sauce, no weirder than a hot dog… albeit usually not actually hot. And this wouldn’t be the first time that an “authentic” food had evolved abroad. As the name implies, one of my favourite varieties, the California Roll, has origins far away from bay-side Tokyo, and is all the better for it.

But in Japan there are super-high-end establishments for people much posher than you and me, which have a whole set of rules of their own. There are sushi bars that only run two sittings a night, where seats are booked months in advance, where you pay in advance and forfeit your money if you are five minutes late. There’s no reaching for the soy sauce here – the chef decides on the flavouring you need, not the flavouring you want. And in order to avoid offending the fine palates of your fellow diners, you are not allowed to wear any form of perfume.

Would the Sushi Police crack down on them, too, for being ridiculously snooty, or would they secretly approve of such white-collar crime?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. This article first appeared in NEO #207, 2021.

The AIUEO Song

‘“The AIUEO Song” was one of several films screened in the Japanese empire to teach the Japanese writing system to schoolchildren, released close behind the tunes “Flower of Patriotism” and “Our Unity” – there are accounts of all three being screened repeatedly. Digging around in the archives, Takashi Kayama has uncovered another version of the song, released on vinyl by Nippon Columbia in November 1942, and recorded by schoolchildren in Singapore, seemingly native Chinese speakers struggling to get the sounds exactly right.’

Over at the All the Anime blog, I delve into new revelations about the singalong Japanese lesson that forms an early highlight of Momotaro, Sacred Sailors.

Terminal Boredom

‘Suzuki excels at unreliable narration. In the Bradbury-esque “Night Picnic” (translated by Sam Bett), four creatures that identify as human beings pore over a library of forgotten books, comically and ham-fistedly trying to reconstruct what it means to be an Earthling. In “That Old Seaside Club” (translated by Helen O’Horan), a possibly drug-addled glimpse of seafront nightlife turns out to be the hallucinatory refuge of a doleful housewife, reliving a replay of her twenties heyday. In much the same fashion, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (translated by Aiko Masubuchi), a woman’s recounting of her night-club experiences carries a niggling, growing sense that time is not working in the way it should, and that her perception of the passing of the minutes and the passing of the years might be confused.’

Over at All the Anime, I review the new collection of science fiction stories by the late Izumi Suzuki.

How Do You Live?

“Copper is adept at finding out things for himself, and the reader shares in his joy as he uncovers such things as the supply chain that puts a mouthful of Australian dairy milk onto his Tokyo breakfast table – the cows and the milkers and the factory and the freight train and the steamship… Uncle is there to point out that what he is actually talking about is the ‘relations of production,’ and gently tries to inform him about the basic principles of Marxist economics.”

Over at All the Anime, I’ve been reading the book of Hayao Miyazaki’s next film.

Coffee is Carnage

The last thing I want to discuss at 9am is whether I want whipped cream on top of my coffee, particularly in Mandarin. Why can’t I ask for a coffee and get one, and not have to say grande instead of medium? The arseholes who invented the illusion of choice at coffee shops clearly never stopped to consider the miseries of ordering such minutiae in Chinese, where foreign concepts are assembled from a jumble of syllables that sound almost equivalent to Chinese ears, all of which have their own discrete meaning. Even asking for a Caramel Latte involves saying that you desire Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa. And a Mocha is a Magic Card. I feel like I am inside some Situationist art installation, asking a woman in an apron to bring me a Shining Fish Wiggle Rainbow, and doing so with a straight face.

“What size do you want?” asks Betty.

“I just told you,” I say, “dabei”. Which means Big Cup.

“Does that mean the biggest cup?” she asks, which is tebie dabei (or Special Big Cup) in Chinese, “Or does that mean the medium cup?” which is called ‘Big Cup’ in Chinese, as I just told you. And her.

“Grande,” I sigh. “You call it dabei. It says dabei here on the sign. I am reading out your own labels.”

“Ah,” she says. “Gu Lan De,” making up an entirely new concept in Chinese to describe the thing that is already described as Big Cup, but now is apparently also to be referred to as an Old Blue Independent.

“All right, then,” I say. “An Old Blue Independent Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa,” using the correct terminology, which is only correct at this moment, in this conversation, between me and Betty. If I use the same jumble of ideas with anyone else, they will blink at me blankly and wonder if I am mad.

“Would you like a muffin?” she adds, innocently. Which, if you ever need it in Mandarin, is Ma Fen, which means Carnelian Finn. But if you say it with the wrong tones, it means a Pointless Faff.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939)

At the garrison in Lappeenranta, Cavalryman Erkki Kallio (Uuno Lakso) and “Kalle Kallola” Mäkinen (Matti Lehtilä) are colossal wastes of space, workshy layabouts who hope to make it through their whole military career by being so incompetent that they are pushed away from active duty to potato-peeling and swine-herding. So far, their plan has worked well, and they have been demoted to work so far down the military scale that they are essentially servants to the housekeepers and cooks at the barracks.

But Erkki and Kalle are not the only malingerers – the master of the horse, Kalpa (Kalevi Mykkänen) has taken so many personal days to “visit his sick aunt” that the colonel in charge of the regiment demands that he prove the woman has not already died of numerous ailments. Both men are thrown into a series of intrigues at the barracks, as their boss Mrs Westergren (Valma Lahtinen) enlists their help in discovering the intentions of the attractive young Hilja (Tuulikki Paananen, radiant as ever), a soubrette who has suddenly started lurking flirtily around the unattached colonel. Meanwhile, Kalpa enlists Kalle’s real Aunt Loviisa (Martta Karlo, in a series of ridiculous frocks) to pretend to be his aunt, in order to get the colonel off his case, and prove that he did not merely make her up.

Hoping to marry the colonel off to her own daughter, Mrs Westergren does everything she can to push Kalpa and Hilja into each other’s arms, including a series of lessons in Understanding Women in which she comedically reads out sections of the manual for handling horses. Kalpa, however, makes the fateful error of admitting to the lustful Hilja that he was coached to act indifferent until she tried to seduce him.

Mrs Westergren, realising that her attempts to hitch her own daughter to the colonel have come to nothing, decides to quit the barracks, and Kalle arranges a parade for her by setting off an alarm to cause the soldiers to assemble just as she is leaving. Hilja is revealed as the colonel’s niece (although since Mrs Westergren is the colonel’s cousin, surely she would have known this!), thereby freeing her to marry Kalpa, their previous altercation having been smoothed over. Kalle arranges for the young lovers to elope.

Despite appearing like a piss-poor copy of The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938), Rakuuna Kalle Kollola began life as a play that even pre-dated the theatre version of that story, The Beloved Uniform (1932, Rakas univormu) by Jalmari Finne. It was the first production from the newly formed company Sampo-Filmi, itself backed by a bunch of investors based in Lappeenranta, who obviously thought that it would be a neat idea to capitalise on the local scenery and availability of military personnel as extras – there are many scenes of dashing horsemen doing dashing things. In doing so, the crew from Sampo-Filmi ram-raided the staff of the other film companies then operating in Finland. The script was written by Suomi-Filmi’s Ilmari Unho under a pseudonym, the sound equipment was rented from Suomi-Filmi, the lights were rented from Elo-seppo, and director Kalle Kaarna was dragged in from Jäger Films. In a triumph of jammy-bastard luck, the film was rushed into cinemas weeks ahead of the actionably similar Red Trousers (1939), which was also shot in Lappeenranta (with Unho as director!) just before the crew of Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman arrived to begin production. As a result, cinema-goers in the summer of 1939 were saddled with not one, but two silly military romantic farces.

The press was suitably annoyed, hammering the fledgling company for making light of military men in tense times. The Helsingin Sanomat damned it with faint praise, noting that it lagged far behind The Regiment’s Tribulation, but that “people always like to see their soldiers.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to. Cavalryman Kalle Kollola is free to watch online.

Koichi Yamano

“Yamano decried Japanese sf for living in ‘prefabricated housing’ of American construction, alluding to the powerful influence of US mass media on post-war Japan. Naming names, he argued that he saw no originality in the works of Aritsune Toyota and Fujio Ishihara, that Shinichi Hoshi and Ryū Mitsuse had reached the limits of the restricted conceptual areas they had established for their fiction, and that Sakyō Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutsui, while achieving greater literary merit, were still merely ‘remodelling’ a paradigm established in the ‘US petit-bourgeois opportunism’ and ‘banal realism’ of authors like Robert A Heinlein, or the ‘optimistic logic of great powers’ he claimed to see in the works of Isaac Asimov.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the New Wave advocate Koichi Yamano, who also wrote stuff about princes from a sunken kingdom and a runaway haunted train.

Spirited Away at 20

‘”My favourite scene from Spirited Away is actually when they are wandering through the town in the beginning, because for certain audiences it creates an incredible sense of tension,” says Clements. “The English-language version doesn’t translate the signs all around Chihiro’s family in the street, but they are all goblin-market-level creepy. That’s not an opticians, it’s an ‘eyeball shop’, and it’s even advertising FRESH ONES just in…’

Over at BBC Culture, Arwa Haider interviews me about the long-term appeal of Spirited Away. Bit crazy for them to keep sticking my title in the pull-quotes, but a nice piece nonetheless.