Shandong: Land of Confucius

This appears to be blocked in the United States, but viewers in other territories can now see my National Geographic documentary Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018) on YouTube.

“Jonathan Clements takes us on a thought-provoking journey to the land where the young Confucius formed his earliest ideas: Shandong Province. Guided by Confucius’ most influential sayings and Clements’ unique perspective on Asia we explore this coastal province and learn how even after thousands of years the great sage’s thinking is still relevant in today’s China.”

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All Tomorrow’s Parties

“Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re there to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good.”

Chen Qiufan’s endlessly inventive near-future tale The Waste Tide begins with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac and Ben Elton’s Stark, pitting ecological protestors against a system that is already showing signs of terminal decline. A tense, action-packed scene of shipboard monkey-wrenching shows the high-stakes game being played out on the seas, but it’s a later, quieter scene that really establishes the ghastliness about to unfold. A lobster served at a Chinese banquet has three pincers and a carapace that has been repaired, as if diners are now gorging themselves on invalids and mutants. It doesn’t look good, no matter where you are on the food chain.

Well, unless you live on Silicon Isle. This south Chinese coastal enclave has become a world leader in e-waste recycling, a ready recipient of poisonous junk as part of a ploy to grab useful materials. There’s gold (and platinum, and copper) in them there circuit boards, as long as you don’t mind poisoning the local environment when you harvest it… as long as you don’t mind the miserable, dangerous working conditions.

Scott Brandle is a Dante-quoting rep from an American recycling company, who gawps at the pall of smoke from PVC fires, and the zombie-chic sight of an abandoned prosthetic arm, twitching on the scrap pile. But Brandle is no Old China Hand (sorry), he’s an observer, drinking in the sights of a surveillance state that has invaded the very bodies of its inhabitants, not only with environmentally unfriendly prosthetics, but with RFID chips that are the only things to ward off the guard dogs in your local district’s frequency.

It’s his guide, Kaizong, who is soon revealed as the true hero, a local boy made good, returning to his hometown to confront old ghosts and new problems, seeing Silicon Isle through the eyes of his foreign charges, reminiscing about his American college days in order to allow for moments of incisive infodump. Or is he? Because by the second part of the book, the point-of-view switches to Mimi, a lost girl from the underclass, whose memory is briefly transferred into the intelligence systems of a giant robot, and who has trouble readjusting to being back in her own body. If that sounds curiously “anime”, then it’s not the only playful echo of foreign science fiction in a story that still remains quintessentially Chinese, even as it tips its hat to Akira and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Chen’s grasp of China’s future remains as chilling and believable as in his acclaimed short stories such as The Fish of Lijiang. Internet entrepreneurs offer online banking in the afterlife, dovetailing the virtual environments of online gaming with an artful religious swindle. A canny trash-comber slices out the still-working cybernetic vagina from a Japanese sex doll; superstitious locals seek shamanic help to deal with what is clearly an envirogenic disease; a factory girl knows nothing about the opposite sex, except that which she has learned from TV dramas. Repeatedly, there are allusions to Earth as a place where the Chinese have nowhere left to run – unwelcome in Australia or the United States, they drift homewards, to the trash heap of their ancestors. Wireheads download nostalgia apps that threaten to give them brain damage, but give them a moment in which they can wallow in how things used to be.

“You are what you eat,” observes Kaizong, in a world where everyone is ingesting granules of plastic, chemical poisons and carcinogenic additives. Capitalism has advanced to the stage where a tour guide will wait for a bribe before trying to rescue a drowning child, and sustained development projects are decried as “legalised looting.”

Translator Ken Liu, any Chinese author’s dream choice, has plenty of fun not only with Chen’s Mandarin, but with the echoes within it of a greater diversity within China – Cantonese slang and Teochew regionalisms. As in the controversial film Sap Nin, voice recognition software has advanced to the stage where it can pick up Mandarin, but southern Chinese topolects with their eight tones and sandhi slides are still beyond it. He also diligently footnotes those parts of the text that he doesn’t expect foreign readers to understand – references to Martin Luther King and Tennyson pass without comment, but when Kaizong alludes to a quote from the Dao De Jing, or a plant only found in south China, Liu has a hyperlink to hand.

Chen’s text gives Liu ample opportunity for cutting observations and satirical clangers – starting with Brandle, a visitor from America who’s tried to bone up on China by reading an “idiot’s guide”, and who is sometimes addressed as Mr Scott. He picks the blandest options on the menu, in what might have been a gentle dig at foreign tourists, except in Chen’s world, this is the only way he can avoid heavy metals.

The tale is set thirty years in our future – a gap the same size as that which separates our present from the Deng Xiaoping reforms that ended Maoism. When it was written in 2013, China was the destination for much of the world’s recycling. This open-door policy was suspended some time ago, causing massive jams and backwashes in many first-world recycling policies. Reporters are finding plastics and chemicals in Ghanaian chickens and Arctic seabirds, and my social media feed is clogged today with stories of environmental catastrophe. Chen’s apocalypse is hence both prescient and familiar – evocative in places of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008), Eric Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (2011) and Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China (2011), and also of the machinations around the suppression of the SARS virus. But that is something that Chen has always excelled at: telling true stories in the cloak of fiction. When his factual, historical discursions suddenly veer off into fiction, the line was so fuzzy I had to Google it just to be sure.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the author of A Brief History of China.

The Tokyo SkyTree

Behind the scenes, another invisible technological transformation would spell disaster for a Tokyo landmark. With tourist attendance already dropping, Tokyo Tower was found to be no longer fit for its main purpose as a TV broadcast antenna. The new requirements of all-digital broadcasting, and the obstructions caused by multiple skyscrapers all over the city, now demanded an even larger broadcast tower.

The Tobu Railway company jumped at the chance to meet that need. Its managers had found themselves lumbered with a tempting piece of real estate – a derelict cargo yard, left over from the pre-highway days when Tokyo’s construction boom required the movement of building materials by rail. Now, with lorries fulfilling such functions, and passenger traffic lured away by more convenient stations nearby, Tobu needed something to fill the 60,000-square-metre space. A combined subway station, shopping mall and landmark TV tower would do the trick, with the project getting underway in 2005.

In Japan’s stagnating economy, there were few excuses for such boondoggles – but the new digital broadcast tower would prove to be an exception. Opened to the public in 2012, the new 634-metre building was named by a public vote. Rejected names included the Edo Tower, evocative of the samurai past, and the Rising East Tower, alluding to the ‘Pacific Century’ – a term denoting the idea that the twenty-first century will be economically dominated by states of the Asia-Pacific region. One suspects that the architect was rather hoping for the chosen name to be Musashi, which is simultaneously an old word for the Tokyo area, the name of a famous samurai and a pun based on the tower’s height: 634 metres = mu-sa-shi. Inexplicably, the winning name was the meaningless Tokyo SkyTree; we should count ourselves lucky that nobody suggested Buildy McBuilding.

As with Tokyo Tower in earlier generations, the structure itself was merely a beacon on top of a more traditional property, in this case the Solamachi (‘Sky Town’) shopping centre, which also hosts the Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and the Postal Museum, along with offices and restaurants. In the usual shuffling of place names and associations associated with Tokyo, the nearby Narihirabashi metro station was renamed Tokyo SkyTree – its fourth name in only a century of operation.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Passionate Friendship

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Deborah Shamoon’s wonderful Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan, which delves deeply not only into the creation of female-centred media, but the attempts by various interest groups to “gatekeep” what those media mean.

“Shamoon takes Jennifer Robertson to task for her pioneering work in English on the Takarazuka Revue, accusing her of talking up fans’ reaction to this all-girl performance troupe as a form of proto-lesbianism. She eloquently outlines a polarised debate over whether we should believe the facetious asexuality hyped by the Takarazuka Revue itself, or the hype of researchers determined to daub it all over with the rainbow colours of queer theory. Her discussion of a possible middle ground, a ‘lesbian continuum’ in the terminology of Adrienne Rich, along with the widespread implications of stating that, for example, lesbianism is normal, or lesbianism is abnormal, is a delightful and nuanced tiptoe through that particular identity politics minefield.”

Yes, that’s the poster for the all-girl musical about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks, Japan.

 

Game-Changers

Up now at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, an entire nest of articles about the women who transformed manga in the 1970s, including large entries on Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, and a general piece on their Year 24 Group. As an additional bonus, there’s also a piece on Sachiko Kashiwaba, the fantasist whose work was infamously proclaimed as an “inspiration” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Borrowing Some Matches (1938)

Fat old man Antti Ihalainen (Aku Korhonen) pops out to get some matches, and runs into his old friend, the widower Jussi Vatanen (Uuno Laakso), who has just hitched a new horse to his cart, and is on the road to give it a test. But Jussi is also in a celebratory mood, having waited a reasonable year since the death of his wife. Agreeing on a vague plan for finding Jussi a new bride, the two men go off on a drinking spree, forgetting all about the matches. They cause several accidents on the road, and start several fights, and as news of their escapades drift back to the farm, Antti’s family comes to believe that he has decided to abandon them and emigrate to America.

While his daughter Maija-Liisa (Ester Toivonen, in a wacky Princess Leia hair-do) cries on the shoulder of her idiot farmhand beau Ville (Joel Rinne), Antti and his drinking buddy become involved in chasing a piglet around the nearby town. Then they forget where they left the horse, so they steal another one.

They really should have called this one Dude, Where’s My Horse? At least Tulitikkuja lainamassa is mercifully short, and if the misunderstanding-about-man-off-on-a-common-errand plot is already tired and weak in Finnish film narrative (see, for example, The House at Roinila, 1935), there’s plenty of broad humour to be had. There’s also a lot of unintentional comedy provided by the cast, with Ester Toivonen entertainingly unable to take the plot seriously enough to weep convincingly, a piglet that often outperforms the professionals, and a series of policemen trying a little too hard to be funny, through outrageous facial hair and a running style inspired by the Keystone Cops.

For the 21st century viewer, there is also an intriguing glimpse at the customs and mannerisms of the era, not the least the ready way that the menfolk are prepared to trade their daughters in marriage, with only the merest acknowledgement that the ladies (still eight years away from the right to vote when the original story was written) might want a say in it. The cast also have a strange and stilted way of saying “America”, referring constantly to Amerriikka, as if they have misheard someone speaking of Amer-reich or Amer-riike, a mythical Land of Amer across the sea.

The Finns provide ample material for passing anthropologists with their custom of drinking coffee from a saucer (juoda tassilta), pouring their drink into a cup, staring at it for a while as if wondering what it is for, and then decanting it into a saucer so they can slurp at it like kittens. This was apparently the way of cooling one’s drink down faster – only the upper classes had the time to drink from one of those cup things. Antti also ostentatiously holds a sugar lump in his mouth as he drinks, the better to offset the bitter taste of his discount coffee.

Aku Korhonen reprises much of his Lapatossu schtick as the silly old Antti, adopting the one-eyed school of acting whereby winking constantly substitutes for any other expression. Notable in part for the degree to which the camera can’t keep its eyes off her is the 18-year-old former Miss Heinola, Nora Mäkinen, in the role of a young girl who attracts Jussi’s fancy. She has appeared in bit parts in a couple of previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, but here visibly shines.

The original novel on which the film was based was published in 1910 as by “Maiju Lassila”, a pseudonym for the left-wing radical author Algot Untola (1868–1918), who famously edited the last edition of the Työmies newspaper single-handed in 1918, even though there was nobody left in Helsinki to read it. As well as his exhortations to overthrow the state, he paid the bills by knocking out potboilers under a variety of names, with Borrowing Some Matches sharing shelf-space with his The Barn Boys, The Young Miller and Love. His life took him from what is now Russian Karelia to St Petersburg, and then Finland, where he fled after being implicated in a terrorist conspiracy. His first marriage ended within days, allegedly because Mrs Untola turned out to be a hermaphrodite. His second ended in tragedy when his child died and his wife poured sulphuric acid on his genitals. It ended under doubtful circumstances in 1918, when, captured by the White Guards and on the way to his execution in Helsinki, he either jumped from the deck into the icy waters, or was shot and pushed overboard. He was himself the subject of a biopic, the 1980 film Tulipää (Firehead), which concentrated on his radicalism and ignored his “Maiju Lassila” works entirely.

As if this couldn’t get any more surreal, the screenplay for Borrowing Some Matches was adapted by Jorma Nortimo, a regular player in front of the camera, appearing briefly here in a cameo as a disapproving magistrate. And because once wasn’t enough, the story was adapted as a film a second time, in 1980, the same year as the Tulipää movie pretended it didn’t exist.

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

Tokyo Tower

Television arrived in Japan in 1953. The technology would transform the city’s skyline. The original transmitter of NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, was inadequate to cover the entire Kantō region, and rival firms soon popped up with their own broadcast requirements. In order to avoid peppering the entire city with antennae, a consortium of channels and developers pooled their resources to create one massive broadcasting tower with a footprint that would reach all the way to the mountains. Modelled at least superficially on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tokyo Tower was originally intended to be taller than New York’s Empire State Building, although resources and requirements eventually dictated a slightly shorter height of 332.9 metres.

Work began on the tower in 1957 – the 2005–12 film series Always: Sunset on Third Street would later use the sight of the tower under construction as a background evocation of life in the post-Occupation period. Tokyo Tower became a symbol of Japan’s reconstruction, rising from the ashes of the war-torn city, asserting Japan’s greatness in the post-war world, and doing so by quite literally repurposing the trash of the old world order – a full third of the steel used in its construction came from hundreds of scrapped US tanks from the Korean War. It was completed in 1958, proclaimed as the tallest freestanding tower in the world, at least for a while, and painted in a bold orange-and-white colour scheme for safety purposes.

“The fact that the Tokyo Tower is a cultural landmark building,’ writes the author Patrick Macias, ‘speaks volumes about the lack of cultural landmark buildings in Tokyo.” It was always intended to have a dual function as a tourist site, although the prospect of having an observation deck a bit higher than the surrounding buildings would diminish in appeal as the years passed. Today, it seems faintly ludicrous to be excited about the prospect of being a few floors up when you’ve arrived in Tokyo in a jumbo jet. The Foot Town shopping complex beneath lures visitors to stay longer with restaurants and several museums, but, to be brutally frank, the Tower never quite achieved the status abroad that its investors had hoped for. Tourist brochures heralding Japan abroad tended to plump for stereotypical scenes depicting natural beauty or evoking the samurai. If they wanted to go modern, they would go for Mount Fuji, foregrounded by a rushing bullet train. The only place that Tokyo Tower achieved significant recognition was among the legions of movie fans who would see it regularly trashed, bent and stomped on by the likes of Godzilla, Mothra and Mechani-Kong. This is particularly ironic, since at least part of the will to destroy the tower on the part of 1960s film-makers surely stemmed from its role serving the competition, broadcasting the TV programmes that were luring audiences away from cinemas.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.