Seagull Diner (2006)

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) is a Japanese woman inexplicably opening a café in Helsinki, where she thinks the Finns will like Japanese food because they like salmon. After a long month without any business, her first customer, Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) is an anime weeb with a terrible taste in T-shirts, who wants her to write out the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme. Unable to remember the lyrics (because this is an alternate universe where the internet doesn’t exist), she buttonholes a stranger in a Helsinki bookstore. Midori (Hairi Katagiri), knows the song, but is an oddball who has randomly picked Finland on a map, and now has nowhere to stay. Sachie offers her a place to live, and the two women muddle through at the café.

They are soon joined by Masako (Masako Motai), a third Japanese woman who has come to Helsinki to celebrate her “freedom” after twenty years as unpaid carer for her ailing parents. She is the only character whose back-story is really announced in any detail – whatever has brought the others to Finland is kept discreetly off-screen. They are three characters in search merely of acceptance and belonging, finding it in the oddest of places, and clinging, curiously, to a desire to be anywhere but Japan.

“A strange man just gave me a cat,” Masako announces. “So now I have to stay.”

It’s only when I write out the synopsis that I realise just how little happens in Naoko Ogigami’s feel-good film, Kamome Shokudo. The Japanese ladies experiment with new menu choices, and slowly win over the reserved Finnish passers-by in a Helsinki street. These include Liisa (Tarja Markus), an abandoned housewife who has to be carried home after collapsing in a drunken haze. Masako, meanwhile, has lost her luggage, and turns up in an increasingly garish selection of Marimekko dresses while she is waiting for her clothes to show up. Midori doodles some awful pictures on the menu, and Masako goes looking for mushrooms in the forest.

Whereas Master Cheng (2019) was a Finnish exercise in luring Chinese visitors, Seagull Diner is a very Japanese take on the Nordic countries – I am tagging it with my #finnfilms watchathon of every Finnish film ever made, but it is technically a Japanese film that happens to have been shot on location in Helsinki. Ogigami’s characters fall in love with Helsinki’s quaint streets and seaside cycle paths, its city markets and melancholy locals, and, presumably with a surfeit of product placement, since the café is packed with Finnish design classics. There’s no real jeopardy or crisis, just a slow infusion of joy as the ladies experiment with local ingredients, refine their menu, and eventually proclaim that the diner is a success, because it is full of happy Finns.

Ogigami’s script boldly dispenses with much of the whys of her leading ladies’ backstory, taking it as given that they are all fleeing from something, and simply seeking a harmonious, happy life in the land where the Moomins come from. Much in the spirit of My Neighbour Totoro, it’s a resolution that doesn’t see the need for conflict. They remain in a remarkably compact series of locations – huge tracts of the film pass in single locked-off shots in the café or Sachie’s flat, plus what looks like a single day’s shooting down in Helsinki harbour, a bike ride around Töölö, and a pick-up at the airport.

Matti (Aki Kaurismäki regular Markku Peltola) shows up to mansplain how to make good coffee. Apparently, you should stick your finger in it and make a wish, which explains an awful lot about Finnish coffee. He leaves a package of coffee that has been passed through the digestive tract of a civet cat. The Japanese women end up making coffee that is literally made of animal shit, and telling each other it’s lovely. For Kaurismäki fans, this was sacrilege, but for an entire generation of middle-aged Japanese women, marginalised and ignored, it was a wake-up call that they, like Sachie, could do whatever the hell they liked. Or in Sachie’s words: “not do the things I didn’t want to.”

Despite premiering in a single Japanese cinema with very little fanfare, it would become the fifth highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. More than a decade late, it remains a potent soft-power ambassador luring Japanese tourists to Finland.

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

Archiving Movements 2

“I only have one afureco script now, kept on my bookshelves in case I ever need to show someone what they look like. As Kim and Ishida repeatedly observe, so many media materials are disposable, like cels that are often treated like industrial waste, or scripts that are left in piles on the studio floor once the actors have given them voice. I remember once, after a two-day audio recording session on the computer game Halcyon Sun, which I wrote with Simon Jowett, there were enough scripts on the floor to fill a black plastic sack.

“‘I’ll just clear away some of this crap,’ said the audio director, shoving them into a bin. And I remember a brief moment of anguish, and a voice in my head protesting that they were not crap, that they were a story that we had laboured over for months. But I could see, even then, that they were now superfluous to requirements, jettisoned like a first-stage rocket as the work went on its journey to completion.”

Over at All the Anime I remember the bad old days while reviewing the newly published Archiving Movements #2: Short Essays on Materials of Anime and Visual Media.

The Seeds of Anime

“Whereas Japanese animators had thrived during World War II on contracts for propaganda and instructional films, the immediate post-war period saw severe contraction in the industry. Female labourers conspicuously disappear from the story of Japanese animation in the 1940s as the menfolk returned home. Competition in the labour market was heightened not only by the return of demobbed soldiers and colonists from overseas, but by the influx of former employees of the Man’ei studio, in what had been Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The leading artists of wartime animation suffered attacks from two sides, as propagandists working in the field of ‘incitement to war’, and hence liable to prosecution, but also as suspected leftists as the Cold War began to bite.”

My recent article for Sight & Sound magazine about the post-war development of the Japanese animation industry has been put up on the magazine’s website.

Pure Invention

“This is a wonderful book, exuberant and joyful, full of love for Japan but a deep appreciation of the sorts of links that get left out of popular accounts – political economies, human-interest stories and technological determinism. We do not merely get to experience the Sony Walkman through the eyes of its designers and the company chairman who just wanted to listen to music in public, but also through the eyes of Steve Jobs, who is fascinated by its miniaturisation and utility, and the ears of William Gibson, who discovers a “strange grandeur” to Vancouver as he walks around his city with a new and personalised soundtrack.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Matt Alt’s Pure Invention, a book about the material culture and stories behind some of the inventions that changed our times: the Walkman, the Game Boy, the karaoke machine, and anime…

The Metabolist Imagination

Over on All the Anime, I review William O. Gardner’s new book on the Japanese architects who dreamed of a brave new world in the 1960s, whose ideas informed so much of the science fiction of the years that followed.

“Gardner, for example, finds it ‘striking’ that so many of the mecha shows of the 1970s, starting with Mazinger Z and culminating in the iconic Gundam, should seem to allude so closely to Metabolist ideas of ‘cyborg architecture’ – a machine-based enhancement of human potential that was one of the central ideas of the movement. He points, most obviously, to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo in Akira, based on the architect Kenzo Tange’s Plan for Tokyo (1960), which proposed building into and onto Tokyo Bay – an idea subsequently riffed on by Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell.”

Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary

Over at All the Anime, I review Donna Kornhaber’s new book on cartoons and war.

“The Empire, in Leicester Square, was the venue at which the world’s first recorded screening of an animated film took place, with an animated advert in which the Bryant & May company promised to send a personalised box of matches to every British soldier fighting in the Boer War.

“But then [Kornhaber] leaps into the future, to a winter’s day in Moscow in 1983, when a very different film received its premiere. Garri Bardin’s ‘Conflict’ also features animated matchsticks, but was a very different presentation with a severe anti-war message.

“These two moments in cinema history mark the broad parameters of Kornhaber’s just-published Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary, in which she investigates the relationship of animation and war, not merely as propaganda, but as protest, resistance and memorial. She is intrigued by the ways in which film can be used to tell outrageous lies about the acceptability of war, or to confront viewers with unwelcome truths about its costs, but also in which animation, in its plastic relation to reality, can prove ideally suited for depicting a world turned upside-down.”

Jay Benedict (1951-2020)

Over at the All the Anime blog, I remember the actor Jay Benedict.

He had played Deak, one of the local slackers at Tosche Station on Tattooine, in a scene deleted from Star Wars: A New Hope, describing his performance as one of “playing space pinball” while Biggs (Garrick Hagon) told Luke Skywalker he was joining the rebel alliance, and Koo Stark “sat around looking beautiful.” When we worked together with Hagon on one anime dub, Benedict ribbed him about how Hagon’s character had made it to the final cut, only to get blown up above the Death Star.

Anime Versus Virus

I hope nobody was coughing at Minamicon…? Yui Ishikawa’s announcement last month that she was cancelling her appearance at the Violet Evergarden premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival over infection fears seemed briefly like a slap in the face (or head butt), but was soon revealed as a reaction entirely in keeping with the Japanese government’s own directives on restricting travel. Anime News Network has been spattered with announcements of cancelled press launches and concerts, as pressing the flesh becomes a no-no. You knew it was bad when the Ghibli Museum shut down.

Kyoto, which has been rammed with Chinese tourists for the last five years, is suddenly quiet. The Shuxiangge hot pot restaurant in London’s Chinatown, where I fought to get an upstairs seat in January, put me by the ground-floor window in February, when I was outnumbered by the staff, And on Valentine’s Day, I briefly and accidentally booked a hotel room in Helsinki that very evening, when usually the place is chock full of tourists.

Japan’s extreme reaction is an attempt to deal with a virus that may have little to no effect on 83% of victims, making it easier for them to spread it during the two-week incubation period. But it’s also based on the economic brinkmanship that has characterised the last couple of years, with a huge degree of Japanese economic planning resting on the hosting and completion of a successful Olympic Games. They need to get ahead of this now, or it will bring down the government. [Time travel footnote: the Olympic Games will now take place in 2021].

In the spirit of the school shutdown, the Doraemon and Shimajiro films scheduled for spring break have now been postponed. I can’t say anyone is likely to be that bothered, since in the case of Doraemon, this has to be the third or fourth time they have recycled the same dinosaur plot in living memory. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the government has advised wives to “speak like Doraemon” when dealing with their husbands in lockdown, because nothing gets you through a global pandemic like impersonating an incompetent time-travelling robot cat.

But in the most surreal anime virus story so far, Tiger Ye, a resident of Wuhan diagnosed with COVID-19 in January, has told the world’s media that watching Idolm@ster had helped him get through it all.

“I realised I needed some spiritual support or maybe I couldn’t make it,” he told Michael Standaert in the Guardian. “So I watched my favourite anime show and seeing their normal, happy lives, I thought I may have to say goodbye to this life forever. But watching the show, the heroine had troubles in the first half, but she finally made it and succeeded in her career.”

“So watching the show, I thought: I must make it if I want to see her next concert alive. This really encouraged me and gave me some relief,” he said, “along with the medicine.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article was commissioned for NEO #199, but events overtook it when the magazine was put on temporary hiatus owing to the lack of sales venues during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Boxers in Lockdown

Over at the All the Anime podcast, I talk the ears off Jeremy Graves and Andy Hanley about video-watching in lockdown, managing convention colds, the genesis of Tomorrow’s Joe and sundry other topics of little consequence.

00:00 – 16:14, Intro, what lockdown life in Finland is like; what Ghibli Jonathan introduced his son to during this time!

16:15 – 49:54, Intro continued, NEWS: NEO Magazine going on hiatus; NEWS: Masaaki Yuasa retires as President of Science Saru

59:55 – 1:30:11, Questions/topics from the community

1:30:12 – 1:43:33, Megalo Box discussion primer: Jonathan Clements on the history of Ashita no Joe

1:43:34 – 1:54:14 [END], Close Show; discussion on Jonathan’s adaptation of Death Note.

Sankichiro Kusube (1938-2020)

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write the obituary for Sankichiro Kusube, a leading producer at A-Pro, and then its successor studio Shin Ei.

“Kusube not only dragged Doraemon back onto the air, but pushed for its leap into cinemas as well, personally guaranteeing the creator and the TV channel that he would take personal responsibility if Doraemon: Nobita’s Dinosaur (1980) proved to be a failure. It’s for this reason, his willingness to be the fall guy, that Kusube’s name made a rare appearance on the production credits for the film, which would go on to be the highest grossing domestic animation film of the year at the Japanese box office.”