Vares

Professional con-man Kraft (Jorma Tommila) persuades gullible schoolteacher Eeva (Laura Malmivaara) to help him bust out of jail, smuggling a pistol into their wedding ceremony to fight off his guards. As they wait for their fake travel documents to arrive, Eeva discovers a little too late that Kraft already has the slinky sexpot Ifigenia (Minna Turunen) waiting for him on the outside, and that he intends to bump off his rescuer as soon as the time is right. With nowhere left to turn, Eeva calls Vares (Juha Veijonen), a private eye she vaguely knows from the army reserves, who comes to the rescue with extreme prejudice.

Based on The Yellow Widow, one of the 25 Vares novels by Reijo Mäki, Vares: Private Eye (2004) was a monstrous success in its native Finland, spawning eight sequels in such a pig-pile of productions that later episodes would replace the director and recast the lead. Set in and around the picturesque city of Turku, it largely ignores the medieval charm of Finland’s former capital, focussing instead on a grotty wainscot society of dive bars, sex shops and motels, beneath drab skies and pounding rain. It’s less like Nordic-Noir than a Finnish Elmore Leonard, with a rich cast of characters entirely unaware that they are in a comedy, most obviously in a scene where two men stand around trying to suck their way through a job-lot of 500 chocolate penises that a local entrepreneur is having trouble shifting.

Vares is cast very much in the mould of Harri Nykänen’s Raid, another Finnish anti-hero who flourished in print a decade earlier, and whose own eponymous movie hit Finnish cinemas in 2003. But whereas Raid was an outlaw with a heart of gold, Vares is a smidge closer to the right side of the law. Since lead detective Mikko (Samuli Edelman) is in the pocket of organised crime and cannot be trusted, freelance Vares determines to both rescue the lady and spirit her away from the police.

Helped greatly by English subtitling on the DVD that decompresses laconic Finnish dialogue into sardonic quips, Pekka Lehtosaari’s script delivers a grand guignol of ridiculous blue-collar failures – a criminal kingpin in a polyester kimono, a corrupt detective who projects all his guilty feelings onto his long-suffering wife, and a mullet-sporting getaway driver whose day-job is pizza delivery. Several cast members seemingly stumble through the entire exercise drunk, including the Mary-Sue novelist Luusalmi (Markku Peltola), a shambling alcoholic with stringy hair and the night-sweats, who blunders in and out of the plot to offer worthless barfly philosophy.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more Finnish than this film. A pair of inept hitmen wear plastic gloves at all times, because they are allergic to everything. There is a sex scene in a sauna and plenty of dialogue about pizzas. The protagonist turns up late to the movie that bears his name in order to smack people around with a shovel, while a bunch of Russians swoop in at the last moment to make off with the McGuffin. Best of all, a throwaway scene features a naked Finnish girl serving as a human table for a banquet of meat products, wearing Swedish meatballs on her nipples and a sausage on her chest. This film is much more fun than it ought to be, and is probably best enjoyed in a cinema full of drunken Finnish truck-drivers, who won’t question too much the hokier nature of the plot, such as the likelihood that shooting someone point-blank with a grenade launcher is liable to have adverse consequences.

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

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Soups You, Sir

Have you seen that quirky new Japanese film? The one that goes full-on geek about some silly little pastime – brass bands, or sumo wrestling, or candy selling, or cosplay – or that gets truly, madly deeply into a completely mundane profession, like funeral directors, or bus drivers or…? Amid the samurai and the sex kittens, it sometimes seems like every festival season has some earnest little Japanese comedy, making the best of a small budget by focusing with incisive high resolution on some tiny piece of the modern world.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) was the granddaddy of them all, mashing the workplace drama into the comedy sketch show and the Zen pursuit of perfection. Turn on your TV any weeknight in Japan, and you will see a dozen serials that seem to riff on it – valorising the dedication of obscure professions, or enthusing about food… or both. Its blue-collar truck-driver hero Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town like some bygone cowboy, taking local widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) under his wing as she tries to master the art of cooking noodles. He and his swiftly assembled cabal of hangers-on gamely mansplain the nature of proper fast food in a series of test-runs and side-quests, while background characters, largely middle-class buffoons, blunder through a series of unrelated vignettes and satires about epicurean culture, taste and table manners.

It’s hard to remember, when piss-poor chain-restaurant ramen are to be had on every British high street, that there was once a time when Japanese noodles were an exotic foreign import for cinemagoers. Supposedly an evolution of Chinese noodles, but actually a post-war development that combined American food-aid wheat with Asian ingredients, these combinations of broth, noodles and optional toppings were a wonder for 1980s audiences to behold. It is, ironically, unlikely that many foreign cinemagoers appreciated how un-Japanese a film Tampopo could be, conceived by its director as a pastiche on numerous American genres, from Westerns to gangster movies to romance.

Three decades on, Tampopo is not merely an entertaining comedy about food and foodies. It is also now a time-capsule glimpse of a golden age, when a pre-recessionary Japan swum in so much money that it snapped up van Goghs, took over American corporations, and propelled its newly monied middle class into the world of fine wines, foreign cuisines and hipster menus. In that sense, its oddball cast were everymen a few steps behind the times, concentrating instead with pure-hearted nationalistic fervour on hearty, homespun local food: a proper meal, done properly. The titular heroine is a woman on the way up, aspiring to an honest day’s pay for a good job done well. Even as ramen was on the way up in the West, some feared it was on the way out in Japan, crowded out by spaghetti carbonara and burgers. Fortunately, rumours of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

And what a cast! Ken Watanabe, future star of The Last Samurai, is seen here as a gormless truck-driver sidekick. Koji Yakusho, future star of Thirteen Assassins, is a mad-eyed gangster who harangues the audience about consideration for others. His scenes are the ones that linger longest in the mind, not the least for their witty eroticism as he swaps an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth with his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) or tries to discuss a secret recipe for sausages in the middle of a gunfight.

Tampopo remains a joy to watch for the Japan nerd. It’s not just the little cameos, like Lady Snowblood director Toshiya Fujita as a man with a sore tooth, it’s the dozens of little asides and nods to the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, from the pearl-divers who once formed an entire subset of soft-core erotica, to the domestication of foreign food (or some might say today, cultural appropriation) as the original Chinesey café name of Lai Lai is replaced by Tampopo’s own. Itami uses food as a keyword for examining Japanese life and customs from top to bottom, foreshadowing today’s wacky scholars who try and tell the history of the world through clocks or condiments. His masterpiece remains a film that leaves every viewer hungry.

Tampopo is playing as part of the Culinary Culture and Gastronomy in Japanese Cinema season in London on 26th August. This article was originally written for Geeky Monkey #23, although the magazine was cancelled from underneath it.

Age of Shadows

In 1910, after decades of intrigues, provocations and double-crosses, Japan formally annexed Korea. For the next 35 years, Korea showed up on maps as part of Japan, its capital Seoul renamed Keijo, its royal family whisked away to Tokyo as hostages, its people force-fed a diet of Japanese nationalism.

Detective inspector Lee (Song Kang-ho) is a good-hearted cop, who finds his loyalties tested when his Japanese masters task him with hunting down the resistance. Rebel mastermind Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) senses that Lee is on the verge of switching sides, and lures him ever closer to an explosives-smuggling ring that uses an antique shop as a front. But will Lee wake up to the cause and join the rebels, or will he hand over his countrymen to his dastardly Japanese bosses?

Director Kim Jee-woon returns to his native land, after helming Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, for a gory, uncompromising glimpse of the rise of the Japanese war machine and the fires of the Korean resistance. Known simply as “Spy” (Miljeong) in its homeland, his beautifully grim, smoky vision of 1920s occupation has been released abroad with a far more evocative title, reflecting both its look and its loyalties: Age of Shadows.

“I’m drawn towards double agents,” comments Kim, pointing to people with divided loyalties who “act in secret while surrounded by enemies, standing at the borders of their turbulent age.” His film is all the more remarkable for being inspired by history, most notably the rise of the “Heroic Corps” (Uiyoldan). With dynasties collapsing in both Korea and China, and the Japanese plundering treasures from both, the real-life Heroic Corps did indeed use the antiques trade as a means of importing weapons from across the border. They carried out targeted assassinations of Japanese troops, high-level collaborators and a vaguely-defined subset of “traitors”.

Several schemes were thwarted by the authorities, but their first success came in 1923, with the bombing of the prominent Bell Street police station in central Seoul. The bomber, Kim Sang-ok, fought his way through a police cordon around his home, and committed suicide after a costly gun battle on the slopes of Mount Namsan. This all adds a touch of gritty realism to the film’s depiction of revolutionary intrigues, most notably a prolonged set-piece as agents desperately try track the glamorous but iron-willed arms smuggler, Gye-Soon (Han Ji-Min), on the Shanghai train.

“I wanted to capture the image of people navigating a tightrope between supporting or resisting Japanese colonial rule,” says Kim, “and being swept up in the consequences of setting one’s foot down on either side of the line.” Although it’s pretty clear which side of the line he is on – the Japanese are presented as unrelentingly cruel, old-school baddies. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Age of Shadows is a Korean initiative, rather than a Japanese one. For a former coloniser to depict the period for entertainment purposes would seem gauche and indiscreet – how many English films have glorified the Irish War of Independence?

Far too many Korean movies are obsessed with a fratricidal, traitorous motif seemingly inspired by today’s North-South divide. But Age of Shadows makes it clear that Korean allegiances have been split for far longer, with the colonial regime struggling to hang onto its collaborators and root out its rebels. Antique dealer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) is a Lovejoy charmer, trying to win over his police tail with honeyed words, dressing to impress in another historical touch – “I was fascinated to hear that real-life members of the resistance, never knowing which day might be their last, dressed each day with style,” the actor reveals.

For director Kim, the film was a chance to capture not only the atmosphere of the era, but also the lives of the founders of modern South Korea. “On the day before we started shooting, I visited the former office of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai,” he recalls. “It was so small that the bathroom was located right next to the dinner table. I wanted to suffuse the film with the emotion I felt, learning about the struggles of independence fighters who endeavoured to reclaim the spirit of a people who had lost their country.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #20, 2017.

The Heart of Darkness

There’s a haiku by Masaoka Shiki that doesn’t get translated all that often, because it ruins people’s image of peaceful, Buddhist Japan: “At the temple / beneath peonies in full bloom / we trample on the face of Christ.” It refers to a common annual sight, nationwide in the samurai era, of locals lining up to walk across a picture of Jesus or Mary, in order to prove that they were not secret Christian believers.

The novelist Shusaku Endo, baptised as a child at his convert mother’s insistence, was fascinated by this cul-de-sac in Japanese history, specifically by the undercover Christians that such ceremonies were designed to root out – men and women so devout in their faith for a foreign religion that they were prepared to die an agonising death rather than step on a holy image. Endo’s work was suffused with a question about his own faith. Would he be as brave as his forebears, or, if ever put on the spot with such high stakes, would he take the easy option and cave in?

Endo’s 1966 novel Silence was pressed into the hands of the famously Catholic Martin Scorsese at a 1990 screening of his controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The director soon resolved to adapt it into a film, intrigued by its deep investigation of the nature of religious faith. The story focusses on two priests sneaking into the closed country of Japan, not only to administer to the Hidden Christians, but also to hunt for a fellow Jesuit who has reputedly gone native. Eventually played, after two decades in pre-production purgatory, by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, they search for the missing Liam Neeson, and inevitably fall into the hands of samurai Christian-hunters. Not unlike the similar quest narrative of Apocalypse Now, it’s a journey into the heart of darkness, in search of a phantom figure that might best remain unfound.

Endo’s book, and by association, Scorsese’s film taps into one of the most fascinating stories in Japanese history – the savage suppression of the Christian religion in Japan, and its long aftermath. Christian missionaries found thousands of willing converts in the 16th century, particularly in the south, where communities of believers flourished around the ports that had contact with foreign traders. Nagasaki, in particular, became a Christian enclave, handed over to the Jesuits by a devout local warlord, in gratitude. Gratitude for what? Well, there was all that spiritual awakening, of course, plus the money brought in by the silk trade, and (almost forgot) all those guns brought in from the West.

Gunpowder helped turn the tide in the long civil war that left the Tokugawa clan in charge, but Christian samurai were unluckily to be found largely on the losing side. Thousands of them were packed off for a time-wasting crusade in Korea, and the survivors resettled as farmers in the south. But with the conclusion of the civil war came the end of the political uncertainty that gave Christianity a foothold in the first place. The Tokugawa Shoguns were deeply suspicious of a religion that owed its allegiance to a foreign god-king in Rome, particularly after an angry Spanish captain had boasted that missionaries were merely the vanguard of an insurgency that would eventually be followed by conquering soldiers.

Christianity was hunted down and stamped out. A rebellion in the south, led by a teenage messiah, ended with the massacre of 37,000 Christians. The survivors went underground, worshipping in shadows and caves, hiding their icons inside Buddhist statues, and passing on the Bible by word of mouth. It’s these “Hidden Christian” communities that Silence documents, nests of forbidden believers among the most remote fishing communities, hosting a dwindling number of foreign priests smuggled in from the outside world. As the decades passed, their understanding of religious doctrine grew garbled and confused, but their faith remained strong.

Scorsese’s movie also boasts a who’s-who of big-name Japanese actors, including Tadanobu Asano as a creepy interpreter and Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cult classic Tetsuo, as one of the Japanese faithful. Snubbed at the Golden Globes, for which it may have been released a few scant weeks too late, it was sneaked out in America late last year in a bid to secure last-minute Oscar nods. By the time you read these words, you will know whether that was a matter of blind faith or not [Time Travel Footnote: Yes, apparently it was].

Jonathan Clements is the author of Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #17, 2017.

Getting Away With It

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Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) is a writer’s daughter, cursed with an over-active imagination. Shunted into a new school by her parents’ divorce, she finds the perfect foil in local truant Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), a pathological liar who eggs her on into wild conspiracy theories, breathless scandal-mongering and a series of misadventures that grow hilariously out of hand.

A decade after his early success with Hana & Alice, a live-action comedy about two hyper-active schoolgirls who dupe a boy with amnesia, director Shunji Iwai decided to revisit his characters with a prequel about a fateful day that saw them stranded in Tokyo and inadvertently starting a missing-persons hunt. The film’s title, The Case of Hana & Alice, makes it sound like some bloodthirsty murder investigation, a fitting evocation of the leads’ compulsion to read melodrama into everyday situations.

“The thing is,” Iwai laughs, “you can get away with a lot more when you’re a girl. Look at Hana and Alice and the way they behave. In the first movie, they were basically stalkers, telling that poor boy that they had a past together. In this prequel, they are causing all this trouble around the city. They’re kind of… how can I put this? They’re perverts. If I made that story about a man, if I made it about you, for instance, then you’d be locked up.”

It would also have been impossibly expensive as live-action. It wasn’t just a case of redressing Tokyo to look like it was 2004 – the film’s plot demands an absence of social media, as many of its escalating misunderstandings could be halted today by 20 seconds’ Googling. But the original film made stars of its leading ladies, who were not only now out of Iwai’s price range, but pushing 30 and unconvincing as middle-schoolers. Iwai hit on a solution inspired by the films of Ralph Bakshi. He shot the entire film on the run in 30 days, using teenage stand-ins for the stars, and then painting over every frame to make it look like an animated film.

After the guerrilla film-making was done, the touch-up was outsourced to 150 freelancers all around Japan. Iwai denies that he ran the whole post-production process without having to get out of bed, but one can easily imagine him pottering around his living room in a dressing gown, watching as digitised packets flow in and out of his server. The expensive leads were lured back for a single day to record just the voices; their younger onscreen selves moved and emoted like the teens they really were, and digital effects fixed the lighting and scrubbed out buildings and technology that did not exist a decade ago. The result might look on the surface like an animated film, but the use of live actors delivers huge amounts of nuanced data – flinches, tics and micro-expressions that would simply never happen in a cartoon.

The real charm of The Case of Hana & Alice is the compassion that suffuses the film. Two clueless kids, poised on the cusp of adulthood, go AWOL overnight in a big city, but are kept safe by the good deeds of the people they meet, from the taxi driver who waives an unaffordable fare, to the indulgent strangers who put up with their histrionics. There’s not a dark moment in a film that is as confident about its leads’ right to be silly as it is about the surety that all will be well in the end. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, have a word for it: omotenashi, or kindness for the sake of kindness.

The Case of Hana & Alice is also a winning portrayal of the slippery relationship that teens have with the truth, although Iwai himself says the original inspiration came from somewhere much closer to home. “When I started working in the film industry, I was astonished at how many of the people there were bare-faced liars. There are an awful lot of them, like half! It’s very surreal, and that provided a lot of material for Hana.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A HistoryThis article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #16, 2016.

All My Sons Remembered

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It was a running joke that when Japanese interviewers would ask Akira Kurosawa what his favourite film was, he would always reply: “The next one!” His answer changed in the 1980s, when instead he would say simply: “Ran.” Released in 1985, this epic, lavish samurai drama was intended by Kurosawa as his final word. Although he would in fact go on to make three other movies, he genuinely thought that this time he was going out with a bang.

Kurosawa saw himself in the character of Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging lord who, King Lear-style, tries to partition his realm between his three sons. The youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), scoffs at his naive idealism, and is banished. But Saburo is right. Hidetora soon runs into old enmities long thought forgotten. His rise to the top was ruthless and blood-stained, and now we see his karma coming back to haunt him. His daughter-in-law Kaede (the fantastically swivel-eyed Mieko Harada), wants revenge for the deaths of her own family, and turns his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) against him. Before long, Hidetora is on the run from his own children, as they annihilate each other and the realm he helped to build. It is chaos, turmoil, tumult – in Japanese: Ran.

But not long before this triumphant return to form, despite being garlanded with accolades all around the world, Akira Kurosawa couldn’t get arrested in his home country. He had only made three other films since Red Beard (1965), the troubled production that cost him his friendship with his muse and leading-man of choice, Toshiro Mifune. His directing contract with Toho Studios had ended, throwing him at the mercy of the free market. After the box office failure of Dodesukaden (1970), he had even tried to kill himself.

Help arrived from unexpected quarters. In 1975 he directed the acclaimed Dersu Uzala, in Russian, in Russia. There was surely a bitter taste in its Best Foreign Feature Oscar for a Japanese director who had literally been sent to Siberia. But just as the noise over Dersu Uzala was dying down, George Lucas scored an international hit with Star Wars, proclaiming in interviews that one of his inspirations had been Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure movie The Hidden Fortress. Lucas and his similarly wealthy colleague Francis Ford Coppola came knocking, offering to bankroll the foreign release of Kurosawa’s next film, and thereby stumping up enough cash for even the timid Toho to take a punt. It was the ultimate in geekery – rescuing one’s student idol from the bargain bin of history. The resulting film, Kagemusha (“The Shadow Warrior”) was one of the top Japanese films of 1980. It actually made money, which took Kurosawa back from zero to hero. He was back in business!

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Eventually. It took another five years for Ran to get off the ground, in which time the septuagenarian director had ample time to storyboard every inch of every frame. With a $11 million budget (and this was when $11 million was a lot of money), he threw out every compromise in search of the biggest of impressions. He built an entire castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, just so he could burn it down. He painted an entire field of flowers gold, to create a spectacularly surreal night scene, only to cut it in post-production (this scene can be seen in AK, the documentary included in the Blu-ray extras). He had literal armies of extras streaming along the hilltops and into massive battles, all shot from a numbing, alienating distance, with violence and terror reduces to swirling patterns of banners and firework displays of musketry.

From the film’s opening moment, at a fork in the road prefiguring the three-way conflict about to be unleashed, Ran is a triumph of symbolism. The characters are only depicted once sitting in a circle – whole and equal. Every other composition is broken and asymmetrical, daring the viewer to see further portents in the theatrical staging. And when it comes to home video, I would say its time has come. If you can’t catch it in a cinema, then at least most tellies are now big enough to catch all the expansive action, and modern media can capture every pixel. Go on, treat yourself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #8, 2016.

Skiptrace

960Over on the Funimation blog, I tackle the entertaining but also thought-provoking Skiptrace, Jacke Chan’s latest movie outing.

“Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese.”