Film Classics: Spirited Away

“At 20,000 words or thereabouts, a BFI Film Classic is roughly the length of a feature-film commentary track, which means that in many cases, film-lovers have options to hear entire ‘audio books’ on DVDs, often by the people who made the films themselves. I, for one, have spent many happy hours as Chris McQuarrie laments the fate of his Way of the Gun in real time, or listening to James Schamus and Ang Lee relentlessly take the piss out of their own movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In other words, since only a few years after the inauguration of the Film Classics list, it has faced serious competition from the movies themselves, as the nature of DVD extras began to favour very similar, in-depth accounts of a movie’s construction.”

Over at All the Anime, I write about the BFI Film Classics list, and the recently re-issued volume on Spirited Away.

Pivoting

When people are indoors with literally nothing to do except read books, listen to the radio and watch movies, it is a tad disingenuous to refer to the media as a “non-essential” industry. I’m pretty sure it’s kept a fair few of you sane over the last three NEO-free months.

There’s been some confusion about the degree to which the animation world has been affected. Amid press reports that many anime productions have shut down, there are also news stories proclaiming the exact opposite, and that animation is ideally suited for remote workers. Certainly, there have been a few hiccups in production this spring, but a remarkable number of people have rolled with the punches. Your correspondent, for example, has suddenly become the proud owner of a 4K-compatible home film studio, to do all those pesky media interviews without leaving the house. I was shocked at how cheap it was – and it paid for itself in three days!

Lockdown viewing has created some odd patterns in media consumption. The new Ghost in the Shell series just slipped out under the wire, becoming one of the few shiny new things available to a captive audience. Trolls World Tour was a lockdown hit with parents trying to keep their kids entertained, leading Universal Pictures to promise more straight-to-streaming premieres, and the cinema company AMC to proclaim that if they were going to be like that, they weren’t going to screen any of their films ever again.

It is the exhibition sector that is feeling the pinch the worst. Theatres and cinemas are the great social-distance hazard zones, and that means tempers are easily frayed among stage actors, musicians and festival organisers of my acquaintance – practically my whole family.

But we are not through COVID-19 yet, and there are still many twists and turns to come. I suspect one will be “festival fatigue”, as the migration online of what were once local events starts to create something of a crowd on your desktop. It will probably not surprise you at all to hear that there were more than ten film festivals a week last year. It didn’t trouble you, because unless you lived in Yamagata, or Sao Paulo, or Stockholm, none of them were noticeable. But now it seems that all of them are a click away, clamouring for your attention. Choose wisely. By which I mean, choose Scotland Loves Anime this autumn!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #199, 2020.

Manga in Arts Education

“There is a whole book to be written on this subject someday, for all sorts of reasons. One is that non-Japan specialists (and as is clear from this book, quite a few Japanese people) are often unaware of the political manoeuvring behind the scenes, which has led certain Japanese authorities to make grand-standing claims for manga that are not supportable. Another is that many writers on manga are so woolly and incoherent in their ability to define it that they sound like idiots. Still another is that the word manga has become such a touchstone of editorial confidence, such a killing-word of marketing power, that publishers even in academia seem to want to shove it onto any book related to Japanese media. Inevitably, this forces some contributors into shifty-eyed equivocation, presenting perfectly interesting and worthy topics, but having to name-check the word ‘manga’ every page or so, as if it is lurking, threateningly in the room like Donald Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton at a presidential debate.”

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about manga in arts education, among other things.

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.

Christian Sorcerers on Trial

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about the 1827 Osaka Incident.

“…a bunch of deluded commoners who thought they had joined an underground religious sect, but had actually signed up for a series of parlour tricks, fortune-telling sessions with a local medium, and blood-letting rituals centred around a magic painting called The Lord of Heaven….They might have been Christians, but they might have been nutters, or they might have been Buddhists, or some sort of hybrid like the Taiping rebels who would rise up a generation later in China.”

“They discuss Christianity as if it were an ancient pandemic – a religious virus that has been carefully stamped out nearly 200 years earlier, with periodic outbreaks that have to be strictly monitored. We get a sense, in at least some of the comments, that some are gently questioning the statutes, wondering if it is really fair to impose regulations drawn up two centuries earlier upon contemporary people.”

Hiroshima

“Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima (1953) uses the tense normalcy of everyday life as a framing device to retell the story of the city’s bombing, not merely the explosion and immediate aftermath, but the stunned reaction of the Japanese authorities to the utmost devastation of a ‘new type of bomb.’ It is plainly intended as a didactic experience, focussing in particular on the young victims of the attack – even its title is written in easy-to-read hiragana, evoking a childish incomprehension of the forces at work elsewhere. To truly appreciate it, however, one needs to understand the politicking and arguments around its release – refused exhibition by many 1950s cinemas, it was buried at the box office, ostensibly for its unwelcome engagement with issues that Cold War Japan was still trying to suppress.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the new blu-ray of Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima.

 

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

“Have you ever bought a disc just for the extras? A couple of times, I’ve caught myself doing just that – ignoring the film and going straight for Brian Blessed’s commentary on Flash Gordon, or the writers’ chat by Palahniuk and Uhls on Fight Club. There are some films I know so well that I don’t feel the need to actually watch them again any time soon, but I am always up for knowing more about them. And in that regard, the new Blu-ray edition of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is a dream come true.”

Over at All the Anime, I dive deep into the Arrow Academy release of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, the extras on which are literally three times as long as the film itself.

A Short History of Tokyo

“This is a fascinating historical tour of one of the world’s great cities, exploring Tokyo’s long past with an eye to its present form and its bustling contemporary population. Clements digs deep into place names, and into the wider context of Japan’s long history, to offer an account that visitors to Tokyo – whether first-timers or old regulars – will no doubt find invaluable in helping them to make sense of a city that can sometimes feel overwhelming in its size and vibrant complexity.” – Chris Harding, author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present

“Concise, engaging history charmingly told by an expert on Japanese culture, who loves the city and knows its neighbourhoods well. Helpful guide to important leaders and notable places in Tokyo history that will delight both armchair travellers and visitors to the city.” – Alisa Freedman, author of Introducing Japanese Popular Culture

“…a volume on the city that offers more than a guidebook while remaining compact.” – Times Literary Supplement

Apparently, A Short History of Tokyo, the updated paperback edition of my 2018 Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, is out now.

Ninja Running

“Most ninja lore, despite what hucksters tell you, dates from no earlier than the mid-20th century,” Clements explains. “The first real boom in ninja stories comes after the second World War, when the samurai aristocracy were discredited and left-wing authors and manga creators started celebrating the peasantry, invisible through much of history. It got a huge boost in the early days of television, when Cold War spy thrillers got a localized samurai-era twist. The word ‘ninja’ didn’t even turn up in a Japanese-English dictionary before 1974.”

Over at MEL magazine, I end up as the bad guy once more, ruining everybody’s ninja hopes, interviewed for an article about the phenomenon of “Naruto running.”