Sacred Sailors

momotaro_still_page3_4-850x620Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an introduction to the wartime propaganda movie Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (i.e. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), which is receiving its belated UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.

“Japan’s first animated feature was a masterpiece of propaganda film-making, uncompromising in the bile it directed at the enemy, romantic in its evocation of home and hearth and of imperial Japan’s Pan-Asian aspirations, and still unsettling today in its depiction of the mindset of the Japanese military. Its survival to reach modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evades bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after almost 40 years to offer modern audiences a horrifying glimpse of a very different world.”

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The Bear and the Maiden Fair

A new collection of essays on Finland in World War II.

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Finland fought three conflicts between 1939 and 1945. The first was the notorious Winter War (1939-40), in which the country stood alone against Soviet invasion. “Only Finland,” thundered Winston Churchill, “superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do.” What Finland, under its famous leader Mannerheim, managed to do was put aside the festering civil strife of Red versus White, left over from the civil war of 1918, and unite against a common enemy, fighting the Russians to a standstill while the world looked the other way. In the process, the map of Finland, sometimes described as the “Maid” for its resemblance to a girl in a dress, lost an arm of territory to the Russian bear.

41wDEOVZcaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The second was even more divisive. The Continuation War (1941-44) saw Finland joining forces with Nazi Germany in a renewed attack on Russia. As noted in Tiina Kinnunen and Ville Kivimäki’s insightful collection of academic essays Finland in World War II: History Memory, Interpretations, it was the Germans who swiftly announced this to be Waffenbrüderschaft – a “brotherhood in arms.” It was the Finns who pushily translated this into English as a “co-belligerency pact”, refusing to call themselves allies of Hitler, even as they overshot their original targets, clawing back the land lost to the Soviets and rolling onwards to the East, seizing the lands of Karelia, which had arguably never been Finnish before, creating an entire new industry in manufactured traditions and rescue ethnology, well covered in Kinnunen and Kivimäki’s book.

One might suggest that the third was even more controversial. Whereas the Continuation War was a shocking deal with the devil (a devil that, as noted here, more crucially sent the food supplies that saved the Finns from starvation), the Lapland War (1944-45) was its shocking turnabout, as the Finns turned on the Nazi troops on their territory, chasing them out of the country in a conflagration that saw almost all human habitation destroyed north of the Arctic Circle.

It never ceases to amaze me how historians can find new angles on the war, and Finland in World War II does not disappoint, with space devoted not only to geopolitics and treaties, army operations and tactics, but also to such oddities as the psychological effect of burying the fallen in their home towns (Finland today boasts 600 “heroes’ cemeteries”), the countrywide ban on dancing (an activity regarded by grim Lutherans of a betrayal of comrades’ sacrifices on the front line), and the DIY magicians’ kits sent to entertain troops in their trenches. Modern trends to conflate history with memory also lead to some interesting areas, such as accounts of the historiography of the war as told in movies and novels, as well as changing public perceptions of Finland’s attitude towards the Holocaust. The editors aim to both summarise and outline the most recent researches on the subject, with chapters firmly grounded in Finnish-language academia, and a bibliography of many obscure English-language academic papers on Finnish subjects.

Later essays include several welcome treatments of the role of Karelia in the conflict, not only as a land to be defended, but also as the new frontier of a Nazi-inspired expansion into conquered lebensraum, and a lost land ceded to Russia – source of thousands of refugees in the 1950s. One remarkable section even delves into Sain Karjalan takaisin (“I Got Karelia Back”), a 2003 account of a woman’s trips to the place of her birth, now a Russian republic where her childhood home is occupied by strangers, and where she is inspired by the landscape to stay and build a house.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

Sleeping with the Enemy

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All the Nordic countries had unique experiences in the Second World War. Sweden was neutral; Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis; Iceland, rarely discussed, was occupied by the Allies. But Finland’s war was the most complex, abandoned by the Allies, left to fight alone against the Soviet Union, and entering a controversial pact with Germany, not as allies but as “co-belligerents” who happened to fight the same enemy. It was not the first time that Germany had proved to be Finland’s best friend in a time of need. The Finns ultimately turned against them in the little-discussed Lapland War, which destroyed every building north of Rovaniemi, and led to the bitter departure of some 700 Finnish women who refused to desert their German husbands.

Katja Kettu’s 2011 novel The Midwife (Kätilö) went out under that title in most of the 19 languages in which it was published, but seems to have been renamed Wildeye in attempts to flog it to the German- and English-speaking markets. Oddly, English seems to be one of the few major languages it hasn’t been translated into – perhaps there was some resistance among publishers to a romance that featured a Nazi male lead.

Antti Jokinen’s 2015 film version is now available to own (Time Travel Footnote, and now available in the UK, 2017)  – I could not face it raw in the cinema, but correctly guessed that it would have English subtitles on DVD. It is set in a Finland that no longer exists: that eastern arm stretching up to Petsamo and the Arctic coast, lopped off during World War Two and lost to Russia. Based on the depiction here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Finns were well rid of it – broad strokes swiftly delineate it as a grimy, miserable place populated with cackling, brown-toothed witches, racists, and thugs. Helena (the award-winning Krista Kosonen) is the closest thing that the locals have to a paramedic, forced to oversee difficult, bloody births in remote cottages. The film begins with one such event, swiftly followed by the locals’ stoic, heartless decision to drown the unfortunate infant in a swamp.

Helena is sick of it, too, and sees her chance to escape when she meets the steely blue-eyed gaze of Johann (Lauri Tilkanen), a half-Finnish German officer who has been posted to the nearby concentration camp of Titovka. At no point does the film claim to be a true story, although media coverage at the time of the novel’s publication suggests that it is partly based on the life of a real person – Kettu’s own grandmother. This opens up a whole can of worms by even suggesting that there were Nazi concentration camps on “Finnish” territory, where human experimentation (“Operation Cowshed”) was carried out on Russian prisoners and other undesirables. You would think someone would have brought this up before, if it were true!

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Soon the sole surviving employee with any medical training, Helena finds herself complicit in the shaving of prisoners’ heads and the administering of “medicines” that turn out to be lethal viruses. This is explosive material to introduce into modern times. The extent of Finland’s cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi regime has been a matter of much reconsideration in recent years, most notably in the anthology Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, which challenges the nation’s usual narrative of firm resistance. In a 2011 interview in Kuvalehti, Kettu noted that modern historiography was reluctant to admit that one’s grandfather or uncle might have been a killer or a rapist. Her take on this, however, is gendered and universal, that war makes killers and rapists of us all. Helena is certainly an inadvertent stooge at Titovka, administering poison to doomed prisoners, and posing unhappily with two SS officers for the Third Reich newsletter. Even most of the Nazis are unhappy about their duties, but get on with it anyway in a jobsworth, everyday evil that is somehow more chilling than the open malevolence of the camp commandant Gödel (Tommi Korpela, channelling Ralph Fiennes).

This is no Schindler’s List – Helena ultimately only manages to help herself and a single prisoner escape, abandoning the rest of the camp to their fate. But that is at least part of Kettu’s point, that her heroine is almost entirely powerless, stripped of agency, left with little to live for but her own survival, and little to hope for but her unlikely prince charming.

Jokinen’s camera-work does a beautiful job of capturing a lost Finland on the edge of Norway, one with actual mountains. As with Jalmari Helander’s Big Game, this is achieved by filming somewhere that isn’t actually Finland – in this case Lithuania, which is not only 30% cheaper for film productions, but cheaper to reach by plane than the real Lapland. He also artfully captures the desperately awful conditions of Helena’s daily life, so that her decision to move to a concentration camp is indeed regarded as a step up. When it comes to the war itself, the film allots its €8 million budget superbly in capturing a worm’s-eye view of the Lapland War. In one notable scene, Helena is caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment, literally unable to turn in any direction for fear of death, spun in circles by a series of explosions like a human pinball.

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The film evokes elements of the novel’s cut-up format – each of its original six sections began with a flash forward of a starving Helena in the remote Dead Man’s Cabin, on the run from the war and waiting for Johann to show up at their agreed meeting point. Only then it would it jump back to her horrible life in 1940s Lapland, the brief flurry of joy at her romance with her dashing officer, and the collapse into hell of Operation Cowshed and the Lapland War.

Elements of it inadvertently recall earlier Finnish war films – there has in fact, been a degree of carping from online pundits that all Finnish war films are the same, and seemingly strive to fulfil an annual quota of grim sisu and pyrotechnics. This is a most unfair comment to level here, particularly in the case of Wildeye, which is not even the first film to give a Finnish woman’s perspective on WW2, but certainly does so in an original, if melancholy, manner. I will note, however, that those playing Finnish War Film Bingo will have plenty to keep them occupied nevertheless, including a gratuitous oral sex scene ripped off from Rukajärventie and three people in a shed recalling Käki (The Cuckoo). This isn’t even the first Nazi-Finnish romance movie either – the so-bad-it’s-good Sensuela managed to beat it by decades, and that was a remake.

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It also appears to have been a stage play.

From what I can glean from author interviews, Kettu never claimed that the Titovka concentration camp was a real place: her inspiration came from her grandmother’s letters about the war itself, the experience of stumbling across an abandoned hut on the Norwegian coast, and her childhood memories of playing in the ruins of a German prison camp near Rovaniemi. Instead, her interest was in telling the story of the human cost and effect of 200,000 German soldiers posted to Lapland, and their subsequent removal with extreme prejudice. The Lapland War is an embarrassment to the Finns, partly because it was one of those conflicts that effectively destroyed the place over which it was fought, displacing 168,000 residents, but also because it was a terrible betrayal of people who had been their friends.

The Titovka concentration camp is hence a handy device to confront the characters directly with the nature of Nazi evil, although it feels to me that this undermines one of the author’s intended points, that men like Johann were not goose-stepping fascists, but human beings caught up in a conflict not of their own making.

However, trawling through the Finnish-language web, I am surprised that nobody in Finland called the story out on its depiction of war crimes, which (commenters please correct me if I am wrong) seemed to have been invented by the author for dramatic effect, and yet are repeated in the film with an air of realism. Experience during the press junkets for my Mannerheim book taught me that many young Finns get far too much of their historical knowledge from movies and the internet, and are apt to accept any and all literary devices as representations of real events.

This is true all the world over, of course, and it is not the fault of Kettu or Jokinen that their book and film might be misinterpreted as more factual than they warrant. That would, perhaps, be something best addressed in DVD extras, but the version I bought in Finland offers nothing but a trailer, a teaser, and a picture gallery. For a subject that risks becoming so controversial, and so open to misinterpretation, this is a disappointment.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland (Available from Amazon in the US/UK). The film was finally released in the UK in 2017 as Finland 1944, “based on true events”.

The Shadow Staff

In the new issue of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal:

Despite the attention paid by Japanese animation historians to cartoon propaganda films made during the Second World War, twice as much animation may have been produced in the period for military instructional films. These films, now lost, were made by a group of animators seconded to the Tōhō Aviation Education Materials Production Office (Tōhō Kōkū Kyōiku Shiryō Seisaku-sho). Occasionally running for five or six reels (c. 48 minutes), and in one case consisting of a feature-length eight reels, they form the missing link between the one- and two-reel shorts of the 1930s and Japanese animation’s first feature, Momotarō Umi no Shinpei (1945, Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors). The films included tactical tips for the pilots who would bomb Pearl Harbor, short courses in identifying enemy ships, and an introduction to combat protocols for aircraft carrier personnel. This article reconstructs the content and achievement of the Shadow Staff from available materials, and considers its exclusion from (and restoration to) narratives of the Japanese animation industry.