Aki Kaurismäki and Donald Duck: a couple of iconic Finns, together at last

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The 2002 film The Man Without A Past, directed by Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, has been adapted into a Donald Duck comic, “The Duck Without A Past”. The comic is the work of Disney artists Kari Korhonen and Giorgio Cavazzano, and though it may seem an incongruous adaptation, it is in fact the most wonderfully, paradoxically Finnish thing imaginable.

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Donald Duck debuted in Finland in late 1951 in the eponymous Aku Ankka magazine, just in time for the international spirit of 1952, when Helsinki hosted the Olympics, Armi Kuusela was chosen as Miss Universe, and Finland paid its final war reparations to the Soviet Union. Associated from the start with this period of national pride and international openness, in its over 60-year history Aku Ankka has become a cultural institution in its own right. For example, it is highly regarded for its word play – the translations are good – and it has launched new words and phrases into the Finnish language; a “hannuhanhi” is an exceptionally lucky person, after the Finnish name of Aku’s rival Gladstone Gander, and a rich but tight-fisted person is known as a “roopeankka”, after Scrooge McDuck (although in English the term “scrooge” has the same implication, in Finnish the meaning derives solely from Aku Ankka rather than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol).

Aku Ankka has been a key structuring pillar of many Finnish childhoods, due in no small part to the strong tendency Finns have for magazine subscriptions rather than purchasing individual issues.[1] At the peak of its popularity in the 1980s Aku Ankka was read by over 1.5 million Finns each week [2]. Generations of Finnish children (Kaurismäki among them) have learned to read with Aku Ankka, and if we don’t have a favourite Disney cartoonist, we at the very least have an opinion on Keno Don Rosa (I think he’s great; on this Kaurismäki and I differ).

Aku Ankka’s popularity in Finland has been explained in part by him exhibiting many stereotypical Finnish qualities, such as low self-esteem, misfortune and persistence – a stark contrast to the frankly distastefully chipper Mickey Mouse.[3] This is where the identity politics of Aku Ankka (and notice I do use the Finnish translation throughout) becomes more interesting. Though the character has American origins, over time Aku Ankka has come to be seen – in Finland, of course – as fundamentally Finnish in some way. There have been Aku Ankka-themed postage stamps, the comics have been translated into Finnish regional dialects, and Kaj Stenvall’s duck-themed paintings have legitimised the duckbilled everyman in Finnish art. The worldwide publication of a Scrooge McDuck narrative based on the Finnish national epic Kalevala, some panels modelled after the iconic work of national romantic painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela, finally confirmed Aku Ankka had become an important part of national culture in the same way other originally foreign imports such as tangos had done. Perhaps even more importantly, a slice of Finnish culture had become global.

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…Which brings me to Aki Kaurismäki.

Kaurismäki has been an active filmmaker since the 1980s, and early on in his career made a name for himself at international festivals. His films are laconic, highly stylised and no matter where they are set or which language they are spoken in, they are recognisably “Kaurismäkian”. Many of his films engage with aspects of Finnish national identity, often with the kind of ironic and contemplative “reflective nostalgia” identified by Svetlana Boym, rejecting any essentialist views of nationhood. Indeed, in Shadows in Paradise Kaurismäki makes the point with a reference to Aku Ankka, when a character dismisses Florida as an interesting holiday destination, populated as it is exclusively by “a couple of Finns and some Donald Ducks.” Neither place has any national specificity: Florida is overrun by Finnish tourists, and encountering Finns and Aku Ankka are equally familiar and banal occurrences in Finland. The two cultures bleed into each other; the American is made Finnish and vice versa.

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Kaurismäki’s largest audience is outside Finland, and international interest in Finnish topics or people is newsworthy in itself in Finland – witness, for example, the current interest in Saara Aalto’s performance in UK’s X Factor, or the fact that Conan O’Brien remains our nation’s once and future king. It is, then, not surprising that Kaurismäki’s overseas successes have heightened domestic interest in the filmmaker and his work – particularly as he is prone to make critical or flippant comments about his homeland to foreign journalists.

For example, when Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film Le Havre was released in Finland in September 2011, the tabloid newspaper Ilta-Sanomat dedicated two pages to discussing the director’s work and posed the question “Is Aki Kaurismäki the last film artist or an overvalued national monument?”.[4] The article concluded eventually that he could well be both: there was an air of resignation, an acceptance that Kaurismäki is a nationally significant figure, for better or for worse.

A few days later Le Havre was selected by the Finnish Film Chamber as Finland’s nominee for a foreign language Oscar. In among the publicity around Le Havre Kaurismäki was also called on to comment on a range of political issues, from the ongoing financial crisis to cultural policies and the electoral success of the populist Finns party.[5] The nomination of Le Havre and the kind of public role expected from Kaurismäki in promoting it exemplify the nexus between the auteur and nation in Kaurismäki’s cinema, or the way in which ‘Kaurismäkianness’ is inflected with ‘Finnishness’, even when the film in question cannot be said to be ‘Finnish’ in any meaningful way: Le Havre is set in France, spoken in French, features an international cast (even Finnish actors Elina Salo and Kati Outinen play French characters) and was coproduced by French and German production companies. The Finnishness of Kaurismäki’s cinema, then, transcends the parameters of the films themselves, much like Aku Ankka has a Finnishness quite unencumbered by his original Americanness.

Both Aku Ankka and Aki Kaurismäki have been influential in shaping narratives of Finnishness over several decades. “The Duck Without A Past” is an unexpected  yet natural (as far as these things go) connection point between two paradoxical, delightfully off-modern Finnish icons.

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At this point I would also like to take the opportunity to emphasise – primarily in the interest of those who are brought here by an errant Google search – that no, Finland has never banned Donald Duck for his lack of pants.

P.S. Characters named after Aki and his brother Mika Kaurismäki have appeared briefly in an Aku Ankka story before, from memory as the Hirvivaara (or similar) filmmaking brothers. If you have an image of the panel or more details, link me up.

For further Kaurismäkian reading pleasure, check out

[1] When I was growing up it was delivered on Wednesdays and, as the subscription was technically (okay, actually) my sister’s, she had first reading rights – except during those school terms when I finished early on Wednesdays and got home before her. I liked those terms.

[2] I send my regards at this point to my Marxist thesis supervisor, who found this detail simply too much to process.

[3] Ilkka Malmberg, “Suo, kuokka ja Aku Ankka,” in Maailman hauskin kuvasarjalehti. Aku Ankka-lehti 50 vuotta, ed. Juhani Tolvanen (Jyväskylä: Helsinki Media, 2001), 30-31.

[4] Kari Salminen, “Kaikki hyvin Akilandiassa?”, Ilta-Sanomat 10.9.2011, 34-35.

[5] See for example Hanna Kuusela, “Rainy day, dream away”, Voima 6/2011, 16-19.

One thought on “Aki Kaurismäki and Donald Duck: a couple of iconic Finns, together at last

  1. Pingback: When Donald Duck Met Aki Kaurismäki « Movie City News

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