I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Early Japanese Animation – Part II: Kenzo Masaoka

by Cory Gross
Aug. 20, 2017

The name of Kenzo Masaoka is practically synonymous with the early development of Japanese animation. Born in Osaka in 1898, the same year that Japan's first movies were produced, he rose to ascendancy in the 1930's. Amongst his accomplishments are the introduction of cell animation to Japan and the release of the first Japanese animated talkie, Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka in 1933.

Now sadly a lost film, “Within the World of Power and Women” broke with tradition in certain critical ways. First of all it utilized sound, dispensing with the role of the benshi (live film narrator of the silent era) in direct follow-up to the first Japanese talkie film Madame and the Courtesan in 1931. Well-known actors and actresses were hired to voice the parts, including Ranko Sawa of the Takarazuka Kagekidan. Kagekidan was itself a new form of entertainment that developed in the Taisho Period (1912-1926), an era which consolidated the reforms of the preceding Meiji Period and laid out the groundwork for the subsequent Showa Period and World War II. The Takarazuka Kagekidan was created by the Hankyu Railways as an attraction for the terminal city of Takarazuka, consisting of an all-female performance troupe in lavish musical revues influenced by Broadway and Parisian cabaret. The first Takarazuka performance was in 1914 and the troupe is still going strong today, enshrined as a popular cultural phenomenon. Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka was also tradition-breaking for its use of animation to tell a modern story of a man who, dissatisfied with his controlling and masculine wife, has an affair with his secretary. From the very outset, anime was conceived as a medium for storytelling rather than a genre for children.

Masaoka worked steadily through the Thirties and into the Fourties when he was asked to direct Kumo to Churippiru in 1943. Known as “The Spider and the Tulip” in English, this woodland fairy tale is very much in the style and spirit of the lushly painted Disney Silly Symphonies being produced at the same time. The theme of a dramatic storm invites comparison between The Spider and the Tulip and Disney's The Old Mill, which reflects favourably on Masaoka's work. His rendition of falling rain is spectacular in itself, a testament to animation artistry.

The Spider and the Tulip does have a darker undercurrent. Though it appears to be an innocuous story of a ladybug being harassed by a predatory spider, the spider's blackface caricature of an African-American minstrel makes him an unmistakable proxy for the United States. This is 1943, after all, and the Pacific War is in its full fury a year after the Battle of Midway. The ladybug does beg an interpretation of being Japan, but considering the title, it is more likely that the sheltering tulip represents the Island Empire and the ladybug could stand for Japanese children or, more likely, Asia as a whole.

Japan's historical relationship with the West has always been one of tension. Though Western experts in science, technology, the arts and military tactics were invited by the Meiji government to employ their skills in building modern Japan, the whole violent chain of events leading to that government's formation began with the threat of destruction by American naval vessels. In an age of colonialism, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into what is now Tokyo Bay with an ultimatum to open harbours to trade or face annihilation. The Japanese took to Western technology in an effort to demand respect from the West, backing that up with surprising victories in the first Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. Early Science Fiction stories in the vein of Jules Verne made explicit the motivation, pitting courageous Japanese children in amazing, futuristic submarines and battleships against Euro-American imperial powers (such as Kaitei Gunkan, “The Submarine Warship”, published in 1900).

The discourse leading up to World War II was very much one of Japan's imperial expansionism as a means of securing Asia against predatory American and European influence. Therefore, in The Spider and the Tulip, we can see Japan acting as the protective element, sheltering Asia from the storm of war that promises to wipe away the threat of Western exploitation.

The war did not turn out the way Japan hoped, leaving it a physically shattered society, pocked by firebombings and atomic bombings. The American policy of total warfare followed by poverty, disease and rigid occupational governance left countless dead, homeless and orphaned. It also prohibited, amongst other things, any cinematic depictions of the war, its consequences or Japan's own military history. Anything, it seems, that could become a rallying point of dissent.

Such strictures necessitated covert action. Kenzo Masaoka's was to produce Suteneko Tora-chan (“Abandoned Little Cat Tora”) in 1947. On the surface it is a heartwarming tale of a family of cats who find an abandoned kitten, take him in, and how they resolve the strife coming from a jealous little sister. So successfully does he veil the subject matter that to this day people still comment on how nice it is to see such a pleasant cartoon with a nice message.

Looked at in terms of subtext, Tora-chan turns from heartwarming to heartbreaking. The family of cats has the mother and three kittens whose father is not going to be coming home. They are still better off than the orphan kitten living naked in the brush. The mother, fulfilling her compassionate civic duty, takes the little kitten into the poverty of their cardboard packing crate home. The tension between the girl and the new arrival is not merely a spiteful and jealous little sister: it's the problem of trying to reintegrate these war orphans into a society where there is not enough to go around. A far more overt and wrenching animated portrayal of this same theme is Isao Takahata's incredible Grave of the Fireflies.

Neither of Masaoka's works were as overt as other wartime films, including Japan's first ever feature length animated film, Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors. Masaoka's career would continue with two more stories featuring the kitten Tora-chan, and he would eventually pass away in 1988.

For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age