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 IV: After the War

by Cory Gross
April 18, 2016

It goes without saying, and most often does, that losing a war is a terrifying experience. For Japan, the surrender that closed World War II was a humiliating experience with profound social and collective psychological issues in addition to the damage to infrastructure and loss of life. Most infamous are the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet these only accomplished in one swoop what repeated firebombings of other Japanese cities had done over months. Over half of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe were destroyed with hundreds of thousands of civilians dead. Toyama was almost completely obliterated. About 35% of Osaka was destroyed and 65% of the ancient capital of Nara, but thankfully Kyoto was untouched. It was as if the recent earthquake and tsunami affecting the Sendai area happened over the entire country.

Its legacy impacted not merely Japan, but the whole world. Coupled with the firebombings of Germany, it launched the United States on a strategy of specifically targeting civilians that it still uses to this day. Within Japan, this level of destruction left childless parents and parentless children, extreme poverty and disease, mountains of corpses to bury, and homes to rebuild without the resources necessary to rebuild them. American occupation forces took over, dominating and reorganizing nearly every aspect of Japanese life including a rewritten constitution. Prohibitions on a standing military suited the Japanese, who turned on the military that drew them into war. However, Americans also dictated artistic expression and prohibited films on national, historical and military themes. The two greatest films of the time period, Seven Samurai and Gojira ( Godzilla) could not be made until 1954, after the lifting of the ban.

To reinvent animation in this atmosphere was challenging at best. Yet the industry did rebound and reach new heights of creativity and skill that set the stage for the development of modern anime as we know it today. A perfect example of this new and improved animation is Koneko no Rakugaki from 1957. This short, directed by Taiji Yabushita and Yasuji Mori, is a wonderfully animated and self-referential story about a kitten caught drawing all over a bear's house. Forced to wash off his art, he gets distracted by a pair of mice who steal his pencil, chasing them all over the art inside the wall.

The short reflects on the magic of animation by making the kitten's drawings come to life. As he draws cars, trucks and railways, they chug and fire up. Jokes abound once the mice and the kitten enter into the wonderland they have created, drawing and erasing their way through a fevered chase. One of my favourite scenes is when a truck only drives in circles because tires had not been drawn on its other side. It's a wonderful tribute to the art form in itself, in addition to being the perfectly choreographed pantomime. Koneko is a classic for showing the rudiments of visual storytelling.

We also see the makings of a genuine anime character. Our titular kitten is not the first character in Japanese animation: during the war we saw Momotaro and his compatriots, and before them were characters like Norakuro, a military dog who starred in films through the 1930's with periodic resurrections since. Though our kitten is a one-time actor, one can see the burgeoning idea of style behind developing a pleasing character.

These efforts are even clearer in the first feature length, full-colour Japanese animated film, Panda and the Magic Serpent. More directly translated as The Tale of the White Serpent, this 1958 adaptation of a Chinese folktale is an elegant piece of animation even today. The choice of adapting a Chinese legend was an attempt to repair, in some small way, the damages of Japan's war on China shortly before and during the Second World War. The result is charming and beautiful.

In the original folktale, a thousand year-old white serpent takes on human form to seduce a young man, only to be repulsed by a Buddhist exorcist. In its original context, this would be a horror story of demons affronting the natural order. Over the centuries it evolved into a romantic tale of true love that may or may not overcome those natural laws, depending on what version you're looking at. In Panda and the Magic Serpent, the snake is still white but not a millennium in age. The boy once cared for her but was forced to give her up. An unnatural storm turns her into a beautiful woman and she begins a romance with the now older young man. However, in spite of help from her lady in waiting who was once a fish and the man's pet giant and red pandas, the misguided exorcist still confronts them.

Each of the characters is well-drafted and animated, the backgrounds lushly painted, the music catchy (how can you not love a poppy song sung by a bouncing panda?). It also hearkens back to the earliest traditions of Japanese film. The narrator is very much in the style of a Benshi, engaging with the action on the screen through description and rhetorical questions. Some of these flourishes were lost in the English translation, which was released in 1961. It was a commercial disappointment Stateside, but earned a place in history as the first anime film ever released in the United States.

Toei, the studio which produced both Panda and the Magic Serpent and Koneko no Rakugaki, built on these to become one of Japan's major animation studios. Its productions are a veritable who's who and what's what of anime. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata cut their teeth at Toei before forming Studio Ghibli. So did Leiji Matsumoto and Rintaro, who created and directed Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato and their ongoing spin-offs. On behalf of American production companies it oversaw the animation of 80's classics like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Jem. In its own right, Toei was responsible for Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Digimon, Mazinger Z, Cutie Honey, Saint Seiya and Fist of the North Star. Based in Tokyo, Toei's ongoing reputation is as the “Disney of Japan.”

It was not the only competitor for that title in the years after World War II, however. Besides Toei there was Mushi Studios, created by a man revered in Japan as the “God of Manga” and the true Japanese version of Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka. It was Tezuka, along with his creation Astro Boy, who truly turned Japanese animation into the cultural force of modern anime.   

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