February 26, 2008
Starting with the 1940s films that will be shown within the two wartime programs, state funding (and control) of animation production began in Japan. Films from this period are the ones that resemble classic Hollywood cel animation the most. Momotaro, The Sea Eagle, shown under "Wartime Japanese Animation 1", is Japan's first five-reel animation (33 minutes). The Ministry of Navy commissioned this film to celebrate Japan's successful attack on Pearl Harbor. The visuals of this cartoon will seem familiar to the contemporary viewer (anthropomorphic animals cast as Japanese soldiers) though the totality of its style remains ominous: the lieutenant or leader of the soldiers is a human girl, and the Americans are represented by Fleischer Brothers-style humanoids. The character animation is quite developed, with appropriate usage of stretch and squash, while the mechanical animation of airplanes and boats and the animation of the water is top-notch.
Though Momotaro, The Sea Eagle is evidently racist—American soldiers are treated as incompetent and oafish—the level of animated fantasy is what stands out the most in this cartoon. The actual attack is not shown for very long; two thirds of the film sympathetically shows Japanese soldiers getting ready for battle and returning from it. There is delightful humour in these scenes: a monkey soldier makes fun of his rabbit trooper buddy who can't put his bandana on because of his long ears. When the squadron flies to Pearl Harbor, a monkey pilot stumbles upon a lost baby bird. He interrupts his mission to find the baby's mother.
If you are looking for more wartime and propaganda cartoons, you are in for a treat:
Village Animals Fight Against Espionage and Village Animals Fight for Air Defense are the Japanese equivalent to Warner Bros.' Private Snafu army shorts and the likes. These two cartoons, alongside four others, will be shown under "Animation Meets Propaganda".
After Japan's loss in WWII, the government's contribution to animation production declined and filmmaking became a tough challenge for independents and small studios. The films from this era are grouped under "Japanese Animation During the Occupation" I and II. Thematically, these films seem to deal with Japan's traditions. One is called Torachan and the Bride, a nine-minute film promoting freedom of choice in marriage.
The most striking common feature of these early Japanese animations is the clarity of their storytelling. There are probably many reasons why these films can be easily followed: the subtitling is an obvious one. The abundance of onscreen action is another. However, a solid grasp of what cinema can do by the filmmaker is what I'd bet my money on. In the films that I saw, there were practically no shots or actions that I found boring, tedious or distracting (even when the animation quality was not that great.) This is noteworthy: Japanese animators knew what they were doing from the beginning. It is often said that non-Hollywood animation blossomed after the 1950s—and this is true for Japanese studio animation as well—but what these early Japanese animators accomplished with low budgets and often working independently is proof that animation filmmaking does not necessarily require a long assembly chain. If you attend this retrospective you will agree that ingenuity can impress and entertain all by itself.