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Dawn of Japanese Animation

Courtesy Japan Society
Courtesy Japan Society

Presented by The Japan Society
Wednesday, February 13
Part 1: Chambara Action & Adventure
Thursday, February 14
Part 2: Horror & Comedy
Friday, February 15
Part 3: Propaganda
Saturday, February 16
Part 4: Music & Dance
Special Screening: Orochi

Japan Society’s Dawn of Japanese Animation series offers an illuminating look at the innovative early days of animation from the land of Astro Boy. These are not the direct antecedents of anime or prototypes of Speed Racer. The series features films from the late ’20s through the ’40s that are more parallel to the early cartoons of the west.

There are lots of animals acting like humans, a tradition dating back to the 12th century with the Choju-giga, a scroll of drawings thought to be the earliest form of manga (Japanese comics). There are also characters that resemble famous American cartoon counterparts (one samurai bears a striking resemblance to Popeye’s nemesis Brutus). Compared to anime it is at times almost like panorama versus diorama. Nevertheless, despite the often flat, comic book framing there is an abundance of startling creativity and ingenuity. And through the course of this survey we see 3-D perspective emerge before our very eyes. The strong anarchic playfulness so inherent to the medium (evident in early American animation from Mickey to Krazy Kat) allows the freedom to create bunny rabbits wielding samurai swords or playing baseball. This free form blending of cultural iconography makes this series revealing and vital.

The series is divided into four sections: Chambara (samurai swordplay) Action and Adventure; Horror and Comedy; Propaganda; Music and Dance. Falling under the rubric of comedy Sanko and the Octopus (1933) is a standout. Rendered in an impressively realistic style with traditional dancers casting shadows as they move, Sanko effects a three dimensional relationship between figures and their environment, in turn reflecting its tight editing and complex story-telling techniques. Quite ahead of its time, this is one of many in the series by Yasuji Murata, a renowned forefather of Japanese animation. Sanko, the story of a drunken fisherman who fights with an octopus over sunken treasure, represents much of the content of these films. The stories play like folktales, freely mixing traditional, modern, Japanese and western influences. The moral of each tale is often revealed to be dreams or elaborate, meandering fantasies.

Teizo Kato’s The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day (1932) describes a 1980 automated Japan where urban transportation takes place in the sky. Despite the futuristic utopian setting, the dutiful plane cab driver of the title still espouses traditional values, looking after his mother and maintaining a strong sense of justice when confronted with wrong-doing. Cabby also exhibits the gleefully chaotic style of narrative evident throughout all these films. The cabby ends up on a tropical island with politically incorrect images of natives who ‘sing and dance all day because they live in paradise.’ One of the most striking films in the series, Yoshitaro Kataoka’s horror/action/comedy short Danaemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoj (1935) takes the chaos in a slightly different direction. Danaemon starts off deceptively simple but proves to be quite psychedelic with 360-degree camera spins, creepy eastern gothic mise en scene and particularly cool use of shadows. Danaemon also features Tanuki, the shape-shifting raccoon-dog of Japanese folklore. Though they are portrayed as villainous, there is an underlying feeling that Tanuki are somehow the victims of the more sinister human characters. Is this some sort of concealed commentary on the evil effects of modernization and industrialization, or is this as innocently frivolous as the work of Disney and Max Fleischer?

The majority of these shorts are silent with new original music. The silent era lasted longer in Japan, perhaps due to the popularity of benshi. Benshi were live performers who narrated the story while taking on different voices for each character. This tradition is kept alive in Japan, and The Japan Society will host Japan’s foremost benshi, Midori Sawato, to narrate several of the films.

Each of the four programs also features a live action short. Perhaps because they are silent and feature exaggerated action, these shorts earn their place in a program of animation. The series will close with what is said to be a hallmark of (live-action) chambara, the 1925 samurai adventure Orochi, an event not to be missed (Saturday Feb. 16th, 7:30 p.m.). Making the screening more cross-cultural, Japan Society has invited NYC-based American (born and raised in Japan) stage actor/director Leon Ingulsrud to give his benshi interpretation of Orochi in English.

The cultural pastiche of samurai cartoons such as The Bat (with an actual bat for an anti-hero) is telling for a country rapidly modernizing after having been a feudal nation for centuries. The propaganda films reflect Japan’s transformation from the aesthetically vibrant modernism of the Taisho era (1912–1926) to the fervent nationalism that led to the invasion of Manchuria in the early ‘30s. One question that arises is: who was the intended audience for these films? While they unquestionably have an appeal to children, they also serve as rare and obscure commentary on what were fascinating times.


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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