Sanae Yamamoto, “Senga Tsubo” (1925)
Said to be the first animated film commission by the Ministry of Education in Japan back in 1925, this 16-minute short features a morality tale within another morality tale about being grateful and returning favours to one who has done you a good deed. A young hard-working fisherman goes out to catch the day’s fish with his net and instead hauls up a small pot. A genie comes out of the pot and threatens to eat the fisherman. The quick-thinking would-be dinner challenges the genie to return into the pot which the dull-witted demon promptly does, only to be trapped by the fisherman. The fisherman then tells the genie the tale of the lion and his free-loading fox friend who eats the lion’s leftover meals. The fox tricks the lion into chasing an ostrich; while the lion is preoccupied, the fox steals the building materials from the lion’s den and makes up his own den. The lion soon returns and is angry at being robbed. The fox entices a human hunter to kill the lion. However the fox has become dependent on the lion for fresh food and soon grows hungry and thin. Venturing out of his den, he goes down to the river where a crocodile attacks him. Too weak to run away, the fox is chowed down by the reptile.
After hearing the story, the genie is apologetic about his ungrateful behaviour and offers the fisherman a larger pot for his troubles. The fisherman takes this pot home and discovers it full of gold coins.
The animation consists mainly of often astonishingly detailed and fine line-drawn scenery and backgrounds with no colour, against which cut-out figures of the humans, the animals and the genie act out the story. Though “Senga Tsubo” is a silent film, the characters communicate through speech balloons with cut-out characters, similar to what is found in comics. The characterisation of the fisherman and the genie is very deft; the fisherman proves himself cunning as well as diligent and loyal to his family, and the genie turns out to be a good-hearted if not too intelligent fellow.
The film’s emphasis on plot and characterisation may be unusual for Japanese anime films of its time, and indeed for much animation around the world being produced at the same time. While there is some farce, it grows out of the story itself and does not depend on character stereotypes. Viewers may find the plot quite absorbing which compensates for the limited appeal of the animation style used.