Yoshitaro Kataoka, “Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji / Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi Dan Dan’emon” (1935)
While looking for something else on Youtube, I found this uncaptioned short animated film; as it was less than nine minutes long, I played it all the way through before resuming my original search. With no English or other language subtitles, the finer details of this Japanese cartoon will be lost on most viewers outside Japan but the basic story is clear enough. A young and ambitious if not too bright samurai called Danemon, wandering through the countryside, sees a community notice in a town offering a reward to whoever will rid a haunted castle of mischievous spirits. Danemon, resembling the villain Bluto of old Popeye cartoons of the same period (1930s) as this cartoon was made, promptly makes his way to the castle in the meaning where he is tricked by a beautiful woman – actually a malevolent ghost in disguise – and promptly hypnotised and put to sleep, disarmed and tied up. While the samurai is held hostage, his captors, portrayed as tanuki (spirits in the forms of raccoon dogs or foxes), celebrate with a banquet and much drinking and carousing. Danemon wakes up, realises he’s been tricked and breaks his bonds in fury. He gate-crashes the tanuki party and challenges the head tanuki to a duel. The two fight, Danemon clobbers the head tanuki fighter and eventually claims his reward.
The style of animation closely follows the style of contemporary US animators Fleischer Studios, then considered one of the top animation studios in the world along with The Walt Disney Studio, and in itself is not very remarkable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its early use of sound, at a time when most films outside the US were still silent films. The film uses spoken monologue and limited spoken dialogue, and a music soundtrack combining traditional Japanese instruments and music elements along with more Western instruments and a sometimes jaunty square-dance rhythm. The film’s highlight surely has to be the tanuki celebrations which draw heavily on traditional kabuki entertainment, complete with the audience carousing, and on contemporary Western live music of the 1930s with a small tanuki orchestra performing.
The version of the film I saw on Youtube seems to have breaks in the narrative: the film jumps very quickly from the moment Danemon interrupts the tanuki party to his duel with the party host. Somewhere along the way the samurai must have taken down the tanuki ninja army single-handedly. Perhaps it is in those missing scenes that innovations associated with this film – such as the use of bird’s-eye viewpoint in Danemon’s fight scenes with the tanuki army – might be found. Another interesting aspect of the story is the transformation of the beautiful woman into a hag: we don’t see this transformation directly but rather the shadow of the woman’s hand turning into an ugly skeletal claw on and over Danemon’s horrified face.
The quality of the film is quite poor, reflecting the film’s misfortunes in being properly archived and cared for (or not) over the years until it was uploaded to Youtube. Enough of it survives though for viewers to be able to follow the adventures of Danemon in the haunted castle and discern where breaks in the narrative occur. Its simple and straightforward style and manner of story-telling, the comic treatment of Danemon, and the ease with which the samurai crosses into the supernatural world and wipes out an entire horde of tanuki with just his trusty katana make the film fun watching.