A folk tale with a moral in “Kyoiku senga: Ubasuteyama”

Sanae Yamamoto, “Kyoiku senga: Ubasuteyama” (1925)

A restored animation, “Ubasuteyama” is based on a traditional Japanese folk-tale as so many animated films made in Japan in the early 20th century were in order to compete with Western animated films. The title, meaning “Abandoning Grandma on the mountain”, refers to the alleged practice of ubasute, the dumping of elderly people in the wilderness to starve or be killed by wild animals once they became too old or helpless for younger family members to support them. Historical evidence for this custom in Japan seems to be scant so perhaps it exists more as something akin to a meme or ongoing black joke in the corpus of Japanese folk customs, tales and traditions.

Long ago, the lord of Shinano province deemed all people aged 60+ years to be a burden on his peasant tenants (and his own budget as landlord) so he had all such elders banished to the mountains where they suffered exposure and being killed and eaten by a giant bird. A farmer takes his elderly mother to the mountains and leaves her there but, conscience-stricken, returns for her and hides her in a cellar he has dug under his house. Not long afterwards, the lord of a rival province throws down a challenge to the lord of Shinano, the challenge being how to guide a thread through a meandering tunnel from one end of a crystal ball to the other. The rival lord warns the lord of Shinano that if he cannot solve the riddle, the two provinces will be at war.

The lord of Shinano offers a reward to anyone in his province who can solve the challenge. The farmer consults with his mother in the cellar and she offers an ingenious solution. The farmer meets the lord of Shinano and offers the solution: cover one hole with honey and an ant with the thread tied to it enters the other hole. Attracted to the honey, the ant will crawl towards it thus threading the crystal ball. The lord of Shinano is amazed and rewards the farmer handsomely.

Before long though, another envoy from the rival lord arrives with another riddle, this time two identical mares, one of which is mother to the other. The lord of Shinano must guess which is the mother and which the daughter, else the provinces will be at war. The farmer is summoned and told of the new challenge; he consults his mother who offers an answer.

In its restored state the film appears to have bits of story missing though Japanese-language cue cards and English-language subtitles help to guide viewers through the story. As portrayed in the film the story has a strong moral of respect for the life experiences and knowledge of the elderly. The figures of the farmer, his mother and various other characters including the gambolling horses appear as cut-out dolls and are animated in a way that will appeal to young viewers though the scene in which an old man is killed and eaten by the giant bird can be very distressing. The animation ingeniously appears quite simple; the real visual glory is in background scenery details where landscapes and buildings appear to have been painted and traditional Japanese weaving and painting patterns are used in the backgrounds and to switch from one scene to the next.

Even though the film is very old and shows signs of wear and tear, the quality of the animation, its detail and the distinctive style of animation with an emphasis on Japanese folk art can be seen clearly. This film is clearly a classic work of early Japanese animation, highly original in its design and detail.

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