Noburo Ofuji, “The Bear Dodger” (1948)
Made in 1948 but with characters drawn in a much older early-1930s style, this animated short has a moral behind its drawn-out tale. A boy befriends a wobbly-looking stranger who imposes various onerous burdens on him. Little does the boy know that the stranger had also injured a baby bear and Daddy bear is out looking to punish the culprit. The big bear pounces on the boy and the stranger: the stranger promptly scoots over to a tree and climbs it, leaving the boy to fend off the bear on his own. The boy evades the bear through various visual puns involving a giant python and turtles in a river but ends up trapped before a waterfall. Just when all seems lost, a frog the boy and the stranger had met earlier (the stranger had picked it up and the boy rescues the frog from him) offers the boy some useful advice that saves his life. The big bear is reunited with the baby bear, now no longer crying, and the boy resumes his journey. The stranger pleads for the boy’s assistance but the boy continues on his way.
While the cut-out characters hark back to the period in the 1930s when much Japanese animation was influenced by US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, the backgrounds with their distinctively designed bushy trees are intricate and have a delicacy and line detail that look very Japanese. The film pays a lot of attention to detail – the boy even manages to recover his sandals near the end of the film – and the camera adopts various points of view (including a viewpoint that looks back at the character and moves away from it while that character advances) that are original. Characters move very smoothly in a film that barrels along fairly briskly though the plot is uncomplicated and perhaps a bit too long. The Japanese-language soundtrack includes constant spoken dialogue and singing.
The film’s moral, delivered in a whimsical and flowing style, is that friends help one another and if someone takes advantage of you and abuses your friendship, you should avoid that person. This is made clear even without the benefit of English-language subtitles, through the plot and the actions of the various characters. In that sense the film succeeds. With the changes in Japanese animation and Japanese society and culture that have occurred since 1948, whether such a moral still resonates with audiences in Japan may be questionable. Perhaps the emphasis these days might be on treating animals with respect and leaving them alone.
Noburu Ofuji aka Fuyo Koyamano, “Tengu Taiji” (1934)
A very comical tale about a town besieged by tengu – dangerous goblin spirits with the characteristics of humans and birds of prey including beaks which in some spirits become unnaturally long noses – and how they are fought off by a lone swordsman and a watch-dog helper gets the cartoon treatment from Noburu Ofuji, one of the first Japanese animators to gain international recognition for his work. The watch-dog allows the tengu to invade the town and carry off one of the performing geisha. A samurai attempts to fight the tengu but they squash him flat on the ground with a door off its hinges. The dog takes the flattened samurai to another swordsman who promptly folds up the samurai into a headcloth, dons it and then (with the watch-dog in tow) hurries after the fleeing tengu. There follows a tremendous battle in which the swordsman eventually cuts down nearly all the tengu and the watch-dog tosses their heads into a quarry. The two race after two spirits carrying the geisha, they rescue her but are confronted by a giant tengu and a crab. The watch-dog rips off a claw and scissors off the tengu’s nose.
The humour is very violent and bawdy and armchair Freudian psychoanalysts will have the time of their lives dissecting the symbolism of the giant tengu’s long nose and the dog cutting it off. Ofuji’s style of animation shows clear influences from US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer but the backgrounds and scenery are very Japanese in their details. The characters in the film can clearly be seen as cutouts, part of Ofuji’s preferred animation method. The busy music soundtrack combines both Japanese traditional folk and contemporary Western music of the time.
The film has a very lively character and many visual puns that perhaps poke fun at Japanese social conventions and expectations. The watch-dog makes amends for his earlier fear and becomes a hero. The samurai is brave but ends up ignominiously as a scarf for a more lowly swordsman. For a nine-minute film, this animation packs in a lot of subversion of Japanese culture!
Ikuo Oishi, “Ugokie kori no tatehiki” (1933)
Japanese animators in the 1930s sure loved the Max Fleischer style of animation and Ikuo Oishi was no different: the fox and raccoon dog characters in this cartoon fantasy have those Fleischeresque rubbery elastic limbs that sometimes stretch out forever when the occasion calls for it. In this animated short which could be based on Japanese legend, a fox spirit turns himself into a samurai after scaring the wits out of a frightened farmer walking through a forest at night. The samurai sees a wooden temple in ruins and walks in. His arrival alarms two raccoon dog spirits (who appear to be dad and junior) who then try to get rid of him. The spirits try all kinds of magic ruses to deceive and flummox one another before the samurai resorts to using guns (!) and even a machine gun (!) and thus gains the upper hand over the bigger racoon dog spirit. But his smaller friend finds a secret weapon and hurries to bop the samurai before the bigger racoon dog keels over from being Swiss-cheese hollowed out.
The energy is constant and the pace fast in these Fleischer-styled cartoons, and viewers are barely allowed to pause for breath before the cartoons go up to another level of zany slapstick intensity. This battle of the racoon dogs and the fox is no different: the racoon dogs try all kinds of ingenious disguises including disguising themselves as a lock and a key, and later as a flying snake and multitudes of tiny racoon dog clones. The flying snake allows Oishi and his crew the opportunity to portray the battle from a bird’s-eye point of view with the snake tracing a downward spiral into the centre of the film. The lack of English-language or other subtitles means that any underlying theme or message in the cartoon, along with the dialogue (of which there is not much), will be lost on viewers outside Japan. This means non-Japanese-speaking viewers can concentrate on the action and the general plot, and admire the background scenery, the details of which show real Japanese artistic sensibility. The backgrounds are the most outstanding part of the film. It is a pity though that the film is in black and white; the backgrounds might stand out even more with colour and visual perspective. The music soundtrack is traditional Japanese folk with solo stringed instruments like shamisen used throughout the film.
The technical background details, scenes with unusual points of view, many visual puns involving the technology of the day and the cartoon’s energy and wacky style make this fight between the fox / samurai and the determined racoon dog duo quite a memorable one to watch and cheer.
Yoshitsugu Tanaka, “Entotsuya Peroo” (1930)
Known also as “Chimney Sweep Peroo”, this unusual animated film made in 1930 relies on silhouette or shadow animation to tell its tale of Peroo, a city chimney sweep who one day saves a pigeon from being eaten and is rewarded with a magic egg. After that incident, Peroo finds himself in one situation after another: after causing the death of a prince in a train accident, he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged but gets a last-minute reprieve; reunited with his magic egg, he returns to his tower residence but is caught up in a war that devastates his country. At first eagerly participating in it by stealing a cannon and using it to blow up soldiers from his own and the enemy’s sides, he is caught up in a bomb explosion himself. Managing to survive and with his egg intact, he is later taken on a trip through the destroyed countryside. The film concludes with Peroo having settled on a farm with a wife, Peroo himself tilling the soil.
Without the benefit of English-language subtitles, I was only able to follow the general outline of the plot which is vaguely similar in its structure to Jaroslav Hasek’s novel “The Good Soldier Svejk” in which a similar “little man” is caught up in the events of World War I and through possibly feigned insolence and stupidity exposes the futility of war and the incompetence and corrupt bureaucracy of his superiors in a long series of comic episodes. The chief attraction of “Entotsuya Peroo” is its use of shadow cut-out characters to tell the story against similarly cut-out shadow buildings, railway lines, trees and other background objects. Some of the animation is well done, especially in scenes where some perspective (distance perspective and atmospheric perspective) may be called for in what would otherwise be a completely two-dimensional black-and-white world but it does look quite crude. The film appears to be the work of university students enrolled in film and animation studies so the limitations of the use of shadow play animation and the vagueness of the plot in parts may be due to the film having had a small budget and the film-makers learning their craft by trial and error, among other things.
One thing for sure about this film is that it is definitely not for very young children to see: the scenes of war are not only very repetitive but they are horrific and the section of the film where Peroo travels by train through the countryside and sees utterly destroyed cities and ravaged farmland and forest is long and depressing to watch. By the end of the film Peroo is working on his farm so presumably he has learned something from his past actions. Perhaps at a later time when English-language subtitling or an English-language voice-over narration for the film becomes available, I may watch this film again to find out more about what the student film-makers had intended to say through Peroo’s adventures.
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.
Teng Cheng, Li Wei, “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification” (2020)
Inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel by Xu Zhonglin, “The Investiture of the Gods”, itself based on Chinese mythology and legends, this epic animated blockbuster is a sequel to the 2019 release “Ne Zha”, taking place in the same universe of gods, demons and humans co-existing and interfering in one another’s affairs as that film. The original Jiang Ziya was an actual historical figure who helped to overthrow King Zhou, the last of the Shang Dynasty rulers some 3,000 years ago, in this film Jiang Ziya is a lesser immortal gifted with supernatural abilities and magic who comes to the material plane during the wars between the corrupt Shang rulers and a new dynasty to defeat and capture the evil fox demon Nine Tail. Charged with executing Nine Tail, Jiang discovers that she has bound a young girl Jiu to her with an ankle bracelet. To kill Nine Tail would mean also killing Jiu and so Jiang refuses to carry out the order of the gods of Heaven. The gods punish Jiang by exiling him to Earth. A faithful retainer, Shen, follows Jiang into exile.
From there the film follows Jiang as he unexpectedly comes upon Jiu, who has become separated from the fox demon, in a bar in his place of exile. Jiu is on a quest to find her father and needs to travel to Mount Youdu. Jiang recognises that Jiu is possessed by the fox demon and with his companion Four Alike follows Jiu on her journey into the realm of Beihai. The pace is slow and even so at least the film allows for the beautiful animated scenery and backgrounds to shine even when the characters are no more than stereotypes. On reaching Beihai after a hair-raising encounter with the souls of soldiers who died in the wars between the gods and humans on the one hand and the fox demons on the other, Jiang discovers some uncomfortable truths about the gods he had originally been chosen to join and about why the fox demons fought on the side of the unpopular and corrupt Shang dynasty.
While the computer-generated animation is visually gorgeous and colourful and the action is stunning in scale and creativity, after too many showy scenes the film becomes rather bland. The journey to Beihai gives little time for Jiang and Jiu to develop a strong friendship and Four Alike goes along for the ride just to add some cuteness. In its final third, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted for Western audiences not familiar with notions of reincarnation as Jiang tries desperately to save Jiu from a second incarnation bound to Nine Tail. Messages about how heroes create their own destinies and become heroic through their own sacrifices and defying fate, even the will of Heaven; valuing all life for its own sake (the film can be seen as an extension of the classic Trolley dilemma); the possibility that even the gods themselves are not infallible; finding one’s place in the social order; and restoring and putting right past wrongs – even resolving the damage done to the restless souls of dead people – are important but they can be lost as the plot quickly becomes complicated in the film’s last half-hour (in comparison to its straightforward trajectory earlier) and the action literally vaults from the realm of the dead to the highest heavens with all the breathtaking bombast the animation can muster.
The characters are not well developed and hew to stereotypes that may be current in much Chinese fantasy animated films: the serious hero with compassion and the Keanu Reeves looks, the young girl or boy who’s a bit sassy and streetwise, the lovable animal companion, the stalwart and slightly dim-witted warrior companion. This film is obviously targeting a generation of young Chinese viewers familiar with cinematic and videogame product from Japan and elsewhere and who expect to see certain cinematic and game conventions. While it means well and aims to instill some age-old lessons about inner personal integrity and correcting past wrongs, the film does fall flat through trying to compete with superficial Western blockbuster superhero flicks.
Len Lye, “Tusalava” (1929)
It must have been astonishing enough when it was first released with its original piano music score by woefully under-rated Australian experimental composer Jack Ellit back in 1929; over 90 years later, the animated short “Tusalava” by legendary New Zealand film-maker / sculptor Len Lye still exerts a strange fascination on viewers. The B&W film itself may have aged, the techniques employed may look primitive and colouring the film might reveal something new and unexpected – but for most people, as it is this film will embody themes, topics and ideas stretching far beyond what Lye might have originally intended. In making this film, Lye was inspired by the artistic traditions of indigenous peoples in Australia and Samoa (now Western Samoa) while travelling among them in the 1920s; indeed he was expelled from Samoa by the New Zealand colonial authorities for – eek! – living with an indigenous community there.
Divided into two split screens, the film appears to trace the evolution of organic forms of life from inorganic forms and from there to investigate the development of conscious thought and behaviour, the appearance of parallel forms of behaviour and development in two worlds, and the interactions that develop when those two worlds come into contact. Conflict and co-operation culminating in exchanges of influence (including what looks like contamination and pollution) take place. One of those two worlds resembles a humanoid tribal totem at some point in its development while the other looks like an evil multi-cellular parasite being and it’s not hard to see some allusion to European colonisation of First World cultures around the planet and how Europeans often pilfered these cultures for their resources and even their artistic styles and traditions. All the way through the film the worlds are in constant motion, and motion as a driver of development and evolution, and life itself, becomes a significant theme. Eventually the two worlds combine into a singularity, from which a new cycle of inorganic forms evolving into organic forms may begin.
Perhaps because of the film’s “modernist primitive” style with its abstract imagery on simple backgrounds, that audiences through the decades can read so much into the actions of the imaginary life-forms. Over time, audience interpretations change and evolve with the film itself, keeping it fresh in spite of its age and Lye’s relative inexperience in film-making at the time. (“Tusalava” was his first foray into film-making.) That the original piano music soundtrack has been lost is a tragedy in itself, as Jack Ellit was an early pioneer in music experimentation; paradoxically the loss only heightens the ambiguity of the film and encourages viewers to imagine (and even compose) their own musical accompaniments with their particular interpretations of the action and themes of “Tusalava”. For all its apparent simplicity, the film is surprisingly sophisticated, inviting keen viewer interest, thought, discussion and even participation; no wonder that it is a unique classic of New Zealand film culture.
Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, “Nullarbor” (2011)
Across the longest stretch of straight road through the flat desert that is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia is raced this animated riff on the classic Aesopian fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. A brash young man (we’ll call him Bernie) driving through the Outback in his souped-up convertible nearly has an accident with a semi-trailer while distracted by an elderly motorist (we’ll call him Waddy) in his decrepit old motor vehicle. Blaming his near-disaster on Waddy, Bernie seeks to outrace the old codger but ends up encountering one obstacle after another, including one memorable one where his convertible is prevented from crossing a railway line and the endless line of train carriages with the word “HA” painted on their sides passing over the line appears to be laughing at him. Eventually catching up with Waddy, Bernie and the older fellow agree through their facial expressions and gesticulations to a race across the featureless desert. The race though has unexpected consequences for both men and they end up humbled by the harsh physical environment of the desert and the sea.
Old age is pitted against youth, and the slow and steady approach is held up against the speedy (and also hasty) in this very likable animated character study. Ultimately Waddy is not any wiser than Bernie when it comes to taking care of his car or pushing it beyond what it can handle. The two men eventually come to a compromise and an understanding (that likely results in a real and long-lasting friendship) when confronted by the immensity of the Australian landscape and the results of their foolish rivalry.
The film’s humour relies a great deal on slapstick and exaggeration, and there is some crude and even violent humour at Bernie’s expense, but all the humour adds individual flavour to the men’s characters and advance or underline the plot in some way. The problems Bernie encounters illustrate how out of depth he is in the Outback. Sooner or later we know he will need the old man’s help. While Waddy has a more laid-back personality and he and his car have seen and experienced much in this part of Australia, even he cannot always rely on experience and familiarity with the environment and this leads to an oversight on his part that results in his car’s unexpected demise. The destruction however leads to an understanding between the two men and from then on they start to work together to get out of their common predicament. Nature always bats last.
The animation is spare and emphasises the isolation and vastness of the Australian desert and its brilliant colours as day changes into night. The laconic tone of the film – there is no dialogue and the characters communicate with body language – is distinctive and highlights its Australian character. The stereotype of Australian masculinity and men’s behaviour comes under the spotlight in this very concise little film.
Andrey Klimov, “Azarkant” (2013)
Made as a proof-of-concept piece for a film, “Azarkant” understandably is short on plot and character to the extent that it plays like a generic sci-fi piece in which all the old “hard science” stereotypes appear. A group of cosmonauts on a 10-year voyage in space, their mission being to find planets capable of supporting life, come across an abandoned spaceship and investigate. One of the cosmonauts finds naught but human remains, even an old astronaut’s uniform, suggesting that this spaceship indeed has been floating in space for decades if not hundreds of years. The cosmonaut is ambushed by a robot whose last order is to kill every living being it finds. After a hard fight in which the cosmonaut finally disposes of the robot, he descends to a lower level of the abandoned spaceship where he finds a human body stored in liquid in an incubator.
There’s really no plot to speak of, and the film is remarkable mainly for creating a distinct sinister atmosphere in emphasising shadows, darkness and the barest hints that something dreadful occurred on the abandoned spaceship long ago. The cosmonaut shines his torch onto the surfaces of the spaceship’s interiors to partly reveal skeletal remains and a dead astronaut slumped against a wall. Tension slowly builds through the film as the cosmonaut investigates further, only for him to be suddenly sidelined by the creaky robot. The fight is massive though brief – but the tension itself starts to build again when the cosmonaut resumes his mission and falls through a floor into a deeper level.
The animation is very good, appearing three-dimensional, and seems almost realistic. There is little dialogue and the cosmonaut and robot express their characters through their movements. The cosmonaut seems hesitant, nervous at first, but bravely carries out his mission. The film’s conclusion may be open-ended; it seems that the cosmonaut is approaching a new, more sinister and powerful enemy posing as a human, or the body’s reaction to his presence may be nothing more than reflexive and instinctive.
At least the film looks good and has much visual technical detail, as there is not much more one can say in its favour.
Daniel Prince, “Invaders” (2018)
Playing as a homage and parody of the 1980s film “Batteries Not Included” in which a bunch of tiny extraterrestrial cyborg spaceships save an apartment building from a property development, “Invaders” is a whimsical Christmas short in which three mischievous UFOs explore a house on Christmas Eve and have some amusing adventures and misadventures with various Christmas decorations until one of the UFOs meets Santa Claus. The result of the sudden meeting is rather catastrophic and changes Christmas forever for millions of children around the world – but the naughty cyborgs manage to zip away into space without having to face justice for their misdeeds!
The film proceeds a bit too slowly in its early half and relies on its viewers being familiar with scare stories and conspiracy theories about crop circles and UFO abductions, and 1980s science fiction films dealing with human and alien encounters. Included is a theme about the need for belonging and how that need can be manipulated by others to bully, and lead both bully and victim alike to commit deeds of cruelty, violence and murder. A sobering lesson might be found here about how human societies have treated other human cultures on discovering them for the first time: all too often such contacts result in one attempting to exploit and manipulate the other in order to steal the other’s territory and any wealth that territory contains. Another analogy may be drawn between this film and US drone operators whose targeting and destruction rip apart families, traditions, history and culture in distant lands, at no cost to the operators themselves.
The film is remarkable mainly for its technical achievements in combining animation and computer graphic effects. While it seems slow in getting its plot off the ground, once the story has described its cyber-characters and their relations with one another, the film develops a faster pace and becomes frantic at its climax with quick, sharp shots hinting at a very gory confrontation. For a whimsical short film with a fairly simple plot, “Invaders” does manage to pack in much food for thought.