Senga Tsubo: a tale within a tale about gratitude and returning favours

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.

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.

Tora-chan no Makan Mushi: warning children to behave well at work

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan no Makan Mushi” (1950)

In the last cartoon to feature Tora-chan (Little Tiger) and his friend Miike-chan, the two kittens have grown up a bit and are now working on a cargo ship as a welder and painter respectively. The sailor in charge of them, a buffoon and the butt of many jokes in this cartoon, boards the ship with his monkey and loads his cargo of fireworks onto the ship’s deck. He carelessly tosses aside his cigar and Tora-chan needs at least four attempts (involving a lot of repetition) to tell the sailor that the cigar is about to blow up the fireworks. Sure enough it does and Tora-chan jumps into the sea to enlist the help of several octopuses to squirt ink at the ship to quench the pyrotechnics display.

The animation is much, much better and more detailed and realistic in its backgrounds. The ocean especially is rendered well in its waves and the light reflecting off them. Fish are drawn very well even if the octopus characters aren’t. The characters look a bit more refined in their technical details even if one of them is boorish in behaviour. The animation does well in portraying distance perspective and in characters moving forward from mid-distance in the background.

While there’s a lot of slapstick about and the film does end inconclusively, it at least carries a message about being disciplined at work, working well with one’s colleagues and the consequences of bad behaviour, poor personal habits and not listening to warnings. The sailor gets his comeuppance and presumably will have to spend much more time hauling cargo.

I confess to being quite disappointed in this film and the previous film “Tora-chan to Hanayome” after having seen “Suteneko Tora-chan” which has quite serious themes for a work aimed at families with young children.

Tora-chan to Hanayome: family friction in a crude slapstick cartoon

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan to Hanayome” (1948)

The last three animated films made by Kenzo Masaoka revolved around the adventures of the kitten Tora-chan (Little Tiger). The first one “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses the issue of caring for abandoned war orphans in a post-war society ravaged by poverty and urges people to foster and adopt such children to preserve social values, maintain cultural continuity and ultimately strengthen Japanese society. Second film “Tora-chan to Hanayome”, made a year later, is a much more conventional animated film in which Tora-chan and sister Miike-chan are given the responsibility to run interference against Grandfather who has just charged into town to stop his elder grand-daughter (and big sister to Tora-chan and Miike-chan) from marrying. The parents quickly hustle off the big sister to the church leaving the kittens on their own at home. When Grandfather barges into the house, the kittens try all kinds of ruses to stop him from going into the bride’s room. When their efforts fail, Grandfather seizes the kittens and races off to the church to find the wedding party.

While the animation is good if not great, the plot drags on and overdoes the slapstick in a number of scenes. The donkey that is to take the wedding party to the church spends too long preening itself in front of a mirror. In order to keep Grandfather away from the stairs, Miike-chan starts posing a bit provocatively in ways that modern audiences might not condone today. Some characters are not drawn very well and the background scenery often looks crude and hastily done.

Even for a film aimed at children, the plot has large logic holes and its resolution looks unconvincing. We never learn why Grandfather opposed his grand-daughter’s wedding or (spoiler alert) why he changes his mind later. An opportunity for the film-makers to say something about how Japan must adapt to the modern world is lost. At least no-one is badly hurt, everyone is reconciled and Tora-chan and Miike-chan can go back to playing in the sunshine.

Suteneko Tora-chan: a charming and graceful film on the plight of war orphans and keeping society together

Kenzo Masaoka, “Suteneko Tora-chan” (1947)

A charming film about an orphaned kitten found and adopted by a family of cats, “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses some of the concerns and issues of Japanese society in the period after World War II. The plight of war orphans was uppermost in people’s minds after the carnage of war. Keeping family together and everyone pulling their weight together just to survive adversity and poverty were also major concerns. A mother cat and her three kittens find a tiny abandoned orphan kitten, Tora-chan, and the mother and two of her kittens immediately adopt the orphan. The third kitten, Miike-chan, rejects Tora-chan and bullies him during the kittens’ play-time. When Mother Cat gently but firmly separates Miike-chan and Tora-chan, and treats Tora-chan as one of her children, Miike-chan runs away from home. Feeling responsibile for Miike-chan’s behaviour, Tora-chan goes in search of her. He catches up with Miike-chan but in trying to bring her home, the two kittens encounter many obstacles and hostile animals including a dog and a hen defending her chicks, and barely survive being dumped over a waterfall.

The animation is very graceful and well done with smooth transitions from one scene to the next. The cats are very endearing in their rounded forms and the background scenery can be very detailed. The adoption of Christmas at the beginning and end of the film, and the use of sunflowers as a motif delineating summer-time show the growing influence of Western and specifically American culture on Japanese society during the immediate post-war period. In the plot, the kittens’ arduous adventures, the characters of Mother Cat and Tora-chan, and the sung dialogue, the film tries to persuade its target family audiences to care more for war orphans and children made destitute by circumstances not of their families’ making. In caring for the young, Japanese society ensures that its collective values will survive and continue.

The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978: Iran as a pawn of British and US self-interests

Carlton Meyer, “The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978” (Tales of the American Empire, 13 March 2020)

So much history is covered in this short 8-minute documentary that it bears watching at least a couple of times – though a few questions might be raised at the end of the video. In 1941, broke and needing oil badly for its armed forces, Britain decided to invade Iran to seize the country’s oil rather than pay royalties to the Iranians on oil production. Claiming to be neutral, the US actually provided military aid to allow both Britain and the Soviet Union to invade the country and then partition it and seize Iranian assets. Although Iran put up a fight, its armed forces were overwhelmed. The ruling Shah (Reza Shah Pahlavi) at the time was deposed and his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi agreed to replace him as a puppet ruler of a virtual American colony.

Under the 1941 Lend Lease Act, the US government provided military assistance to the British and the Soviets while at the same time the US public had to accept rationing of food and fuel, wage freezes and increased income taxation. Housing construction was halted and automobile factories had to switch over to producing war materiel. 30,000 US troops were sent to occupy Iran and Iran’s government had to accept Americans in major positions. Even after World War II ended, when most US troops returned home, the Iranian government under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi still relied on US advisors. Most of the country’s oil profits went to British and US oil companies, and the Shah frittered much of whatever oil profits came to Iran on buying US weapons and equipment (and setting up a nascent nuclear manufacturing program) and on enriching himself and members of his family. The US helped Mohammed Reza Pahlavi establish SAVAK, a combined secret police / domestic security / intelligence agency, which later gained notoriety among the Iranian public for torturing and executing people who opposed the Pahlavi government.

There are a few errors in Meyer’s presentation: he refers to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as the Anglo-American Oil Company (they were actually two different companies, the former being the forerunner of BP and the latter the forerunner of Esso) and appears to insinuate that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 after the Soviets had done so (in fact Germany invaded Poland first, then the Soviets did so). Mention of Iran nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s assets in the early 1950s under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh might have a few viewers scratching their heads as to what Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his US advisors were doing that Mossadegh would dare to nationalise a British company, as it was after this nationalisation that the British and the Americans would work together to depose Mossadegh and install a new government that would not upset London and which would allow the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to continue keeping much of Iran’s oil wealth in its own coffers.

On the other hand, I do not have an issue with Meyer calling Iran’s current government a democracy as Iran does hold regular Presidential and parliamentary elections, however imperfect and corrupted the country’s government and political institutions may be. Indeed, Iran’s politics seems to be no more and no less “democratic” than those of Western nations where leaders are more likely to be hand-picked by their parties or other interested organisations, be they local or foreign, and presented to voters as the only choices rather than the voting electorate itself being allowed to put forward credible candidates for leadership positions.

In the last few minutes of the video, Meyer quickly updates viewers on the events that led to the downfall of the Shah in 1979. Meyer probably could have made much more of US arrogance and failure to read the mood of the Iranian general public and the widespread dissatisfaction at all levels of society with the Pahlavi royal family’s corruption and the increasing violence of SAVAK. Viewers will note the parallel between the US ignorance of the changing reality on the ground in Iran, as people joined protests and mass demonstrations against the Shah’s rule, and the current US bewilderment and panic at events in many parts of the world – in China (Hong Kong and Xinjiang), Russia, Syria and Venezuela among others – where US-supported grifters like Alexei Navalny (Russia) and Juan Guaido (Venezuela) have failed to rally public support behind them to lead a coup against governments the US desires to replace with puppet regimes. This parallel and similar parallels between the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – both coups involved violent mobs paid by US agencies to support overthrowing those leaders – surely make 20th-century Iranian history worth studying. A third parallel may be observed between the impoverishment of the US general public during World War II and the current impoverishment of Americans, the degradation of US national infrastructures and the evisceration of US culture, education, healthcare and other social services to feed an insatiable psychopathic appetite among US elites that celebrates violence, brutality and destruction in the service of empire.

The images used in the video are old and unfortunately the later part of the video uses photographic portraits of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi while Meyer does a general survey of that Shah’s rule – surely some old film footage of the Shah’s excesses might have been available. These are perhaps minor points in what is a general historical sketch of the vicious nature of both the US and British empires and their elites in a nation that has too much of a resource that both empires still need.

The Bear Dodger: a tale advising children to choose their friends carefully

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.

Tengu Taiji: a lively and comical animated folk tale from an early Japanese pioneer

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!

Ugokie kori no tatehiki: the battle between fox and racoon dog spirits given fast energy and wacky style

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.

Entotsuya Peroo: a little man’s adventures exposing the devastation and brutality of war

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.