In 1945 the first ever Japanese feature-length animated film was released, funded by the Japanese Naval Ministry as a tool for propaganda. As an anime fan with a keen interest in history, I couldn’t resist purchasing this as a special edition from All the Anime. I was delighted with what arrived, a Blu-ray and DVD double set with bonus feature The Spider and the Tulip, with a fascinating book by Jonathan Clements looking at the life and work of the writer and director Seo Mitsuyo, which also examines the film in great detail. That all comes packaged in a very sturdy outer box, so this is a set that any anime fan should be proud to own. It arguably represents the birth of anime, or at the very least Japanese animation in its infancy, and it’s a minor miracle that a print of the film managed to survive the American occupation of Japan after the war, when propaganda films were confiscated and burnt.
Mitsuyo was clearly a writer who was a reluctant propagandist, something that is examined in Clements’ book and also comes across strongly in the film. He did his job here, particularly in the final ten minutes or so of the film, but was clearly much more interested in showing the lives of the paratroopers (represented by animal characters) featured in the film, their hopes and their fears, much more than the glory of fighting a just war. There is consequently very little action, and much examination of the preparations for war, although much of the negative consequences of war he wanted to show were edited out under the strict instructions of the Japanese Naval Ministry, and the edited footage remains lost. In one instance, the edits leave a sort of orphaned sequence that seems an odd fit for the rest of the movie, with a character who barely features elsewhere, but was originally used to represent the impact of death in wartime. The other area in which the influence of the Naval Ministry is most obvious is in the lack of any reference to the Japanese Army, which was something of a rival organisation. The Naval Ministry funded the film, so the focus had to be entirely on the Navy. Mitsuyo chose naval paratroopers as the area of military life on which to concentrate his efforts, and spend some time with troops so he could understand exactly what they had to do. That experience really shines through the film, which features a detailed representation of the paratroopers preparing their parachutes and then dropping over an enemy-occupied island. The enemy in question is a predictably lazy mix of British and American stereotypes, and the part of the movie a modern viewer might find uncomfortable is the surrender of the Western troops, who are portrayed as neurotic, hideously-drawn, bloated cowards. Rather amusingly, Popeye makes a cameo appearance, surrendering to the Japanese troops, his can of spinach failing to do the trick for him on this occasion!
There is also a sequence showing the background to the island’s historical occupation by sinister Western folk (a confused representation of the British mixed in with the historical actions of the Dutch or possibly the Portuguese, illustrated as pirates), under the sub-heading “Why We Fight”. It was a job given to a group of more junior illustrators, and is in a very different art style to the rest of the film, displaying a superb degree of stylistic inventiveness.
But the heart and soul of this film is Mitsuyo’s examination of the lives of the troops, who come across as people with real hopes and fears, despite being represented as cartoon animals (with the Japanese folklore tale of Momotaro as the starting point for the characterisations). They take a pride in what they are doing (they have to; this is a propaganda film, after all), but remarkably Mitsuyo managed to get some subtle moments past his sponsors that show the negative aspects of war, most notably the death of a colleague and the bittersweet arrival of a photo sent from home of children growing up without their father, who thinks back to when he last saw them and sees how much they have changed in the photograph. There is also a sequence that compares seeds floating on the wind with parachutists, which comes very close to indicating post-traumatic stress in the character. The beauty of the countryside is highlighted strongly, but the scenes of jeopardy also work extremely well. The only major flaw is one that was imposed on the film-makers due to the lack of materials available to make their film, with shortages during the war. They were unable to layer the facial features over the top of static heads, and instead had to fully animate everything, which leads to an oddly fluid motion of the characters’ heads. The full animation is quite impressive, but also a bit creepy, and that was unintentional.
My favourite sequence of the film shows children in a school learning a traditional Japanese alphabet song, “AIUEO”. The song pre-dates the film but wasn’t especially well-known even at the time. It’s a magnificent, joyful sequence, and the music is fabulous. You can find it on Youtube if you want, but the picture quality is unrestored and dreadful. I urge anyone interested and with the available funds to get the Blu-ray set in order to experience this properly. The restoration is astonishingly good.
I will take a look at The Spider and the Tulip, the extra feature that is also included in this set, in a future article, but for now I am delighted with this purchase, and the excellent book is a big bonus. Watching a historical representation of hatred towards the Western world might be a bit uncomfortable for us, but I do think enough time separates us from 1945 that we should be able to enjoy this for what it is, the work of a highly talented director who produced something quite beautiful under the most severe limitations. By the time this film was released, its function as propaganda for children was largely redundant. Japan was five months from defeat, there were hardly any cinemas left open to screen the film, and very few children still living in the cities to watch it. The efforts of Seo Mitsuyo and his team might have seemed in vain, but the film has gone on to influence a generation of animators. I’m very pleased to have had the chance to see this so lovingly restored, and I won’t forget “AIUEO” in a hurry! RP