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From propaganda to Pokémon

Japan’s National Film Center is not afraid to air its dirty laundry in an anime retrospective at the Cinémathèque Québecoise

From Sailor Moon to Akira, the Japanese animation industry has been enveloped in a swirl of much-hyped innovation for the last few decades. This month’s extensive retrospective, “Aux Sources de l’Anime: Animation Japonaise (1924-1952)” at the Cinémathèque Québecoise showcases the origins of Japanese anime.

Compiled by the National Film Center of Tokyo, “To the Source of Anime” is the largest retrospective of its kind ever to have been shown outside of Japan. For a medium that is often dismissed by the rest of the film world as childish, this retrospective offers anime due recognition as a valid source of historical record with its own unique heritage.

Beginning around 1917, the first 50 years of animation in Japan were fraught with war, foreign occupation, and a lack of funding and materials. A tribute to Noburo Ofuji, one of Japan’s oldest animators, shows the nation’s transition from a traditional to industrial society. Using chiyogami – traditional coloured paper – and cut-paper animation, Ofuji’s early silent films are simple masterpieces that combine traditional Japanese art with the entirely new medium of film. His Black Cat’s Meow is the first “Record Talkie” film and later films, such as The Battle of the Malay Sea, are blatant propaganda pieces, illustrating a shift into wartime nationalism.

Paper cutting meets politics

Unafraid to air their dirty laundry, Japan’s National Film Center has dedicated several programs to wartime propaganda. Government funding for the NFC significantly increased during World War II – on the condition that animations expressed the political views of the Japanese government – thus enabling the world’s first feature-length animations to be produced.

The curator of the National Film Center cites the strict governmental control during the forties as “the Japanese version of German Kulturfilm.” The squashing of leftist and avant-garde tendencies in favour of overt nationalism during World War II forced animators to promote the government’s didactic messages while sneakily experimenting with artistic techniques.

“If a film is only a message, it’s not interesting. Art cannot only be a matter of message,” affirms Cinémathèque Québecois curator Marco De Blois. With virtually no freedom of narrative and steeped in nationalist ideology, it is surprising how aesthetically captivating some of the wartime film selections are.

Mitsuyo Seo’s 1940s film Momotaro, The Sea Eagle was the earliest five-reel animation made in Japan. Of course, this massive undertaking was entirely funded by the Ministry of the Navy, rendering the film an aggressively blatant propagation of the bombings on Pearl Harbour. Momotaro, the hero of the film, fights buffoonish Western soldiers with his army of nationalist bunnies and mice. Described by De Blois as “operatic pieces in which one can find serious artistic, experimental elements” the Momotaro series blurs the boundary between didactic work, historical artifact, and true anime art.

Animating with the enemy

Ironically, while the narrative content in most wartime Japanese animation is vehemently anti-American, the styles show enormous American influence. Momotaro’s mice warriors sport emblematically Japanese headbands, but in both movement and physical appearance, they’re undeniably reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

Variants of Mickey are joined by Betty Boop and racist American blackface traditions in Kenzo Masaoka’s 1943 The Spider and the Tulip. A vicious spider arguably serves as a stand-in for American aggression; his darkened skin, lopsided top hat, absurdly large white lips, and googly eyeballs clearly represent the enemy. The innocent victim – a fair-skinned ladybug with wide eyes and a curving physique that is surprisingly sexy for a shelled insect – screams Betty Boop.

De Blois claims that not even the Japanese curators fully understand why animators appropriated enemy styles for their own nationalist cinema. He speculates that Japanese animators “had to face the fact that American animation was wildly popular in Japan and perhaps deliberately used American characters to please their audiences.”

While American animators were making similarly racist propaganda pieces during World War II, they generally remain hidden from the contemporary public eye. It is clear, then, that animated film has been put to greater use than just silly cartoons.

“The Japanese are not shy to show their propaganda films, whereas it is very difficult to see historical films like these in the United States,” says De Blois. Although early Canadian animated film was far less extremist and extensive than Japanese and American animations, the Cinémathèque Québecoise is eager for a retrospective of their own.

According to De Blois, Montreal and even Canada as a whole are often cited as the “world Meccas of animation.” Thus, in exchange for the stunning retrospective presented by Tokyo curators, the Cinémathèque will showcase a similar history of Canadian animation in Japan next year.

“Aux Sources de l’Anime: Animation Japonaise (1924-1952)” runs until April 5 at the Cinémathèque Québecoise (335 Maisonneuve E.).