11 June 2008

Bob Kuwahara and Hashimoto-san

While continuing my research into the career of Ryohei Yanagihara of the Animation Sannin no Kai yesterday, I was watching contemporary American animator Ernie Pintoff’s short film Flebus (1959) on youtube when I spotted an animation entitled House of Hashimoto in the sidebar.

Hashimoto-san is a Japanese mouse and to me at first it seemed like the usual stereotypical depiction of Japanese characters, complete with the phony accent and the squinty eyes. The story begins with Hashimoto-san’s old American friend, G.I. Joe, coming to visit looking for stories to write for his newspaper. Hashimoto-san tells him the story of a giant cat whose attack on a mouse village was foiled by an invisible mouse.

The story is told in the tightly edited, humorous style one expects from a Terrytoon cartoon, but my ears pricked up during Hashimoto-san’s tale when I realized that the mice in the story he narrated were actually speaking in Japanese… albeit with heavy American intonation. Curious, I looked up the film and discovered that it is credited by many animation websites as being the first Asian character in an American-made cartoon with a positive, non-stereotyped image.

I would not go so far as to call Hashimoto-san ‘non-stereotyped’, but he does present a positive image of the Japanese in contrast to the propagandistic cartoons of the war effort. What stuck me about Hashimoto-san is that his character has been carefully shaped to be stereotypically ‘Japanese’ enough for American audiences to identify his ethnicity, but with authentic Japanese touches such as costume, scenery, and cultural motifs (Mount Fuji, futons, shamisen, etc.) Judging from the titles of latter Hashimoto-san shorts, it looks as though an attempt has been made to educate American audiences about Japanese cultural traditions such as Hinamatsuri and Hanami.

This awareness of both American and Japanese culture comes from the director Bob Kuwahara (1901-1964) who was born Rokuro Kuwahara in Tokyo and moved to California with his family when he was nine years old. Kuwahara began his career as a commercial artist

in New York City, but moved back to California after the stock market crash. He got his start in animation working as animator and storywriter for Walt Disney and is credited as having worked on such films as The Flying Mouse (1934), Who Killed Cock Robin (1935), Thru the Mirror (1936), and Snow White (1937).

In 1937, Kuwahara moved to MGM but his career in animation was interrupted by the war. Like other Japanese-Americans, Kuwahara and his family were locked up in internment camps for the duration of the war. He then moved his family to New York where he tried his hand at drawing comic strips. In 1950 he was hired by Terrytoons and stayed with the company up until his death in 1964.

Kuwahara is best known for the Hashimoto-san series. Originally released theatrically, further shorts in the series were featured on The Hector Heathcote Show. Apart from the Hashimoto-san series, Kuwahara is also known for his work on The Deputy Dawg Show and The Astronut Show.

Hashimoto-san Filmography

  • Hashimoto-san (1959)
  • House of Hashimoto (1960)
  • Doll Festival (1961)
  • Night Life in Tokyo (1961)
  • So Sorry, Pussycat (1961)
  • Son of Hashimoto (1961)
  • Strange Companion (1961)
  • Honorable Cat Story (1961)
  • Honorable Family Problem (1962)
  • Loyal Royalty (1962)
  • Honorable Pain in the Neck (1962)
  • Pearl Crazy (1963)
  • Cherry Blossom Festival (1963)
  • Spooky-Yaki (1963)
  • Tea House Mouse (1963)

For plot summaries, go to The Big Cartoon Database. For more on Hashimoto-san, check out Don Markstein's Toonopedia.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008