26 November 2010

Sandman Episode 246: By Junk to Japan (1982)

Photo by Hans-Joachim Konang
Germany has a rich tradition of puppet animation – from the Augsburger Puppenkiste to the Fairy Tale puppet films of DEFA (the film studio run by the former Eastern European government). My favourite German puppet animation is the long-running Sandmännchen (Little Sandman) series which has been on air since 1958. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Ole Lukøje fairy tale, it is a Good Night story for children. During the years that Germany was divided, two different versions of Sandmännchen were made on either side of the wall. As many generations of children have enjoyed the series there is much nostalgia surrounding the older episodes in both the East and the West.

A modern version of the series still screens on German television daily intermingled with re-runs of the classic episodes. On KiKa (the children’s network) it airs at 6:50pm. When it finishes at 7, it is a signal to my kids that it is time to start taking a bath and getting ready for bed. In each episode, the Sandman is in a different location – real or imaginary, domestic or international. Eventually, the Sandman happens upon a small television or other screen which he turns on and invites the “dear children” viewing the show to watch with him. The audience is then treated to a short film – often animated, sometimes live action – and when the story comes to an end we return to the Sandman who says farewell and a children’s chorus sings the traditional Good Night Song.

As the series has been running for such a long time, Sandman has managed to travel to every exotic local imaginable, including a delightful episode set in Japan. In Episode 246, which first broadcast in East Germany in 1982, Sandman travels to Japan in a junk – an ancient Chinese sailing vessel – and joins a family for tea in their home. The attention to detail in the tea-drinking scene is quite remarkable – not only do they have tatami flooring and shōji, but the puppets are even sitting on tiny zabuton (floor cushions). I also like the fact that they do not push stereotypes too far. Although the mother is dressed traditionally, the children are dressed in a modern style. It does look a bit more Ozu than early 1980s, but it nevertheless demonstrates that there was an awareness on the part of the animators that Japan had entered the modern era.

According to the official Sandmännchen homepage, the theme likely had to do with the fact that Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany at the time, had travelled to Japan in 1980 where he received an honorary doctorate from Nihon University. East German interest in Japan was also piqued in 1981 by a trade agreement that resulted in the arrival of 10,000 Mazda 323 cars in the country. 

I am not sure if this episode is available on any of the multitude of Sandmännchen DVDs available in German speaking countries. I am however hoping that Santa leaves a copy of one of the books published in celebration of Sandmännchen’s 50th anniversary in my stocking this year.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010