31 December 2014

Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2014

It was difficult for me to narrow this list down as I saw so many great animated shorts this year.  Thanks to computer technology democratising animation production and the rise in animation courses at Japanese post-secondary institutions, there has been an explosion of new talent making waves in Japan. 

Two trends in Japan that are apparent in my list are the growing numbers of women directing animation and overseas students coming to Japan to study and work.  Women have long played an important role in animation as inbetweeners, writers, and film producers, but it is only in recent years that women have started to outnumber men in animation schools.  Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) reports women outnumbering men in the two cohorts currently underway in their graduate programme.  The minimal aesthetic of Yoriko Mizushiri has been a festival favourite in recent years and her latest film Snow Hut has been just as well received as Futon (2012, read review).  Mari Miyazawa, of e-obento has brought her kawaii food aesthetic to stop motion animation in her delightful films Decorations and Twins in the Bakery.

Japanese animation schools have also been attracting students from overseas, particularly from China and South Korea.  These young people grew up with Japanese animation on television and at the movies and see Japan as the ideal place to develop their skills as artists.  Names to watch include Yangtong Zhu, Yewon Kim, and Hakhyun Kim.

The Portrait Studio (寫眞館, 2013)
Takashi Nakamura

Legend of the Forest, Part 2 (森の伝説 第二楽章, 2014)
Macoto Tezka

My Milk Cup Cow (コップの中の子牛, 2014)
Yangtong Zhu

Kou Kou (こうこう, 2013)
Takashi Ohashi
Waiter (2013)
Ryōji Yamada

00:08 (2014)
Yūtarō Kubo

Everyday Sins (日々の罪悪, 2014)
Yewon Kim

Fireworks * Beads (2013)
Masamu Hashimoto

MAZE KING (2013)
Hakhyun Kim

It’s Time for Supper (夜ごはんの時刻, 2013)
Saki Muramoto

Nara Arts Festival CM (奈良県大芸術祭プロモーション映像, 2014)

Snow Hut (かまくら, 2013)
Yoriko Mizushiri

The Hyuga episode of Kojiki (古事記 日向篇, 2013)
Kōji Yamamura

Rhizome (リゾーム, 2013)
Masahiro Ohsuka

Blue Eyes - in Harbor Tale – (2014)
Yuichi Ito
Celebration and Chorale (祝典とコラール, 2013)
Yukie Nakauchi

Decorations (デコレーションズ, 2014)
Mari Miyazawa

A Reflection of One’s Mind (2014)
Kōhei Nakaya

Digital (2013)
Osamu Sakai

Poker (2014)
Mirai Mizue and Yukie Nakauchi

Cathy Munroe Hotes 2014

A Look Back at 2014 in Japanese Animation

There was a fair bit of brouhaha this year surrounding the fact that for the first time in its 30-year history, no films by Japanese animators featured in the official selection of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival.  This state of affairs says more about the tastes of the selection committee – who had to whittle 2,214 films from 74 countries down to just 59 – than it does about the state of indie animation in Japan, which continues to thrive thanks in part to the efforts of animation schools who are attracting young animators from both inside and outside of Japan. 

Japanese animation and animators received nods from most international festivals this year, with Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013) being a critical favourite.  Among its many accolades, the film screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, opened the Annecy festival, and screened at TIFF as part of its Masters’ Programme.  The big Studio Ghibli film of the year was of course When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー, 2014) directed by Hiromasa Yonebayshi.  The film opened in third place at the box office and has been warmly received by critics.  Studio Ghibli fans have something to look forward to as the film slowly makes its way around the globe.  The lucky French get the film next with a cinema release slated for the 14th of January.   

Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭, 2013), continued to do well at festivals for a second year by winning the AniMovie award for best feature at Stuttgart.  Mizuho Nishikubo and Production I.G. racked up many prizes for Giovanni’s Island (ジョバンニの島, 2014) including the Jury Distinction award at Annecy, the Satoshi Kon Award at Fantasia, and an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival. 

In terms of franchises, the 22nd Crayon Shin-chan movie Crayon Shin-chan: Serious Battle! Robot Dad Strikes Back (クレヨンしんちゃん ガチンコ!逆襲のロボ とーちゃん, 2014), directed by Kazuki Nagashima was both a critical and financial success, winning an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival.   The Doraemon franchise traded 2D for 3D in the computer animated feature Stand by Me Doraemon (STAND BY ME ドラえもん, 2014), directed by Takashi Yamazaki (of Always: Sunset on Third Street fame) and Ryūichi Yagi.  Pony Canyon will be releasing a deluxe edition Blu-ray of the film in February 2015.  The Naruto franchise celebrated its 15th anniversary with their tenth feature film The Last: Naruto the Movie (ザ・ラスト ナルト・ザ・ムービー, 2014) earlier this month and performed well at the box office.

The most popular forum for animation in Japan continues to be TV, and there were a number of innovative series this year.  I have long been a fan of Masaaki Yuasa, and his adaptation of Taiyō Matsumoto’s manga PING PONG (2014) for Tatsunoko Production did not disappoint with its bold colours and innovative use of split screens and interesting framing.  Trigger’s Kill la Kill (キルラキル, 2013 - present) has been very popular with anime fans this year with its compelling mix of comedy and action sequences.  Director Hiroyuki Imaishi is known for his frantic animation pace and the choreography of his fight sequences cannot be beat.  Other series that have caught my attention this year are Shinichirō Watanabe’s suspenseful series Terror in Resonance (残響のテロル, 2014), and Masaki Tachibana’s super-sweet adaptation of the manga Barakamon (ばらかもん, 2014)

My heart of course lies in independent animation and I treated myself with a trip to Stuttgart this year for the animation festival.  I got a chance to chat with the delightful Maya Yonesho, who does innovative Daumenreisen animation workshops, and her husband, the German animator Thomas Meyer-Hermann.    Kōji Yamamura was at Stuttgart with Hiromitsu Murakami (A boy who wanted to be a super-hero) and a group of Geidai students including Yuanyuan Hu (Sunset Flower Blooming), Mari Miyazawa (Decorations, Twins in the Bakery), Yantong Zhu (My Milk Cup Cow), Ayasa Kugenuma (The Blooms) and Saki Muramoto (It’s Time for Supper)

I was delighted to have Yamamura as my guest at Nippon Connection this year.   His presentation of the Geidai (Tokyo University of Arts) student film screening was sold out once again and we had a strong turnout for his retrospective.  The animation programme was very strong with Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Patema Inverted (2013), Shinichiro Watanabe and Shingo Natsume’s innovated series Space Dandy (2014), and the Short Peace (2013) omnibus by Katsuhiro Otomo, Shuhei Morita, Hiroaki Ando and Hajime Katoki rounding things off.

My trip to Japan for a Satoyama Forum in Fukui Prefecture coincided nicely with the Hiroshima International Animation Festival this year so I was able to catch up with many Japanese / Japan-based independent animators of all generations.  I came home with a big pile of sample DVDs that I have only just barely begun to work my way through.  Some of the highlights were meeting legendary puppet animator Fumiko Magari, who worked on the films of both Tadanari Okamoto and Kihachirō Kawamoto; meeting Osamu Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka at the premiere of Legend of the Forest, Part 2.  Other faces at the festival included Masatoki Minami, who gave me a copy of his documentary on Wagorō Arai, Taku Furukawa, Yōji Kuri, Takashi Namiki and the Anido gang, Tamaki Okamoto and many of the filmmakers she represents, Geidai animators and staff, Tatsutoshi Nomura and Tamabi animators, Makiko Sukikara +  Kōhei Matsumura (While the Crow Weeps) and, of course, the great leader of the whole affair Sayoko Kinoshita and her tireless volunteers.  Needless to say, I came back with an armful of sample DVDs that I am slowly working my way through for 2015.  See: Japan Animation Today to learn more about the Japanese selection at Hiroshima 2014.

I also had a chance to go to Wissembourg, France to hear Ilan Nguyen give talks on Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA.  At Wissembourg I had a chance to interview Czech animator Jiří Barta about his Japanese co-production Yuki Onna (2014) – an adaptation of one of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan tales.  Interview and review to be published early in the New Year.  I am also hoping to write up my notes taken during Michèle Lemieux’s presentation on the pinscreen and Phil Comeau’s documentary Frédérick Back: Grandeur nature, which features interviews with Isao Takahata and Takashi Namiki.

I concluded my year in animation at the Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt for the opening of Oscar-prize winner Thomas Stellmach and artist Maja Oschmann’s exhibition the Making of Virtuos Virtuell.  I had seen Virtuos Virutell at Hiroshima and was impressed by its pairing of animation and the music of Louis Spohr.  There is a hint of Japanese aesthetic with their use of a sumi-e brush for some of the technique.  The exhibition will continue until February 22, 2015. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

21 December 2014

Enemies | Brothers: German POWs in Japan (2013)

Feinde | Brüder: Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Japan (2013)
敵が友になるとき日本のドイツ人捕虜収容所 (2013)

It is rare to hear a positive stories about prisoner-of-war camps, but the story of Bandō prisoner-of-war camp (板東俘虜収容所) on the island of Shikoku is just that.  In November 1914, when the siege of city of Tsingtao (China) came to an end, German soldiers were rounded up and sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan.  The most renowned of these is the camp at Bandō, in what today is the city of Naruto in Tokushima Prefecture, where nearly a thousand prisoners were imprisoned until 1920. 

The Hamburg-based filmmaker and author Brigitte Krause took on the story of the camp in her latest documentary Enemies | Brothers: German POWs in Japan (2013).  Krause has an extensive knowledge of Japan, having spent time at Nihon University College of Art in 1985 on a DAAD scholarship for film studies and having shot several live action films and documentaries in Japan over the years (see: AGDOK Filmography). 

The film opens with the children of Bandō Kindergarten singing a nursery song adaptation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  This is significant because the first time Beethoven’s 9th was ever performed in Japan was by prisoners in the Bandō camp.  The song has gone on to have great significance in Japan with it being performed throughout Japan during New Year’s celebrations. 

This is just one of countless lasting effects of this historic contact between Germans and the Japanese.  Krause explores the personal stories of several of the detainees and their families using historical documents and photographs.  The detainees’ stories are supplemented by historical information gleaned from experts, both amateur and professional.

One of the more fascinating characters is Hans-Joachim Schmidt from Kutzhof in Saarland.  Schmidt’s discovery of photographs and letters of POWs in the attic of his new home, led to him start an online archive of historical and biographical information related to the detainees (See: http://www.tsingtau.info/). 

Renate Bergner, who was guest of honour at the film screening I attended in Frankfurt, told of her father’s experiences in the POW camp.  He left with such a positive impression that he ended up living in Japan for two decades after the war.

A whole film could be made about the life of Kazue Shinoda, a Japanese woman who was adopted as a child and did not discover that her grandfather was German until she was an adult.  Krause follows her journey of discovery from meeting her German-Japanese mother at the age of 24, to Shinoda tracking down and visiting her astonished German cousins (her grandfather had told no one back home about his Japanese family) in Saarland with the assistance of Schmidt. 

The only suffering endured by the POWs in Bandō seemed to be homesickness and boredom.  In order to combat the latter of these two ills, detainees turned the camp into a mini-village with its own garden, bakery, theatre group, and newspaper, among other things.  They also seem to have had much contact with the local residents, with events such as holding an exhibition of German wares for the curious townspeople.  One of the long-lasting traditions introduced by the Germans was the art of baking.  Fourth generation baker Tsunemitsu Oka of the German Bakery in Naruto not only had the art of German baking passed down to him, but also went to Lüneberg, Naruto’s partner city (see: Deutsch-Japanische Gesellschaft zu Lüneburg e.V.), to study under the direction of a baker there.

The credit for the POWs relatively comfortable experience in captivity is given by many to Col. Toyohisa Matsue, who was in charge of the camp.  His compassion towards the soldiers was rooted in his samurai family’s own experience of being exiled to rural Aomori during the Meiji Period.  In Krause’s film two of his granddaughters relate their experiences of him as a stern, mustachioed head of the family.  We were lucky at the screening that Col. Matsue’s great-grandson coincidentally works for a Japanese bank in Frankfurt and was able to join us to answer questions about his famous forefather.

The film edited in the typical fashion of a German television documentary, with voice-over narration and Japanese interviewees overdubbed with German.  On the whole, Enemies | Brothers is an educational film accessible to all ages. Copies of Feinde | Brüder on DVD and Blu-ray can be purchased via the film’s official website.  The website claims that it is available with English, French, and Japanese subtitles.  Make sure that you request the subtitles you want, because the DVD that I have disappointingly has no such options.  

The screening of Enemies | Brothers that I attended at Sallbau Dornbusch on November 13, 2014 was co-sponsored by Nippon Connection and DJG Frankfurt.

To learn more about the German POWs in Bandō:


Brigitte Krause

Brigitte Krause
Horst Herz

Naomi Ito
Aya Kaneko
Yuki Kawamura

Maia Hall (piano/keyboard)
Birgit Maschke (violin)
Hiroshi Akagaki (mandolin)
Kyosuke Suzuki (shakuhachi)
Naoki Sato (flute)
Sanae Mizukami (oboe)
Jin Teramoto (bassoon)
Kenichi Kawabata (clarinet)

Production Assistant:
Nao Nakanishi

Translation / Interpretation:
Naomi Ito
Aya Kaneko
Noboru Miyazaki

Saskia Petzold
Boris Pietsch

Hans-Joachim Schmidt
Kazue Shinoda
Renate Bergner
Kiyoyuki Kosaka
Prof. Dierk Günther
Takayoshi Morizumi
Mieko Matsue
Kaoru Takahato  
Tsunemitsu Oka (German Bakery in Naruto)
Hiroshi Akagaki
Marugame Research Group
Prof. Barbara Rossetti-Ambros
Fumiko and Toshio Takahashi
Ilse and Christine Walzer
Children and Teachers of the Bandō Kindergarten

Letters and Writings of the POWs:
Viktor Walzer
Hermann Schäfer
Paul Engel
The Bandō POW newspaper: Die Baracke

POW Illustrations:
Willy Muttelsee
K.M. Suhr

Photos and Film Clips of:
Shikoku Hoso
Das Deutsche Haus, Naruto 

Photos courtesy of:
Hans-Joachim Schidt
Renate Bergner
Kazue Shinoda
Tsenemitsu Oka
Mieko Matsue
Kaoru Takahato
Heribert Ambros
Wolfgang Wallraven
Photo albums belonging to the Schäfer, Pabst and Fröhlich families

Sound Design:
Peter Sankowski

Brigitte Krause FilmproduktionHamburg
East-West-Visions E.V.

Additional Funding:
Saarland Medien Gmbh
The Japan Foundation
Filmförderung Hamburg-Schleswig-Holstein

Kōnotori Bento / コウノトリ 弁当

Part 8 of the series: Satoyama Concept in Fukui

During our visit to the Kōnotori “Call Back the Storks” Farming (コウノトリ呼び戻す農法) community (learn more), we were given very healthy bento boxes for lunch featuring stork-friendly, locally grown rice and other produce.  One of the onigiri (rice balls) was with umeboshi (pickled plums). This region is famous for the Fukui Plum (福井梅 / Fukui-ume).  Another rice ball was mixed with fish, while the third was covered in fuzzy furikake-tororo which is made from thinly shaved tororo-kombu (edible kelp).  The onigiri were complemented by a selection of pickles and fresh vegetables. 

Readers living in Japan can support the efforts of Echizen farmers to “Call Back the Storks” by ordering their stork-friendly rice via their online shop or Rakuten.

Kōnotori “Call Back the Storks” Farming コウノトリ呼び戻す農法

Part 7 of the series: Satoyama Concept in Fukui


In the Shirayama district of the city of Echizen, efforts have been made to restore Satoyama landscapes in order to foster the return of the wild Oriental White Stork (コウノトリ/ kōnotori) to the region.  Oriental White Storks have been extinct in Japan and Korea for more than forty years.  By means of a captive breeding program using birds donated by Russia, conservationists have been trying to revive the species.  In 2007, the first chick was born in Japan since 1964 (see: BBC).

In Echizen, they tell of an individual stork named Kō-chan (コウちゃん) who came to the area in 1970.  Kō-chan’s bill was damaged and he could not eat properly, so the locals began to feed him.  Despite these efforts, the bird weakened further and they captured him the following year.  He was sent to a facility in Hyōgo Prefecture where they had a breeding facility.  Kō-chan recovered in captivity and bred successfully, living out his days in the facility for 34 years. 

The story of Kō-chan inspired local people in Shirayama to restore their Satoyama landscape so that storks and humans could live together in harmony.  In 2010, for the first time in 40 years, an Oriental White Stork came to the area and stayed for 107 days.  They named him E-chan (えっちゃん).  This led to the founding of a joint research effort in 2011 by Hyōgo and Fukui Prefectures to reintroduce Oriental White Storks. 

As part of the efforts to introduce sustainable farming methods, local farmers build fish ladders (魚道 / gyodō), also sometimes called fish steps, that allow fish and other aquatic creatures to move between the irrigation channels and the paddy fields.  It is in the paddy fields that many of these aquatic creatures reproduce.  Such creatures are an attractive source of food for the storks.  Although this farming method produces a lower yield than industrial farming methods, the farmers believe that the produce is safer (安心・安全 / AnshinAnzen / peace of mind safe) and tastier to eat.  This is part of a vigorous international debate on the benefits of amount of food produced versus the quality of food produced.  (See: Cornell University’s page on the System of Rice Intensification(EN), Weltagrarbericht (DE),  Japan Association of the System of Rice Intensification (Tōdai), IRRI).

Learn more details about the “Call Back the Storks” farming methods on their website – all in Japanese but with many photographs. 

Learn more about the restoration of rice paddy habitats to reintroduce the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka City here (EN) and here (JP).

Read: Kazuaki Naito and Hiroshi Ikeda's research paper "Habitat Restoration for the Reintroduction of White Storks" (pdf)

Plum Ice Cream Cakes (梅アイスもなか)

Part 6 of the series: Satoyama Concept in Fukui

The town of Wakasa in Fukui Prefecture is famous for its production of plums. In fact, plums are particularly mentioned by the town in their case study for the Satoyama Initiative.  The local variety of plum, known as the Fukui Plum (福井梅 / Fukui-ume), is characterised by its thick flesh and small pit.  The most common way to consume the plums is by pickling them to make umeboshi which is then served with rice.  To make umeboshi, the plums are salted, then dried in the sun before putting them into brine.

In the gift shop of Hotel Suigekka, I discovered that a clever entrepreneur had developed ice cream using the plums.  The mild tasting ice cream is served inside a wafer (もなか / monaka).  This is an adaptation of the traditional Japanese treat monaka (最中) which is a wafer filled with sweet adzuki bean, black sesame seed, or chestnut jam. 

It is well worth giving this delicious ice cream a try when visiting Fukui.  Within Japan, the ice cream can also be ordered via Shokokai (JP), Amazon (JP/EN), or Rakuten (JP/EN).  Another unique product they produce is lotus soft ice cream (はすソフトクリーム), as can be seen here.

Manufacturer: こう太郎のアイス屋さん
Address: 919-0225 福井県南条郡南越前町東谷6-85
6-86 Higashidani, Minami-Echizen-chō, Nanjō-gun, Fukui-ken

Tel.: 0778-47-2357

Hotel Suigekka (水月花) Breakfast Boat Cruise

Part 5 of the series: Satoyama Concept in Fukui

During our tour of the Mikata-Goko Lakes region, we stayed at Hotel Suigekka.  Not only does the hotel offer a comfortable traditional onsen (hot spring) experience and beautiful views of Lake Suigetsu, but one can also book a breakfast cruise.  A traditional Japanese breakfast is presented in lacquer boxes (重箱 / jūbako) with side dishes of rice and miso soup.

Lake Suigetsu is sheltered by wooded hills and its shores are relatively little developed for a Japanese lake.   The town of Wakasa, to which this area belongs, is famous for its plums (the Fukui Plum / 福井梅 / Fukui-ume) and shiso (シソ), and many orchards and gardens growing these are bordering the lake.  We were delightfully surprised by an osprey taking flight from a wooded area as our boat passed by.  Unfortunately, it all happened too quickly for any of us to get out our cameras.

As our boat passed by a research platform, Junko Kitagawa of the Fukui Prefectural Satoyama-Satoumi Research Institute, spoke to us about her research about past environments using sediment taken from the lake bottom.  There are different types of sediments in the winter (dark sediment) and in the summer (light sediment).  In that way, one can examine the sediments in a similar way to tree rings.  For this process to work, one needs a sheltered location and a lake that is sinking at exactly the same rate.  That makes this site very unique globally.  The data being collected is being used as a reference for dating events in the past such as major volcanic eruptions and shifts in climate.

Learn more about Kitagawa’s work in the extract of her paper:
“Detecting the exact timing of paddy field landscape formation using varved sediments”

Also see: "Environmental variability and human adaptation during the Lateglacial/Holocene transition in Japan with reference to pollen analysis of the SG4 core from Lake Suigetsu" in Quarternery International (2004)

To learn more about the research of Fukui Prefectural Satoyama-Satoumi Research Institute, check out their blog (JP only).

Hotel Suigekka / 水月花 

若狭町観光ホテル 三方五湖 水月湖畔 水月花 919-1461
51-13 Umiyama, Wakasa
Mikatakaminaka District, Fukui Prefecture

Tel. 0770-47-1234

16 December 2014

Little Black Sambo (ちびくろさんぼのとらたいじ, 1956)

Tadahito Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo (ちびくろさんぼのとらたいじ, 1956) is a significant film in the history of animation, because it was the screening of this film at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958 that brought Mochinaga to the attention of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass of Videocraft International (later Rankin/Bass).  This led to Rankin/Bass partnering with Mochinaga’s MOM Productions in the making of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and other holiday classics.  (See: MOM Productions and the making of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)

The puppet animation in Little Black Sambo is superior by the standards of the 1950s; however, it is difficult to praise the animation because of the deeply offensive nature of the original source material.  Little Black Sambo was Mochinaga’s first independent project when he returned from China.  After a couple of years making commercials for Asahi Beer, Mochinaga founded the Puppet Animation Studio (later MOM Productions) in 1956.  This project was an adaptation of the turn-of-the-century children’s book by Helen Bannerman, The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), which was very popular during the first half of the 20th century.   Although the original story caricatured a southern Indian or Tamil child, the book quickly became synonymous with racist pickaninny caricatures of black people.  In fact, the name “sambo”, which originally meant a person with African heritage, by the mid-20th century had become an offensive slur. 

Today, the book rarely appears in the English speaking world outside of studies on racism, but Japan has had a troubled history with the story.  (See:  Mulatto Diaries, Asahi, Black Tokyo)  Shockingly, the Sambo stories have been republished as recently as 2005, and merchandise featuring the racist illustrations was being marketed in Japan as recently as 2007 (See: Japan Probe).  When these allegations of racism raise their head, people are often quick to excuse the Japanese claiming that they are merely “ignorant” or “insensitive” (See: Chicago Tribune article from 1988), which may have been true in Mochinaga’s day, but it is an excuse that has worn thin in the 21st century. 

Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo is presents a fascinating picture of the ignorant views of black people that Helen Bannerman’s book and others like it exported to Japan.  Sambo and his parents are depicted as being African.  As I mentioned in my review of the sequel Little Black Sambo and the Twins (ちびくろのさんぼとふたごのおとうと, 1957), the puppets, which were designed by Kihachirō Kawamoto, have lost the offensive big-lipped portrayal of Frank Dobias’s caricatures in the original Japanese translation.   In fact, Sambo’s face looks very similar to puppets of Japanese children in Mochinaga’s other works, but with a darker skin tone and Bambi-like eyes.  Sambo’s father no longer resembles Dobias’s pickaninny stereotype with a straw hat.  Instead, he has been given a North African / Ottoman appearance, complete with a fez hat.   The body shape of Sambo’s mother adopts the fat “Mammy” stereotype of Dobias’s book but like Sambo, her face has been adapted into a more kawaii Japanese aesthetic.   The racial stereotypes in the film are those of cultural ignorance, and give an accurate picture of the unsophisticated view of Africa and black people in the 1950s not just in Japan but in Europe and North America as well. 

While the character design brings together influences from as far afield as the United States and the Middle East, the set design confuses things even further.  The film opens with Sambo’s father coming home through the desert.  Since the characters appear “African”, one would presume that this desert is the Sahara, but it features cacti that belong in the Americas.  It seems likely that American westerns, which were very popular in Japan from the 1930s onwards, influenced this look for the desert.  When Sambo goes for a walk, he goes into the jungle – which of course, comes from the fact that the original story was set in southern India, but is certainly unlikely to be found on the edge of a desert. 

This image is from the sequel, Little Black Sambo and the Twins

The story itself follows that of the book fairly accurately, adding a pair of friendly monkeys who interact with Sambo.    Sambo’s mother sews him a brand new red coat and a pair of blue trousers.  His father comes home from the Bazaar with an umbrella for his son.  Delighted with his new clothes and umbrella, Sambo decides to go for a walk in the jungle.  Along the way, he meets a cheerful pair of monkeys who ask if they can play with the umbrella.  Sambo says that they can if they promise not to wreck it. 

The monkeys promise, but then immediately start playing wildly with the umbrella.  Sambo fears they will damage it, but the monkey’s play is interrupted by the sound of a roar.  A tiger appears and Sambo is terrified.  The tiger announces that he will eat Sambo, but thinking quickly, Sambo offers him his new jacket.  The tiger accepts this bribe and leaves.  The scenario repeats itself with two other tigers, with Sambo giving away his trousers and his umbrella.  Bereft of all his new things, Sambo cries and the monkeys try to comfort him, suggesting that Sambo should ask his father to get new things. 

Just then, there is more growling announcing the return of the three tigers.  Sambo and the monkeys hide up a tree while the tigers confront each other.  They put down their new possessions in order to fight each other.  The three tigers chase each other in a circle around the tree until they churn themselves into butter (ghee in the original tale, because it was set in Southeast Asia).  Sambo collects his things and runs off to tell his father what has happened.  His father collects the butter and brings it home so that Sambo’s mother can make donuts (pancakes in the original tale).  The film ends with the family eating all the tiger-striped donuts. 

When the film is evaluated in terms of its animation alone, one can easily see why it caught the eye of Rankin and Bass at VIFF 1958.  Anachronistic and racial elements aside, Sambo himself is very cute, and I’m sure would delight an audience of children.  The character movements, such a challenge in frame-by-frame stop motion animation, are beautifully done and impart a great deal of character information.   The pair of rascally monkeys have clearly been added by Mochinaga for comic effect.  We also learn a lot more about Sambo’s friendly nature from his interaction with the monkeys.   Sambo is also depicted as having a loving, idyllic relationship with his parents.    

The film keeps costs low by have a limited number of effectively designed sets.  It creates visual interest by varying camera distance and using Classical Hollywood editing.  The film also takes advantage of music to complement the action of the film – and music would become the hallmark of a Rankin/Bass holiday special.  The print shown by Ilan Nguyen at RICA Wissembourg last month was not the best transfer, and I have not heard of the film having been digitally restored yet.  A proper DVD set of Mochinaga’s works has not yet surfaced, although five of his works do appear on the DVD Japanese Art Animation Film Collection 7: The Animation Group of Three and Experimental Anime (日本アートアニメーション映画選集7 アニメーション三人の会と実験アニメ, 2004), which can be found in the video archives of university libraries such as Musabi and Tamagawa.  The entire 12 DVD collection日本アートアニメーション映画選集 全12巻 can be ordered from Kinokuniya, but it is unfortunately well out of the price range of the average individual. 

Cathy Munroe Hotes 2014

To read more:

The Florence White Williams illustrated edition of Little Black Sambo can be downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg.  This version uses pickaninny and Mammy stereotypes. 

To learn more about Mochinaga, read Kosei Ono’s short biography: “Tadahito Mochinaga: The Japanese
Animator Who Lived In Two Worlds” AWN 4.9 (Dec 1999).

Film Credits:

Running Time: 18 minutes / 18
Release Date: November 1956

Director: Tadahito Mochinaga (持永只仁)
Producer: Kiichi Inamura (稲村喜一)
Original Story: Helen Bannerman (ヘレン・バンナーマン) with illustrations by Frank Dobias (フランク・ドビアス)
Screenplay: Haruo Mura (村治夫)
Music: Mitsuo Katō (加藤光男)
Cinematographer: Jirō Kishi (岸次郎)
Art director: Junji Eguchi (江口準次)

Puppets: Kihachirō Kawamoto (川本喜八郎)


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