31 March 2014

Mabo as Tokichiro Kinoshita (マー坊の木下藤吉郎, 1938)

The early animated talkie Mabo as Tokichiro Kinoshita (マー坊の木下藤吉郎, Mābō no Kinoshita Tōkichirō, 1938) brings together a popular cartoon figure of the 1930s, the young boy hero Mābō (マー坊), and a legendary figure of Japanese history, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who in his youth was known by the name  Tōkichirō Kinoshita.

Hideyoshi was a great daimyō of the turbulent Sengoku Period.  He was the second of three men known as the great “Unifiers of Japan” because of his role in bringing peace and stability to the region which was at the time in a state of constant civil war.  Hideyoshi was an ideal hero for Japanese propaganda of the Fifteen Years’ War (1931-45), not only for his role as a unifier but also because of his hard stance against foreign religion.  He notoriously ordered the execution by crucifixion of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597, known as The 26 Martyrs of Japan

As this is propaganda aimed at children, the unknown filmmakers have chosen to focus on the adventures of Hideyoshi’s youth when he was known as Tōkichirō Kinoshita.  He is played by Mābō – a popular figure of the time in comics and animated shorts.  It is not clear how many Mābō films were made – at least one other film that survives, Mābō’s Big Race (1936) shows Mābō competing for Japan at the Berlin Olympics.  The makers of both films are currently uncertain, but it is clear that Mabo as Tokichiro Kinoshita is a more sophisticated short (either a different animator, or the animator has improved his skills in the intervening years) than the earlier film.  Mābō looks very different in 16th century garb, but his face is recognisable with his snub nose, big ears, large eyes, slightly jutting chin and small, high eyebrows. 

Having popular cartoon characters take on other roles is something that began early in animation.  For example, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the precursor to Mickey Mouse, often takes on other roles.  He’s a fire fighter in Fiery Fireman (1928) and in Yanky Clippers (1929) he’s a barber.  One of my favourite examples of a popular cartoon character taking on another role is the much later film Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947) with Mickey replaying Jack in the famous English fairy tale.  It’s a clever way to bring together the popularity of a character with a proven storyline.  In the case of Hideyoshi, his exploits as a child had taken on a legendary status through retellings over the centuries. 

Summary of Mabo as Tokishiro Kinoshita:

Part I – In Search of a Lord to Serve
A beautifully painted intertitle tells us that Mābō /Kinoshita is in search of a lord to serve.  He encounters a fortune teller who offers to tell Mābō’s fortune using a mirror.  The soothsayer is shocked to see a premonition that the boy will one day be the great ruler of them all and he comically falls onto his behind.  Mābō is unfazed.  He pulls the man up using an invisible rope, scratches his back, and promises the man that he can be his servant when he becomes lord.  The fortune teller bows and thanks him, but after Mābō has left he realizes that he forgot to charge for his services. 

Part II – Serving Nobunaga Oda
It is winter and snowing heavily.  Mābō hugs himself to keep warm as he paces back and forth what appears to be the outer hallway of a traditional Japanese building in sandals.  He takes a pair of sandals out of his robe and warms them with his breath before putting them back under his clothes.  A large man announces the approach of the Shōgun (Nobunaga Oda, 1534-82).  Mābō bows as low as he can in front of the sandals he has placed for the Shōgun.  As soon as the Shōgun realizes the sandals are warm he imagines that Mābō must have been sitting on them and becomes enraged and begins to strike the boy.  Mābō apologizes and shows the marks on his chest where the sandals had been kept warm.  The Shōgun’s rage quickly turns to gratitude for Mābō’s thoughtfulness.  He predicts that Mābō will rise high in the ranks. 

Part III – Battle Against Tatsuoki Saitō

The Shōgun sits in a large room filled with his advisors.  Shibata Katsuie (1522-83) sits before him and swears to complete his mission.  An upside-down window-washer wipe to a scene in which a series of workers in costume betting the period are building a castle.  One young man is busy hammering, a large man tills a field, a small man stands upon a giant block of wood working a Japanese saw (one pulls back to saw rather than pushing the saw forward), while yet another man works with stone.   The scene works from close shots of the tradesmen at work towards the bigger picture, finally showing us at the end of the scene that a castle is being built. 

It is night and a man on a hillside is waving a torch like a signal.  Tatsuoki Saitō (1548-73) sits astride his horse and orders his men to crush Nobunaga’s castle.  Saitō’s men attack and set the castle ablaze.  Cut to the Shōgun, who is angry at Katsuie’s failure and asks who will build his castle now.  Mābō begs for the opportunity to prove himself.  He even promises to finish in only 3 days. 

Mābō asks a samurai (not sure who this is but they have clearly met before) and his clan for assistance building the castle.   The film then makes a startling jump into modern imagery.  A sign indicates that the Kinoshita Company building is now building the castle.  They are using modern technologies such as parachutes delivery supplies, nails being fired into place with a machine gun, mechanical arms paint and stamp shapes – in seemingly no time at all the castle is already three stories tall. 

Saitō attacks again but this time he is met with resistance.  Mābō walks confidently into the action, seemingly unaware of a man with a sword hiding behind a tree.  The man attacks, but Mābō ducks laughingly out of the way.  He is spun onto the giant lap of the great warrior Mābō has at his command, who spanks the man thoroughly.  A line up of what looks like tanks with legs line themselves up to await the attack of Saitō’s men on horseback.  Mābō’s men shoot at them like WWI soldiers in trenches – I am not sure how realistic this is.  While the Japanese did advance quite a bit in their use of guns during this period, their matchlock guns would not have been able to reload with such speed (See: Note 1).  They certainly would not have been able to shoot dead a whole field of horses and riders as they do in this scene. 

Cut to Mābō standing regally and fanning himself, delighting in his victory.  The newly built castle still stands – with even its scaffolding untouched.   The scaffolding is removed and marching band music begins to play.  Mābō’s warrior stands with his troops – all in traditional gear but standing on guard like a modern army.  Mābō raises his arm and shouts “Okey dokey!”, the men salute him back by raising their arms and shouting “Oh!” thrice. 

Then, another surprise – the camera suddenly shifts right and we see a cameraman and director filming the action.  “Okay!” shouts the director.  Mābō looks straight at the camera and removes his wig to reveal his real hair.  “Minna-san, sayonara!”, he bids the audience farewell and bows his head. 


The first two-thirds of Mabo as Tokichiro Kinoshita is a perfectly delightful jidaigeki (period piece) for kids, with slapstick comedy elements such as fortune teller’s whiskers slapping him in the face or Tokichiro pulling a pretend rope to set the fortune teller back on his feet.  It abruptly changes into propaganda the moment Mābō’s plan to build the Shōgun’s castle.

It seems to me that the third section of this film is very loosely based on the tale of the building of Sunomata Castle in 1566 on the banks of the Sai River opposite Saitō territory in what is today the city of Ōgaki in Gifu Prefecture.  The castle is popularly known as Sunomata Ichiya-jō – “Sunamata one night castle” because the castle was reputedly built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi over the course of one night.  Historians have suggested that it is more likely that a façade of the castle was built facing the river to give the impression that the castle was already built.  Strategically, Hideyoshi wanted to surprise the enemy and to strategically place his men at a high vantage point where they could spot the advance of Saitō’s forces (See: Note 2).

The change from jidaigeki to modern propaganda is not only signalled by the change in technology, but also by the music.  During the first two-thirds of the film, the music is traditional but it abruptly changes to military music of the marching band variety.  The main propagandistic aims of the film are multifold: to have children emulate Japanese heroes and their samurai warrior spirit, to promote the “boy hero” image (see: Note 3), to promote the war effort on both the home and war fronts, and to emphasize the greatness of modern Japanese technology. 

The film fascinatingly does not even bother to hide its propagandistic nature; in fact, it even emphasizes it with that reveal of the cameraman and the director.  If the audience had any doubt that this message is aimed at them, it ends when Mābō breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly at the end. 

There are some subtle linguistic clues that America is not yet the official enemy at this point in the Fifteen Years’ War.  These take the form of Americanisms used by Mābō addressing the soldiers with “okey-dokey” and the director saying “okay” instead of “cut” at the end.  It made me wonder when Japanese director’s starting using the word “cut” (カット/katto).  The 1930s were a time when terminology for cinematic technology was still in flux, but I’m pretty sure “cut” was adopted fairly early. 

This film appears on disc 4 of Digital Meme’s excellent box set Japanese Anime Classic Collection.


1.  Perrin, NoelGiving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 1979.

2.   Harada, Minoru 原田実.  "Toyotomi Hideyoshi Built Mino-Sunomata Castle in One Night!! 豊臣秀吉は美濃墨俣に一夜城を築いた!!" in The Truth of Outrageous Japanese History and Lectures on Falsified History in Academia トンデモ日本史の真相 と学会的偽史学講義.  Tokyo: Bungeisha, 2007, pp. 2942.
Turnbull, Stephen. Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict.  Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
3.  A discussion of boy heroes in comics and animation used to promote imperialism can be found in Chapter 2 of Michael Baskett’s The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan, Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 2008. 

25 March 2014

Mabo's Big Race (マー坊の大競争, 1936)

Many early animation characters like Krazy Kat and Popeye got their start in newspaper comic strips.  There was a similar trend in Japan, due in large part to the fact that many early animators – such as Ōten Shimokawa and Jun’ichi Kōuchi from the satirical magazine Tokyo Puck – were comic artists.   One of the early popular comic strip characters to make the transition to animation was the young boy Mābō (マー坊).

Two Mābō shorts appear on disc 4 of Digital Meme’s excellent box set Japanese Anime Classic Collection.  The first of these is the 1’44” short-short Mabo's Big Race (マー坊の大競争/Mābō no Daikyōsō, 1936).  The animator, director, and production company for the film are not currently known.  Digital Meme presents the film with an organ soundtrack composed and performed by Jōichi Yūasa (湯浅ジョウイチ) in the typical style of a silent film accompaniment.  The film has not been digitally restored so the film has many scratches due to wear and tear and patches of light and dark due to the film’s age.   

The relationship between the animation and comic strips can be seen in the title card, which reads “Manga: Mābō no Daikyōsō”.  One of the early terms for animation in Japanese was “manga eiga” (cartoon movie).  This strong connection between comics and animation continues to this day in Japan as most TV anime series are adaptations of manga. 

Without any preamble, the film jumps right into Mābō racing in the 5,000m event in a stadium.  The boy is tiny next to the adult participants who look tall and ungainly (and possible female?) in contrast to the hero of the film.  The other competitors are depicted as stereotypically “foreign” with their chubby figures (unlikely at the Olympics) and pointy noses and chins.  Initially they outrun Mābō with their much longer legs, but he fights valiantly to catch up with them.  He is cheered on not only by people but by foreign animals (lion, elephant, hippo, kangaroo) and popular American animation characters (Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, Felix the Cat).  Just when Mābō reaches the front of the pack, he stumbles and everyone falls onto him flattening him into a pancake.  A man with a body like Wimpy from Popeye re-inflates Mābō using a bicycle tire pump attached comically to the circle in the centre of the flag on Mābō’s shirt.  Soon, Mābō is floating in the air like a helium balloon.  He flies off after his competitors, spinning as he goes, and before long he is flying by the person in first place, who appears to be skipping as if he (or she?) thinks he has it all in the bag.  The animals in the crowd laugh as Mābō picks up speed and he crossing the finish line in first place – slamming into a board which stops him, then deflates him with spikes that emerge from the boards as if by magic. 

The Japanese flag rises on the centre pole, flanked by two Olympic Games flags.  People cheer and wave Japanese flags in the audience.  Next up, it’s the pole vault.  Mābō’s competitor knocks down the bar on his first run, but Mābō sails over the bar with ease.  In his second try, Mābō runs into trouble, but his pole becomes anthropomorphic and aggressively shoves him over the pole and into first place again.  The image of the Japanese flag-waving flags repeats and the film ends abruptly on a close up of a standalone Japanese flag.

It seems likely that this film was made to promote nationalism in the run-up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  Many animated films made during the Fifteen Years’ War (1931-45) were made for such propagandistic purposes from Noburō Ōfuji’s silhouette animation The National Anthem: Kimigayo (国歌 君か代/ Kokka Kimigayo, 1931) to the infamous Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (桃太郎の海鷲/Momotarō no umiwashi, 1942).  Mābō was one of many boy heroes used to promote imperialism during the war years (see Note 2 below).  The propagandistic message of this film is quite tame compared to that of Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, but it is still flag-waving clear.  The “foreign” characters are not country specific but ridiculous in contrast to cute and nimble Mābō, and the film takes every opportunity to showcase the hinomaru

It is unlikely that Disney, the Fleischer brothers, and Pat Sullivan were aware of the cameos of their iconic cartoon characters (Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, Felix the Cat, respectively).  This film was clearly only intended for domestic consumption.  Furthermore, later films like the aforementioned Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, demonstrate that Japanese wartime animators had no qualms about appropriating American cartoon characters for propagandistic purposes.  (Read my review of Momotaro’s Sea Eagle to learn more.) In Mābō’s Big Race, America was not yet the enemy so Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, and Felix the Cat are merely signifiers of the mostly Western crowds that would be in attendance at the XI Olympics. 

From a scholar’s point of view the film is significant for the way that it demonstrates how a very short, cartoon can be an effective propaganda tool.  It is certainly subtler than the much more overtly didactic Disney shorts Education for Death (1943) and Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).  The film amuses with slapstick humour, while at the same time squeezing in as many patriotic symbols as possible.  It has also been made in an economic way with the use of cutouts for action and the repetition of shots. 

©2014 Catherine Munroe Hotes


1. The popularity of Mābō is attested to by Peter B. High in his book The Imperial Screen: Imperial Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945, Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003, pp. 473-4).

2.  A discussion of boy heroes in comics and animation used to promote imperialism can be found in Chapter 2 of Michael Baskett’s The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan, Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 2008. 

03 March 2014

Geidai Animation 05 GO

The school year is coming to a close in Japan, which means it’s time for Tokyo University of the Arts (aka Geidai) to celebrate its latest cohort of graduates.  Every spring, Geidai does a series of screenings and events to showcase the works of its students, in addition to commemorating the graduating class with the release of a DVD (links to previous DVDs at bottom).  The 2-year graduate programme has had much success at international festivals with many of its graduates including Atsushi Wada (In a Pig’s Eye, The Great Rabbit), Saori Shiroki (MAGGOT, Woman Who Stole Fingers), and Ryo Okawara (Orchestra, A Wind Egg), among many other talented artists.

The fifth cohort has been given the title GEIDAI ANIMATION 05 GO, and features a diverse range of animation styles from pastel on paper to stop motion.   Things kick off this coming weekend in Yokohoma (March 7-9, 2014) with two 60-minute programmes of graduate films and one 60-minute selection of works first year students.  On Friday at 4pm, there will also be a Talk Event with writer-director Sanao Katabuchi (Black Lagoon, Mai Mai Miracle, Sherlock Hound) while Saturday will feature a Talk Event with Noburo Ofuji Award-winning animator Shigeru Tamura (The Glassy Ocean / Ursa Minor Blue / Phantasmagoria).

The following weekend (March 15-21), the showcase moves to Tokyo Eurospace for a week of screenings and events.  Some of the featured events in Tokyo include legendary animator Gisaguro Sugii (Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Life of Gusukou Budori) in conversation with animation specialist Ilan Nguyen, who teaches at Geidai and innovative animator Yasuhiro Yoshiura (Pale Cocoon, Time of Eve) in conversation with Geidai professor Mitsuko Okamoto.  Some evenings with feature chats with the programme’s key mentors: Okamoto, Koji Yamamura (Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor,Muybridge’s Strings), and Yuichi Ito (Knaycki, NoRabbits’ Minutes).

The best news of all, for those of us not lucky enough to be in the Yokohama – Tokyo area this month, Geidai is hosting a livestream on USTREAM this weekend. Full Schedule and programming information can be found at on the official website.

ハッシュタグ #geidai_05_go

Fifth Cohort Graduate Films Program A (60 min.)
第五期生修了作品 Aプログラム 60分)

Noriko Okamoto 岡本典子

Exit My Room (おでかけ/Odekake)
Ayaho Kawakami 川上彩穂

Pamon (パモン)
Kazushige Tōma 当真一茂

My Milk Cup Cow (コップの中の子牛/Koppu no naka no Koushi)
Yantong Zhu朱彦潼

Flower Bud (花芽/Haname)
Saki Nakano 中野咲

Everyday Sins (日々の罪悪/Hibi no Zaiaku)
Yewon Kim キム・イェオン

Way Back to the Sea (なまずは海に還る/Namazu wa umi ni kaeru)
Kaori Iwase 岩瀬夏緒利

Fifth Cohort Graduate Films Program B (60 min.)
第五期生修了作品 Bプログラム 60分)

Mari Miyazawa 宮澤真理

Mrs. KABAGOdZILLA (ミセス・カバゴジラ)
Moe Koyano 小谷野萌

Yūtarō Kubo 久保雄太郎

Crazy Little Thing (澱みの騒ぎ/Yodomi no Sakagi )
Onohana  小野ハナ (Hana Ono)

Growth Factor (だっぴするためにひつようなこと/Dappisu tame ni hitsu you na koto) 
Ryōsuke Ōshiro大城良輔

Lonesome Hero (ひとりぼっちのヒーロー/Hitori botchi no hīrō)
Manami Wakai 若井麻奈美

First Year Student Works 2014   (60 min.)
1年次制作2014 60分)

Scape Escape (ぜんぶわかってる/Zembu wakatteru) 
Yukie Nakauchi中内友紀恵


Oh Dear (あらら/Arara)
Megumi Ishitani 石谷恵

Yikun Wang  オウ・イコン

Reinventing the Square Wheel (四角い車輪の再発明/Shikakui Sharin no Saihatsumei) 
Yasuaki Adachi  足立靖明

Mind Game (形而上の無限思考/Keijijyō no Mugenshikō) 
Risa Yamashita  山下理紗

Madoka 円香

Return to Dust 
Ataru Sakagami  坂上直

Fishing (/Ryō) 
Ai Sugaya 菅谷愛

tumbled cat
Toshikazu Tamura 田村聡和

The closet
Satomi Maiya米谷聡美

My Dear
Yagi  山羊

See ya Mr. Banno! (黄色い気球とばんの先生/Kiroi Kikyū to Banno Sensei) 
Yōko Yuki  幸洋子

aaH/Hee (ああ良い / aa / ii) 
Shishi  Yamazaki ししやまざき

Through the Windows 
Miyo Sato  佐藤美代



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