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.