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.