03 April 2016

The Elves and the Shoemaker (くつやとこびと, 1960)

The publishing company Gakken is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2017.  Since being founded in 1947 Gakken has made a name for itself in the area of educational books, toys, and films.  In the run-up to their anniversary, the company has begun sharing their early educational films on YouTube.  This is very exciting because their animation department was at the time the only one in Japan to be led by a woman.  Matsue Jinbo (神保まつえ, b. 1928) took the helm of the animation department from its formation in 1959 and adapted both foreign and domestic fairy tales using puppet animation.  These films were not only distributed to schools and libraries in Japan but were also dubbed in English and distributed to schools and libraries in the United States on 16mm reels.  The Gakken 70th anniversary website claims that they will release a total of 40 "art animation" from their archives biweekly on Wednesdays. 

The Elves and the Shoemaker (くつやとこびと / Kutsuya to Kobito, 1960) is an adaptation of the popular Grimm fairy tale (グリム童話) of the same name.  It can be found in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s original 1812 collection of tales as “Die Wichtelmänner” (Story 39).  The story has been adapted for animation many times including as part of Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies series as Holiday for Shoestrings (Friz Freleng, 1946).  Freleng used the story once again for Merrie Melodies in 1956 when he directed Yankee Dood It featuring Elmer Fudd as king of the elves.   In 1950, Tex Avery turned the tale into The Peachy Cobbler for MGM.

The Gakken adaptation begins with an elderly shoemaker hard at work in his shop.  A man dressed in rags enters the shop and begs the shoemaker for money.  The elderly shoemaker and his wife have very little themselves, but the shoemaker mends the man’s shoes and his wife cheerfully offers him what little soup that they have.  The man is grateful and bows as he leaves. 

The elderly couple remark on the fact that they did not share a single pair of shoes that day as they sit down to eat their customary meagre dinner of soup. They then get back to work making shoes.  Eventually, the shoemaker grows too tired to finish and he lays the pieces for the shoes on his work table so that he can finish his work first thing in the morning. 

They wake up to a beautiful sunny day.  The shoemaker enters his workshop and is shocked to discover that the shoes that he left unfinished the night before are magically finished.   He puts them in the window and a customer sees them and is so delighted that he pays generously for them.

This gives the couple enough money to buy materials to make two pairs of shoes.  Again, they are unable to finish before bed and leave the cut material out on the table to finish in the morning.  When they awake both pairs are magically finished.   They put them both in the window and a young girl and boy spot the shoes and buy them right away, exclaiming that they would pay any amount for such wonderful shoes.  And so the magic continues until the elderly couple have a successful business on their hands.  They are curious; however, about how the shoes are being finished so instead of going to bed they turn off the light and hide and wait. 

As midnight approaches, singing male voices can be heard and through a crack in the window five small elves with red caps (tuques for my Canadian readers) enter the house.  They march in single file onto the work table and perform their work as a team.  As they work they sing a cheerful song (their lips do not move but the lyrics suggest it is the elves singing), reminiscent of the seven dwarfs whistling while they worked in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The song tells of each of the elves’ different personalities and how they work.  The shoemaker and his wife are delighted and grateful for their little helpers.   To say thank you, they make the elves some miniature clothes and leave out a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers, and a cake.  The elves are delighted.  They put on their new clothes and dance and sing “thank you”, “arigatou” and “bye-bye” to the elderly couple. 

The character and set designs are clearly inspired by the native land of the Brothers Grimm. The building styles are similar to those the German state of Hesse, where the Grimms lived and gathered their tales.  The little elves look very European, and reminded me of the German animation character Sandmännchen (1959-present) or the Enid Blyton character Noddy (books: 1949-1963, on British TV since 1955).  The only obvious Japanese touches are the shoe store sign reading “kutsu” in hiragana and the cake decorated with the words “Kobito-san Arigatou” (thank you elves), and the beggar bowing his thanks.

In addition to the female director Matsue Jinbo, two women animators, Yukiko Arima (有馬征子) and Kyoko Nakamura (中村協子) are given credit.  The stop motion is very good and comparable to other puppet animation for children made at this time.  Unser Sandmännchen (East Germany, 1959-) and Das Sandmännchen (West Germany,1959-) again come to mind, as does the UK series The Adventures of Noddy (1955–63).  To give some historical context, the other big puppet animators in Japan at the time were Tadahito Mochinaga’s MOM productions who were also making short films for children such as Little Black Sambo (1956) and Little Black Sambo and the Twins (1957).  In the late 1960s Mochinaga’s company would go on to make the more sophisticated Animagic puppet TV specials for the American production company Rankin/Bass.  Japan’s two most distinguished puppet film animators, Kihachirō Kawamoto and Tadanari Okamoto, were just in the early phases of their career at this point.  Kawamoto was making puppet animation commercials and “Living Storybooks” for Shiba Productions and Okamoto was making his first puppet film as a student project at Nihon Daigaku. 

The music, composed by Seiichirō Uno (宇野誠一郎, 1927-2011), is excellent and performed by an orchestra and male chorus.  I particularly enjoyed the use of xylophone during the cheerful sequences with the elves.  Uno also composed the scores for many popular animation including Vicky the Viking (小さなバイキング ビッケ, 1974), The Moomins (ムーミン, 1969-70) and Puss in Boots (長靴をはいた猫, 1969). The film’s producer is Haruo Itoh (伊藤治雄).

On the whole it is a lovely animation that is just as delightful for young children and their parents today as it must have been in 1960.  It was distributed in the United States by Coronet Instructional Films in 1961 under the title The Shoemaker and the Elves.  This is a literal translation of the Japanese title.  I have used the standard English title of the fairy tale for this review to reflect the fact that the Japanese title is the standard Japanese translation of the original Grimm story.

2016 Cathy Munroe Hotes