Concluding our survey of international Christmas specials with an overview of various programs, features and shorts from Japan, South Africa and the Soviet Union. If I’ve left out a favorite of yours from these countries, let me know in the comments below.
Japan. Love Hina Christmas Special: Silent Eve. December 25, 2000. A one-hour (46-minute) TV special, directed by Yoshiaki Iwasaki and produced by Xebec, Inc., based on the very popular Love Hina anime TV series, which was a spinoff of the manga by Ken Akamatsu. The manga and animated cartoon TV series were a teenage comedy/fantasy about the residents of Hinata House, an all-girls’ boarding house of students trying to get into Tokyo University, and its easily-embarrassed resident boy manager, Keitaro Urashima. For the TV special, TV writer Shō Aikawa wrote an original story with Ken Akamatsu that downplayed both the comedy and fantasy, and was almost pure teen serious romantic soap opera, with none of the usual turtle jokes (turtles act like cats, turtles fly south for the winter, Hina House is discovered to be built on top of a prehistoric turtle civilization, etc.) of the regular TV series. The animated feature (a Christmas Holiday romantic misadventure in Tokyo), which was almost immediately a separate DVD release, was so thoroughly a part of the animated TV serial that it would be meaningless to anyone but the Love Hina fans. The title is the English-language Love Hina Christmas Special: Silent Eve, written in Japanese characters or pronounced with a really thick Japanese accent; Christmas is pronounced “X-mas”.
Japan. Tokyo Godfathers. A 92-minute theatrical animated feature by director Satoshi Kon (1963-2010), who died way too early. All of the critics agree that all of his features and one TV animated series were masterpieces. Produced by Studio Madhouse; released November 8, 2003.
During a snowy, overcommercialized Christmas season in modern Tokyo, three homeless loners – Miyuki, a runaway teenaged girl; Gin, a grumpy, middle-aged alcoholic; and Hana, a ridiculously mannish-looking transvestite and former drag queen – find an abandoned baby in the city trash. What they do with it is hilarious, touching, and cures their individual problems while illustrating the true spirit of Christmas without seeming to.
South Africa (forthcoming). Bethlehem or Bust. A 90-minute theatrical “prelude” in production to Once Upon a Stable, the badly CGI-animated TV special/DVD of the zany animal friends (a cow, pig, rooster & hen, rat, and horse) of that stable in Bethlehem where Jesus is born, telling how they came there. By Sunrise Productions of Cape Town, S.A.
Soviet Union. The Night Before Christmas, a.k.a. A Dark Winter’s Tale (Ночь перед Рождеством = Noch pered Rozhdestvom). A 1951 46-minute cartoon by the sisters Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg for Soyuzmultfilm; heavily rotoscoped. An adaptation of the comedy-fantasy by Nikolai Gogol; see also Wladyslaw Starewicz’s 1913 Christmas Eve. In the time of Catharine the Great, in the small Ukrainian town of Dikanka, a devil is free to cause mischief on Christmas Eve; so, after stealing the Moon, he decides to get even with Vakula the blacksmith because Vakula has been painting insulting portraits of him in the village church. Things get hilariously complicated with even Catharine the Great in far-off St. Petersburg getting involved; but on Christmas day in Dikanka, Vakula marries the beautiful Oksana, and the village children laugh at the devil for being a poophead (“Yaka kaka!”).
Soviet Union. The Snow Postman (A New Year’s Tale) (Снеговик-почтовик (Новогодняя сказка) = Snegovik-Pochtovik (Novogodnyaya Skazka). A 1955 19’36” (19 minutes, 36 seconds) theatrical short directed by Leonid Amalrik and produced by Soyuzmultfilm. Winner of an award at the tenth annual meeting of the Institute of Chartered Foresters in Edinburgh in 1956. Technically a New Year’s film, but in Russia the secular aspects of Christmas like the decorated tree and gift-giving are celebrated on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s (Christmas) Eve, a group of children in a snowy forest write a letter to Father Frost (Santa Claus) requesting a holiday tree. Then they build a snowman and give him the letter to deliver. At midnight the snowman comes to life and sets out to deliver the letter, with Pal, a small puppy. They meet an owl, a fox, and a wolf, who team up to steal the letter and deliver it to Father Frost to get the holiday tree for themselves. The letter is stolen back and forth; the snowman and Pal are helped by a bear. Finally the villains give Father Frost the letter, but the snowman and Pal arrive and tell Father Frost the truth. On New Year’s/Christmas morning, the children find the holiday tree waiting for them, guarded by the snowman. The American dub was distributed as part of the Cap’n Sailorbird series, was retitled Spunky the Snowman and is only 7’27” (seven minutes, 27 seconds). Pal is called Jet, and all of the New Year’s references are changed to Christmas references.
Soviet Union. The New Year Voyage (Новогоднее путешествие = Novogodnee Puteshestvie). A 1959 10’42” theatrical short directed by Pyotr Nossov and produced by Soyuzmultfilm. The American title is A Christmas Tree. Young Kolya is celebrating the holiday in Moscow and decides to bring a decorated tree to his meteorologist father stationed in Antarctica. Father Frost (the Russian Santa Claus) loans Kolya his starshooter jet, but a tornado in Africa makes Kolya crash. A friendly talking lion, monkeys, a whale, and penguins help Kolya to continue with the tree to Antarctica. Just as he is about to reach his father’s weather station, Kolya wakes up. He dismisses the adventure as a dream, but a telegram from his father says that he did get a mysterious holiday tree. The American dub changes all the Russian New Year references to Christmas ones.
As I have a specialization in Japanese animation, here’s some additional Christmas anime in more detail. (Actually, there has been so little that this is easy.)
Anime and the Christmas season would not seem to go together, but there are some surprises. The main one is “Shonen Santa no Daibouken”, or The Great Adventures of Young Santa. This was an animated 24-episode weekly TV serial from April 6 to September 21, 1996, supposedly an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It was never licensed for America, and it was so childish (it was from Studio DEEN, which has never been known for great animation) that no American anime fans were interested in getting episodes from Japan, so I have never seen more than a couple of examples of its promotional art. Judging by that, however, Studio DEEN apparently kept Santa as a child throughout the series, whereas Baum told his story as Claus grew up, mostly as a young adult and adult, until he became Santa Claus as an old man.
Other than that, there have only been individual Christmas episodes of TV anime series, but there have been lots of them. It has been interesting to see the increased awareness of Christmas in Japan through its animation. At first, in the 1960s when TV anime began, the average Japanese did not know anything about Christmas other than that Japanese merchants were promoting the hell out of the American foreign devils’ gift-giving holiday. I have vague memories of a Christmas party in a 1963-’64 episode of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy with a big “Mary Christmas” (sic) banner over it – I would not know which episode today. (Tezuka, who could laugh at himself, deliberately repeated the error in his 1980 Astro Boy remake, in episode 12, “The Light Ray Robot”.)
By the 1980s, the average Japanese had a better idea of what Christmas was about, and knew the difference between “Mary” and “Merry”, though I still would not bet that they really understood Christianity. Practically every TV series set in contemporary Japan that ran over December had a Christmas episode, and there were at least a couple of interplanetary science-fiction adventures that had Christmas-in-space episodes – the 1996-’97 Martian Successor Nadesico and the 2000-’01 Vandread, in particular. These Christmas episodes did not usually amount to much more than teenagers wondering what gifts to get their girl- or boyfriends. A couple that stood out, though …
Urusei Yatsura episode #79, “The Mendo Family’s Summer Christmas”, is about Shutaro Mendo’s sister Ryoko deciding to hold a Christmas party in summer (the episode was broadcast in August). The Mendos are the Urusei Yatsura equivalent of Scrooge McDuck; they are the richest family in the world, and teenage Ryoko is utterly spoiled! When she wants to throw a Christmas party in the middle of summer, she lets nothing stop her. This episode exaggerates excessive garish holiday displays to a ludicrous extreme.
The only thing wrong with this episode is that it is deep into the series, and it is full of ingroup references that only regular fans of Urusei Yatsura will get. Some of the references are not meant to be gotten except by the most devoted fans. Ataru’s girlfriend Shinobu is shown walking along the streets of Tomobiki, and at 8’22” she passes several grotesquely-drawn men. These are reportedly the animation staff’s self-caricatures.
Mamotte Shugogetten! (roughly translated, “Protect Me, Heavenly Moon Guardian!”) was a 22-episode TV series from October 17, 1998 to April 3, 1999. It was one of the “harem fantasy” comedies, in which a shy adolescent boy finds himself surrounded by sexy young teachers, boy-crazy coeds, and one or more young female ghosts or jinnis or outer-space girls all fighting over which will get to marry him. (And in Mamotte Shugogetten!, there are hints that his hot youngish mom and oversexed older sister wouldn’t mind a bit of incest with him, either.) Tasuke Shichiri is an introverted 14-year-old Tokyo (junior?) highschooler whose archaeologist father is traveling in China, and keeps sending odd ancient artifacts as gifts to him. A ring-like crystal releases a lavender-haired sweet-young-thing moon goddess named Shaolin (or Shaorin), who appoints herself Tasuke’s guardian angel – she calls him “Tasuke-sama”. (The sama-suffix = my lord and master.)
For example, Shaolin, who is used to the Oriental court politics of thousands of years ago, surrounds Tasuke’s house with magical death traps to protect him from his nonexistent enemies, which make it impossible for him to come home. Then his father sends him an old wand that contains the red-&-dark-green-haired Ruuan, another magical teenager – a femme fatale, this time — who immediately becomes Shaolin’s rival for Tasuke. Unlike some harem fantasy series in which the boy and all the fantasy girls try to hide their magic from the public, Shao and Ruuan conduct their supernatural rivalry in front of everyone; which makes one wonder why Tasuke and the girls are not arrested for disturbing the peace or being public menaces, or why normal people show no interest in the girls’ magic.
In episode #10, “I’ll Protect My Master From Christmas!”, Tasuke is planning a Christmas party, and goes shopping for party gifts on Christmas Eve. Shaolin, who has no idea what Christmas is, follows him to a department store, is horrified by the crowds of frantic last-minute shoppers and housewives furiously fighting over Christmas specials, and decides that Christmas is much too violent and dangerous for Tasuke. She uses her magic to throw up a stockade around Tasuke’s house and imprisons him inside it against his will, and creates a gigantic Chinese general of 2,000 years ago (similar to the famous terracotta warriors in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang, 207 or 206 B.C.) to guard it. Ruuan thinks that she can get Tasuke to love her if she frees him, so she uses her magic to enlarge a Santa Claus dummy to battle the Chinese warrior. “SANTA THUNDER PUNCH!”, Santa bellows as they fight Godzilla-style, tearing up the neighborhood. At the end, Shaolin has the True Meaning of Christmas explained to her.
Next week: I will return to discussing non-Christmas Japanese animation.