In this post, I will take a closer look at Tōei Dōga’s first three anime features. All of them received an Amercian release despite the fact they were each based on Asian folk tales – and were as far from Disney, aesthetically, as one could get.
Tōei Dōga’s first feature was Hakuja-Den, a.k.a The Tale of the White Serpent, a.k.a The White Snake Enchantress, a.k.a. (in the U.S.) Panda and The Magic Serpent; directed by Taiji Yabushita (1903-1986) and Kazuhiko Okabe, and produced by Hiroshi Ôkawa.
The Chinese story was first written down during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), based on a much older oral folk tale. The story as adapted by Toei is that, once in ancient China, there was a young boy, Xu-Xian (pronounced Shu-Shian), who had a pet little white snake. His parents made him turn it loose. Years later, Xu-Xian grew up to become a handsome young man with two loyal cute animal friends, a red panda (Mimi) and a small giant panda (Panda), but he never forgot the white snake. Meanwhile the snake, who was really a powerful animal spirit that had fallen in love with him, is turned into the beautiful Princess Ba-Niang. (As a princess, her fish-spirit friend, Xiau-Qing, becomes her human handmaiden, played for comic relief as a giggly teenager.) However Fa-Hai, an officious priest (Buddhist in some versions, Taoist in others; the American version just calls him the Magic Wizard) can tell that Ba-Niang is a supernatural spirit, and he assumes that she is an evil vampire preying on Xu-Xian. Since Xu-Xian refuses to give her up, Fa-Hai has him sent to slave labor “for his own good” to separate him from Ba-Niang. This also separates him from Mimi and Panda, who set out to find him and have their own adventure with the White Pig mob, a gang of dockside animal criminals. After lots of action involving escapes, reuniting, and magical battles, Xu-Xian is killed. Ba-Niang offers to the Dragon God to give up her immortality and her supernatural powers if he will restore Xu-Xian to life. This sacrifice convinces Fa-Hai that her love for Xu-Xian is genuine, and he blesses them to live happily ever after.
In the original, much more complicated Chinese folk-tale, Xu-Xian is called Li Fong and he has two supernatural snakes who both become his wives. This was Americanized into an “original” science-fantasy novel, The Devil Wives of Li Fong, by E. Hoffmann Price (Ballantine/del Rey Books, December 1979, 217 pages), if anyone wants to read a smooth English-language version of the whole folk-tale. Without cute animals.
Hakuja-Den was Japan’s first color feature (76 minutes*), and was publicized as Japan’s first animated feature since everyone wanted to forget about Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei. All of the key animation of the main characters was done by just two animators; Akira Daikubara (1917-2012) for most of the humans (especially their fight scenes) and Yasuji Mori for the more “delicate” Xu-Xian and the cute animals. Production was from March to October 1958. Several later-famous Japanese animators including Rintaro and Yasuo Ōtsuka got their start on Hakuja-Den. It was released on October 22, 1958. Tōei (not Tōei Dōga) promoted it internationally. It was mentioned favorably at the Venice (Italy) Film Festival in 1959; if the Festival had a children’s film award, Hakuja-Den would have won it. It made some foreign sales, but none at the time to America. Here is an excerpt:
* running time information is for the American releases, which are usually cut down. The original Japanese releases are longer; considerably in some cases.
Tōei Dōga’s second feature was Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke, (later known in the US as Magic Boy) based on the medieval Japanese belief that ninja possessed magic fighting skills. The animation studio wrote an original story by Kazuo Dan and Dohei Muramatsu, but Sasuke Sarutobi was a popular fictional boy master ninja in novels and movies since the 1910s.
In the movie, Sasuke (10 or 11 years old) and his Older Sister (called just “Sasuke’s sister” in the American dub) are peasants living in the forest, where they have several cute animal friends: Koro the bear, Kiki the monkey (Cherry in the American dub), Ricky (Tinkle) the fawn, and others. One day an eagle seizes Ricky but drops her into a lake. Sasuke and the mother deer try to rescue her, but they are attacked by a huge salamander who kills the mother deer. After defeating them, the salamander turns into the evil witch Yakusha. Sasuke’s sister tells him that Yakusha has just escaped from a punishment spell by a good wizard a thousand years ago, and she now plans to use her own magic to conquer Japan. Sasuke ventures into the mountains to become the student of Master Tozawa Hakuun, a powerful magician-hermit, to fight Yakusha. After three years, Sasuke, now a master magician, returns to find that Yakusha and Gonkuro, her bandit-king henchman and his gang, have robbed and burnt the local village and kidnapped his sister. The rest of the movie is about Sasuke and Yukimura Sanada, a handsome samurai who has promised to help the villagers, fighting Yakusha and Gonkuro. A subplot develops a growing romance between Yukimura and Sasuke’s sister.
Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke, 83 minutes*, directed by Akira Daikubara and Taiji Yabushita, and released on December 25, 1959, was Tōei Dōga’s and Japan’s first animated film in Cinemascope®. It was considered both more “national” with an obviously Japanese story and setting, and more “modern” with a contemporary cartoon art style instead of one emphasizing a traditional Chinese look. It was faster-paced, with lots of battles. Despite being made to be more “saleable” to the American market, outside of being sold to MGM, it also did not make any American sales at the time.
Saiyūki, Tōei Dōga’s third cartoon feature (88 minutes), was again an ancient Chinese folk-tale, but one that was extremely beloved in both China and Japan, and was much more humorous. What’s more, it was based on a very popular comic-book version by Osamu Tezuka, Boku no Son Goku (My Son Goku), published from February 1952 to March 1959. Tezuka’s version was full of modern anachronisms and “breaking the fourth wall” incidents of the characters or Tezuka himself talking directly (usually making snide comments) to the reader, which was reflected in the movie’s impishness. One suspects that the conclusion of Tezuka’ comic-book serial after seven years in March 1959 had a lot to do with Tōei Dōga’s decision to make the folk-tale the subject of their 1960 feature.
For all its fantasy and ancientness, Saiyūki or The Journey to the West is one traditional Chinese folk-tale that can be traced to an actual event. In the early 7th century, a leading Buddhist monk, Xuanzang (ca. 602-664), grew dissatisfied with major discrepancies in the Buddhist scriptures circulating around China. He blamed the many transcriptions of Buddhist texts over the centuries, which were probably based on mistranslations of the original Indian teachings of the Buddha around the early B.C. 500s. He decided that the only way to guarantee the authentic teachings was to travel to India to get a set of them “from the source” and retranslate them. Xuanzang spent several years learning Indian and waiting for the troubled international times to calm down. (China was at war with the Eastern Göktürks, and Tang Emperor Taizong had declared it illegal to leave China.) Finally in 629, Xuanzong left the monastery at Chang’an, persuaded sympathetic Buddhist border guards to let him out of China, and set out on a 17-year journey to India and back.
He had many adventures with bandits and warlords, but he was often welcomed and helped by Buddhist priests and local rulers along the way. He became increasingly famous during his journey, and his return to China in 645 was a triumphal parade (he brought back 657 Sanskrit texts, seven statues of Buddha, and many other “souvenirs”) that led to a command audience with Emperor Taizong, who urged him to write his memoirs from the detailed notes that he kept. Xuanzong’s Great Tang Records on the Western Regions is considered today the only accurate record of the politics and social life of 7th-century western China, the Central Asian kingdoms including modern Afghanistan, northern India, and the Silk Road trade route. Emperor Taizong helped him establish a translation center at Chang’an, and he spent the rest of his life translating the Sanskrit texts that he brought back with him, personally and with many disciple translators.
Xuanzang’s epic journey became legendary throughout China in oral form. The Chinese being who they were, the story gained many mythological elements over the centuries; notably Xuanzang’s three supernatural bodyguards, a monkey-spirit, a pig-spirit, and a sand-demon spirit (Xuanzong spent several months crossing the Gobi desert), and a dragon who turned himself into Xuanzang’s white horse. As the story evolved, the animal spirits grew more important until by the time the folk-tale was fixed in writing in the mid-16th century, Saiyūki the Monkey King had become the real hero, with Xuanzang reduced to a comedy-relief supporting character.
The feature was directed by Daisaku Shirakawa, Taiji Yabushita, and officially Osamu Tezuka; although Tezuka has said that his connection with the movie was strictly for publicity purposes. The only time that he was ever at Tōei Dōga was when the studio brought him in for photos of him at the animation desks. It was his publicity visits to pose among the animators that inspired him to create his own animation studio, Mushi Production Co., Ltd., the next year. Tezuka and Mushi Pro later did his own animated TV version of “My Son Goku” as Goku no Daiboken (Goku’s Great Adventure), 39 episodes from January 7 to September 30, 1967, with completely original character designs.
The story can be confusing because each main character has a variety of names depending on which Chinese language you use, or Japanese, or Indian. The Monkey King can be Saiyūki or Son Goku or just plain Monkey or Goku. The pig demon can be Zhu Bajie or “Pigsy”. Xuanzang may be Sanzo Hoshi. And so on.
Saiyūki was faithful to the spirit of Tezuka’s humorous comic-book adventure, although Tōei Dōga modified his character designs considerably, and drastically cut down his seven-year story. The dragon who becomes Xuanzang’s horse was removed completely. The movie was released on August 14, 1960.
Suddenly the American theatrical distributors, who had been ignoring Tōei Dōga for the last three years, wanted to buy all three features. But each was licensed by a different American distributor. The mighty MGM got Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke. American International Pictures, a small company that was then about as big as it ever got, picked up Saiyūki. And Hakuja-Den went to Globe International (or Globe Pictures), a company that I would swear that nobody ever heard of, but IMDb lists 44 movies that it distributed or produced between 1911 and 1972.
MGM changed the title of Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke to Magic Boy, and called the handsome samurai “Prince Yukimura”, but otherwise left the movie alone. However, since ninja were then equated by Americans as medieval forerunners of the Yakusa – thieves and murderers (which they were), not as romantic Robin Hood-like “good guy” bandits – MGM claimed falsely in its publicity that the original Japanese title of Magic Boy was The Adventures of Little Samurai.
American International spent the most money on its version of Saiyūki, hiring Sterling Holloway as a narrator and such well-known actors and voice artists as Peter Fernandez as Saiyūki’s speaking voice and Frankie Avalon as his singing voice, and Dodie Stevens, Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and E. G. Marshall. The characters were given funny names: Pigsy became Sir Quigley Brokenbottom (Jonathan Winters), the Bull demon became King Gruesome, two bandits became the McSnarl brothers, Herman and Vermin, a cute child demon became Philo Fester, and Buddha, the Chinese goddess of mercy Kuan Yin, and Xuanzang became King Amo, Queen Amas, and Prince Amat. Minor characters were given well-known Western names; an old wizard became Merlin the Magician, and a massive warrior became Hercules. (Saiyūki used the line, “Your name is Hercules? I’ll call you Jerk-ules!” decades before Disney did in its 1997 Hercules animated feature.) And Saiyūki became Alakazam the Great, which was Saiyūki’s new name.
Alakazam the Great and Magic Boy had big publicity budgets. Globe spent the least on was now Panda And The Magic Serpent, possibly because it had the least to spend. Changing the film’s title from Hakuja-Den to Panda and the Magic Serpent added to the confusion, since little Panda and Princess Ba-Niang never appear in a scene together. A duck in the White Pig mob is given an imitation “Donald Duck” voice. Mimi the red panda becomes a cat – it’s not known if this was deliberately because red pandas are almost unknown in America, or accidentally because Globe’s editors didn’t recognize a red panda. (Mimi became the oddest cat that anyone ever saw.) Globe hired Marvin Miller, then well-known from starring in the 1955-1960 TV series The Millionaire, to provide the extensive narration. That was in Hakuja-Den – Tōei Dōga was not yet familiar with dubbing lots of dialogue – but Miller delivered it like a stuffy college professor giving a long, boring plot synopsis of a literary classic.
No matter. None of the three were a popular success, despite all of the advertising for Magic Boy and Alakazam the Great. The three were released almost on top of each other: Magic Boy on June 22, 1961; Panda and the Magic Serpent on July 8, 1961; and Alakazam the Great on July 26, 1961. They were considered “too foreign” by the American public. The first two were very slowly paced by audiences used to Disney’s features, and two of the next three from Tōei Dōga – 1961’s The Orphan Brother/The Littlest Warrior, and 1963’s The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (released in the US via Columbia Pictures) – were both too slow and too historically Japanese. (The 1962 feature, Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad/Sinbad, the Sailor, was both very slow and from a tiny American distributor, Signal International, that barely got it out to the public.)
The failure of all three did not exactly doom Japanese animated features in America, but from then on, they were either bought for pennies as one-shot rentals for children’s matinees, or went directly to TV as kids’ Saturday-afternoon features, or after 1990 to the new anime-fandom video market. Even today, with the success on American TV of anime series such as Sailor Moon and Cardcaptors and Naruto, the most highly-rated theatrical movies like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and even most Hayao Miyazaki features can get only limited art-house bookings. It looked briefly at the end of the 1990s that game-related theatrical features like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! might break out of this ghetto, but they quickly faded back to niche-market fodder only. Basically, the American theatrical film market is not interested in Japanese features.