Move over, Paula Deen! In the early part of the 20th century, blackface was a staple of stage and screen comedy. It was prominent in American cartoons and comic books. Almost every American animator of note from the “Golden Age” used racial stereotypes commonplace in the era: George Pal’s Jasper, Walter Lantz’ L’il Eightball, Chuck Jones’ Inki, Harman-Ising’s Bosko, to name but a few. Sometimes blackface was limited to one-scene gags – like when a dynamite explodes on a character’s face, covering it with black soot. Other times, entire cartoons were built around it, most (in)famously the entire Censored 11 lineup including Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943).
Blackface wasn’t limited to America, however. Japanese cartoons did this as well, although not to the extent that American animators did. That said, there was one show that starred a blackface character, and the studio that made it has done everything possible to bury it. It had one of the big names in anime involved: Hayao Miyazaki.
Back in the 1970s, while working at Tokyo Movie (TMS), Hayao Miyazaki thought up of a little Pygmy character who can do magic. TMS liked the character, but decided that the setting could more refining. Having animated their comics previously, TMS got Fujiko F. Fujio (Hiroshi Fujimoto) involved. He designed the main character and expanded the premise to have the Pygmy move to Japan to live with a family, a formula used in Fujiko’s other comics such as Doraemon and Q-Taro the Ghost. Ultimately, Fujiko Fujio, already a household name, was awarded the sole creator’s credit. Miyazaki was not yet famous in the early 1970s, being just another lowly staff in the TV animation business, and his involvement in the show’s creation is mostly forgotten. With the deal in place, Miyazaki’s idea was retooled and it was named Jungle Kurobe. Fujiko Fujio was to draw a comic version that are to be published simultaneously with the show’s broadcast.
Kurobe comes from an African tribe called “Pyramy” (a play on “Pygmy”) where everyone makes silly faces and worships a Pyramy god, whose representation is in a form of a tiki that is sticking its tongue out. In addition, the animals found there include the likes of Snail-Alligators (alligators with snail shells, which they can hide inside), a two-legged minature elephant, and giraffe-dachshund. The aforementioned two-legged elephant serves as Kurobe’s pet, named Pakopako. In addition, Kurobe has a younger brother named Akabe, who can’t do magic yet but idolizes his older brother. Kurobe is magical, having the ability to mind-control people by sticking his tongue out and making faces, which causes other people to do the same, and then doing whatever Kurobe tells them to do.
One magic that Kurobe can’t do is flight. Back in his tribe, he sees airplanes flying past. Thinking that this is his answer to flight, he followed one of them back to the nearby airport. He stowed away in one plane heading to Japan. He fell from the plane when it started flying over the country and landed inside a birdhouse belonging to a boy named Shishio. Thinking that Kurobe is a bird, Shishio gave him some bread and blanket so he could be warm. Grateful for the gesture, Kurobe vows to be his servant whenever he needs something.
And that’s the show’s setup. Pakopako and Akabe joined the show’s cast in the second episode and moved in with Shishio and his parents, having setup a minature tribe in their backyard, complete with a magical, Pyramy tiki. Other characters follow the similar archetype that’s prominent in Fujiko Fujio’s other series, including the big bully (Tiger), his sidekick (Okara), and the main boy’s love interest (Takane). Starting with episode 20, another character named Gakku was added to the cast. Gakku is Kurobe’s rival from the Pyramy tribe, and unlike the main character he can speak Japanese well (Kurobe speaks in broken Japanese, an equivalent of George of the Jungle’s broken English). Gakku, however, is a brat who loves to play mean pranks on Kurobe and his friends.
As expected with TMS from the era, the animation is very energetic. It’s even more evident here due to Osamu Dezaki (1943-2011), one of the most distinctive director in TV anime, directing the show. Dezaki was very hands-on with all the cartoons he directed, doing most of the storyboards himself, and his fast-paced directing style was put into good use with the show’s slapstick humor and rapid-fire gags.
31 half-hour episodes of Jungle Kurobe, each split into two 10-minute segments, were made. It was broadcast on Mainichi Broadcast Systems (MBS) from March 2 to September 28, 1973, airing on Fridays at 7 pm. The manga version began at the same time and managed to last until the following December. The show was being rerun into the late 1980s. Unfortunately it ran into trouble, as Kurobe was deemed a racist stereotype by civil rights groups in Japan, enticing controversy. Books collecting the comics were withdrawn from distribution and the anime was promptly pulled from rerun circuit.
TMS Entertainment, if anything, disavowed this show. Their official website lists every show they have made since the beginning…all except Jungle Kurobe. TMS is essentially pretending that the anime never existed and are doing everything possible to bury this from public, similar to how Disney is trying to bury Song of the South. However, there are bootlegs of all the episodes in circulation, thanks to somebody having the foresight to videotape the show when it was rerun in 1985, and many of the episodes were subsequently uploaded on video sites like YouTube, Nico Doga, and DailyMotion.
The manga was eventually re-released, as part of the massive “Complete Works of Fujiko F. Fujio” project. A book collecting the entirety of the comic’s run was released in 2010, the first time it’s been available to the public after it was pulled from circulation in 1989. So is it likely that TMS will dig the show out from their vaults and release it on DVD? Maybe, but not in the immediate future.
Too bad, because, in spite of the questionable content, it’s a pretty funny show.
Charles Brubaker’s comic book, Koko the Blue #1, is now available for purchase HERE. You can also sign up for a mailing list on the same site, so that you will be notified whenever new comics are available.