December 29, 2013 posted by

Christmasy Cartoonz, Part 6: Foreign Animation, J – S

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.)

young-santaAnime 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.


  • Columbia Tristar’s trailer for “Tokyo Godfathers” is an excellent example of why anime fans generally prefer to watch DVDs in the Japanese language with English subtitles. I don’t remember the American theatrical release which is over ten years ago now, but I hope that it has better voice dubbing than the announcer on this trailer.

  • the soviet films are beautiful, but I feel they are marred by their heavy use of rotoscoping. many of their animated films from this period suffer from this. I often wonder what their reasoning was.

    also, “the new year’s voyage” is both beautiful and entertaining, but I can’t help but notice that the film (made in 1959) looks like something that usa animation studios would have made around 1940. by 1959 the mid century modern style prevailed in the usa studios.


    as for xmas cartoons in anime, there were two xmas themed cartoons in the pikkari bee series. in the first, the gang tells a fanciful version of the little match girl. in the second, pikkari bee attempts to bring xmas to japan (with hilarious results).

    • “the soviet films are beautiful, but I feel they are marred by their heavy use of rotoscoping. many of their animated films from this period suffer from this. I often wonder what their reasoning was.”

      That is rather a sticky point to make. They couldn’t quite knock it off after a while, especially for those stories aimed at children/families. JLewis already got us a good rundown of Russia’s animation that’s worth reading about. You can say they were perfectionists.

      “also, “the new year’s voyage” is both beautiful and entertaining, but I can’t help but notice that the film (made in 1959) looks like something that usa animation studios would have made around 1940. by 1959 the mid century modern style prevailed in the usa studios.

      Well, Russia will eventually play catch-up in the 60’s and 70’s, so at least that did occur.

      Incidentally, in the English dub of “New Year’s Trip”, one noted voice actor you can hear as the lion and a couple other characters in this is by Hal Smith.

      Here’s a subtitled version of the same film by the way.

  • Here are other countries that also made Christmas-themed cartoons, not listed here:

    -LOS TRES REYES MAGOS (THE THREE WISE MEN, 1976), Mexico’s first animated feature, directed by Fernando Ruiz.
    The entire movie can bee seen here (in Spanish):

    -THE MAGIC OF SANTA CLAUS (1998): a one-hour special co-produced by Rodamina Animation, Barcelona, and a small L.A.-based company, Wham-O Entrertainment. Directed by Julian Tarragó, Starring the crocodile kids Coco and Drila, there were plans to produce a one-hour Halloween special plus a 26×30′ TV series with the same protagonists, but unfortunately these projects weren’t further developed. The writer of this comment worked on this production as an assistant animator. The entire special can be watched here (in English):

    -LOS REYES MAGOS (THE WISE MEN, 2003): a feature produced by Animagic Studio (not related to Rankin-Bass stop-motin technique of the same name!), Madrid, and directed in 2004 by Antonio Navarro (also a layout artist on Disney’s HERCULES, FANTASIA 2000, TARZAN and THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE, as well as a talented comic book artist).
    The entire movie can be seen here (also in Spanish):

  • I have gotten quite “smitten” with Soyuzmultfilm in recent years. That studio has a fascinating history just aching to be chronicled online. It was, after all, the Soviet’s attempt to ape the Disney studio with the merging of several smaller animation studios together in 1936 (much like MGM was a combo of different companies). One of the pre-mergers, Mezhrabpomfilm’s team of Ivan Ivanov-Vano and the Brumberg sisters, even made a nifty knock-off of a Technicolor Silly Symphony in 1935 called THE DRAGONFLY AND THE ANT. (Still haven’t seen it though.)

    In fact, the only “major” difference between Disney and Soyuzmultfilm in terms of “looks”… apart from too much rotoscoping of human characters and not enough “funny” animals (many being refugees from Bambi and Gingernut’s forests… the studio would have loved a visit by David Hand)… was the fact that color film stock in the late thirties and early forties was limited. (It was used mostly with Mosfilm’s short-lived puppetoon unit supervised by Aleksandr Ptushko… see one excellent sample here: ). Once the studio could be all-color by 1945, there was no stopping them adapting all of their favorite fairy-tales Russian style, but based on the Snow White model. (Another graphic difference was that a number of them look like they were printed darker than usual… sort of like Disney “film noir”. We must also mention that there wasn’t a whole lot of humor when Stalin was in power.)

    I agree with what many say IS their biggest flaw. Once they mastered the Disney style, they didn’t vary from it… even as Disney himself moved from BAMBI to THE THREE CABALLEROS to MELODY TIME and on to TOOT, WHISTLE, PLUNK AND BOOM. Although there were some innovative stop-motion puppetoons starting in 1954, many of their cel-animated ’40s and ’50s cartoons “pre-Fyodor Khitruk” exist in a vacuum much like ’40s and ’50s Terrytoons “pre-Gene Deitch”… though presented in a more “upscale” glossy format. Like Deitch, Khitruk brought the studio into the post-UPA and Zagreb Era. Suddenly, almost over night, each new ‘toon was completely different than the one preceding it. The ’60s through ’80s were undoubtedly their “glory years”. One praise often given is that, even if the Soviets took their time to get “contemporary”, once they did so, it was on a very generous budget and with a lot more fluid animation than anything American Saturday morning TV was offering.

    Intriguingly, BOTH Disney and Soyuzmultfilm took on ol’ Brit writers Rudyard Kipling and A.A. Milne roughly the same time. After Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaya’s wonderful version of RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVY in 1965 (as equally good as, if quite different than, Chuck Jones’ version the following decade), Roman Davydov supervised the first in a series of Mowgli “featurettes” in 1967, ironically the same year THE JUNGLE BOOK was unveiled in Burbank, California. Yet these versions are as different as night and day; the Russian desire to follow Kipling more closely than George Sanders. Louis Prima and Phil Harris vocalizations being the most obvious difference. The rather UPA-ish look also factoring. I don’t think one studio’s take is necessarily *better* than the other… although a Kipling “purist” would certainly go with Davydov. (Their 1968 and ’88 versions of THE CAT WHO WALKED BY HERSELF/HIMSELF are also quite good. Not sure why the Americans had no interest in that particular story.)

    Although Fyodor Khitruk’s version of Winnie the Pooh in 1969 looks different than Wolfgang Reitherman’s at Disney, the fact that both American and Soviet studios followed A.A. Milne more closely than Kipling means that the first two of three ten minute Khitruk shorts are strikingly similar to Disney’s earlier WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE. I do favor Disney a tad more here though, since there is more comedy variation… and a lot more characters involved.

    It is so sad what happened to this once great animation studio after the government pulled the financial plug. Even many of the puppets used for the stop-motion films were destroyed for religious reasons when certain church officials got custody of the old facilities.

    • Russia certainly had a wonderful history with animation that simply collapsed along with the government that funded it.

  • Yeah, most of the Japanese anime equivalents of Christmas are just dating episodes with superfluous “Christmas-ey” motifs, like Santa hats, wreaths and so forth.

    Surprised to see Urusei Yatsura show up, especially one that was a TV episode pretty well into the series. Usually the earlier Christmas one where Ataru first dates Lum is for often referred to but that one was also just a “Christmas dating” episode, while this one was pure fun. UY had some really great pure comedy episodes that unflinchingly went off the wall whenever it felt like it (which was often).

    The posted Christmas episode reminds me of a later which the Mendou family’s Ryoko had a birthday party in which she had this insanely elaborate birthday-themed obstacle course in which she pitted her “guests” against each other to win a prize, which was a date with her, a kiss, or something equally silly. Similar to the Christmas Tree race, it was capped off with a race through am impossibly gigantic birthday cake to the top.

    • “Yeah, most of the Japanese anime equivalents of Christmas are just dating episodes with superfluous “Christmas-ey” motifs, like Santa hats, wreaths and so forth.”

      Yeah, it always seems like they get it mixed up with Valentine’s Day when they do that. I recall Maison Ikkoku had one too with Godai trying to give his love a present but gets distracted before ever doing so and simply has to save it for later on.

    • That isn’t really a mix-up, because in Japan Christmas is observed in more or less the same way as Valentine’s Day. Parents may buy gifts for young children in the U.S. style, but from adolescence onward Christmas becomes a day for a romantic date, not a family celebration.

    • “That isn’t really a mix-up, because in Japan Christmas is observed in more or less the same way as Valentine’s Day. Parents may buy gifts for young children in the U.S. style, but from adolescence onward Christmas becomes a day for a romantic date, not a family celebration.”

      Yeah I can see why they have to (seeings we don’t use it much as grown-ups than an excuse to be ‘nice’ to others half the time).

  • don’t forget the xmas episode of pokemon …

  • Speaking of Christianity, here’s an article worth reading…

  • Many anime TV shows have a Christmas episode, or at least a few, or even ONE SINGLE, scene with characters simply talking about Christmas and never touch upon it further. Curiously, these episodes do not usually air on the holiday season anymore. Toradora!’s Christmas episode not only celebrates the holiday, but it is a crucial turning point for the show’s plot. The second episode of Sword Art Online has barely anything to do with the holiday except it takes place during it, and there is a Santa level boss! There are all sorts of different takes on the holiday in Japanese anime, even moreso than in America.

    • I recall “The Big O” had one as well, though in the setting the story takes place in, it’s called ‘Heaven’s Day” but it’s pretty obvious what they were going with there.

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