January 13, 2014 posted by Milton Knight

Toons of the Orient 3: East Steals West


Probably because their films were unlikely to be seen in America, 1930s Japanese animators of the 1930s freely “borrowed” drawings and characters from American sources. Sometimes Popeye or Mickey Mouse were used politically, to represent American warmongers; more often, these “guest appearances” were made out of the artists’ enjoyment of and reverence for the US characters. These artists were experimenting in the field out of their fascination with the medium, animation as an industry having yet to fully blossom in Japan. These early “fan homages” can confront Western audiences with very puzzling imagery. The cartoons used approximations of American styles to convey deeply rooted Japanese ideas.


Courtesy of animation plundered from the first two Looney Tunes, Sinkin’ In The Bathtub and Congo Jazz (both 1930), a samurai Bosko-clone battles traditional monsters led by a Kitsune, a shape-shifting fox spirit. The cartoon briefly includes a song, which I won’t give away here, swiped from an American source.

One of the initial films by Iwao Ashida (here credited as Hiromasa Suzuki), who made Japan’s first postwar feature, Princess Baghdad, in 1948.


Hungry mice drawn in the Paul Terry/Otto Messmer manner sing about how cats are of no concern to them. Charming record-based “talkie” produced and directed by Ikuo Oishi, (1901-1944), one of the first animators to use the goggle-eyed, rubberhosed style in the country. Oishi was creating cartoons in the Messmer style as late as 1939. He was killed in the Pacific while doing location (bombing) research for army training films.


Jerry posted a link to this one six years ago, and I gleefully plunder facts from the comments of his knowledgeable readership.

One of the many cartoons produced to make the concept of war “kid friendly”, something judged as a higher priority in Japan than in the West.

Japan already having taken Northeast China (thus establishing Manchuria), military zealots were using the prediction that America would invade in 1936 to spur expansion. This is propaganda in that view’s favor; an “adorable” scare tactic.

The film grotesquely presents a league of revered Japanese folklore and legend figures (led by Momotaro, whom we’ve already met in Toons of The Orient 1) driving American invaders from an island already subjugated by Japan (and obviously happy with that). The “aging” chest is yet another traditional element, spun off from a fairy tale. War and defeat are interpreted on a child’s level; the enemy’s disgrace comes in the form of a schoolyard taunt. Queer that a figure derived from Felix the Cat represents a loyal “good guy”.

Among the artists credited is Yoshitsugu Tanaka, whose postwar films led to local prominence.


Fukusuke-200One of the Seven Gods of Good Luck. Fukusuke (image at right, click to enlarge) the samurai’s large head translates, through animation’s visual terminology, into Betty Boop’s noggin for a very public in-joke. Here we meet more imaginary figments, affectionately incarnated as Fleischer-style beings. The animation of Myron Waldman appears to be a specific influence here, as the characters frequently go into the “shiver-take” familiar from his Betty Boop cartoons. The concluding sequence seems inspired by Fleischer’s “goth” films, replete with a Western jazz record on the soundtrack. (A few Japanese animators had traveled to study the Fleischer studio’s procedures during this period.)

Hiding behind the pseudonym of “Furo Koyamano” is Noburo Ofuji (1900-1961; some sources say 1974), maker of the elegant cut-out animation seen in Toons of The Orient 1. Ofuji went back and forth between the two methods, always maintaining his decorative, graphically nuanced style. An animation award is given annually in his honor. (First recipient: Osamu Tezuka in 1962.)


Not a direct ‘steal’, this cartoon is included here because it’s one of the only Japanese cartoons that fully employs the physics of US animation (broad anticipation, squash & stretch, follow-thru, etc.). Produced very late for a cartoon without propagandistic intent. A silent print of what probably originated as a sound film.

Drawings by Masao Kumakawa (1916-2008), who devoted his entire life to animating and creating illustrations with his lovable animals.

Enjoy, MK

Milton Knight blogs regularly at World Of


  • Good stuff.

  • In MOTOTARO NO UMIWASHI (“Momotaro’s Sea Eagles”), an anime “featurette” about 35 minutes long released in 1943, in which Momotaro and his animal friends are shown attacking a US naval base by air, the US sailors look almost exactly like Bluto in the Fleischer cartoons of the period.

  • These make me want to go animate this minute!
    “Taro’s Monster Hunt” and “Momotaro vs. Evil Mickey” are especially inspiring. The three-dimensional cartooniness of the characters makes the lack of some basic techiniques (like anticipation & slow-in/slow-out) just not matter too much. Primitive/Mean Mickey on a bullet-spitting pterodactyl… with his snake army. How can cartoonists make war look like so much fun?!

  • Milton’s knowledge of international animation – from Mish Mash Effendi to obscure Russian and both Chinese and Japanese cartoons – has enriched my own education significantly. I love watching these and really appreciate your posting them, Milton!

  • “Taro’s Monster Hunt” is more Harman-Ising than Harman-Ising themselves! Wonderful (and informative) post—wonderful collection of stuff.

  • I’ve always known that anime was heavily inspired by US cartoons (and it’s still true even today), but this just cinches it.

    Wonderful stuff, Milton.

  • For some reason, animation historians seem to have better taste in anime than otakus do.

  • Excellent read. The article mentions Japan’s first post-war feature film, Princess Baghdad, directed by Iwao Ashida. Does anyone happen to know what the current status of this film is? Is it effectively lost? Due to it’s historical nature I’ve been trying to learn more about it, but information on the internet seems sparse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *