Animation for Dreams

Seo's Japan

Seo’s Japan

The beginning of 1945 was inauspicious for Japan. The first four months of the New Year saw the Empire lose Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma,  Iwo Jima, and much of the Philippines. In February, the United States Army Air Force started using fire bombs and incinerated 100,000 people in just one raid in March. On April Fool’s day the Americans invaded Okinawa,  four hundred miles from Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan. Okinawa would soon fall, then a country that hadn’t seen invasion since the days of the Kublai Khan would face the might of America on its home soil.

Early 1945 also saw the release of a new film, funded by the Japanese Navy. It had four main characters: a Monkey, a Bear, a Pheasant,  and a Dog. These four animals were the stars of the first feature length animated film in Japan. Their story was a take off on the traditional tale of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. Like the original story, the animals would join Momotaro and travel to the Demon’s Island.  Except  in World War II, the Devil’s Lair was the Celebes Island and the monsters who occupied it were the British.

Mitsuyo Seo 瀬尾 光世

Mitsuyo Seo
瀬尾 光世


The films creator was a thirty-four year old animator named Mitsuyo Seo. Seo was an artist and a socialist, a man allowed to pursue his art only if it was done for a military regime.  By World War II, Seo had his own production company and pioneered the use of the multiplane camera in Japan. His 1945 movie, called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, was a sequel to his 1943 film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles also funded by the Navy.

 

Momotaro’s warriors do what is expected in a propaganda piece. They use the friendly population to build an airstrip, they teach the natives culture and letters as a kindly benefactor. Then, the warriors unite to defeat a cowardly, ridiculous enemy.

The Pheasant receives mail from home

The Pheasant receives mail from home

Seo’s vision was not just of war and victory. By 1945, a Japanese victory was something only attainable in the movies. Its improbability was brought home daily with every bomb that fell, with every soldier that died, and in every Kamikaze pilot that flew his last mission. Seo the man, not the conscripted propagandist, wanted to create something beautiful. In his vision, there were flowing rivers and forests under Mount Fuji. There were rice fields and mountains. Children played and sang and parents welcomed their son home. In his film Seo created a Japan that people would know. A Japan of family and beauty. He hoped what he was making was something people would want not to die for, but to live for.

 

The movie brought a sixteen year old boy named Tezuka Osamu to tears. He had recognized its message, hidden beneath the layers of propaganda. Osamu decided the day he saw the film to become an animator and would go on to be the “Father” of modern Japanese Animation and Comics, creating works such as Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy.

The Monkey character

The Monkey character

 

A few months after Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was released, two Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the War came to a close. Seo’s dreams of peace had arrived, but Post War Japan was not easy for an animator. By the 1950’s Seo had left the animation business and had become an illustrator for children’s books. His wartime work disappeared from public consciousness and became a sense of shame for him, having helped a regime that went so much against his ideals and principles. Seo largely vanished from public view and even his death in 2010 was largely unreported.

 

The film, like its author, faded into obscurity. It remained unseen until a copy was rediscovered in 1983. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was Mitsuyo Seo’s greatest work and his biggest shame. But in it he succeeded in sharing his dreams with  the generation of people that would take Japan from a totalitarian regime to a new, freer society. It would be the precursor and inspiration of the Japanese animation that would eventually captivate the world. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors  came at a time when young Japanese people needed hope for a future without war; when they had nothing more than film to animate their dreams for tomorrow.

 

From Monkey poses for a portrait

The Monkey poses for a portrait

For those interested in watching Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei 桃太郎海の神兵in its entirety, you can do so here (Japanese Language only) :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ne-0e6P4jo

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Ink for Ammunition

Mr. Hook

Mr. Hook

In 1942, Henry K. Ketcham was sworn into the Naval Reserve. Henry was from Washington State, where he had dropped out of college in his freshman year.  He had hitchhiked to Los Angeles, California in 1938 where he lived until he joined The Navy.

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich on war bonds

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich from investing in war bonds

The War brought thousands of men like Henry together; Americans who were ready to serve their country in its time of need. Henry was going to fight the Japanese and his weapon would be his pen.
Henry was an animator. He had worked on Woody Woodpecker films until he made it to the big show at Disney, working on films like Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers threw themselves into supporting the war effort by designing insignias and creating military films.

Many of Hollywood’s best and most talented men served their country in the Armed Forces. Henry’s job was to make war posters. He came up with catchy slogans mixed with funny pictures: A fat sailor eying a curvy beauty is told to  “Watch your own waistline”  being reminded that “Food is scarce, don’t waste it on your waist!”. Cartoons were a fun and innocuous way to teach and indoctrinate. It gave Henry an outlet for his humor and creativity. He created Half Hitch, a comic strip about everyday navy life.

He also worked on propaganda films for The Navy. He created a character named Mr. Hook,  a sailor who fought treacherous, buck-toothed Japanese. Henry wrote four short films with titles like “Tokyo Woes” and “Take heed Mr. Tojo” featuring Mr. Hook  winning his battles by using war bonds.  Henry reminded the viewers to “Sink the Rising Sun with war bonds as your gun. War Bonds are ammunition!” and “Be a hero down a Zero with war bonds”.

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Henry also appreciated women and the roles they played in providing humor for a male audience. Wolves were a common way of depicting overactive and excited males. One of Henry’s works of this period was entitled “COMWOLFPAC STAFF” a play on navy acronyms of “Com” short for “Commander” and “Pac” for “Pacific”. One wonders how much of Henry’s art imitated his own life.

Henry served in The Navy until 1946 when he returned to being a civilian. He married and had a son.  He changed his focus from animation to comic strips. He started to sign his work “Hank Ketcham” and in 1951 created a character based on his son entitled “Dennis the Menace”.

Zero being attacked by War Bond in "Take heed Mr. Tojo"

Zero being attacked by War Bonds in “Take heed Mr. Tojo”

Ketcham's "ComWolfPac Staff"

Ketcham’s “ComWolfPac Staff”

Henry’s four years in World War II continued to find it’s way into his work.  Dennis the Menace’s father Henry was a navy man and Henry’s wartime character Half Hitch was revived into a comic strip in the 1960’s.

Though The War was just an interlude in his career, Henry Ketcham and many other talented young men and women served their country in its time of need, using their wit as a weapon and ink for ammunition.