Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: March 2005, 14

Monday, March 14, 2005

05:07:21 pm , 833 words, 3982 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Perrault the Chimney Sweep

If you're in Hong Kong at the end of the month and you happened to be curious about Hiroshi Harada's Midori, you're in luck. The film is being screened twice at the 29th International Hong Kong Film Festival. I've got to wonder what the director thinks about this, considering how stringent he was about screenings up until now.

On September 18, 1931, in the opening salvo of the Sino-Japanese war, extremists in the Japanese occupying Kwangtung Army in Manchuria planted a bomb on a Japanese-owned railway, providing a pretext for the seizing of Manchuria by the army, and an eventual all-out war with China. Less well covered than the historical events is what the people of Japan thought about the direction in which their country was headed. Where were the opposition movements? It should be a lesson learned that government actions often do not mirror majority public sentiment.

Evidence of dissent beneath the surface can be seen in a special film that appeared in the early months of 1930. In April 1929, ten young cinephiles from Kyoto, dissatisfied with the animated films for children being made at the time, got together and formed the company Doeisha to make and show their own movies for children. Noburo Ofuji had completed his first shadow-picture film, The Whale, in November 1927, presumably inspired by E. M. Schumacher's 1923 shadow-picture film The Caliph's Crane, which had been shown in Japan in 1924. (and had in turn inspired Lotte Reininger's more famous The Adventures of Prince Achmed)

Taking a hint from their predecessors, the young filmmakers of Doeisha began with two short shadow-puppet films based on traditional western folk tales: Ali Baba and Tom Thumb. But it was the third film, Perrault the Chimney Sweep, an entirely original creation by the film's director, Yoshitsugu Tanaka, completed in February 1930, that would grant them a firm place in their country's history of animated filmmaking.

Perrault tells the story of a young chimney sweep who saves a pigeon from a hawk, for which he is rewarded with a magical egg that can create soldiers. When war breaks out, endangering his countrymen, Perrault volunteers his magical egg, but upon seeing the destruction that results, he breaks the egg out of despair, and, like Candide, goes back home to spend the rest of his days tilling the soil of his farm.

What we have here, then, is no mere allegory, but a full-blown indictment of war; perhaps the first anti-war animation in Japan. In a situation where high-level government officials were already being assassinated on a regular basis for opposing the militarists, it must have taken real courage for a handful of students to do something this bold. The pressure on the population, both economic and political, can be gleaned from the fact that the group was forced to disband in 1932, due to the escalating war.

In addition to the social pressures, animation was still in its inception, so the process was cumbersome and expensive. (added to which the world was in the grips of the depression) It's of great significance that these young filmmakers should have gone to the effort of making a film of this nature in such difficult circumstances. Not only was Perrault longer than most animated films made at that time - two reels, 600 feet - but it also had an obvious sense of artistic integrity and courage not to be found elsewhere.

Their dedication can be seen in the fact that they went so far as to organize the screenings of the film entirely on their own, assembling as many as 1000 viewers for one screening. When screened at all, animation brought a mere pittance of remuneration, so it can be imagined how much they must have sunk into these efforts. Only half a century later, in a very different Japan, would anti-war issues be presented in animation as frankly as they were in this film. In contrast, there appeared to be no shortage of labor for wartime propaganda animation.

Perrault (or Pero) was in fact thought lost until a single print was discovered by chance in the home of an old member of the group in 1986. The last third of the film, which is the portion of the film that treats the issue of war, had been cut by the censors, but the combined investigative efforts of film distributor Cinema Work and animation studio Group Tac were successful in restoring the film to its full 23 minute length in 1987. Cinema Works subsequently released the film on video.

After the war, Yoshitsugu Tanaka went on to complete at least one more silhouette film, Gauche the Cellist (1949, 19 minutes), and to co-direct the first few puppet films made by Tadahito Mochinaga upon his return to Japan. In or around 2002 Perrault was presented at a yearly Japanese-sponsored event in Palestine, and it was in the very first program of the 2003 Laputa Animation Festival, which proposed a "best of the best" from around the world, so it appears to be seeing a belated resurrection after more than a half-century of oblivion.