The Face of War: Finding Anime’s Roots In World War II

Header Image: Momotaro no Umiwashi

In the modern world, anime is a medium that ignites the imaginations of fans across the globe. Its unique forms of storytelling and visual flair have earned places in pop culture, with names like Pokémon and Dragon Ball becoming household icons. That’s to say little of its influence in Hollywood, where works like Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue inspire countless homages and references in American cinema. Looking back, though, the charmed position in which it resides today is a far cry from the 1940s, when anime was used as a tool of war.

During the Second World War, while soldiers were engaging one another on the field, the entertainment industry was waging a battle of its own. In the animation world, powerhouses like Warner Brothers and Disney were launching salvos of propaganda cartoons like Der Fuhrer’s Face and The Ducktators. Made for the purpose of mocking the axis enemies and encouraging the purchase of war bonds, some of these cartoons wielded the might of iconic characters like Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny.

Still from anime short film Namakura Gatana that depicts a samurai standing behind a smoking man.
Namakura Gatana

Within the sphere of the Axis Powers, a similar war for hearts and minds was being waged. Japanese animation had been around since before World War II, with the first definitive instances being found in shorts like Namakura Gatana which came out in 1917. As a result, the medium was still in its infancy by the time the 1940s rolled around. During this time of conflict, the Japanese strongly encouraged pieces that promoted nationalism and boosted morale[1]. This period saw the production of many animation shorts, as well as a film that would make history.

The Spider and The Tulip is an example of one of the shorts produced. Released in 1943 and directed by Kenzo Masaoka, the short acts as a musical, depicting a ladybug being terrorized by a spider. Throughout the animation, the spider pursues the ladybug, at one point succeeding in catching it. However, the spider ends up drowning in subsequent rainfall and the ladybug resumes its peaceful life. From an analytical standpoint, it could be argued that the innocent ladybug represents the people of Japan while the spider – depicted in blackface and smoking a pipe – represents the enemies of the country. Racially questionable characters aside, the Japanese magazine Animage considered it to be the fourth in the top 100 anime productions of all time.

Still from Toybox Series #3: Picture Book 1936 that depicts an evil Mickey Mouse bearing down on a man.
Toybox Series #3: Picture Book 1936

In stark contrast to this, I came across another short in my research that was worth mentioning simply due to its bizarre nature. While it is hard to imagine the cartoon characters we know and love being depicted as anything but evil, there is one strange short that came out in 1934 as part of Komatsuzawa Hajime’s ‘Toybox Series #3: Picture Book 1936’. It could be argued that the animators were poking fun at tensions during the time just before the war broke out. Known simply as “Evil Mickey attacks Japan,” it depicts a group of peaceful animals being terrorized by an imitation of the Disney mascot, only for the victims of the attack to recruit Samurai from a book to help them drive off the invaders.

That said, the biggest name to come out of this period for their contribution to anime would be director Mitsuyo Seo. His most notable works included Momotarō no Umiwashi, a thirty-seven minute short that featured Japanese sailors, presented as anthropomorphic animals, attacking an occupied island, as well as its history-defining sequel Momotaro: Sacred Sailors. This was Japan’s first feature-length animated film[2], commissioned by the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Department of information. The United States Air force undertook vicious bombing campaigns on Japan from the summer of 1944, though, and the completed film only saw a limited release in April 1945. The film itself was thought to have been confiscated and destroyed during the American occupation directly after the war, until a negative copy of the film was found in a warehouse in 1983.

Still from Momotaro: Sacred Sailors that depicts Momotaro with several anthropomorphic animals
Momotaro: Sacred Sailors

The film itself is split up into three acts: the beginning follows a group of anthropomorphic sailors as they visit their families back home, the middle act centres around the construction of an airfield, and the final act features a battle against the westerners, concluding with a victory for the Japanese as their enemies surrender. Throughout the first two acts, there is a ‘stronger together’ feel of unity, with the sailors being lovingly welcomed home as heroes in the first act and the animals cheerily singing along as they construct their new base. The final act goes about showing the strength of the Japanese while additionally demonising the enemy, a theme which is common throughout both of the Momotaro animations. There is even a brief moment where Popeye and his nemesis Bluto are spotted amongst the ranks of defeated soldiers.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film, though, is when Japanese forces end up negotiating with their enemies, whose dialogue is in perfect English. This part wasn’t credited in the film, so who provided the voice of this man? One theory suggests that this individual was a prisoner of war, who was coerced into being a part of the movie. Additionally, due to a lack of resources, the staff behind it were crafty and cut corners where they could. For example, Seo would wash his animation cells with acid so that he could reuse them.

There were a lot of weird and wonderful pieces of animation that came out during the war from both sides of the conflict, which can best be described by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin’s commentary on Der Fuehrer’s Face. In this, he states that: “in time of war, it’s typical, sometimes even useful to demonise your enemy […] caricatures and jokes, not always in the best of taste, rise to the forefront because it’s our way of relieving aggression.” Throughout the Japanese works of the era, it was a common practice to paint the Japanese people as a proud force who stood stronger together, especially when matched against the snivelling weaklings or demonic entities that were often used as stand-ins for the Allied forces. It’s a stark contrast to the animated propaganda pieces from America, who were more interested in presenting lone wolves, of sorts, taking down the monsters and cowards of the Axis powers.

Despite the controversial nature of these animations and their reasons for being, the wartime propaganda mills allowed Japan’s animation industry to take root, before ultimately evolving into the medium we now know as anime. Like many of the great debates of our time, this point in history shouldn’t be swept under the rug or talked about in hushed whispers. Instead, it should be remembered and contextualized under a proper lens. Though their messages are dire and nationalistic, it’s hard to deny that, without them, the anime world as we know it would not exist.

[1] Desser, David (March 1995). “From the Opium War to the Pacific War: Japanese Propaganda Films of World War II”. Film History. 7: 32–48.

[2] Jonathan Clements, Helen McCarthy. The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917. Revised and Expanded Edition.—Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2006.—P. 12.

About the author

C.D.T. Ceates

C.D.T. Ceates is a writer living out in the wild tundras of Scotland. Student by day, and usually bartending by night, he has written for publications like Cultured Vultures, Siren's Call Publications and Fortitude Magazine.

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