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Directors: Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji
Release Date: 1932
After ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure‘ Aoji and Murata send Japan’s folk hero off in a military submarine to fight a large shark.
Like in his earlier film Momotaro is asked by others to do that, and the film vaguely seems to glorify the navy, even though it’s much less successful in doing so than Momotaro’s earlier nationalist film was for the air force: the film runs rather short, Murata’s 1920s style animation is not particularly exciting or convincing, and for today’s audiences it’s quite unsettling to watch the hero fighting a large fish with a surplus of warfare, including numerous torpedoes. The Japanese clearly had less difficulties with this slaughter. In any case, the hero, and his friends Monkey and Dog (Crane couldn’t join them as he can’t swim) are awarded as heroes at the end of the cartoon.
Watch ‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.
Director: Chuzo Aoji
Release Date: 1931
In ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ (also known as ‘Aerial Momotaro’) Japanese animation pioneers Aoji and Yasuji Murata tell a tale about that great and friendly warrior from Japanese folklore, Momotaro, who had been brought to the animated screen by Takamasa Eigasha in ‘Momotaro the Undefeated’ (1928).
Surprisingly, Aoji and Murata move our hero into the present. Momotaro is visited by a couple of Antarctic island birds who call for help against an evil (American?) eagle. Together with his loyal friends, monkey, dog and pheasant, he flies to the remote island in a propeller plane, being fueled twice by birds on the way. When the quartet arrives, they battle the eagle in the air in an overlong fighting sequence, which at times is strangely reminiscent of a modern computer game. Momotaro finally decides to capture the fiend alive, and he’s celebrated as a hero by the grateful birds.
‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is Japan’s very first propaganda cartoon. It shows an early form of nationalism and anti-Americanism. Momotaro would grow very popular during World War II, representing Japan in many wartime films, and starring Japan’s very first animated feature, ‘Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors’ (1945), commissioned by the Japanese navy. This transformation of the folk hero into a nationalistic figure begins with this cartoon from 1931. Indeed, ultra-nationalism and militarism overtook Japan in the early 1930s, which e.g. resulted in the annexation of Manchuria in the summer of 1931.
Importantly, ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ shows Japan’s national hero as the military strong friend of its weaker neighbors. This portrait of Japan as a benevolent big brother to all other Asian nations was played out throughout Japan’s militaristic period, and this propaganda story indeed managed to delude people like for example those Malay who, when Japan invaded their country in 1941, at first welcomed the Japanese as liberators from colonial Britain, only to find them far worse oppressors than the British had ever been…
‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.
Director: Seymour Kneitel
Release Date: September 18, 1942
No other American cartoon stars featured in as many propaganda shorts fighting the foe. Superman stars in five, of which ‘Japoteurs’ is the first.
In this entry three Japanese spies try to steal the world’s largest bomber on its test flight. Of course, Lois flies along, and both she and the plane have to be rescued by Superman.
‘Japoteurs’ is an unfortunate cartoon, which adds to the idea of a fifth column of Japanese within The United States, making every Japanese person suspicious. Indeed, due to this type of paranoia, during the war no less than 110,000 Japanese Americans, including women and children, were put into internment camps.
Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: 1942
‘Stop That Tank!’ was the first commission that resulted from the showing of the pilot instruction film ‘Four Methods of Flush Riveting‘. In that respect it was Disney’s very first commissioned animated instruction film.
The film was made for the Canadian army to show the working of the Boys MK-1 anti-tank rifle. Unlike ‘Four Methods of Flush Riveting’ it features full animation and humor, as well as live action sequences, to educate the soldiers. Most of the film consists of (very boring) instructions, but the film starts very nicely with the full animation sequence of a squad of rattling tanks led by a caricature of Adolf Hitler, jabbering in mock-German, being shot to hell by Tommies and their anti-tank-rifles. In hell we watch Hitler raging in distress. The devil explains to us that Hitler says that “against your anti-tank rifles he simply can’t win”.
During the instruction film which follows we still have four incidents of full animation: three involving a goofy soldier, who 1) tries to carry an anti-tank rifle on his own, 2) opens the magazine the wrong way and 3) goes to bed with his gun, the film’s last shot. The fourth incident is that of a cow being shot instead of a tank.
No doubt these four comic reliefs were very welcome during the otherwise extremely dry and boring instruction film. However, for contemporary audiences only the opening sequence remains of interest. Its strong and rather vicious propaganda was going to be echoed in a lot of cartoons during the war era.
Interestingly, this film was directed by Ub Iwerks, Disney’s old friend, who, after the end of his own animation studio adventure, had recently rejoined the Disney studio. Iwerks went to work at the technical department, and ‘Stop That Tank’ is the only film he directed during his second stay at Disney’s I know of.
Watch ‘Stop That Tank!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dan Gordon
Release Date: August 7, 1942
This film is immediately the most vicious propaganda film in Popeye’s career, and one of the most extreme cartoons of the entire World War II era. In it Popeye encounters some vicious caricatures of Japanese who doublecross him while suggesting to want to make peace. Their small boat turns out to be on top of a giant battleship which Popeye defeats singlehandedly. The cowardly admiral then commits suicide by drinking nitroglycerin and eating firecrackers, destroying the whole ship.
‘You’re a sap, Mr. Jap’ is as propagandistic as it is ferocious. In the Fleischer’s ‘Fleets of Stren’th’ from five months earlier, the enemy was still rather abstract, but in ‘You’re a sap, Mr. Jap’ the Japanese people themselves are attacked. The film was the first, but not the only one to feature extreme caricatures of Japanese, which in this cartoon are killed by the dozen. Later, cartoons like ‘Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips’ and ‘Commando Donald’ (both 1944) would follow suit.
These cartoons mark a clear difference between the two enemies: the Germans and the Japanese. While the Nazis were always portrayed as silly, the German people were almost never seen in cartoons, and when shown, they were regarded as victims of their leaders, like in ‘Education for Death‘ (1943). The Japanese, on the other hand, with their less visible regime, were treated as one and the same, from the military top to the average soldier. No doubt, a sizable dose of racism accompanied this view. And it’s views like this that resulted in the arrest and internment of American Japanese, something that also happened to Germans living in the United States, but on a much smaller scale…
In ‘You’re a sap, Mr. Jap’ the anti-Japanese sentiment results in a remarkably unfunny cartoon, and the short is more famous for its lack of politic correctness than for its humor.
Watch ‘You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Grigori Lomidze
Release Date: 1947
During the film we watch Moscow’s settlement, the victory of Ivan III over the Tartars (15th century), the revolt against Polish occupation (17th century), the defeat of Napoleon’s army in 1812, the 1905 revolution, the 1917 socialist revolution (‘led by Lenin and Stalin’) and the 1941 defeat of the fascist army to the present day.
The socialist revolution section leads to live-action footage of Moscow, a happy child, flowers, some buildings and street scenes and statues of Lenin and Stalin. The last section, the celebration, shows photographs of heroic inhabitants of the Soviet Union, and not only glorifies Moscow as “our youth, our glory”, “our dear mother” and “our birthday girl”, but also as a “glory to Stalin”.
The different sections are bridged by letters and postcards to comrade Stalin. The sections themselves focus on strives and battles, and are accompanied by alternately realistic and symbolic images. For example, the 1917 revolution is depicted by the czarist double-headed eagle struggling and falling to pieces, while the most impressive part may be that of 1812, with its realistic images of fire.
It may be clear that this film is propaganda at its worst. The film is saved from becoming totally unwatchable by the beautiful animation, the stark images, and the lively patriotic music.
Watch ‘To You, Moscow’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘To You, Moscow’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 13, 1942
Popeye had joined the navy before the United States entered the war, in ‘The Mighty Navy’ (November 1941), so in ‘Blunder Below’ he’s ready to fight the enemy, the first major cartoon star to do so on the movie screen.
In the first part of this cartoon Popeye tries to be a normal sailor, among Superman-like sailors, trying to learn gunning. He is no talent, however, blundering away and almost shooting down the captain by accident.
But when a submarine approaches, Popeye shows his real worth: he beats the submarine single-handedly, saving the battle cruiser. It’s this great combination of clumsiness and superhuman powers which make Popeye such an appealing character.
The approaching submarine is accompanied by the music of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig, indicating a German origin. However, it soon turns out to be Japanese. The submarine is anthropomorphic itself and completely dehumanized, as if it were not manned by people at all. When in August 1942 Popeye changed hands from the Fleischers to Paramount, this would radically change…
Watch ‘Blunder Below’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Alex Lovy
Release Date: August 3, 1942
‘Pigeon Patrol’ is a typical war era cartoon. It tells about Homer Pigeon, a dopey little country pigeon, whose girl Daisy May is impressed by the USA carrier pigeons, who look like American army planes.
Rejected by Daisy May, Homer decides to volunteer, too, but he’s way too small. However when he encounters a crashed carrier, he rescues an important message from an ugly Japanese vulture, beating the enemy saying: “remember Pearl Harbor and Singapore!”. In the end we watch him being decorated and happily married to Daisy May.
‘Pigeon Patrol’ is not too funny, but very propagandistic. It seems to want to emphasize that every man can do his job for the country. The Japanese vulture belongs to the typical stereotyped caricatures of a Japanese in Hollywood cartoons, complete with a suggestion of general Tojo-like glasses.
Two years later, Warner Bros. would tell another tale about a pigeon called Homer in ‘Plane Daffy‘ (1944). Their Homer commits suicide in that film. Walter Lantz’s Homer Pigeon, however, would star one other cartoon, ‘Pigeon Holed’ from 1956.
Watch ‘Pigeon Patrol’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release date: October 13, 1956
Stars: Sylvester, Elmer Fudd
This cartoon is an original take on the famous fable of the shoemaker and the elves. Elve company W is missing, and elven king (Elmer Fudd but smaller and wih pointed ears) is wondering where they are. They turn out to be still helping the old shoemaker.
In order to get the elves back, a little elf and the king tell the old shoemaker how companies work, thus telling the short’s propagandistic message. Unfortunately, the shoemaker’s exclamations of ‘Dear Jehosapath’ turn the elves into mice, much to delight of the cat Sylvester (who appears in all three of these shorts).
‘Yankee Dood It’ is a nice, if rather slow propaganda short that only sees advantages of the capitalistic system: lower prices and higher wages. Possible drawbacks like poverty, monopolization, unemployment and pollution are, of course, wisely left out.
Watch ‘Yankee Dood It’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release date: November 26, 1955
Stars: Sylvester, Elmer Fudd, Tweety (cameo)
‘Heir-Conditioned’ was the second of three propaganda cartoons funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (the other two being ‘By Word of Mouse‘ from the previous year, and ‘Yankee Dood It‘ from the next year).
In this cartoon Sylvester has inherited a fortune, and all the alley cats try to persuade him to spend it. But Elmer, who’s Sylvester’s financial adviser, persuades Sylvester, and all the listening cats, to invest the money, in a lecture celebrating the capitalistic system, now focusing on the importance of investment. Sylvester remains pretty much the straight man in this cartoon, with most of the comic relief coming from the alley cats.
Watch ‘Heir-Conditioned’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release date: October 2, 1954
In the mid-fifties Friz Freleng directed three propaganda shorts celebrating the American capitalistic system. They were funded by the right wing Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and curiously, they all feature Sylvester the cat.
‘By Word of Mouse’ is the first of the three. In this cartoon we’re taken to the rather backward German town of “Knöckwurst-on-der-Rye”. Here mouse Hans tells his siblings about his trip to America. Cut to his memories: we watch him meeting his cousin Willie at the harbor. Willie takes the astounded Hans to a trip, showing the riches of the Americans. Because Hans doesn’t understand how this can be, Willie takes him to a university mouse, who lectures the two about mass production and mass consumption.
Comic relief is provided by Sylvester, who chases the three mice, interrupting the lectures. But he cannot hide the fact that, although being an ordinary Looney Tune, ‘By Word of Mouse’ is pretty informative, if rather propagandistic by single-mindedly glorifying the wonders of capitalism.
Watch ‘By Word of Mouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: 1957
Stars: Ralph Phillips
Like its predecessor, ‘90 Days of Wondering‘ (1956), it stars a young adult form of dreamer boy Ralph Phillips. In this short Ralph Phillips has nightmares about all his ideas of adventure being blocked by a giant shadow of a soldier beckoning him. Then he’s visited by an army pixie who elists some fictions and facts about the army. The cliches, of course, are the most hilarious. This short also contains a very Tex Avery-like running gag in which he pixie repeatedly has to put Ralph’s dog to sleep by singing it a fast lullaby.
‘Drafty, Isn’t It?’ is a well-made and beautiful film, and it would have been more enjoyable were it not so sickeningly propagandistic.
Watch ‘Drafty, Isn’t It?’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: 1956
Stars: Ralph Phillips
Despite its rather questionable message, the film is beautifully designed and animated. Especially striking is its dazzling opening sequence in which we see a young man (an adult version of dreamer boy Ralph Phillips from ‘From A to Z-Z-Z-Z’ from 1954) being extremely happy to leave the army and rushing home. This opening sequence has a speed and gusto that recalls the Warner Brother shorts from the 1940s. It contrasts with the slow pace of the scenes following after, where the young man soon discovers he is out of tune with is hometown. Soon he is visited by two small characters explaining him why he should reenlist…
In 1957 ’90 Days of Wondering’ was followed by yet another propaganda film for the army called ‘Drafty, isn’t it?‘. It also stars the adult version of Ralph Phillips.
Watch ‘90 Days of Wondering’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: December 17, 1943
The villain, Foxy Loxy, uses a psychology book, from which he quotes, to lure the inhabitants of a poultry farm into his cave. The inhabitants of the poultry farm are clear representations of contemporary American society, including the upper class (turkeys), female middle class (chicken), male working class (ducks) and the youth (chickens and roosters, whom we see dancing to hot jazz in a short scene).
Foxy Loxy chooses a simpleton called Chicken Little as his main object, making him believe the sky is falling and encouraging him to spread the rumor. Originally, Foxy Loxy was to read from Adolf Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf’. It is not likely that the quotes are really from ‘Mein Kampf’, but they do contain surprisingly true lessons in how to manipulate the masses and how to undermine the present authority.
The film’s clear war message is not to fall for rumors and not to join mass hysteria. The film’s ending is as grim as there ever was one in a classic cartoon. In fact, the vision of a graveyard full of chicken bones is only topped by the similar ending in ‘Education for Death’ from the same year.
‘Chicken Little’ remains a little known Disney film, but its message is surprisingly fresh, and is probably even more valid today in an era in which propaganda and false rumors roam the internet and social media than it was during World War II.
‘Chicken Little’ was to be the last short directed by Clyde Geronimi before his dull comeback in ‘The big wash’ (1948). The Disney studio revisited the fable in 2005 in the feature film ‘Chicken Little’, which has ca. nothing in common with this far more interesting and disturbing short.
Watch ‘Chicken Little’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bill Roberts
Release Date: August 27, 1943
The short ‘demonstrates’ where uncontrolled emotion can lead to: a man gets slapped in the face by a woman, while the woman eats too much. This makes ‘Reason and Emotion’ one of the first cartoons about weight and diets.
Then the short shows how reason is destroyed by Adolf Hitler (in an extraordinarily vicious, but wonderfully animated caricature), who uses fear, sympathy, pride and hate to indoctrinate the Nazi mind. This is one of the propaganda shorts, which treat the Germans as victims of their Nazi leaders (see also ‘Education for Death‘ from the same year). This contrary to the Japanese, who, in WWII animated propaganda films, were all treated as despicable, mean and low. The film also warns against panic and falling for false rumors.
Emotion is depicted as a rough, dumb, but fun-loving caveman, while Reason is a bespectacled thin and rather boring character. One cannot resist to love the Emotion-type, especially in its female form, as depicted in the woman’s head. This female character is animated with gusto by Ollie Johnston.
Watch ‘Reason and Emotion’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1972
It combines paintings of the Virgin Mary with images of war. Its darkest moment is when a soldier in a gas mask kills a Vietnamese child. The film ends with live action footage of people protesting against the Vietnam war. Clever montage suggests that the protesters are being repressed.
Despite its disturbing character the film is too blatantly propagandastic and too directionless to be a classic. It also uses little animation.
Watch ‘Ave Maria’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Ave Maria’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Vladimir Tarasov
Release Date: 1977
The film illustrates the meandering poem with associative images of the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution, World War II and even a futuristic battle in space.
Using a combination of typical seventies designs (besides communist paintings) and rock music (besides an excerpt from Mahler’s fifth symphony), the film is both a markedly modern and interesting piece of soviet propaganda, if a bit too long. It shows Tarasov’s unique style, which he explored further in the much more lighthearted short ‘Contact‘.
Watch ‘Forward March, Time!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Forward March, Time!’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Ivan Aksenchuk
Release Date: 1972
Accompanied by a folky song glorifying electricity, we watch electricity pylons march through the countryside and Soviet electricity pylons shaking hands with Czech and Polish electricity pylons.
Its use of old-fashioned communist imagery, black-and white live action footage and ridiculously heroic music makes the film extremely dated. Despite the colorful images and even a look into the future, one can hardly comprehend that this film was made in the 1970s, not the 1940s.
Watch ‘Plus Electrification’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Plus Electrification’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Vladimir Pekar
Release Date: 1971
Films with a peaceful message, like ‘Proud Little Ship‘ (1966) or ‘We Can Do It‘ (1970) were interchanged for self-important glorifications of the Soviet Union, and its ‘heroic’ history. This period produced some of the most terrible propaganda films ever made. ‘The Adventures of the Young Pioneers’ is a prime example.
The film plays during World War Two, Russia’s Great War. When their village is occupied by some goofy Nazi Germans, three communist children decide to withstand their occupants. They are betrayed by a collaborator, however, and captured when raising a red flag. Luckily, they are saved by the red army.
This children’s film uses ugly designs and very old-fashioned looking caricatures of Nazis, while the children and especially the red army are drawn quite heroically. The result is as unappealing and unfunny as it is sickeningly propagandistic.
Watch ‘The Adventures of the Young Pioneers’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Adventures of the Young Pioneers’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1970
The young bird is fed by a capitalist and a general (who both are clearly American) with money and weapons. It grows into a huge black war-bird, which flies over the whole world, threatening loving couples in London, Paris, Moscow and Japan, and an old man, two mothers and several children in an unclear place. When the war-bird starts to attack, one mother turns Asian, Muslim and black, in order to illustrate that war can affect everybody everywhere. Eventually, however, the war-bird is overthrown by a multitude of peace doves, created by workers, writers, children, artists, musicians and pacifists.
‘We Can Do It’ is a beautiful and strikingly pacifistic film and undoubtedly one of the best propaganda films ever created in the Soviet Union. Despite its anti-American sentiment, its pacifistic theme is timeless and universal. The film tells its clear message without any dialogue or voice over. Moreover, its designs are stunning and very effective, especially that of the war-bird.
Watch ‘We Can Do It’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘We Can Do It’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’