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Modern manga's wartime roots

Japanese pop culture icon ties film animation to wartime propaganda
February 7, 2012
By Liz Crompton

“If we don’t create our own Disney, we’ll lose the war.”

For most of us, it’s striking to hear Disney and war in the same sentence. But for influential, mid-20th-century Japanese film theorist Taihei Imamura, who uttered the phrase, he wasn’t actually concerned about the war. He simply saw an opportunity to get the Japanese navy to fund the making of Disney-style animation by evoking the usefulness of film, even animations, as propaganda — propaganda that could help win the war.

Pop culture icon, scholar and manga creator Eiji Otsuka gave the keynote lecture at this year's President's Conference Series
Pop culture icon, scholar and manga creator Eiji Otsuka gave the keynote lecture at this year's President's Conference Series. | Photos by Concordia University

This was just one of the stories pop culture icon, scholar and manga creator Eiji Otsuka called to mind in his keynote address before a capacity crowd of 300. His February 4 lecture at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec kicked off the three-day President’s Conference Series. This year’s theme was Experiencing the Media Mix: Anime, Manga, Video Games.

Speaking in North America for the first time, Otsuka is a pioneer of Japan’s media world who has explored the less-examined roots of the cultural phenomenon of manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons). In his lecture, The Unholy Alliance of Disney and Eisenstein: The Wartime origins of Manga, Animation and Otaku Culture, he outlined his breakthrough theory on the topic. He spoke in Japanese, which was then translated into both English and French.

Otsuka began by setting the context of wartime in the mid-20th century: to the Japanese, it was a 15-year period of war beginning with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and ending with its surrender to the Allies in 1945.

He then described how, during the 1920s, two powerful creative forces began to infiltrate Japanese mass culture and transform the nature of its comics: A character associated with American animator Walt Disney and the montage style of film editing pioneered by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

The manga exhibition at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

A character resembling Mickey Mouse emerged from the pens of Japanese artists by the late 1920s. They were attracted by the aesthetic of the character, and they experimented with its shape. Pirate editions of comics resembling Mickey Mouse began circulating widely in Japan. Cartoons of the famous mouse himself then appeared along with newsreels of the war in China that were shown to the public in cinemas. Japan tried to conquer Manchuria but it was conquered by a mouse, implied Otsuka.

The second major influence on the evolution of manga and anime, Otsuka explained, was the montage style of film editing pioneered by Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s experiments in juxtaposing images showed not only the artistic and technical possibilities of film, but also its potential to stir emotion and, through that, influence viewers. Eisenstein’s silent 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, for example, is regarded not only as an influential propaganda film but also as groundbreaking for its use of montage.

The influence of both Disney and Eisenstein are felt in Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (Momotar?: Umi no Shinpei, 1945), Japan’s first full-length, fully animated film. It was commissioned by the Japanese navy, which heeded Imamura’s call to use the power of animation.

It was these two influences, Otsuka contends, that blended and percolated with the unique Japanese perspective throughout the wartime years that eventually emerged as the manga and anime of today, with fans the world over — as the full house at the keynote address would attest.

Watch Eiji Otsuka's keynote lecture:

Related links:

•   Eiji Otsuka: A Japanese cultural icon – NOW, January 25, 2012
•   President’s Conference Series
•   Manga exhibit at BAnQ 
•   “President's Conference Series” – NOW, February 8, 2012
•   "Mingling with the media mix masters" – NOW, February 8, 2012

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