The Kitsune vs. the Tanukis (1933)

Author: Miles Imhoff
August 2, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

When I say "anime", what comes to mind? Do you envision plasticky hair draped over a neotenous head, held aloft by a body prone to strike one dramatic pose after another? Well, what if I told you that the signature aesthetic you've come to know and love hasn't always thrived in the realm of anime? A few of you might think to yourself, "Scoff! This man speaks nonsense! If it doesn't follow the style, then it's not anime!" That's just it, though; by definition, anime is simply animation produced in Japan... that's all. The unsleek stylings of My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) are classified as such because the film is Japanese, whereas Avatar: The Last Airbender, despite its stylistic choices that would suggest otherwise, is not considered anime because it's American-made.

Admittedly, most of you are probably thinking, "Yeah, tell us something we don't know"; however, even the worldly among you might be taken aback by just how unanimelike the subject of this review is. The movie in question is an animated short from 1933 known as Ugokie Kori no Tatehiki, more commonly known to English speakers as The Fox Versus the Raccoon. That informal title is a bit of a misnomer, however. You see, the "raccoon" in question is actually a tanuki.

What is a tanuki, you might ask? It's a Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus), a real animal to which Japanese folklore has applied some rather unusual traits. In other words, it's not just a highly sought-after power-up from Mario 3. For the sake of reducing ambiguity, I'll also be calling the fox a kitsune in this review due to cultural context. So, why is a kitsune warring it out with a tanuki, you might ask? Let's find out:

On the night of the full moon, a crafty, shapeshifting kitsune dons the guise of a samurai, complete with ridiculously tall getas and an impressively hefty iron rod. A young tanuki (also a shapeshifter) spots the faux samurai from a temple in the distance and begins to play pranks on the "warrior"; alas, his unskilled attempts are met with futility as the raccoon dog's true identity is uncovered shortly thereafter. Harshly cast aside by his foe, the tanuki calls upon his gruff, imposing father for assistance. Although the elder's aim is to avenge his wronged son, the tables are quickly turned as the samurai reveals one humdinger of a mean streak and overreacts by brandishing a submachine gun. As the elder hastily withdraws and pleas for mercy, the young tanuki uses the samurai's own discarded iron rod against him. Reverting to his true form, the kitsune lies unconscious as victory is celebrated by the tanuki family.

So, why exactly is everyone shapeshifting? There's some cultural background that this film doesn't quite give you, but assumes the audience knows. This can be an issue with cinema that hasn't been localised. If you'd like a crash course, check out the animated film Pom Poko (1994); but be warned, this 1994 movie isn't shy about showing testicles, joking about testicles, or even framing the killing of others in a lighthearted manner. Bottom line, Pom Poko (1994) ain't for children. Even still, that movie is something of a boot camp to familiarise yourself with the cultural prerequisites needed to fully enjoy Ugokie.

Steering back to the animation, this one probably looks antiquated and almost bizarrely foreign to seasoned anime aficionados. It's practically indistinguishable from its contemporaries across the Pacific. In researching this short, I found that the works of Max Fleischer were often the touted as the likely source of inspiration. Having seen only one his Inkwell Imps, maybe one or two of his Betty Boops, and a handful (or less) of his Popeyes, I probably don't have the expertise to confidently make such a connection. All I can tell you is that Ugokie is almost a caricature of its own time period, at least animation-wise. Bendy rubber joints and exaggerated/fantastical movements would be out-of-place in many a context, but fascinatingly enough, they work absolutely splendidly in a tale of shapeshifter vs. shapeshifters. Couple this with the unique atmosphere: creepily charming and adorably foreboding, and it makes for one eclectic blend that drips with colourful contrast in a film devoid of colour.

Although the animation appears to ape American efforts from the same time period, the music is about as far from what you'd expect as possible. What gives this short its own defining spice is just how Japanese it truly sounds. If I'm not mistaken, my ears are treated to the delightful sounds of the shamisen (a fretless, banjo-like instrument), the yokobue (a transverse bamboo flute that comes in several varieties), and the hyoshigi (wooden clappers), among others. In the end, the only thing about this film that is truly American is the late-'20s/early-'30s visual aesthetic; everything else screams "Land of the Rising Sun!"

As for the dialogue...

... okay, I'll admit it. This film isn't currently subtitled, so I only understood a fraction of what was being said. Fortunately, the dialogue is few and far between, and the visual interaction is the main storytelling medium. You won't have too much difficulty following along. One thing I can say is that the voice work almost sounds Popeye-esque... really, you might find yourself shocked by the similarities.

There's a certain aspect of this movie that modern audiences might find extremely questionable. Now this is a difficult one, because I don't know the animators' intent. The tanuki characters could pass for blackface caricatures. Blackface is a very offensive cultural practice that hearkens back to the bad ol' days when racism was even worse than it is now (and it's still bad, folks). Since black-and-white film isn't exactly the best medium through which animators can express themselves and since Japan's tends to be isolated both geographically and demographically, this whole thing might just be an unfortunate coincidence... at least I hope so...

All indications are that this unique work from animation's golden age is in the public domain, so it's ridiculously easy to track down Ugokie Kori no Tatehiki. It's not the earliest surviving anime by any stretch, but I think you'll find it a delightfully addictive visual treat that shines some light on a more experimental era. Recommended? Most definitely!