ENCYCLOPEDIA OBSCURA: WHAT'S UP, HONORABLE DOC?
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I've been wanting to do a follow-up to the piece Donald Duck Vs. the Axis of Evil for some time, but have been unable to do so for numerous reasons. First of all, I thought I had lost my DV tape with 90 minutes of wartime hilarity, and I also had no means of transferring these cartoons to my computer. Well, the tape resurfaced and I got a new computer with a firewire card in it, and here we are. I had originally planned to do a piece featuring some more Disney shorts, including the fantastic (gruesome) Education for Death, but now that Disney will be releasing all the material they produced for the US and Canadian army during WW2 on DVD, I'm going to focus on some more, well, obscure, alternatives. This time around, the focus will be on some old Popeye adventures, and there will be a visit from our old pal Bugs.
While I covered animated shorts created for propaganda purposes on a general basis last time, I'm going to focus on one single aspect of these this time around: the excessive stereotyping of the Japanese. Now, I have been known to comment on Asian pop culture and Asians in general on this very site in the past (and, I suspect, the future), and some of you may feel I'm in no position to criticise the US army and the studios for ridiculing the Japanese. Like I said in the reader mail piece I did not too long ago, the feedback I get from you readers is in almost every case a pleasant read. That isn't to say I don't get negative feedback from time to time, but in 99% of the cases the criticism has been constructive and well-written. And, not surprisingly, the thing I get criticised for the most is my Japan-bashing. While I've never meant any harm, I haven't been very good at balancing things out. And without any counterweight, friendly banter can easily come across as prejudice. And while I do think that a lot of Japanese pop culture is insane (honestly, what's with the happy rape?), I have a lot of respect for the culture on the whole. And I'm sure that at the end of this article it will become clear how different the WW2-era ridicule was from a couple of slurs about a naked man in a flying bathtub. All right, twenty or thirty slurs.
Surprisingly, I have yet to be reprimanded for my bashing of religious video games, but then again shit is shit regardless of whether it comes from the holy pope's holy cornhole or that of an agnostic, and the whole world can unite as one people on this: whether it was a kosher meal, a Communion wafer, a bowl of rice or sought-after Ramadan supper when it went in, it was a big nasty mess when it came out. It's one of the few things we all can agree on. Well, I've seen videos, but... I better get to my point. Let's have a look at the anatomy of your average Japanese according to cartoonists of the forties.
Your average Japanman is an extremely polite little fellow with very recognizable characteristics. He is about four feet tall and wears round glasses and a kimono and has buckteeth bigger than his slanted little eyeballs. His politeness is however only skin deep. If you turn your back to him for even one second, he will show his true form:
Ready to attack from behind, Japanese people will grow fangs and attack with whatever weapon available. They will often attack a single opponent as a group in what we in today's society would call a 'Zerg rush'.
When Japanese reach level 15, they evolve into Supaberserkerubakuzen, and can inflict up to 40 points of rape damage in a single attack.
This is, however, not the focus of this article. Let's see what Bugs Bunny was up to in the forties.
In 1942, the year after Kate Beckinsale thought Ben Affleck was dead and slept with his best friend, Warner was asked by the US military if they could produce some animated shorts to educate their troops in an entertaining way. Warner created 26 shorts about private Snafu (the 'f' officially stood for 'fouled'). Soon, however, it became clear that just keeping the soldiers entertained and taught how to best avoid boobytrapped bras wasn't enough to win the war, so Bugs Bunny was sent to encourage people into buying war bonds. Then, he went to an island and wreaked all kind of mayhem.
Now, one thing that's important to keep in mind is that the notion that cartoons are for kids is a new one and one that's rapidly dying out thanks to The Simpsons and everything that crashed the party after Groening and the boys had paved the road for 'mature' animation. When they arrived, cartoons had no defined audience, and were intended for whoever came to see them. And it's no secret that if you want adults to stay interested in cute animals playing the piano, you better throw in some raunchy bits. Like in Plane Crazy (1928), Mickey Mouse's third appearance, where Disney's jovial mascot gets pissy when he takes Minnie for a plane ride and she still won't put out. To get his way, Mickey pulls a few loops to make Minnie dizzy so he can make his move before she has time to collect herself, thus establishing himself as animation's first and, as far as I know, only date rapist. I'm not sure why I keep bringing up rape today, but the point is, cartoons were a bit more risqué back in those days compared to those of the seventies and eighties, and not even Disney or Warner were exceptions. In fact, they set the standard.
So, what did happen on that island? Well, it all begins in 1944 when Bugs Bunny finds himself marooned at an insular Japanese military base. One of the Japanese soldiers discovers him as he hides in a haystack that turns out to be a piece of Japanese camouflage. After a short fight involving swords and bombs, Bugs disguises himself as a general to throw his opponent off. Thinking he just nearly killed his superior, the Japanese throws himself to the ground, shouting "Ooooh, regrettabre incident, not-ah-knowing honorabre general! Oooh, excuse-ah-prease! Oooooh, wanting me to harakari?" After a while, however, he realizes what's going on. "Oooh, honorabre a-ha..!" he says to the camera, "That-ah-not-ah Japanese general. Oooh no, that-ah Bugs Bunny! I-ah seen in Warna Brotha Reo Schresinger Merry-Merrody cartoon picta! Aaaah, yes, he no fool me!". He then grabs a carrot, walks up to the 'general' and asks "Aaah, what's-a up-a, honorabre doc?" Understanding his cover is blown, Bugs runs away and gets into an airplane, his pursuer breathing down his... well... waist, I guess. A dogfight ensues, and the Japanese soldier can't have seen as many Merry-Merrody cartoons as he claims to have done, as he fails to see the anvil coming. And unlike Wiley E. Coyote, Japanese people die when they fall from ten thousand feet.
After the airplane incident, there's a bit where Bugs dresses up like a Geisha to trick a sumo wrestler. Then he decides to get a move on and get these Japs out of the way once and for all by pretending he's an ice cream salesman. Free ice cream right by a secret army base in the middle of the ocean? Handed out by an American? The soldiers don't see nothing wrong with that, and are so glad to finally get some snacks that they don't even mind the driver calling them names like 'monkeyface' or 'slant-eyes'. What they don't know is that the ice cream has a crunchy hand grenade centre. Oh, that wacky rabbit and his genocidal hijinx! Who knows what he'll be up to next! Smallpox blankets for the Native Americans? Summer camps for the Jews? Only time will tell. You could argue that Bugs does similar things to Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck all the time, but Elmer usually just walks home a little dirtier than when he left and Daffy always manages to turn his beak back to where it belongs. And those incidents are always a result of crazy forest adventures, and it's always because Elmer and Daffy are jackasses. In this case, Bugs strategically attacks members of an ethnic group for their ethnicity, and they die.
When the last Japanese is blown clear off the island and Bugs is done decorating the trees with rising sun symbols to represent the number of opponents he has defeated, he is satisfied for a while. Then he throws a fit because he's bored. He's about to succeed in catching a passing ship's attention, but then quickly pulls his flag down when he notices a lady bunny. He then chases her across the island before an iris wipe tells us the show is over. A happy ending after all!
I'm going to cover one more Warner short before moving on to Famous Studios: Tokyo Jokio from 1943. What's special about his one is that it's just a series of insults toward Japanese, and to be able to cover even just a portion of it, I'm gonna have to do an inline frame thing with pictures in it. The whole thing starts with a rooster about to crow when his skin suddenly is shed and a bespectacled vulture emerges from the feathers as he says "Cock-a-doo-doo-doo prease!" Get it? Because the Japanese are vultures that will pretend they're decent roosters! What follows is a cavalcade of tiny 'Nipponews' reports. Ah, got the picture thing working. Click the links to view images from the short:
As you can see, this animated short includes all the characteristics of the Japanese people: they are completely incompetent when it comes to technical stuff, they are disorganized, and they smell really really bad.
While Bugs Bunny only occasionally killed others, Popeye got jacked up on greens and pulped other people on a semi-regular basis. In Seein' Red, White 'n' Blue (1943), he's his usual salty self. He is, after all, what he is, and that's all he is. It should come as no surprise that he was in the navy during the big one, what you may not have expected is that he had a desk job at the draft board.
As the short begins, Old Bluto has no interest in joining the war, and would rather stay at home and shoe his horses. Soon enough, though, he receives a letter informing him he has passed his physical and is to report for duty immediately. Upon arrival at the draft board, he tries to trick Popeye the Draft Board Official Man into believing he's in rally bad shape. Popeye tricks Bluto right back by having a 1,000 pound weight walk in dressed as a woman. Bluto runs over to woe her by literally picking her up, only to find that he just lifted half a ton in front of the man who has the authority to draft anyone in decent health. Outraged, he exclaims "I'm gonna git myself dis-abled!" and jumps out the window. Popeye runs down the stairs and gets down to the sidewalk just in time to catch the free-falling juggernaut, and they both crash straight through the pavement. Satan appears, mightily pissed at them for crashing in on him, and Bluto runs off to invalidate himself again.
After a complicated incident involving Popeye ending up inside a locked safe, Bluto hurls his opponent, still inside the safe, straight across town and into an orphanage. Only this is no ordinary orphanage! In fact, it's a cover for a secret Japanese military base. As the residents see the safe come crashing through the wall, they pull all their plans down from the walls and replace them with baby-friendly posters and then run off to disguise themselves as infants.
Popeye walks around for a while talking about how cute the little babies are, when suddenly they rip their toddler clothes off and attack with anything they can get their little hands on. Bluto appears through the hole in the wall to happily show off his pair of freshly broken arms, but when he understands what's going on, he throws his bandages away (yeah, he was fibbing again) and proclaims that "they can't do that to the Navy!"
A mighty brawl ensues, and Popeye finds himself fighting alongside Bluto against the common enemy. In fact, he even feeds Bluto spinach. I'm not sure why Bluto never thought about just walking over to the store and getting a tin himself from time to time if it was all that important to him to defeat Popeye, but then again he never was very bright. Soon enough, all the Japs are put behind bars (Popeye must have been in a good mood), but the fight isn't over. In some surreal way, the two sworn enemies unite their powers to form a giant arm clad in stars and stripes that flies over to Hirohito to knock him off his horse. For some reason, Hirohito says the same thing should happen to Hitler, and sure enough, the magical Popeye/Bluto arm flies straight to Germany and kills Hitler. But that's a story for another time.
The second and last Popeye short I will feature here is called You're a Sap, Mr. Jap and was released in 1943. The title was borrowed from a Carl Hoff song which was written and produced right after the Pearl Harbor bombings and was copyrighted and ready for release three hours before the US Congress even declared war. The bombing triggered a wave of songs like this, most of them upbeat and aggressive. Titles include 'The Japs Haven't Got a Chinaman's Chance', 'They're Going to Be Playing Taps on the Japs', 'Oh, You Little Sun of an Oriental', 'Slap the Jap Right off the Map', 'To Be Specific, it's Our Pacific' and 'Dig You Later', which sported lyrics like "it was mighty smoky over Tokyo" and was, as you may have guessed, released somewhat later than the others listed.
This time around, Popeye has gotten out from behind his desk and is cruising around the Pacific, happily singing along to the theme song:
You're a sap, mister Jap
As he's chirping out the refrain, he suddenly sees a Japanese fishing boat and boards. The fishermen politely offer a peace treaty, which Popeye is more than happy to sign. While he's got his back turned, however, they sneak a firecracker into his shoe. Not having caught them in the act, Popeye decides to give them the benefit of doubt, but when they offer him a bunch of flowers with a malevolent lobster in it he decides not to give them another chance. He completely trashes the boat, only to discover that the whole thing is just the crow's nest of a giant battleship/submarine hiding just below the surface.
The newly surfaced Japanese sink Popeye's boat, but luckily he had a can of spinach in his pocket. He eats it, his arm turns into a giant 'V' for victory, and then he swims back up on the battleship shouting "Come back here, ya double-crossing Japanzee!" He soon finds his offenders hiding, they respond with a highly insincere "Vely solly!, and then he throws them all into the ocean. Everything above deck suddenly collapses from being 'made in Japan', and Popeye overhears a dispirited captain muttering in his cabin: "Japanese boy in plenty hot wata! If Japanese boy win, he save face. If Japanese boy don't win, he lose face. Ah so, a big can of gasoline and many firecrackas... so... I lose my face!" He then proceeds by drinking gasoline and eating lit firecrackers, the traditional Japanese way to end one's life.
Being Japanese and thereby incompetent, his attempt at ritual suicide fails. Instead, the firecrackers send him right into Popeye's arms. The sailor lights a match to look down the captain's throat and catches a glimpse of the gas in his stomach. I'm not sure why he would feel the urge to look down into someone's bowels or how he could actually see the gasoline down there, but the whole thing results in him dropping his match down into the human molotov and running off to watch the captain explode and take his ship down with him. Oh, he's a sap, that Jap!
I guess the US had every right to feel a little insulted after being suckerpunched by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Still, why were the Orientals portrayed so crassly when the big bad in the war was Germany? I suspect the reason was that neither the Germans nor the Italians were as easily caricatured as the Japanese. One of the main purposes behind insultingly portraying one's enemies in a war is to make them easier to kill. Most people, military or not, won't kill another human being without adequate reason. When you put all the negative stereotypical traits of a people and bundle them up in an extreme caricature, you demonise your enemy, thereby dehumanising him and making it easier to find an excuse to put your scruples aside and kill. This wasn't that easy when it came to other foes, as most Europeans involved in the war were Caucasian. A caricature of a German or Italian would still look too human to serve the same purpose as the outrageous depiction of the Japanese. Which is why Warner, Disney and others, with the US Government and military behind them, chose to utilize the so-called 'blacktop illusion' and portray the leaders (Hitler and Mussolini) as inhuman and monstrous (often literally) while laying off the soldiers and civilians. But that is a subject I'll get back to in the third installment in this 'series'. OMG cliffhanger!
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Copyright Per Arne Sandvik