Animation in 1941: Wartime Allegory for Children

Whether because exhausted with politically-messaged “leftist” cinema, or because it provided a subterfuge for patriotic expression by rendering it as children’s storying, the Wan Bros. (万氏兄弟) Wan Laiming 万籁鸣 and Wan Guchan 万古蟾 (1900-97, 1900-95) are remembered for their pioneering of the full feature length 3D animated cartoon, “Princess Iron Fan, released by Lianhua Studious in 1941 but apparently begun as early as 1937.

There can be no doubt that it was aimed at a childrens’ audience, and for that reason stayed aloof from secular preaching of any sort. But likewise it is perfectly clear that the tale has allegorical anti-Japanese import. for the family had been involved in whole series of War-alluding short animations from 1932 on. This one is however special: it was produced in “island” Shanghai where the 2 named brothers decided to make their base (no doubt because its technical resources were unique), while the rest of the family headed inland. Perhaps ironically, politics dictated the Shanghai location also, because Chinese studios were (from mid-1937 on) under off-and-on KMT pressure to avoid making “provocative” (i.e. anti-Japanese) movies; whereas “open Shanghai”, despite being surrounded by a stagnant frontline inherited from 1937 until end-1941, was under no such constraint.

It is clearly a United Front story (indeed the Wans’ 1935 “Dancing Camel” was presented as a goodwill offering to Chiang Kaishek on his 50th birthday). With an emphasis on Unity, not social reform”: facing down a magically empowered Ox King Demon and his vassal the Fiery Mt. Genie (a wanton enemy who seems unable to even think of stopping), no individual heroics can prevail, nor can contrived, chest-thumping masculinity (gongfu in the animation) terminate the menace. An ultimate victory is gained by a religious leader (qua saint), Xuanzang, who fetches the gospel from far away “India”, then converts “humanity” to peaceful solidarity and mass unity. Perhaps there is an influence of the Gandhi “Quit India” Peaceful Resistance movement that flared up with Britain’s end-1941 “hot” war with Japan (which completed the censorship of Chinese-made film). More likely (but I admit I am just guessing) is that we (as children) are being encouraged subliminally to accept the second Soviet-led “United Front against Fascism” which also had its start in 1941, though in June not December, in which case the Tripitaka is Soviet “unity” gospel. No doubt to facilitate the disguise of the subplot as childish folklegend, the film lifts its story entirely from the “Sun Wukong” aka Monkey episodes of the mega-Romance Journey to the West (Xiyouji): specifically chapters 59-61. which, though reshaped and parsed, form a single episode, which relates how the famous Xuanzang and his followers deal with and eventually overcome the obstacle of the “Fiery Mountain”, which up till this point has defied any and all pilgrimages to The West (where the heat of the setting sun elevates the conflagration into sheer Hell).

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