Dr. Toon: When Toons Hate

Andrew Farago reviews three of the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short along with two others: The Heart of Amos Klein by Michal and Uri Kranot, Lavatory Lovestory by Konstantin Bronzit, La maison en petits cubes by Kunio Kato, Sweet & Sour by Eddie White and This Way Up by Smith & Foulkes.

Martin Goodman.

Martin Goodman.

For most of their early history, animated cartoons were instruments of merriment and laughter. Jocular cartoon characters in comic situations represented the majority of American animated entertainment. Despite the occasional happily-ever-after animated romance, cartoons were amusing rather than musing, and so it remained throughout the 1950s. Eventually, sophisticated pioneers such as John Hubley considered the human condition with somewhat less levity. Still later, scorching iconoclasts such as Ralph Bakshi poured animated gasoline on the dark embers smoldering beneath urban America. Whether animation presented hilarity, encouraged introspection, or engendered shock, there were always artistic and narrative themes that marked cartoons as the art they truly were.

There have, however, been shocking variations that momentarily removed animated shorts from the province of art. These aberrations occurred during World War II, and all of them concerned the Pacific Theater conflict with Japan. While there have been notable examples of stereotype in America cartoons of that era targeting Blacks, Native Americans, Jews and other peoples and races, they appeared to exist in a cultural context that condoned them as typical entertainment. Ignorance and insensitivity were their hallmarks, rather than abject hatred. At no time ever in the history of animation, however, was racism, dehumanization or contempt as evident as it was against the Japanese people and their Asian culture.

Bugs Bunny took some time out from hassling Elmer Fudd in the 1940s to engage the Japanese in a series of impassioned cartoons. © Warner Bros.

Bugs Bunny took some time out from hassling Elmer Fudd in the 1940s to engage the Japanese in a series of impassioned cartoons. © Warner Bros.

Authors Michael S. Shull and David E. Wilt gave particular notice to these racist works in their excellent book Doing their Bit: Wartime Animated Short Films 1939-1945. Shull and Wilt offered several possible explanations for the virulence of anti-Japanese cartoons. One reason was the tolerance of racist attitudes and prejudices prevalent in 1940s America; many ethnic groups were regularly caricatured in the nation's animation studios, and the Japanese were an irresistible target during wartime. It is mentioned that the Germans and Italians were White and perceived as having a more civilized culture. Therefore, their leaders were ridiculed more than their ethnicities.

Another reason postulated by Shull and Wilt was that the Japanese were seen as more barbaric than our Teutonic foes due to their "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor and the atrocities committed on Bataan against American servicemen. At the time, the authors argue, the full extent of Germany's satanic designs for genocide was not fully known by the American public. Thus, the Japanese were more savagely ridiculed in America's cartoon shorts. The authors cogently note that the studios had little to lose by ridiculing a people that would certainly not be showing up at local movie theaters at any rate; they would be biding their time in detention camps.

These are impeccable points, and if anything, understate the case. By 1943, even the Office of War Information was reportedly taken aback by the unvarnished hatred and racism that permeated these wartime cartoons, and warned studios not to heap the invective too high. After all, the Chinese, so racially similar to the Japanese, were our allies and it would do little good to offend them as well. Also, fully half of the American dead in WWII -- 150,000 men -- were killed fighting the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. As Shull and Wilt point out, portraying the Japanese as stupid, chattering incompetents indirectly belittled the fighting prowess of our own troops.

Popeye the Sailor, Volume Three is one compilation from the time that documents the rampant Japanese ridicule. ™ & © Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Popeye the Sailor, Volume Three is one compilation from the time that documents the rampant Japanese ridicule. ™ & © Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Some of these cartoons are available through comprehensive DVD compilations such as Popeye the Sailor, Volume Three (Warner Home Video). Most can also be seen on YouTube and even ordered through some of the Web's backstreet channels. With some effort, I have managed to see and review them all, and I assume that you can do the same. There is really not much to add to Shull and Wilt's categorical work; the authors of Doing Their Bit do their bit in describing the anti-Japanese films and the reasons behind their vehemence. Only one thing is left out of the account, and that is what it is like to actually sit down and watch them.

Perhaps the most notable feature of these cartoons is that they are generally not funny. It inevitably seems that whatever humor is intended is clearly secondary to the message of contempt and belittlement, the vicious caricatures of slanted eyes surrounded by thick glasses perched just above a set of impossibly protruding teeth. Through those teeth pour an unintelligible stream of high-pitched chatter, punctuated only by "So solly!" or "Honorable (this or that)". One particularly humorless and vile Warner short, "Tokio Jokio" (1943), is highly denigrating of Japanese culture and society; its agenda could not be more transparent. The goal of this cartoon was to engender contempt and hatred, and so extreme is this position that the cartoon's creators ended up looking more dehumanized than their target of ridicule.

These cartoons are difficult to view today. Racial hatred, similar to but far different from racial and ethnic caricature or burlesque, is a particularly ugly subject for film unless there is another, deeper message that can only be reached through accompanying modes of exposition (as in, for example, American History X). In its unvarnished form, racial hatred lacks any element of humor, perhaps the most crucial element in animated shorts of the 1940s. Worse, it renders peripheral gags just as humorless. Witness Popeye's imaginative transformation of a scrapped Japanese battleship into a cage for his captured enemies ("Scrap the Japs," 1942). Popeye's comic efforts feel soured when the captive Japanese morph into squealing, slit-eyed rats.

Popeye also took time out from battling Sinbad and other nemeses to take on the Japanese. © King Features Prods.

Popeye also took time out from battling Sinbad and other nemeses to take on the Japanese. © King Features Prods.

Then there's the matter of Popeye, gaily singing the title song to "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap" (1942) early in the film, before the Japanese are even spotted. Or Bugs Bunny, distributing grenades disguised as "Good Rumor" ice cream bars to his Japanese foes in "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" (1944). "Here's yours, bowlegs!" laughs the rabbit. "Here's one for you, monkey-face!" "Here y'are, slant-eyes!" Are these really two of our favorite, most revered cartoon characters mouthing such lines? What must be going on in Bug's head as he slings his insults with such gusto? How will Popeye feel after the war is over, when he becomes an international symbol of American good will?

At this point, the reader surely knows that Popeye and Bugs and everyone else who dehumanized the Japanese can only say what the writer and director wish them to. It seemed to be fine for Tedd Pierce and Friz Freleng to put such words in Bug's mouth, or for Jim Tyer and Carl Meyer to do the same for Popeye. Don Christensen was most likely the writer who portrayed the Japanese in "Tokio Jokio" to be so offensive that skunks donned gas masks in their proximity. In defense of these artisans working in the 1940s, fine it was. As mentioned earlier, this was a time when countless persons of Japanese ancestry -- upstanding and loyal Americans -- were dispossessed, rounded up without charges, branded as potential traitors, and imprisoned in what could only be called concentration camps ("War Relocation Camps" was the American euphemism).

Germans and Italians roamed freely throughout the nation. No detention camps went up within the various "Germantowns" and "Little Italys" found nestled in many urban areas, although to be fair there were some Italian and German-American detainees. Still, only the racially different Japanese (including notable Hanna-Barbera character designer Iwao Takamoto) endured these indignities to such an extreme degree, and this only 79 years after America had set another race free from slavery. There would be no post-war apology to Japanese Americans until 1988.

In the disclaimer to Popeye the Sailor, Volume Three, Warner Bros. is careful to state that "these depictions were wrong then and are wrong today." That is a literal fact, but no disclaimer can account for the visceral reactions these cartoons summon up in me. They seem to be a startling aberration in the flow of theatrical animation; the severed paw of a rat found bobbing in your bowl of sugary cereal and milk. These are cartoons made with intentional malice, sullied with the spirit of blatant racism, and produced with an air of confidence that these shorts constituted perfectly acceptable entertainment for millions.

Bugs Bunny over the years has grown, as the tolerance level for racist and cruel cartoons has deflated. Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library. © A.M.P.A.S.

Bugs Bunny over the years has grown, as the tolerance level for racist and cruel cartoons has deflated. Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library. © A.M.P.A.S.

Nothing should be easier for me, a student of American period culture, to step back and objectively analyze cartoons such as "Tokio Jokio" as artifacts of a particular era, artifacts that carried a specific sort of psychological resonance with society. Yet, somehow, I am never quite able to do so. I have never been entirely comfortable with the racist imagery that stretches back to the earliest days of animation, but I can at least understand its antecedents and the means by which it was adapted into the universe of American entertainment. I can understand how racial imagery was seen as harmless until cultural standards changed in accordance with civil rights and societal enlightenment. I do not by any means condone it, but I can comprehend the why and how of its existence.

The anti-Japanese cartoons of WWII, however, are a different matter. True, there were unflattering ethnic depictions of Asians before Pearl Harbor, but these were par for the course in the days of ethnically-insensitive cartoons. Then, for three years, the Japanese were singled out for unmatched vituperation by the Hollywood animation studios. After the war, their likes were never seen again. Therefore, these cartoons had one purpose and one purpose only: to promote ridicule, hatred and racism against an Asian foe. They are the animated equivalent of the detention camps, and every bit as reprehensible.

Perhaps some of my readers may consider this an overreaction on my part. Perhaps others believe that the Japanese, especially after their perfidious attack on Pearl Harbor and their atrocities in China and the Philippines, had it coming. Still others may consider, on a subjective moral scale, that racial depictions of African-Americans was much worse, more pervasive and lasted far longer. I won't argue with them. However, as a critic and student of American animation, it sometimes behooves me to take a moral stand and call these cartoons what I feel they truly are, whether they have enduring historical value or not.

As animation spreads as an art form that can be (and is) increasingly produced by the American public, I have begun to harbor the fear that hate mongers will turn animation to dark and unsavory ends. White supremacists and neo-Nazis already have videos, metal music recordings, websites and blogs aplenty and there is no shortage of crackpots, fringe elements and personality-disordered miscreants lurking around in society. Most of their efforts at animation will be crude, sophomoric and laughable, but we can be thankful for at least one thing: Unlike the racist cartoons of WWII, they won't be sanctioned by Hollywood.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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