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Tadahito Mochinaga: The Japanese Animator Who Lived In Two Worlds

Forging a career in the midst of war, Tadahito Mochinaga lived and worked in both China and Japan, completing many cel and puppet animation firsts. Kosei Ono relates this amazing man's life story.

Tadahito Mochinaga. All photos provided by and courtesy ofKosei Ono.

On April 1, 1999, Tadahito Mochinaga died at the age of 80. He holds a unique position in the history of both Japanese and Chinese animated films. He is the animator who designed and used the multi-plane camera for the first time in Japan. He also made the first stop-motion puppet animations in China and Japan. In addition, he is among the founding members who built the present Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

The Legend's Early Years

Born in Tokyo in 1919, Mochinaga moved to Manchuria with his family, since his father worked at the South Manchuria Railway Company. Mochinaga spent his elementary school days in China where he became familiar with the Chinese people and their culture. Although his father was stationed in Manchuria, other members of the family, including Mochinaga, made trips back and forth between Japan and China from time to time. When he was 10 years-old, he saw a Mickey Mouse animation short at a movie theater in Tokyo which left a strong impression on him. During his junior high school days in Tokyo, Mochinaga saw another Disney animation: Water Babies from the Silly Symphony series. Made in Technicolor, the lotus flower pond in the film captured him with its beauty. Due to this, he was determined to become an animation filmmaker. During his three years as an art school student in Tokyo, Mochinaga devoted his time to studying the techniques of animated filmmaking. In 1938, he surpised the school instructors by making a short film titled How to Make Animated Films as his graduate work. After graduation, he was employed as a member of the animation department at Geijutsu Eigasha (GES) or Art Film Company. Young Mochinaga's first job at GES was as a background artist for director Mitsuse Seo's cartoon short for children. This animation, featuring a school of ducklings, was sponsored by the Ministry of Education. In 1941, Seo directed another animation film for the Ministry of Education. The title was Ari-Chan (Ant Boy). For the first time in Japan, Mochinaga designed and built a four-level multi-plane camera for this 13-minute piece. The story revolves around a boy ant who is fascinated by the violin music played by a cricket. Mochinaga's new camera effectively and beautifully shot this film, and it became one of the most poetic cartoon films in pre-war Japan. But the animators' satisfaction of making such elegant children's films was short lived. Japanese militarism was strengthened, and with the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japanese animators were forced to make propaganda films. In 1943, commissioned by the Imperial Navy, Seo directed Momotaro, the Sea Eagle, the 37-minute cartoon version of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mochinaga worked on the background art and shooting of this film. Japanese children enjoyed the story of the teenage hero Momotaro, leading the monkey and rabbit fleet to attack Devil's Island. The film became a record boxoffice hit.

A scene from Mochinaga's last film A Badger and a Boy. © Tadahito Mochinaga.

In 1944, Mochinaga directed his first cartoon film, Fuku-chan's Submarine. Fuku-chan was one of the most popular newspaper comic strip boy-characters in Japan at the time. The film portrays a submarine attack on an enemy cargo ship. Though this, too, was to boost patriotism, Japanese children particularly enjoyed the scenes in which the kitchen crew cooked in the submarine kitchen. Released in November of the same year, the food shortage was quite serious in Japan, and the abundant food supply in the submarine kitchen -- vegetables, fruit, fish, rice, and more which were already luxury items in Japan at the time -- was prepared into various dishes along with a merry, rhythmic song.

Returning to China Pouring all of his energy and efforts into this film, Mochinaga was exhausted. Not only that, but his house burned down in an air raid. Despite the warnings of his friends that Japan's defeat was inevitable, Mochinaga, accompanied by his wife, Ayako, left for Manchuria in June, 1945 to recuperate from both his physical and mental fatigue. However when they reached Chang Chun, the capital of Manchuria, he was asked to joined the art department of Man-Ei (Manchuria Film Studio). Man-Ei was among the largest film studios in Asia in those days, and under Japanese control, some two thousand people -- Japanese, Chinese and Koreans -- worked on various films for the cultural promotion of Manchuria's puppet regime. Mochinaga noticed that the non-Japanese staff in the art department were forced to work under harsh conditions. He demanded that their working conditions be improved, and it was accepted. With several Chinese staff members, Mochinaga started working on the simple animation portions of a documentary film about Manchuria's agriculture. Upon Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945, the situation drastically changed. As an organization Man-Ei was disbanded, and the company was handed over to the Chinese, and renamed Tong Pei (East North) Film Studio in October of the same year. The Japanese staff was given the choice to return to Japan or to remain. It was not easy to return to Japan and because he had found joy working with the Chinese staff, Mochinaga chose to remain.

Since a film studio was a valuable asset for both Mao Tse-Tung's Communist Forces and Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists, they fought over the ownership. Even the Soviet forces showed their interest in this studio, because of its scale and latest equipment. The whole of China plunged into civil war. When the Nationalists' attack on Chang Chun became intense in 1946, the studio staff, including Mochinaga, escaped and went further north. Arriving in the mining town of Hao Gang, they started the "new" Tong Pei Film Studio from scratch. The shooting crew set out to the front lines and concentrated on making news films to inform people about the status of the civil war. Thus, this became the starting point for filmmaking in what is later referred to as New China. Mochinaga felt very much alive, sharing his experience as a filmmaker for the development of Chinese film culture. By that time, returning to Japan became easier and half of the Japanese staff left, but Mochinaga and his wife remained. His wife, Ayako, not only labored as his assistant, but also helped out in a newly built nursery for the children of the studio staff.

In the fall of 1947, Mochinaga was shown a caricature of Chiang Kai-shek and a photograph of G.E. Marshall, U.S. Secretary of State, for the purpose of making a live-action puppet film presenting how Chiang was controlled by the Americans. After much testing, Mochinaga decided to make a stop-motion puppet animation on this subject instead. Chiang's look alike puppet appeared dressed like a king in a Peking Opera play, and revealed how inefficient a leader he was despite powerful injections by "Dr." Marshall. Titled The Emperor's Dream, this 35-minute short became Mochinaga and China's first stop-motion puppet animation.

In 1979, Mochinaga (in middle) shooting a puppet animation with Chinese staff at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

The following year, Mochinaga directed his very first cel animation in China, and was given a Chinese name which appeared in the film credits. His Chinese name, Fan Ming, meant "bright direction," and also symbolized the bright future of filmmaking in China. The film title was A Turtle in the Pot and it also caricatured Chiang Kai-Shek. This time, Chiang was presented as a miserable turtle captured in a pot. Although Mochinaga's name is listed only as director, he had to take part in almost every area of filmmaking. He even had to procure the paint, as well as mix it for the right tones. As for his wife, Ayako, she also worked as a cel-checker at this time. This was not unusual, since most of the studio staff carried out many tasks. Among Mochinaga's numerous duties was the training of young people to prepare them to become filmmakers.

Along with the other films and news reels made at the studio, the two aforementioned animated films were edited and shown outdoors via the movie caravan, which circulated the rural districts and Communist Army units on wooden carts. Mochinaga often joined the studio staff along this caravan, and was able to receive first-hand reaction to his films. Animated films were a treat for the people during wartime, and they wholeheartedly enjoyed them.

More Times of Change After the Kuomintang retreated from Chang Chun, the Ton Pei Studio staff moved back to the ex-Man-Ei Studio building in 1949. Mochinaga and the animation related-staff of the studio were to work in the newly created Animation Division of the Art Department. This was the first time they were officially recognized as a separate section. This division consisted of 20 staff members, and their chief was Tu Wei, a famous cartoonist from Shanghai, who later became the noted animation director of "brush and ink" films. Four years older than Mochinaga, Tu Wei had participated in the anti-Japanese propaganda cartoon movement during the war with Japan. Mochinaga soon became best friends with Tu Wei, and until his death he treasured his friendship with this cartoonist-animator.

In 1949 when the People's Republic of China was established, the Culture Division of the new government evaluated both The Emperor's Dream and A Turtle in the Pot as important filmmaking attempts in New China. They were not films geared to the child audience, but the Culture Division issued a new policy that all animated films from that time on should be healthy entertainment for children.

With such official recognition of animated films, the Animation Division moved to Shanghai, and became a department of the Shanghai Film Studios. Shanghai was basically where the first Chinese animation film was born. It was also where personnel with animation expertise were in abundance. For that reason it was easier to collect those who were enthusiastic about working on animation.

A scene from one of Mochinaga's most beloved cel efforts Thank You, Kitty. © Shanghai Film Studios.

In 1950, Mochinaga's first task in Shanghai was to direct, abiding the new government policy, an animation short for children. Even though Mochinaga was the director (as Fan Ming), the film was the result of the entire Department's hard work. Titled Thank You, Kitty, the film was about a cat which kept night watch over a village to protect the villagers. The film's theme song was cherished and sung by all the children in Shanghai.

The first feature-length animation film in China was made in Shanghai in 1926 by the Wan brothers. With Lai-Ming as the oldest, there were four brothers, but only three of them took an active role in filmmaking. During the civil war, the two older brothers, Lai-Ming and Ku-Chan moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong, but Zhao-Chan, the youngest of the three, remained, and joined the Animation Department after the war as Technical Supervisor. This was a title Mochinaga also shared. (Wan Lai-Ming returned to Shanghai in 1954, and joined the Animation Department, which became independent in 1956 as the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Tu Wei became the first director of this studio.)

Back to Japan Mochinaga worked on several more animated shorts for children with his close friend Tu Wei and other Chinese animators. After finishing the tests for China's first color cartoons, Tadahito Mochinaga finally left for Japan in 1953 with his devoted wife, Ayako.

The experience Mochinaga gained during his dramatic eight-year residence in China was prosperous both for himself and China. The happy collaboration with the Chinese staff brought him many joys, and he was able to pass on his knowledge, technique and experience to the young animation enthusiasts of China.

1953 was the year full-scale television broadcasting in Japan began. In 1955, two years after Mochinaga returned, he was invited to make commercial films for a beer company. Utilizing his experience in China, the commercial films were stop-motion puppet animation, and they became the first of their kind in Japan. Kihachiro Kawamoto, now the foremost puppet animation filmmaker in Japan, was Mochinaga's first disciple.

Following these commericals, Mochinaga established the Puppet Animation Film Studio in Tokyo. From 1956 to 1979, he directed nine puppet animated shorts, mostly based on Japanese folk tales. Some were derived from foreign stories, such as Little Black Sambo (1956) and Little Black Sambo and His Twin Brother (1957). All of these films were geared to the child audience, and were mostly shown at elementary schools.

Little Black Sambo was screened at the first Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958, and won the Best Film award in the Films for Children section. Arthur Rankin, Jr. of Videocraft International (Rankin/Bass) was impressed by the brilliant finish of the film, and contacted Mochinaga's studio.

In 1960, Mochinaga and prominent personnel at the old GES studio, which survived the war, again joined hands to establish MOM Film Studio to produce puppet animated films for Videocraft International. Beginning with 130 five-minute segments of The New Adventures of Pinocchio, MOM turned out five television features: Willy McBean & His Magic Machine (1963); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964); Andersen's Fairy Tales (1966); Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966); and Mad Monster Party (1967).

The central characters of the award-winning film Little Black Sambo and his Twin Brother. © Puppet Animation Film Studio.

Little Black Sambo was screened at the first Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958, and won the Best Film award in the Films for Children section. Arthur Rankin, Jr. of Videocraft International (Rankin/Bass) was impressed by the brilliant finish of the film, and contacted Mochinaga's studio.

In 1960, Mochinaga and prominent personnel at the old GES studio, which survived the war, again joined hands to establish MOM Film Studio to produce puppet animated films for Videocraft International. Beginning with 130 five-minute segments of The New Adventures of Pinocchio, MOM turned out five television features: Willy McBean & His Magic Machine (1963); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer(1964); Andersen's Fairy Tales (1966); Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966); and Mad Monster Party (1967).

A greeting card from MOM Productions' version of the classic fairy tale Pinocchio. © MOM Productions.

MOM was a subcontractor, so all of the films were directed by Videocraft International, which prepared and sent scripts and pre-recorded voices and sounds. Upon receiving these, MOM made puppet models and animated them. Needless to say Mochinaga (as Tad Mochinaga in the credits now) was the director for the Japanese part of the production. At their peak, some 130 people worked at MOM.

The Tie Which Binds Although Mochinaga was based in Japan, he kept in touch with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and followed its growth. In 1979, just after the Cultural Revolution was over, Mochinaga was invited to the studio as a consultant to shoot a new puppet animation, Who Mewed?, with Chinese animators. Also from 1985 to 1986, he taught animation technique at the Beijing Film Academy.

When the "Retrospective of the Shanghai Animated Film Studio" was held in Tokyo in 1981, three guests, including Tu Wei, were invited. This was the first and greatest event ever focused on Chinese animated films to be held in Japan. Moreover, it would never have been realized without Mochinaga's coordination.

More characters from Mochinaga's A Badger and a Boy. © Tadahito Mochinaga.

The first Hiroshima Animated Film Festival was held in 1985. Until his death, Mochinaga played a major role as the coordinator between this festival and the Chinese animated film world.

Mochinaga was also an active coordinator in arranging tours for Japanese animators and related personnel when they visited the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. At times, he himself took part in such tours, arriving in China beforehand to welcome the guests from Japan.

In October 1986, the 60th anniversary of Chinese animation was celebrated at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Mochinaga was the only official (and honorary) guest invited from Japan.

In 1992, Mochinaga produced and directed, as well as financed, his last puppet animation short: A Badger and a Boy. The story revolved around a young badger, which saw a human boy riding a bicycle, and turned itself into a girl so it could ride the bicycle with the boy. This heart-warming 13-minute short was screened in both the Hiroshima International Animated Film Festival and the Shanghai International Animation Festival in 1992.

At his home, Tadahito Mochinaga, age 78.

For some years, Tu Wei took every chance to tell Mochinaga to write his autobiography, and Mochinaga started writing some fragments. Even when he was hospitalized for liver trouble, Mochinaga continued writing. Though he wrote a considerable amount, he was unable to finish. At present, his widow, Ayako, is in the process of compiling and editing his writings, which also includes memos and notes jotted down on fragments of paper.

In the China Cinema Encyclopedia, published in Shanghai in 1996, you can find Mochinaga's entry as "Fan Ming: an animation director, Japanese."

Kosei Ono was born in Tokyo, Japan. He is a noted film critic and expert on animated films. His books include: The History of Chinese Animated Films (1987), the only full-scale perspective on Chinese animated films to date, and Osamu Tezuka (1989). He is now preparing the book, The History of Japanese Animated Films.