ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.9 - DECEMBER 1999
Tadahito Mochinaga: The Japanese
Animator Who Lived In Two Worlds
by Kosei Ono
Tadahito Mochinaga. All photos provided by and courtesy of
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.
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.
A scene from Mochinaga's last film A Badger and a Boy. © Tadahito Mochinaga.
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.
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