Tuesday, 12 July 2016

404. Tokio Jokio (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 403.
Release date: May 15, 1943.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: CPL. Norman McCabe.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (All voices)
Story: Don Christensen.
Animation: Izzy Ellis.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A U.S. propaganda short featuring a newsreel "captured from the enemy" reveals Japanese propaganda in a string of gags and stereotypes.


NORMAN McCABE
Norm McCabe's last directorial short for Warner Bros. as he went to join the army. As often said, McCabe never got the chance to leave a lasting impression for his contributions to the Warner Bros' animation legacy. While this is attributed by his short tenure as director, but so are the style of cartoons he turned out. It's a pity McCabe is mostly remembered for his war-themed cartoons that are today considered immoral in our "politically correct" generation. Perhaps the most striking example of that would be Tokio Jokio.

Not only is the cartoon incredibly dated in its references as well as extremely offensive and racist in its stereotypes; but it's a testament to how hurt America had been since it's infamous Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. Without a doubt, the short would've been successful and appropriate amongst audiences in its original release.

The short is presented in the form of a typical Warner Bros. sight-gag cartoon. The opening scene features a voice-over explaining that the short is merely a Japanese news reel that was "captured from the enemy". The theme is on "Japan-nazi" propaganda - depicting and criticising the Japanese in the lowest form of humanity as being weak, incompetent and foolish.

The caricatures have stereotypes all-over - as the Japanese are presented as skinny, wearing glasses and having giant teeth. While many cartoons considered immoral and politically incorrect today weren't intended to be harmful or racist towards stereotypes - this is the short's purpose. Since both countries were at war with each other and fighting for survival - the stereotypes themselves were intended to give audiences some sense of superiority and optimism. It is my intention to review the cartoon, not only reflecting on historical/social context - but entertainment values in 1943.

The sight-gag primarily attack the Japanese government for their poor treatment of defending their civilians and industry - which are satirised in several sequences. A striking example occurs early in the cartoon where the Japanese narrator presents the nation's "finest air-raid siren". The siren, of course, is heard from two Japanese citizens who prick each other's rear ends with a needle to create a screeching effect.


As tasteless as the gag has become over time, it symbolises Japan's poor handling of civil defense and how pathetic it's presented in comparison to the U.S.

The cooking sequence is another satire on Japan's home front; which was unorganised as the government concentrated more on their propaganda...creating many factors in the process. The sequence features General Hideki Tojo as a cook, as he demonstrates on how to make a club sandwich by using ration cards.

It's an exaggerated take on Japan's food rationing to bring the notion towards American audiences that their home front is inferior. The sequence is further exaggerated as the Tojo cook hits himself on the head with a club--portraying Tojo and the government as ignorant.

The short interprets Japan's military production as poor as indicated in a few sequences. In a scene which features the Japanese Navy at sea - a submarine enters the shot as the camera pans slowly underwater. The narrator reveals it was released "three weeks ahead of schedule". Indeed, it's still being constructed as it operates underwater. The submarine crashes off-screen with several deaths as depicted from Carl Stalling's Taps cue.

From the perspective of a 1943 audience member; it would've been a great showcase on how incompetent the Japanese were. This is also showcased in the 'victory suit' gag. The "Victory Suit" was a civilian fashion in the U.S. during WW2 as part of the war effort - lacking excess fabric and containing low quality wool...which were seen as bigger priorities for military uniforms.

Here, the fashion is parodied with a "Japanese Victory Suit". Expect this to be another gag mocking the Japanese home front and military production. A vertical camera pan downwards reveals an advertisement for the Japanese victory suit. At first, it reads "no cuffs", "no pleats" and "no lapels" which was the definition of the American suit. Then, the narrator announces: "no suit!", with the camera panning downwards to reveal an almost naked Japanese man freezing in the snow, as he tries to warm himself with a candle.

Other sequences poke fun at satirising Japanese society such as the incendiary bomb scene. The scene is presented as an educational guide on them. The text fades onto the screen on not approaching them within the first five seconds. An unsuspecting Japanese citizen walks into the scene, and counts the seconds with his watch. Then he walks over to the bomb to roast a sausage until it then detonates.


After the explosion his face is seen missing, with his glasses and hat still in the same position. The quote: "Ah! Rosing face, please! Rosing face!" is a direct pun on the Asian sociological concept of "losing face"...indicating the man has dishonoured himself - which is considered shameful in Asian culture.


Asian honour is also satirised in a scene featuring a suicide mission of a Japanese naval solider riding a Kaiten human torpedo. Honour suicide was a common attack during the war; were not only Banzai charges and Kamikaze attacks allowed Japanese soldiers to die with honour, but also used in attacking the enemy. It was also considered an atonement for any misconduct or disgrace from any civilian.

According to the narrator: "But he-a not caring, are you happy gentleman?", and asks the soldier, "Have you anything to say?". The soldier responds. "Uh, no, nothing except - LET ME OUT OF HERE!". It's a gag which was conceived to intentionally offend Japanese people by mocking their honour - and indicating that some soldiers aren't as honourable.

The spot-gag parody on Japanese propaganda wouldn't be complete without its own mockery on Japanese politicians and generals - as seen in the "Headline Poisonalities" section. The most revealing is the sequence on General Isoroku Yamamoto, who is perhaps, today best remembered for being responsible in planning the attacks on Pearl Harbour. His height is caricatured as he walks in stilts, to give him a taller appearance.


Yamamoto reveals his plans to "dictate peace term in the White House". An Editor's note title card reveals a reserved room for Yamamoto - which is revealed to be an active electric chair.

What's most intriguing about the sequence is the timing of Yamamoto's death and the cartoon's release. The general had been assassinated when his plane was shot down by an American fighter squadron in the Solomon Islands - a month before the cartoon's release. The cartoon was made while Yamamoto was still alive; even though the gag might've seemed even out of place by the time it was shown in theatres.

While the Yamamoto sequence was an approach to dark humour - the scene featuring General Masaharu Homma is more or less in the style of Warner Bros. spot-gag - with contradictory dialogue. The narrator observes the "coolness and calmness of Japanese Officer in air raid". The real scenario reveals the exact opposite as a frantic Homma frantically rushes around the forest before ducking underneath a tree log. Once he sticks his head out the log, a skunk does the same. Adding insult to injury, the skunk reappears with a gas mask on his head.

The "Flashes on the Axis" segment takes a brief break from the sustained Japanese stereotype - save for the voiceover narration. The segment focuses primarily on Japan's allies: Germany, Italy, and a caricature of William Joyce, an American-British radio broadcaster and Nazi sympathiser known as "Lord Haw Haw" by nickname - and caricatured with an ass' head named "Lord Hee Haw", hence the visual metaphor. He is the broadcaster on the segment.

Animation by Art Davis.
While the stereotypes might still be frowned upon today - admittedly, they are more forgiving and less offensive as the sequence pokes fun on the actual enemies, like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The Hitler scene features an admittedly amusing gag of Hitler twitching his moustache like Charlie Chaplin, as he reacts to a postcard he received from Rudolf Hess, reading "Wish you were here".

The irony of Hess' message is exposed as Hitler turns the postcard over that reveals Hess held captive in a concentration camp - (whereas in reality, he was held in British custody). The kiss marks written on the letter also adds to the touch.

The Rome scene is another addition to the lame puns from the multiple Warner Bros. spot-gag cartoons. The narrator observes the infamous ancient ruins as seen in a horizontal camera pan. The camera quickly pans to reveal "ruin #1" which happens to be Mussolini. Personally, I don't think Mussolini has ever been properly caricatured in animated cartoons. The caricature is primarily focused on the chin and the lips. His forehead is treated generically, which is probably one of his more revealing facial features.

Despite the cartoon being riddled with offensive stereotypes almost everywhere - some scenes showcasing McCabe's coming timing are hard to criticise. The opening titles for the news reel is perhaps one of the more offensive gags. To begin with, the title of the reel is "Nipponews of the Week", which features a rooster (a direct parody of the Pathe news reel opening) who is anticipating a crowing noise.


As he does, he changes into a Japanese caricatured vulture, who is portrayed as scheming and evil as the Rising Sun flag appears. The stereotype is further emphasised as the vulture says: "Oh, cock-a-doodle-do, Prease!". As uncomfortable as the scene might be; McCabe's timing is pretty impressive.

The sports segment is another prime example of that. The gag and caricature of the sports commentator is in such bad taste that it's impossible to not find it in the least bit amusing. In a sudden iris out; his mouth gets stuck in the circle - that it falls off and clutters into the ground. Again, the timing and imagination of the gag doesn't fail to impress.

The following scene is more of a satire of Japanese sport players who are also illustrated as physically weak. The player indicated on the screen in a baseball outfit is considered to be the Japanese equivalent of Babe Ruth. Once a fly flies into the scene; the player attempts to swat it but misses and spins in a circle. While the gag might've been an arrogant in emphasising America's superiority; it turns sadistic and unnecessary when the fly responds by grabbing the swatter and whacking him with it.

With offensive stereotypes asides; the short has its share on lame, corny puns that spot-gag cartoons are heavily reliant on - as seen in the ancient ruins scene. One scene in the "civilian defense" segment reveals a listening post - which is nothing more than a pole with key holes covering it. The pun on the aircraft spotter is even more cringeworthy as the plane is literally being painted with spots.


The final segment featuring literal interpretations of marine boats is also riddled with typical visual puns, especially the "minesweeper" gag - which features two mechanical hands sweeping mines away with a broom).

When the ship accidentally explodes - a buoy is featured in the sea with a sign reading: "Regrettable Incident Please". So, the short ends which pokes fun on another Japanese stereotype where they're portrayed as being over-polite. Nevertheless the gag itself doesn't pay off with the results being lame.

It's almost impossible to give the cartoon a rating without giving consideration on historical/social context. While the humour has become outdated and offensive within today's modern society; it's still a fascinating piece of history reflecting on the attitude America had towards their enemies. Withouy a doubt, the short would've been effective on American audiences in giving the notion of hope and patriotism. It's perfectly understandable that the racism would cause uncomfortable viewing, but it can't be judged out of context - especially as history can't simply be ignored and written off. Therefore, the short would be better off viewed today purely for historical purposes, rather than for entertainment--as the stereotypes were certainly intentional. With racial problems asides, it's otherwise, an insipid cartoon, complete with gags that felt forced and stale. While McCabe shows moments of competence as a director - the short remains remotely unfunny, dated, and uncomfortable to watch.

Rating: 1.5/5.

3 comments:

  1. Isn't the rooster a parody of the Pathé news rooster?

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    Replies
    1. It is! I forgot to mention it in writing while it was pictured in my head. It's corrected now.

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  2. Pathé's American newsreel operations (owned by RKO at the time) would be acquired by Warner Bros. a few years later.

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