Wednesday, 13 November 2013

铁扇公主 / Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ / Princess Iron Fan

This 1941 feature film continues my delving into the history of animation. Released in the same year as Dumbo, and four years before Momotarou: Umi no Shinpei, it is Asia’s very first animated feature film, produced as a direct reaction to Snow White and undertaken by the Wan brothers during the Japanese occupation. Apparently released on January 1st, it is the fourth ever animated film to be made for theatrical releases that is entirely in traditional cel animation, after Snow White, Pinocchio and the Fleischer Brothers’ Gulliver’s Travels – a sentence I’ve worded carefully to exclude Fantasia and 41-minute promotional compilation release Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons. It also excludes that various other earlier animated feature films that are realised with stop-motion or cutout animation, by which count Snow White comes in at #8.

Having seen the breathtaking advances in animation that Snow White brought, then, did China step up to deliver something equally magical? Well, not really, no. There is clearly a fair bit of effort put into Princess Iron Fan, and Momotarou isn’t really of much better quality, but it is no Disney or Fleisher classic to stand the test of time. It is in black and white, its animation techniques betray a far heavier use of rotoscoping and a far more shaky grasp of physics and timing, and while its story is a solid and interesting one, it assumes knowledge of the back-story of Journey to the West, being a retelling of one of the more memorable episodes – also covered in Damon Albarn’s Monkey and numerous other interpretations of the classic.

You may know the story, but it has its own twists: the monk Xuan Zang, often called Tripitaka in English translations, is journeying to the west in order to retrieve some Buddhist scriptures, aided by the strange supernatural beings Sun Wukong (Monkey), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Sandy). 

In this version, Monkey is quite cute in a design obviously influenced by Disney, Pigsy is able to play with the laws of physics, not only transforming himself just like Monkey but even at one point flattening a giant creature and rolling it up like a carpet, and Sandy has a severe stammer. The four pilgrims’ journey is interrupted by mountains engulfed with a demon’s flames, and the only way to put them out is to use the magical fan belonging to – you guessed it – Princess Iron Fan, which is made of – you didn’t guess it – leaves.

Going to the princess’s home, they are first rebuffed in amusingly blunt fashion by one of the princess’s family members, then by the woman herself, blowing them away with her fan. Given a stone that allows him to stay rooted in place by some random monk from earlier in the journey, Monkey turns into a ladybird and gets swallowed by the princess, beating her heart from inside her body until she relents and hands over the fan. It’s a fake one, though, so next – in a variation from the story – it is Pigsy’s turn. He turns into the princess’s husband, the Bull King, and tricks her into revealing the secret of the fan and handing it over. He is tricked in turn, though, when the Bull King turns into Sun Wukong to get the fan back. The film can then proceed to a great climax with the battle against the Bull King in his bestial form for possession of the fan, which works well.

But the fact is that the execution is very clunky indeed. Using a story where characters have incredible powers and a penchant for metamorphosis lends itself to animation, but the way things are done have all the bizarreness of very early American cartoons and more. There’s no reason behind half of the neck-stretching and eye-rolling and it’s clear that they’ve often just drawn over actors’ movements without being able to preserve what the motions really mean, making this a film full of inexplicable motions, awkward pauses and sudden changes from detailed, rotoscoped movements to highly simplified flights of fancy that don’t have a good sense of flow between them.
But still, this is a very interesting historical vignette, the first direct response to Disney’s scope and ambition in another culture altogether, and it’s very possible that without its impact on Asia, there would be no Momotarou and who knows? Perhaps Osamu Tezuka wouldn’t have felt able to pursue the life he did, leading all the way to modern anime. And there are moments with a lot of charm, especially when they abandon the obviously filmed reference materials and just freely animate things like rampaging bull demons and strange firey masks in the sky. 

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