And here is Ms. Rosemary Benton with her monthly report, this time on a subject near and dear to my heart: Japan…
July 14th was a red letter day for me. Not only did I receive word that my uncle was marrying his long time Japanese girlfriend, Mika, but Alakazam The Great was released in theaters across America. This film is a beautiful piece of animation from Toei Animation Company Ltd.
Released in Japan in August last year under the title Journey to the West, the story of Alakazam the Great is actually a retelling of a very old and popular tale from China known as Saiyuuki. Scholars of this 16th century morality epic will recognize Sun Wukong in our protagonist, Alakazam, as well as his dealings with the Buddha, named King Amo in the film. There are far fewer acts in the film than there are in the original story of Sun Wukong, but the writers did do an impressive job of compacting the four main arcs of the epic into an 88 minute movie.
Our story begins shortly after Alakazam has earned the title of king of the animal kingdom. But as our narrator descibes, Alakazam is a conceited ruler obsessed with becoming more powerful than any human magician. After tricking Merlin (yes, that Merlin; more on this later) into teaching him his craft, Alakazam believes that he can take on anything, even the entire magical population of the heavenly land of Majutsu. Following a humiliating defeat, the king of Majutsu, King Amo, sends him on a pilgrimage to learn wisdom, humility and mercy so that he may once again rule the animals as a wise and compassionate leader. Meeting many interesting companions along the way, Alakazam eventually learns to utilize his magic for good and justice. He saves the prince of heaven, returns to his love, and lives happily ever after.
I was very excited to see this film for two major reasons, as well as many many lesser reasons. First and foremost the credited director of the film is Osamu Tezuka, one of modern Japan’s most prolific “manga” (Japanese comics) creators. I am an appreciator of the comic book medium, so Tezuka is hardly an unknown name to me. Thanks to my soon-to-be-aunt I’ve been able to obtain translations of numerous works of his, all of which are exceptional with whimsical storytelling ferrying intense characters into entrancing conflicts. To date he has created numerous adaptations of western classics like Faust (1950) and Crime and Punishment (1953), and has created hugely popular works for Japanese young adults including the science fiction action story Astro Boy and the coming of age title Jungle Emperor. Upon looking into the production of the film, however, it is unclear how much direct involvement he had. Still, I like to think that he had a part in not only the style, but the script — both of which bear a striking similarity to Tezuka’s situational humor and Disney-inspired art style.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, this is a film that beautifully showcases the changing relationship that America has with Japan and her citizens. The very fact that this film made it to our shores at all suggests that there are English speaking audiences out there who are interested in the much larger world of Japanese cinema rather than the limited diet of Japanese culture (samurai, bonsai trees, tea…and Godzilla) normally encountered in America. I would like to believe that there are even those high up in the entertainment industry who see this film not only a way to make money, but to introduce Americans to other noteworthy Japanese cinema besides the thrilling giant radioactive monsters we’ve seen so far.
As avid consumers of film, Americans both young and old, literate or illiterate, have been exposed to Japan and her citizens for many years. Until recently, these depictions were one-sided affairs, universally from the White perspective. Observing film history chronologically, one can see a positive and dramatic change since World War II regarding the portrayal of Japan and the Japanese in American cinema.
Live action documentary propaganda films created by the United States government in the 1940s were, predictably, focused on explaining the relocation of Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. These 20-30 minute shorts were stark in their description of the camps, but also tried to show that civility and nationalism could work hand in hand during this time of crisis. In 1942 a film from the U.S. Office of War Information titled Japanese Relocation depicted Japanese-Americans as being humanely and voluntarily evacuated to orderly camps. The reason being that there was a possibility that the West Coast of the U.S. could become the site of a Japanese invasion, and in order to avoid conflict over who was loyal to Japan versus the U.S., precautionary relocation needed to occur. The 1944 film A Challenge to Democracy, produced by the War Relocation Authority, also characterized the relocation as a voluntary choice made by patriotic Japanese-American citizens who could be released if they displayed unquestionable loyalty to the war effort. In both of these movies the Japanese are shown as compliant, obedient and content with their situation. These notions were partly reinforced in the silent film Topaz, a 1945 amateur film by internee Dave Tatsuno. In the film one can see smiling faces despite the sorrow Tatsuno said they experienced. Regardless, those who were shown in the camp were still experiencing play, family, community and civil responsibility.
As the war progressed, animated shorts emerged with far more harsh portrayals of the Japanese. Stereotypical depictions of “Tojo” were common such as in Paramount Pictures’ Private Snafu, UPA studios’ Commando Duck (1944). In each of these examples the supposed evil nature of the Japanese took precedence over the portrayal of any moral grey areas. The Japanese were dehumanized and shown as cowardly; animated films played to the wider fear and anxiety of Japan generated by the grueling brutality of the war.
In the 1950s, our view of the Japanese began to shift. An early anomaly during the time when Japanese-Americans were still largely ignored in film (if not outright demonized), Go for Broke! (1951), featured not only Japanese-American actors, but told the story of Japanese-Americans fighting for America in Italy and France while their families waited for them at internment camps. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) continued the portrayal of Japanese-Americans along a similar vein – honorable and possessing good attributes. By 1957 the Japanese were beginning to regain some of their humanity in American cinema despite still being the common villains. Bridge on the River Kwai depicts the brutality of the Japanese POW camps, its prisoners forced to construct bridges for the Japanese army, yet there are laudable aspects to the enemy. The Japanese are not all portrayed as irredeemable monsters. And then, in 1958, there was Geisha Boy – a romantic comedy that stressed the importance of the United States’ alliance with Japan against communism and even explored the possibility of a blossoming romance between the protagonist, Jerry Lewis, and his character’s Japanese interpreter.
Enter Alakazam, one of the first real glimpses of Japan as seen by Japan. Well, not quite. According to Mika, who’d happened to see the original film in Japan but was still willing to rewatch it with me in America, the original Japanese and the English language scripts are significantly different from one another on the surface. In translating the script to better suit a Western audience, iconic figures from both West and East mythologies exist along side one another.
In the original Chinese story, and in the film, the concept of the supreme heaven is ruled by Taoist deities. No one would expect Hercules and Merlin to be classified as sages and to reside in this version of heaven, and yet they appear as such in the English story. Merlin is a mountain hermit who teaches Alakazam all he knows of magic. Hercules challenges Alakazam when he attempts to infiltrate Majutsu Land (The Heavens). Western concepts are also substituted for more Japanese ones. Such is the case when Alakazam first meets King Amo. In the Japanese version the scene sets up a contest of strength between the two. Alakazam claims that he can transform into any creature and leap, “108,000 li”, in a single bound. His hubris is his overestimation of his abilities and his conviction that his skill is greater than anyone’s.
In the English version Alakazam says that he has come to challenge heaven because, “You old guys should make room for the younger generation”. His hubris is that he can challenge those more experienced than himself and still retain superiority. Despite what is lost in the translation of people and places, little appears to be lacking from the message of the film be it in English or in Japanese. The moral still rings consistently true – Alakazam must learn how to rule for his people rather than for himself.
Paralleling the relationship between the U.S. and Japan, little is different between us despite our superficial cultural differences. We both see ourselves as Alakazam did, but like him we must both grow to be better leaders. I believe that we will continue to find our common goal as more and more films make their way from Japan to our shores. It’s too early to tell what the reception of American audiences will be to Alakazam the Great, but one can hope that it will not only herald more cross-cultural exchange, but more understanding between our peoples.