Hollywood and Japan: Betty Boop Crosses Cultures

15 Feb

I recently watched a Japanese film from 1934, an early talkie called OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE (TONARI NO YAE-CHAN), directed by Yasujiro Shimazu, about two young brothers, a university student and an adolescent middle school baseball star, who live across the street from Yaeko, an attractive young student, and the romantic complications that ensue when Yaeko’s older sister Kyoko returns home after leaving her husband and begins to flirt with Keitaro, the university student, whom Yaeko has always had her sights set on.

In one scene, the four of them go to the local movie theater and they watch a Betty Boop cartoon.

It’s an actual Boop cartoon from 1934 called “Ha! Ha! Ha!,” released by Paramount Pictures, and it features Boop and Koko the Clown in a scene where Betty acts as dentist to treat Koko’s toothache and give him laughing gas. She uses the pen and ink bottle of “Uncle Max” to draw a dentist’s chair and put Koko in it. (Max Fleischer, Betty’s creator, often appeared in live-action on camera in these cartoons to bring Betty to life with his pen and inkwell.) There’s a full clip of the cartoon shown, complete with the actual English soundtrack—with no Japanese subtitles.

Shots of the audience laughing are shown, including Kyoko leaning on Keitaro, having positioned herself right between Yaeko and Keitaro, prompting jealous stares from Yaeko throughout the scene, the only one not enjoying the cartoon.

This marks the first time I can recall in which I’ve seen a Hollywood film excerpted in such length in a Japanese movie. (I have no idea if the clip was used with Fleischer’s or Paramount’s permission or not.) I’ve seen plenty of references to Hollywood films and stars in Japanese movies over the years and visits to movie theaters by the characters, as well as film posters and still shots hanging in homes and offices, but I can’t recall seeing an instance of a full film clip, although I must have over the years.

In quite an unprecedented turn of events, Max Fleischer returned the favor the following year by sending Betty Boop to Japan for “A Language All My Own,” a 1935 cartoon in which Betty flies in a plane to Japan—by herself!—to give a show for a Japanese audience. She sings the title song, which includes a lengthy verse in Japanese, and ends with her repeating to the audience, “Arigato, arigato” (Thank you, thank you).

She even has Japanese back-up dancers. The young men and women in the audience get up and dance in their seats at one point. It’s one of the very few American cartoons from that period to show Asian characters in a respectful, non-stereotyped manner.

See for yourself:

Here’s a very helpful article about “A Language All My Own” and Betty Boop’s popularity in Japan:

https://www.fleischerstudios.com/betty-in-japan.html

It includes a gallery of pictures of Betty Boop merchandise made in Japan in the 1930s.

Interestingly, I first saw “A Language All My Own” at a cartoon festival at the Thalia Theater in Manhattan around 1979 or 1980 as part of a joint Betty Boop/Popeye program. It was immediately followed by the wartime Popeye cartoon, “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap!” (1942). The audience went completely nuts, howling at the irony.

As you can see, a lot can happen in seven years.

Manga/animation pioneer Osamu Tezuka was strongly influenced by American animation, most notably the works of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer. Anime critics have often suggested Betty Boop as an influence on the design of Tezuka’s Astro Boy.

Another manga pioneer, Leiji Matsumoto, creator of “Galaxy Express 999” and “Captain Harlock,” has also cited Fleischer as an influence. Here is a quote from the introduction to an interview with Matsumoto that was published in the July 1996 issue of Animerica:

“Since childhood, I liked Disney and Max Fleischer’s American animation,” Matsumoto remembers. “The reasons I got into animation were Disney’s SNOW WHITE and Fleischer’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN. Also, during the war, when I was still a child, yet to go to school, we had black-and-white films of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop–we called her “Betty-san”–and we saw them at home. So even during the war, I was watching MICKEY MOUSE and POPEYE animation at home. They stopped showing them in Japan during the war, but we had plenty of them, so we saw them all the time.. And since they were on 35mm film, I could see the film and understand how animation works, how each frame is slightly different from the others in sequence. This was before going to kindergarten, so I was perhaps four or five. So by the age of five or six I was already familiar with the mechanism of animation.”

The full interview can be found here:

https://galaxyexpress.fandom.com/wiki/Riding_the_Rails_with_Legendary_Leiji:_The_Definitive_Interview

I’d love to know how his family got hold of those cartoons and were able to shield them from the military authorities during the war.

Ten years after the war, in 1955, Terrytoons did a cartoon set in Japan, “A Yokohama Yankee,” with a Madame Butterfly-type story about a Japanese butterfly, an American sailor fly, and a rapacious spider. Here’s what I wrote on IMDB:

Set in Japan, it’s a standard cartoon insect tale of a bullying spider trying to force himself on a delicate Japanese butterfly until an American fly, dressed as a sailor, intervenes, but it opens with a beautifully animated and designed sequence showing the butterfly preparing herself for her wedding in traditional garb with the help of an army of eager insect helpers, accompanied by a lovely song, sung by a female soloist, on the soundtrack. The song lyrics take dramatic license by placing Yokohama at the foot of “Fujiyama” (Mount Fuji), which is not at all close, geographically, but at least it rhymes. And there’s something of a surprise locale at the end. To my eyes, at least, the characterizations took great care to avoid stereotyping. I found this on YouTube along with many additional Terrytoon shorts.

There was a series of later Terrytoons, made from 1959 to 1963, that were set in Japan and featured a mouse named Hashimoto. Many of them were directed by a Japanese-American director named Bob Kuwahara. There was a sincere attempt in these cartoons to offer a respectful portrayal of Japanese culture. These are definitely worth checking out also.

Here’s the cartoon:

OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE wasn’t the only Japanese film from the 1930s I’ve seen this year to feature an extensive film clip. In Yasujiro Ozu’s THE ONLY SON (1936), a young man, having left his hometown years earlier to settle in Tokyo, takes his visiting mother to a movie. “This is called a talkie,” he tells her. The film they watch is a German film featuring a blond woman, an operatic singer, entertaining a room of people. We later see her running in the fields, followed by an ardent suitor. It’s in German and no Japanese subtitles are provided. The mother falls asleep during it.

Donald Richie’s book on Ozu identifies the film shown as LEISE FLEHEN MEINE LIEDER, directed by Willi Forst and starring Martha Eggerth. It is listed on IMDB as UNFINISHED SYMPHONY (1934) and on Wikipedia as GENTLY MY SONGS ENTREAT. Hans Jaray is the actor in the scene with Eggerth.

Another film reference in THE ONLY SON is found in the son’s home, which he shares with his wife and baby son, in a drawing on the wall of Joan Crawford, a Hollywood star of the time (and for many decades after). My guess is that the wife was a fan.

OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE has a similar Hollywood reference. Early in the film when Yaeko introduces her shy school friend Etsuko to Keitaro, Etsuko suggests in the next scene that Keitaro looks like Fredric March, a Hollywood star of the time (and for many decades after).

Compare for yourself:

Similarly, another Japanese film I’ve seen recently, BATTLE OF ROSES (1950), directed by Mikio Naruse, features a poster from the Errol Flynn movie, THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948), on the wall of the reception area of a cosmetics company run by one of the female protagonists.

In the same interview cited above, Leiji Matsumoto declares Errol Flynn to be an influence on his Captain Harlock character.

I’ve noted other examples of references to Hollywood in Japanese films over the years, but these were all discovered recently. And I’m hoping I can find more actual clips of Hollywood films featured in Japanese films.

By the way, both OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE and THE ONLY SON are excellent movies, one about the awkwardness of young love and one about the awkwardness of parent-and-child relationships when high expectations are involved and disappointment ensues. MISS YAE can be very funny at times, although it ends on a sad but hopeful note. THE ONLY SON offers a simpler narrative, with fewer characters, than most of Ozu’s later movies, but it explores the relationship quite thoroughly and resolves its issues quite satisfactorily. This latter result would not always be the case in Ozu’s movies.

OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE is, as far as I know, not available in the U.S. THE ONLY SON is a Criterion release (in a box set with THERE WAS A FATHER, 1942).

One Response to “Hollywood and Japan: Betty Boop Crosses Cultures”

  1. Robert Regan February 15, 2021 at 5:57 PM #

    Top drawer, Brian!

    On Mon, Feb 15, 2021 at 5:18 PM Brian Camp’s Film and Anime Blog wrote:

    > briandanacamp posted: ” I recently watched a Japanese film from 1934, an > early talkie called OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE (TONARI NO YAE-CHAN), directed by > Yasujiro Shimazu, about two young brothers, a university student and an > adolescent middle school baseball star, who live acros” >

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