Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Animator Mitsuyo Seo, 1911-2010

by Chris MaGee

The end of an era for the world of Japanese animation nearly went unreported and unrecognized in the past few months. Had it not been for this report posted this past week by Japanese film scholar Aaron Gerow we may not have known about it at all. According to the post, Mitsuyo Seo, one of the pioneers of Japanese animation and director of the very first feature length animated film in Japanese cinema history, "Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors", passed away a year ago, August 24, 2010 to be exact. He was 99.

Misuyo Seo was born in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture in 1911. He began his career studying painting (working as a sign painter to pay the bills) until he found himself gravitating to the then still new world of animated films. In those early days Seo, a staunch leftist, became involved with the The Proletarian Film League of Japan whose membership at various times included such noted filmmakers as Kenji Mizoguchi and Daisuke Ito. It was due to his involvement with the Prokino that Seo was arrested and spent 21 days in jail. Upon his release he would form a brief creative partnership with fellow pioneering animator Kenzo Masaoka before founding his own animation studio in 1935.

The number of firsts that Seo was involved in in the world of Japanese animation is astounding. He and Masaoka produced the very first animated film with sound, "The World of Power and Women", at Shochiku Studios in 1933. Then, a decade later, Seo would produce the longest animated film produced in Japan at that time, 1943's "Momotaro's Sea Eagles" (original poster above). The film depicts the mythical Peach Boy of Japanese folklore leading an army of cute monkey, birds and rabbits in an aerial attack on a U.S. naval base. The film was produced at Shochiku under the order of Japan's Naval Ministry to glorify the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

It may seem strange that Seo, being a proven leftist, would become involved in producing war propaganda, but at that time in Japanese social and cinematic history the nation's motion picture studios had been conglomerated and given direct orders to produce "National policy" films to aide in the war effort. It was under these strict directives that Seo would make the sequel to "Momotaro's Sea Eagles", titled "Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors" in 1944. With a running time of 74 minutes this would be the very first feature length animated film produced in Japan.

After the war Seo made an effort to inject some of his own politics into his work, producing pro-Democracy film titled "Osama no Shippo" in 1949 for Toho. The film was shelved after it's leftist message was seen as being out of line with the then U.S. Occupation. Shortly thereafter Seo would leave the industry that he had helped to found and concentrated on being an illustrator.

Again, we share Prof. Gerow's surprise that the passing of Seo was not accompanied with more attention and acclaim for this pioneering artist. We thank Aaron for bringing this to everyone's attention here in the West. We leave you with Seo's 1934 animated short "
Sankichi the Monkey: Shock Troops".

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