After the huge success of Princess Snow-White in Shanghai in early 1938, the Wan twins found a producer for Tieshan Gongzhu, which turned out to be the first full-length animation film in China, and in Asia.
Tieshan Gongzhu was completed after sixteen months of hard work, under very difficult technical and financial conditions. Although haunted by war, the talented Wan twins kept their spirits and amazing capacity of invention. If the modeling of some characters was still influenced by the Fleischer Brothers, others had an authentic Asian look. Making a colour film was out of the question but to improve the shading of black and white photography, all of the original drawings were coloured. As the animators lacked experience and no rotoscope was available, some scenes were first filmed with actors. Then frames from the film were pinned on the walls as models. When the Japanese occupied all of Shanghai, in December 1941, the popular patriotic song at the end of the film had to be shortened. The film was a huge success. It was even screened in Japan for a short time and when the young Tezuka Osamu saw it, he was so impressed that he decided to become an animator himself…
Marie Claire Kuo and Kuo Kwan Leung
The Wan brothers, China’s animation pioneers, had been active in the Shanghai film industry in the 1930s, making shorts, animated inserts for live-action features and even an animated episode for a portmanteau film, and they had joined the exodus from Shanghai when the Chinese part of the city fell to the Japanese in 1937. In Wuhan and other bases up the Yangtze River they made short animations for the anti-Japanese war effort. But in 1939, knowing that the resistance was still working in the city’s international concessions (so-called ‘Orphan Island Shanghai’), they returned to Shanghai to make Tieshan Gongzhu.
They chose a comic episode from the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (Xi You Ji, by Wu Cheng’en) for their storyline: the monk Tripitaka (Xuanzang) and his companions Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy must get past Fire Mountain on their way to India to gather Buddhist sutras, and they need a magical iron fan to subdue the flames. Their battle against the demons of Fire Mountain is, of course, a morale-boosting cypher for the anti-Japanese resistance. As the archivist-historian Jay Leyda noted, the film is most interesting when it leaves Disney influences behind and tries for a purely Chinese tone and style.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: da un episodio del romanzo Il viaggio in Occidente (Xi You Ji) di Wu Cheng’en. Scen.: Wang Qianbai. F.: Liu Qingxing, Chen Zhenye. M.: Wang Jinyi. Mus.: Lu Zhongren. Prod.: Zhang Shankun per United China (Xinhua-Lianhe). DCP. D.: 71’. Bn.
If you like this, we suggest:
Marie Claire Kuo and Tony Rayns