The Bootleg Files: Tokio Jokio

BOOTLEG FILES 736: “Tokio Jokio” (1943 Looney Tunes cartoon).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright allows anyone to make dupes of this animated short.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: The folks at Warner Bros. aren’t particularly proud of this one!

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, when Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces brought World War II to a long-overdue close. To help observe this important occasion, we are presenting a short film that generated relatively little attention when it was first released during World War II but has since taken on greater visibility for some of the most impolite examples of political incorrectness captured in an animated short.

The 1943 Looney Tunes short “Tokio Jokio” is roughly seven minutes of pure, unapologetic insult humor aimed at the Japanese, ridiculing the intellect, appearance and tenacity of the Asian member of the Axis nations. Many contemporary viewers consider the depiction of the Japanese to be among the virulent racist stereotyping in animation history. But from a 1943 context, the film gave war-weary Americans a brief chance to have a laugh at the expense of an enemy who was far from the bumbling ineptitude portrayed on screen. And during wartime, nobody ever looks upon the enemy with the reverential consideration that a noble foe is at the far end of the battlefield. “Tokio Jokio” was created in the middle of war, when all was fair in fighting back.

Shot in black-and-white – this was among the last of the Looney Tunes shorts made in monochrome – “Tokio Jokio” is framed as a newsreel captured from the “Japanazi” enemy. The cartoon provides an opening credit featuring the banner “Nipponews of the Week” and a rooster on a perch – a clear riff on the Pathé studio with its trademark rooster. In this case, however, the rooster opens its beak and out pops a vulture with slanted eyes behind large eyeglasses and oversized buck teeth in its beak. “Cock a doodle doo, prease,” the vulture says in a bad Japanese-style accent (clearly Mel Blanc’s voice) before smiling in a vile manner and rubbing its hands in a scheming manner.

From here, “Tokio Jokio” goes into a non-stop skein of sight gags and blackouts designed to highlight the alleged idiocy of the Japanese war machine, with all of the Japanese male characters depicted as diminutive trolls sporting large ears, slanted eyes behind large eye glasses, oversized teeth, ill-fitting clothing and jerky physical movements. There are no women in the cartoon.

The film starts with a display of Japan’s civil defense air raid siren: it is powered by two men with a single pin – one man sticks the pin into the other’s posterior, which causes him to yell into a microphone as the air raid siren. The men smile, raise their hats in good manners, and exchange roles with the first stabbed man sticking the pin into his comrade’s backside.

Some gags are just plain dumb – a “listening post” finds a Japanese man holding his ear to a wooden post full of keyholes, an “aircraft spotter” is painting circular spots on an airplane. Some are surreal, most notably when a Japanese who gets blown up by an incendiary bomb (he tries to roast a sausage over its flame, thinking it is a nonexplosive dud). The explosion creates a big hole in the ground and the man can be heard saying, “Oh, rosing face, prease. Rosing face.” This reference to the Japanese concept of “losing face” is visualized when the man emerges from the hole as a headless entity with only broken eyeglasses and a hat floating on their own above his shirt collar.

The “Kitchen Hints” segment has a Prof. Tojo making a Japanese club sandwich by putting a meat ration card between two bread ration cards, followed by a self-destructive hammering of his skull with a club. The “Styles of the Week” segment displays a “Japanese Victory Suit” – actually, a Japanese man in a diaper trying to stay warm in front of a fast-extinguishing candle while snow falls around him.

A more inventive gag involves what appears to be a baseball player who is introduced as “Japanese king of swat.” But his target is a fly and his equipment is a flyswatter. The fly takes the flyswatter, pummels the would-be athlete and zooms off with an oversized trophy for his efforts. Admiral Yamamoto (walking on stilts) announces that he will “dictate peace terms in the White House,” while an “Editor’s Note” is flashed on screen to show the room reserved for the Japanese commander: a death row chamber anchored by an electric chair.

Another Japanese military leader, General Masaharu Homma, is shown demonstrating “Japanese coolness and calmness during air raid attacks” by running in panic into a fallen tree trunk. He emerges from the trunk with a skunk – and the latter is so appalled by Homma that he puts on a gas mask.

The segment “Flashes from the Axis” gives a kick to Japan’s partners in war. A donkey-head figure identified as “Lord Hee Haw” (a spoof on the propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw Haw) provides a news account of Hitler receiving a postcard from a friend on an overseas trip. To Hitler’s surprise, the “wish you were here” message on the postcard comes from Rudolph Hess, who is shown on the postcard’s image in a British prison camp. In Rome, there is a quick peek at the Roman ruins, which include a dejected and defeated Mussolini playing with a yo-yo.

Back to the Japanese antics, we see a submarine that launched three weeks ahead of schedule – with workmen still completing the exterior while the craft is underwater. The crew of a submarine are seen operating complex systems – they turn out to be playing with slot machines and movie peep show viewers – while the locked-in occupant of a kamikaze human torpedo yells to the viewer, “Get me out of here!”

Japan’s air force gets skewered with sight gags including a giant slingshot to get aircraft skyward and a man on a tricycle doubling as the airplane’s landing gear. Japan’s “busiest aircraft carrier” ferries the wreckage of downed Japanese fighter planes while a mine sweeper is a ship with robotic arms that sweep a large broom amid a mine field. The ship gets blown up and a buoy with a sign reading “Regrettable Incident Please” pops out of the ocean before the cartoon irises out.

“Tokio Jokio” was the last Looney Tunes short directed by Norman McCabe before he was drafted – he is billed as “Cpl. Norman McCabe” in the credits. He didn’t return to the Warner Bros. studio after the war, but worked in commercial illustration and educational films. He came back to animation in 1963 to join the DePatie-Freleng operation on the titles of the “Pink Panther” feature and the short film series using the Pink Panther as its main character. McCabe would also work on many television animated series and specials, including several for Warner Bros., and he was also on the animation crew for the groundbreaking 1972 X-rated cartoon feature “Fritz the Cat.”

“Tokio Jokio” was never among the Warner Bros. cartoons known as the “Censored Eleven,” but in the post-World War II years there was no enthusiasm to include it in the rerun culture of classic Looney Tunes shorts. It fell out of sight for many years, but that changed when the short’s copyright lapsed in 1971, thus putting it in the public domain. Thanks to this copyright-free status, “Tokio Jokio” began to turn up in the 1980s on cheapo VHS video labels featuring public domain cartoons, and it would later get greater visibility on Internet video sites.

“Tokio Jokio” is a product of its time, not our times, and one can excuse its excesses when considering the circumstances surrounding its creation and exhibition. And quite frankly, there is no need to apologize for “Tokio Jokio” – after all, the Japanese have yet to apologize for Pearl Harbor, let alone apologize for Manchuria, Nanking, Chongqing, Bataan, Unit 731 and their other less-than-polite escapades in the Pacific.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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