Report on the talk ‘Princess Iron Fan (1941) at the Crossroads of Cultures: Chinese animation and its imprints in Japanese visual culture’

I came to this lecture with a deep affection for the Wan brothers’ beautiful film ‘Princess Iron Fan’, and a little knowledge of the relationships between Chinese and Japanese animation in the 1940s. By the time Dr. Yang finished speaking, I felt that my horizons had been expanded to include a new area of exploration – a new and broader liminal space along the borders between cultures, in which the processes of translation and appropriation were balanced and energised by a dynamic process of cross-culturalisation.

This process, in which artists and production workers can both teach and learn from each other by bringing their own cultural understanding into their work and absorbing elements of the culture of others, was illuminated using examples of Japanese, American and Chinese animation and production processes. I was impressed by Dr. Yang’s account of the demanding but exciting technique of frame-by-frame viewing, through which it is possible to see traces left by production workers on the film itself, reminding us that these mostly uncredited workers are vital collaborators in the film-making process.

Drawing on Chinese calligraphy, painting and architecture, and on concepts such as the ‘borrowed view’ (jiejing) which is so fundamental to Chinese garden design, Dr. Yang engaged with the work of Hannah Frank and Thomas Lamarre, taking us in a new direction. Her assertion that Chinese animation did not happen in isolation was supported by fascinating material from Shanghai news media around the 1938 release of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White’ (1937), by an extract from the 1989 Japanese animated film ‘Osamu monogatari: Boku wa Songoku’ (Osamu’s Story: I’m Songoku!) and by reflections on technical processes such as the multiplane camera and rotoscoping.  Her comparative examination of tracking shots at the beginning of ‘Snow White’ and of ‘Princess Iron Fan’, and the analysis of how the use of the multiplane camera frames the “Princess Iron Fan’ sequence as a window into Chinese culture, was fascinating.

Osamu Tezuka watching Princess Iron Fan (1941) in a movie theatre in 1942 Japan, still from Osamu Tezuka Story: I am Son-Goku (1989).

Dr. Yang’s presentation was detailed, precise and evocative. For me, it opened up a new way to consider the overlapping histories of Chinese, Japanese and American animation, and to see the influence each had on the other in a new light. The value of such exploration of the borderlands of culture is, in my opinion, only just beginning to be fully realised and exploited, and young scholars from widely diverse cultures are making exciting strides in this work.

Lev Manovich’s essay “What is Digital Cinema?’ and its impact on our view of the value of live-action cinema as a record of reality has given these young scholars a theoretical ground from which to shake up the accepted hierarchies of the moving image. Addressing the mutability of digital data, and its relationship with much earlier methods of handcrafting the moving image, we are able to see film as a medium of overlapping techniques, histories and possibilities, rather than a straight-line progression through technology. Freed from the fiction that culture moves in only one direction, our ability to appreciate and learn from cinema and other artefacts is greatly enhanced.

Dr. Yang is currently preparing a book on her work. Having seen and heard this lecture, I am impatient to read it.

Helen McCarthy is an independent scholar who has been studying Japanese animation since 1981. She wrote the first book in English on anime in 1993, and has since written, co-written or edited a dozen more, including The Anime Encyclopedia and works on Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki and Leiji Matsumoto.