Before the Japanese fell completely, one-hundred percent in love with anything and everything Disney (I mean, seriously, they love it), Mickey Mouse represented something completely different: Pure American imperialist evil.
At least he does in this 1934 animated propaganda cartoon Omochabako series dai san wa: Ehon senkya-hyakusanja-rokunen (Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936) by Komatsuzawa Hajime. It’s a convoluted title, but pretty simple in plot. An island of cute critters (including one Felix the Cat clone) is attacked from the air by an army of Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) riding bats and assisted by crocodiles and snakes that act like machine guns. The frightened creatures call on the heroes of Japanese storybooks and folk legends to help them, from Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and Kintaro (“Golden Boy”) to Issun-boshi (“One Inch Boy”) and Benkei, a warrior monk, to send Mickey packing. The not-so-subtle message: Mickey Mouse may be your hero, America, but our characters are older, more numerous, and way more beloved. Our pop culture is older than yours!
Though made in 1934, it is set in 1936, which might tie (according to this site) into the expiration of a naval treaty between the United States and Japan on that date. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a full seven years off, but clearly tensions were running high even then, as both the West and Japan had their eyes on Asia and the South Pacific.
Also of note is the trope of characters coming alive from a storybook, as this was a favorite subject in several Warner Bros. cartoons that would come out a few years later (and which we’ve covered.)
And finally to clarify Mickey’s fate at the end of the film: the old man with the box is a Rip Van Winkle character, and in Japanese folklore he is made old by the contents of a box he’s been told not to open. Violence is not vanquished with violence at the end of this cartoon, but with magic and derisive laughter followed by a song. In the real world, things would not end so easily.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.