Watch the First Chinese Animated Feature Film, Princess Iron Fan, Made Under the Strains of WWII (1941)

Note: To watch this film with sub­ti­tles, please click “cc” at the bot­tom of the video play­er.

When we talk about tra­di­tion­al­ly ani­mat­ed fea­ture films, we most often talk about Dis­ney in the West and Japan­ese ani­me in the East. But both Dis­ney ani­ma­tion and Japan­ese ani­ma­tion (from the stu­dio of the acclaimed Hayao Miyaza­ki or oth­ers) have their inspi­ra­tions as well as their fol­low­ers, and in between Dis­ney and Japan we find the ambi­tious 1941 Chi­nese pro­duc­tion Princess Iron Fan. Made under Japan­ese occu­pa­tion in the thick of the Sec­ond World War, the film took three years, 237 artists, and 350,000 yuan to make, pre­mier­ing as the very first ani­mat­ed fea­ture made in Chi­na. Now you can watch it free (with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles avail­able at the click of the “CC” icon) on Youtube.

Princess Iron Fan adapts one of the many sto­ries in Jour­ney to the West, the Ming-dynasty nov­el rec­og­nized as one of the Four Great Clas­si­cal Nov­els of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture. In it, the tit­u­lar princess — or rather, a demon with the title of a princess whose “iron” fan, though mag­i­cal nev­er­the­less, is actu­al­ly made of banana leaves — duels the leg­endary Mon­key King.

Artis­ti­cal­ly fired up by a screen­ing of Dis­ney’s Snow White and the Sev­en Dwarfs in 1939, the film’s cre­ators Wan Guchan and Wan Laim­ing, known as the Wan Broth­ers, used a suite of tech­niques then sel­dom or nev­er seen in their home­land to bring the old tale to ani­mat­ed life, such as roto­scop­ing (trac­ing over live-action footage), bounc­ing-ball lyric sequences dur­ing musi­cal num­bers, and even col­or effects hand-drawn on top of the black-and-white ani­ma­tion.

Call­ing the pic­ture “an enor­mous achieve­ment in wartime film­mak­ing,” Ani­me: A His­to­ry author Jonathan Clements writes of its release the fol­low­ing year in Japan­ese cin­e­mas: “This is par­tic­u­lar­ly iron­ic, since the Wan broth­ers orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed it as a protest against the Japan­ese, seed­ing the film with images of ‘the bru­tal real­i­ty of the dai­ly vio­lence in a coun­try crip­pled by war.’ ” And just as Snow White moti­vat­ed the Wan Broth­ers to take ani­ma­tion to a high­er lev­el, so Princess Iron Fan moti­vat­ed a gen­er­a­tion of Japan­ese ani­ma­tors to do the same. Clements quotes Osamu Tezu­ka, cre­ator of Astro Boy and much else besides, on his own first view­ing of the film as a teenag­er, when he clear­ly under­stood it as  “a work of resis­tance.” But like all the most ded­i­cat­ed cre­ators, Tezu­ka could look beyond the Wan Broth­ers’ polit­i­cal chal­lenge to take on their much more impor­tant artis­tic one.

Princess Iron Fan will be added to our list of Ani­mat­ed Films, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The God­dess: A Clas­sic from the Gold­en Age of Chi­nese Cin­e­ma, Star­ring the Silent Film Icon Ruan Lingyu (1934)

An Epic Retelling of the Great Chi­nese Nov­el Romance of the Three King­doms: 110 Free Episodes and Count­ing

Illus­tra­tions for a Chi­nese Lord of the Rings in a Stun­ning “Glass Paint­ing Style”

The Ori­gins of Ani­me: Watch Free Online 64 Ani­ma­tions That Launched the Japan­ese Ani­me Tra­di­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or

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