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.
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