Saturday Morning Cartoon: On the 50th Anniversary of ‘Mermaid,’ by Japan’s Walt Disney

By  · Published on September 20th, 2014

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Osamu Tezuka is hard to over-hype. Certainly the most influential animator in Japanese history and among the most significant contributors to the form worldwide, his work launched both manga and anime as we know them today. He’s been called the Japanese Walt Disney, a bold comparison to say the least. Yet it works because of the ingenuity they shared, as well as their impressively broad body of work. The American built an empire out of theatrical cartoons, animated features, theme parks and more. Tezuka has an equally diverse body of work, bridging the world of print manga and animated cartoons for both television and cinemas.

He also made a number of experimental short animations, one of which turns 50 years old this weekend. Mermaid premiered in September of 1964, right in the midst of a real hot streak for Tezuka. Astro Boy, which would become his most internationally successful series, was approaching its 100th episode. Big X, an anime series about Nazis and the young man who foils their plans, had just debuted in August. Galaxy Boy Troop, a TV series that incorporated both marionettes and traditional animation, was entering its second year. It’s something of a miracle that he even had the time to think about working on anything smaller and less commercial.

Yet, somehow, this was an equally fertile period for Tezuka’s short cinematic work. In 1962 he directed Male and Tale of a Street Corner, following up with Memory and Mermaid in 1964 and two more in 1965, Drop and Cigarettes and Ashes. They all work with different themes and ideas, still identifiable as the work of this legendary artist but playfully experimental as well.

Mermaid has essentially nothing in common with the later Disney Studios film about the same mythical creature. It barely has anything in common with the Hans Christian Anderson story either, with the possible exception of its tone. If anything, it feels like the high concept political cartoons coming out of Eastern Europe around the same time. It’s the story of a boy who discovers a mermaid on the beach. He falls in love with her instantly and convinces her to come home with him to his parents’ house, cradling her in his arms. He puts her into an enormous fish tank. No witches and their Faustian bargains here, just common sense and good filtration.

The problem is that she’s not really a mermaid. She’s a fish, or at least everyone other than the boy sees her that way. By way of an intertitle, Tezuka explains that daydreaming is not allowed in this country. This young imagination, so powerful that it turned a simple carp into a maiden of the sea, is an enemy of the state. The rest of the short picks up this political angle and runs with it as far as the madhouse. The colors fluctuate dramatically, jumping from the deep blues of the opening scenes to terrifying, frantic shades of red. Government agents are drawn with monotone severity, distinguishing the inhumanity of totalitarianism from the passion of youth and creativity.

Heavy metaphors alone are not what make Mermaid a triumph, however. This is a film about space and the way that it opens up or closes in on a character. Tezuka emphasizes this by leaving his figures permeable. Rather than filling in any of the drawn characters, he allows the background to seep in. When the boy is standing in front of a blue sky or sea, his form is filled with that particular shade of blue. This allows the mood of each scene to permeate everything in the frame, drving home moments of both horror and tranquility. It is in this way that Mermaid is an experimental short, an innovation that still captivates the eye 50 years later.

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