Sunday, July 20, 2014

What animates a culture?

I've fallen down a quite delightful rabbithole - classic Chinese animated films (available online!). The first was "Princess Iron Fan 铁扇公主" - China's first feature-length animated film, made in Shanghai under Japanese occupation in 1941. (Though pretty transparently an injunction to gather forces to overthrow an unjust enemy, it was shown in Japan, too, where it apparently inspired the young Tezuka Osamu to become a cartoonist!) It is - dare I say of course? - taken from the eponymous Journey to the West, which has appeared in endless adaptations in every genre, including many films and TV productions. (The most recent: Stephen Chow's super-enjoyable farce "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," China's best-selling, best-grossing film.)
But I was following classic animation, and so next saw "Three Monks 三個和尚" (1980), the winner of the first Golden Rooster award for animated films after the Cultural Revolution. And then it was time for "Nezha Conquers the Dragon King 哪吒闹海" (1979), the first real international hit for feature-length Chinese animation since 1941. It's protagonist is a little boy, really a god, who does remarkable martial arts and gorgeous ribbon dancing stunts from the moment he is born. Equipped with magical implements by a god, the feisty little fellow is a dragon-slayer.
Religion is all over these films. Journey to the West ostensibly tells of the coming of Buddhist knowledge to Tang China, but the scene-stealing Monkey King Sun Wukong traffics mainly with figures a religious taxonomist would call Daoist. Nezha, meanwhile, is a Daoist figure - known as the Third Son of the North King - and worshiped as protector of children and (because he has fire wheels like roller-blades) people who drive for a living. But the child warrior's origins seem to go back to India - Krishna, in fact, by way of one of the Buddhist protector gods.
But then things got really fun. Following hyperlinks as one does, I happened on a video of a troupe of Taiwanese dancers dressed as Nezha, known as techno-Third Sons 电音三太子 bopping to a pop song called Bobee. The song, in turn, is by Taiwanese star Wang Caihua 王彩樺 and seems to be full of religious imagery - well, there are lots of Daoist augury images in the official video, and it starts with some familiar sages. Is anything similar happening on the Mainland? We'll see!

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