Children’s animation adapted from literature – including short stories, folk tales and ancient myths – showcases diverse approaches of reinventing and reimagining elements of art history within the animated works, depending on their specific cultural sources. Furthermore, this reliance upon native cultural art as source material knows no geographic bounds. As this paper will demonstrate, animators from diverse nations and cultural backgrounds have drawn inspiration from within their own culture’s art history, making foundational creative elements contemporary and accessible to new audiences. Exhibiting this technique’s breadth, this paper will compare Australian, Japanese and European animated works, which build upon staples of native cultural art while re-creating a new visual reality that immerses children in their native culture and facilitates a connection with same.
Diverse cultures from across the globe utilize these techniques, though the methods are as diverse as the respective source material. As revealed by case studies of the following Australian, Japanese and Hungarian works – Australia’s Dot and the Kangaroo, the works of Japan’s Studio Ghibili, and those of Oscar-winning director Marcell Jankovics — this paper will demonstrate how high-profile animators working in diverse nations around the world have employed the creative use of graphic elements to pay tribute to their culture’s foundational art in adapted animated features.
In considering Australia’s well-known live action/animated film Dot and the Kangaroo (1977), this paper will examine 1899 original book, illustrated by noted artist Frank P. Mahony, and the animator’s use of live-action elements, cave paintings and comical characters to convey Australian bush imagery from the end of the 19th century. For Hungarian Marcell Jankovics’ work, the paper will show how the Oscar-winning director reimagined traditional Hungarian folk art patterns. In considering the work of Studio Ghibli and Takahata Isao, the paper will demonstrate how elements of historical Japanese art were reinvented and reimagined for animation, including the simulation of brush stroke, picture scrolls and woodblock prints.
In each case, though the source material was diverse, the outcomes were similar: animation drew a link between contemporary consumers of creativity and the art history underlying their national identity.
Dot and the Kangaroo
Produced in 1977, Dot and the Kangaroo’s narrative is based on Ethel C. Pedley’s book of the same title. Pedley’s book included nineteen full-page illustrations by celebrated illustrator Frank P. Mahony. Mahony’s reputation as a wildlife artist made him a natural fit to illustrate nature conservationist Pedley’s book in 1899, and his art served as an important foundation for Gross, who told a fresh story while remaining true to Pedley’s core concepts. Among late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century Australian authors, poets and artists residing in Sydney who had Western classic art education in painting and drawing at the New South Wales Academy of Art, Mahony (1862-1916) stayed active, becoming well-respected for his drawings of animals and local Australian wildlife and regularly contributing to contemporary magazines and books.
Mahony’s art formed the basis of the link between Gross and Pedley. The original book and the animation narratives differ, as I will demonstrate, but Gross’ work retains Pedley’s original comical tone, remaining focused on young audiences. Gross also stayed true to Pedley’s expression of the Australian bush’s timelessness, and its underlying sadness and pensiveness, conveyed through Mahony’s art. As did Pedley, Gross also emphasized social criticism related to European settler culture, pursuing a conclusion of achievable coexistence.
Though distrinctly Australian, Pedley’s story draws parallels to Lewis Carroll’s better-known Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a story of a vulnerable-yet-clever girl who drops in the middle of an absurd, fantastic world after chasing a little rabbit. Further demonstrating links between the two works, Wonderland illustrator John Tenniel (1820-1914) also influenced Mahony.
Mahony’s and Tenniel’s graphic styles for the illustrations differ in that Tenniel used woodblock engravings for his master images that served as the source of the electrotyped copies. Tenniel’s long tenure as a political cartoonist at Punch magazine informed his character design for Wonderland’s animals and creatures. Mahony, on the other hand, relied on his experience as an oil painter and colour illustrator, fusing his engravings with full-colour shading, which helped him recreate the atmosphere of the bush at different times of day with richness and depth. While his cover image is reproduced in colour, his illustrations for the book were reproduced in monochromatic shades.
Despite the differences in style, comparing Dot meeting the Koala to Alice’s first encounter with the Cheshire Cat reveals Tenniel’s influence on Mahony. Both illustrations depict a little girl conversing with a magical animal looking down from a tree branch. The bird and dinosaur depictions of Australia echo Tenniel’s illustration of the Dodo bird, while the final court scenes show similarities in each story’s depiction of chaos and disorder.
Although Tenniel’s influence can be pinpointed in these instances, it is important to note that Mahony displays a very distinct personal style informed by oil painting tradition and his depiction of the bush and its creatures. Without question, Dot’s human world contains powerful images and encounters, and it conveys the artist’s deep understanding of and compassion for the Australian bush. For example, Mahony’s hunted kangaroo, leaping over an abyss with two dingoes in pursuit and mid-air spears closing in, demonstrates the realism he brought to the fictional tale and shows an Australian Bush scene exactly as it might have been for such a hunt. Mahony also pays homage to aspects of native Australian culture that came long before his time, captured in Aboriginal art. His style fused oil painting techniques and evoked Aboriginal cave painting depictions of kangaroo hunt with spears. Aboriginal cave paintings were already being catalogued in Mahony’s day, with discoveries in the Kimberleys starting in the 1830s. These images certainly informed his perspective, setting the stage for Aboriginal art to come to life for children several generations later through Gross’ adaptation.
Without Mahony’s important visuals, the link between the work of Pedley and Gross certainly would have been less apparent, and likely also less centered on native Australian visuals. Mahony’s oil paintings mirror his close artistic connection with Australian bush life. His powerful yet intimate gaze at Australian Outback life and animals garnered recognition during his lifetime, and well before his collaboration with Pedley. By that time, several of his works had been purchased for and displayed in Australian art galleries, including Rounding up a Straggler (1889), The Cry of Mothers (1885), The Bullock Team (1891) and others for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nearing the end of his working life in Australia, Mahony concluded the Pedley collaboration two years before leaving for England, where he later died having failed to equal the popularity he experienced in his homeland. Mahony’s illustrations provided a rich springboard from which future creators would take flight.
Like Mahony, perhaps also because of Mahony, Gross deeply respected Aboriginal culture’s visual elements. Gross’ animation took Mahony’s influence one step further with the animated images of the Bunyip, a mysterious supernatural creature of Aboriginal lore, while also drawing upon Aboriginal cave paintings depicting native animals and groups of humans, which Gross re-created through animation. Gross developed a unique style in animation, imposing animated characters onto live-action background for feature films, which earned him a distinguished place in world animation’s history and translated well into bringing Australia’s unique flora and fauna to life for a worldwide audience. It also ensured that future generations could be stimulated by Aboriginal art as both he and Mahony were.
Gross used the X-ray technique in his rendering of Aboriginal cave paintings of animals – including the giant red kangaroo, the emu, the tortoise, fish and even humans – and he utilized the dot painting method of later Aboriginal artists, including the Papunya school, to depict dingoes, some fish and the texture of the Bunyip, as well as known symbols of waterhole and foot marks. Gross used the warm colours of ochre and pigmented soft rocks traditionally used in cave paintings, which were dominated by shades of brown, tangerine, yellow black and white.
Originally from Poland, Gross drew from varied inspirations, including Disney’s comical animal character design palette as well as the Eastern European and Soviet studios. In his work, he sought to re-create Australian bush animals in that well-established, internationally conforming style. His efforts to adapt Pedley’s book saw him keep one foot in the source material while drawing a closer connection to the Australian homeland that fueled Mahony’s illustrations.
In bringing Pedley’s story to life, Gross changed a few elements of the narrative. For example, Dot runs away chasing not a rabbit, but a grey Australian hopping mouse, or tarkawara, that is native to the central Australian arid zones. The animator’s efforts here followed in Mahony’s footsteps as something very true to Australia, presenting native artwork in a new form more accessible to children than the cave paintings that inspired Mahony. With children in mind, Gross also altered the literary work’s original melancholy mood to a more joyous undertone, though he also changed Pedley’s happy ending wherein the kangaroo finds her joey and interacts with the human world.
In Pedley’s story, Dot – unlike Alice or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (1900) — brought Wonderland to the human world, her experience not discarded as a strange dream. In adapting Pedley, Gross instead took his cue from Mahony’s depiction of the Australian Bush. Gross changed Pedley’s ending, his closing scene depicting infinite loneliness demonstrated through the aerial view of a giant red kangaroo hopping away alone through a vast arid land (1899, n.1). This aerial view recurs in Mahony’s illustrations as well as in Gross’ animation, lending a unique observer’s perspective to the enchanted narrative both in the illustrated book and in the film.
As such, Gross’ film draws even stronger links to Aboriginal art work and aspects of native culture in Australia, allowing children to experience more easily this aspect of Australian art history.
Unique Cultural Expression Not Unique to Australia
Native artwork had a clear impact on contemporary Australian animation, but the technique is far from singular to that part of the world. In geographically diverse places far from Australia, contemporary animation has relied upon national art history and folktales in connecting the audience with more remote cultural origins. For example, Hungarian animation and Japanese animation both utilized ancient aspects of native cultures in telling fresh stories that adapted previous works built upon their respective nations’ art history.
Song of the Miraculous Doe
Previously discussed in the Australian Bush context, the tale of the hunt is widely retold in different places and in different contexts, including native folklore and contemporary adaptations of same. While Dot and the Kangaroo shows a story from the perspective of the chased and hunted miraculous animal, with mythical links to the homeland/bushland of both Aboriginal and settler communities, The Song of the Miraculous Doe, an 1864 epic poem by Hungarian poet Janos Arany, describes the pursuit of magical deer from the hunters’ perspective. These hunters are the mythological ancestors of Hungarian and Hun tribes, journeying from the steppes of Central Asia to the Caucausus and finally arriving in the ancestral homeland of the Carpathian Basin. The poem is based on an ancient folk narrative of two twin brothers, Hunor and Magyar – the fathers of the Hun and Hungarian tribes – chasing the elusive miraculous doe, which entices them to reach new and enchanted terrains where fairies live. Though Arany’s poem and Pedley’s book were written for different audiences, both works placed similar demands upon the animators who adapted them. Just as Gross largely diverted from Pedley’s melancholic tone, Jankovics, the Oscar-winning Hungarian animator who would adapt The Song of the Miraculous Doe, also had to convert his source material for a youthful modern audience.
The Song of the Miraculous Doe formed the basis of Jankovics’ 2002 animated film of the same title. Jankovics approached the project with an extensive research background in Central Asian archeology and art history as well as a study of Hungarian folk art traditions. Jankovics has utilized art historical visual sources in his animated work since 1977, in his Hungarian Folk Tales series (1977-2012) as well as animated feature film The Son of the White Mare (1981). Additionally, he brought to life the work of beloved Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi (1823-1849) with Johnny Corncob (1973).
In animating Arany’s work, Jankovics superimposed the epic poem’s Central Asian and Ural-Altaic cultural narratives of totem animals: the deer, the reindeer and the horse. Full-colour aquarelle and engraving illustrations from the 1959 publication of The Song by painter Gyula Szőnyi (1919-2014) informed Jankovics’ work. Szőnyi depicted the hunters as Central Asian horsemen and the fairy girls as Turkic tribes.
In adapting the poem, Jankovics extended his research further back, tracing tribal migrational movement from the late Ice Age to the early European Middle Ages. In the film, he divided his narrative into four parts (songs), the first of which shows early dwellings of Central Asian and Siberian tribes and the Ice Age’s thaw. Stretching beyond Hungary’s borders, Jankovics also used motifs from Mongolian rock paintings and bone carvings as well as Selkup shaman drum symbols. Partially preserved or incorporated into later Hungarian folk art motifs, these symbols included the metamorphosis of Sun rays, plant tendrils and birds that become Jankovics’ trademark animated symbol system, also seen in Hungarian Folk Tales and Johnny Corncob.
In the second song, the animation utilizes Scythian gold figurines and engravings of horses, deer, hawks and lions as well as Permian bronze plaquettes with animal motifs as visual sources. In the third song, Jankovics animates Sogd wall paintings, Persian miniature paintings and Khazarian visual motifs. In the fourth and final song, the animation embeds the migrant visual traditions into the European Christian settler culture.
While geographically distant from the Dot narrative and focusing on the human perspective of the chase of a magical animal, the animation Song of the Miraculous Doe draws parallels with Dot and the Kangaroo in visually narrating the progressive coexistence of humans/invaders and miraculous native animals. Furthermore, Jankovics’ animated adaptation shows how native cultural art and traditions can enliven and inform modern retellings of a people’s stories that have been told and retold.
Racoon War Pom Poko
Similar to Dot and the Kangaroo and The Song of the Miraculous Doe, the Japanese animated film Racoon War Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994) also drew from a folk narrative published as an illustrated children’s story in Japan, a much beloved manga published by Shigeru Sugiura (1908-2000).
Additionally, as the link we saw in the link between Gross and Mahony, Sugiura’s manga sequential art work inspired Takahata. Meanwhile, similar to Jankovics, Takahata prefered to use traditional hand-drawn animation techniques instead of computer-enhanced animation. Takahata used Sugiura’s 808 Racoons as a racoon dog representational layer in his animation. Also, Takahata regularly relied upon folk art sources and his nation’s art history in his animation. Fascinated with art history, similar to Jankovics, Takahata (1999) wrote an interesting analytical work on Heian period Japanese picture scrolls as possible forerunners of animation.
The Racoon War Pom Poko narrates the story of the tanuki, or Japanese racoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus), depicted widely throughout Japanese folklore and children’s tales as a trickster and a shape-shifter. Akin to the Miraculous Doe, Takahata’s animation features three layers of the supernatural animal juxtaposed and often superimposed on one another: (1) the layer showing the animal’s natural physical form, conveyed in a realistic rendering style; (2) the layer depicting the animated animal as the narrative’s main character; and (3) the layer showing a stylized version of the animal, also drawing similarities to Jankovics’ work, in Pom Poko, Sugiura’s manga version of the raccoon dog, and in Miraculous Doe, a primitive style of folk art rendering.
As with Dot and The Miraculous Doe, Pom Poko depicts the conflict so often inherent to interactions between the human and animal worlds – that of intruders and victims. The Miraculous Doe focuses on the prehistoric to medieval eras and Central Asian to Central European geography, where the natural world’s coexistence with humans is overwhelmed by human civilisation. Dot shows a cross-sectional moment in history, where early settlers’ encroachment to the environment caused surreal encounters as well as anxiety on the parts of both animals and humans, pondering the possibilities of future coexistence but also future conflict.
In the case of Pom Poko, the era is modern day, 1960s Tokyo – more precisely the development of the Tama new residential region reclaimed from forested areas. Tama is a double-entendre as tama means “ball,” and in Japanese folklore, tanuki raccoon dogs are famous for their gigantic testicles. Therefore, Tama is the raccoon dog’s habitat on both an actual and symbolic level, to which they have a birthright. When their habitat is threatened, the shape-shifter tanuki launch a number of tricky attacks on humans, finally giving up hope and joining human society in the shape of human salarymen. In this, they follow in the footsteps of the Japanese red fox, another known shape-shifter from Japanese folk tales, and sacred animal of the Inari Shinto worship tradition.
In Takahata’s film, the fox also shape-shifts and settles in human society. The tanuki’s defeat, and allegorically, that of humans – who become the victims of their own reckless urbanisation – is shown both with dark realism as well as deep symbolism, with realistic depiction of tanuki animals lying beside the road as casualties to “progress” and the sailing away of cartoon raccoons to Nirvana.
The shape-shifting culminates in the Japanese yōkai monster parade of the raccoon dogs on the streets of Tokyo. This is where Takahata uses a plethora of Japanese art historical sources to depict supernatural beings. Takahata based the parade on Hyakki Yagyō, or Parade of 100 Demons, which dates back to the Heian period in literature (The Tale of Genji, early eleventh century) and to the Muromachi period in visual arts (Hyakki Yagyō picture scrolls, fourteenth—sixteenth centuries), that are later adapted and reinvented in ukiyo-e woodblock prints in the Edo and Meiji periods (seventeenth—nineteenth centuries). Besides the Hyakki Yagyō, the film also utilizes comical characters of rabbits and frogs from the Chōjū Giga Picture Scroll of Frolicking Animals (twelfth century), a visual reference and homage to the picture scroll that Takahata considers to be the visual forerunner of Japanese animation. Other sources include art historical depiction of yōkai Japanese monsters as well as that of the fox as a spirit being.
Modern animation has many common threads that bind the visual form, even across cultures, languages and geograpy. This paper aimed to show how hand-drawn animated adaptations of popular tales rooted in traditional culture and art history came to life in three distinct socio-cultural environments, demonstrating a technique that applied across cultures and geography while making the literary works and the foundational underlying cultural touchstones accessible to new audiences, especially children. Animators working with source material in Australia, Hungary and Japan have used art history to reinvent and reimagine both the natural and supernatural worlds of their respective nations, telling familiar stories with visuals that feel familiar to people familiar with the original literary works as well as the native culture that inspired those works.
This paper showed that Gross’ animation, Dot and the Kangaroo, paid visual homage to the original book illustrations of Mahony, who relied on and incorporated Aboriginal wall painting and dot-painting traditions. At the same time, Gross allowed the magnificence of the Australian bush to radiate through his narrative via live-action footage in his hybrid film.
Jankovics’ The Song of the Miraculous Doe, based on a Hungarian epic poem, drew from Szőnyi’s book illustrations. Additionally, in addition to relying on images and aspects of the cultures that gave rise to modern Hungary, Jankovics took on visually rendering and animating art historical visual sources from Ice Age Siberia, Bronze Age steppe cultures of Scythia, the Permian empire and early medieval Christian art. Art historical visual sources in this case range from rock art and shamanistic drum designs to gold figurines, monumental wall paintings, miniatures and illustrated codexes from diverse geographic regions ranging from today’s Mongolia, Central Russia, Iran, Tajikistan and Central-Eastern Europe.
Takahata, on the other hand, based his animated work exclusively on native Japanese visual sources including both twentieth-century manga comics and Heian to Meiji Period picture scrolls, ukiyo-e woodblock prints and Nihonga paintings.
We may conclude that, while all three animated films reimagined a past visual world with differing adopted techniques and tactics, they are united in their conveyance of a lyrical visual world showing moments of turmoil and clashes between vulnerable native fauna and human intruders, connecting children with art that underlies national cultural identities while also sending home the importance of conservation.
Zilia Zara-Papp, PhD is Associate Professor of Media/Design Studies at Saitama University, Japan. An Australian Permanent Resident, Prof. Zara-Papp is fascinated by Yoram Gross’ animation art and his contribution to Australian visual culture, to whose memory this paper is dedicated.</small?
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