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Andrew Osmond unearths a little-known cross-over

Even in the age of the internet, there’s sometimes no substitute for rooting around in a second-hand shop. And if you like Japanese pop-culture, then one of the best second-hand shopping centres is at Nakano Broadway, a couple of stops from Shinjuku station in central Tokyo. (For more info on the store, see the video here or the guide here.)

It was there that I turned up a fascinating work linked to Osamu Tezuka that I’d never heard of before. It’s a Japanese translation by Minoru Kume of the classic British children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, with about seventy Tezuka illustrations in his characteristically cartoony style. The book is a sturdy orange hardback that comes with its own cardboard slip case, and was published in 1972, at the height of Tezuka’s money problems with his struggling studio – presumably he was taking any work he could get, and found the Disney connection irresistible.

Courageous Dalmatian couple Pongo and Missis must rescue their puppies who’ve been stolen by the monstrous human villainess Cruella de Vil, who’s moving into the dogskin coat business. The book was originally published in 1956, though most people know the story through the Disney cartoon released five years later under a slightly different name, One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

This cartoon was technically innovative, using a Xerox-style process to speed up production. It’s widely rated among Disney’s best (and funniest) films. Disney also remade the story in live-action in 1996, with Glenn Close as Cruella. According to the copyright page, the Japanese Tezuka edition was published a decade after Disney’s cartoon, and shortly after the publication of Smith’s own sequel, The Starlight Barking.

Part of the book’s pleasure, of course, is just seeing how a familiar British story is interpreted by an artist from the other side of the planet. Tezuka puts in local information about Blighty for young Japanese readers. The book was published around the time that kids’ anime were tending more and more to adapt foreign literature and depict far-off countries in animation. One of the first was a 1969 Moomins, while Isao Takahata’s classic 1974 Heidi made a Japanese generation dream of life in the Alps.

There were also anime adaptations of British classics, like a 1985 serial of A Little Princess. (We discuss the impact of British children’s literature on anime here.) The Hundred and One Dalmatians never had an anime treatment, though two years after Disney’s film, Japan’s Toei studio released its own canine cartoon, called Wan Wan Chushingura or Doggie March (1963).

That brings up the thorny issue of Disney versus anime, of imitation versus legally dodgy appropriation. Look at the pictures from Tezuka’s Dalmatians. One the one hand, the human characters bear little obvious resemblance to the Disney versions. For example, Tezuka’s Cruella de Vil is much more sultry than Disney’s ageing hag. And yet the cute doggie cover feels irresistibly Disneyesque (compare this poster for Disney’s film). The book doesn’t appear to be any kind of licensed Disney tie-in, but it does seem designed to attract kids who’ve seen the Disney cartoon.

Given that Disney is usually at the end of accusations that it ripped off Tezuka’s work (specifically modelling The Lion King on Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion), the book is a reminder that such influences run both ways. Tezuka also wrote strip adaptations of Bambi (sample here) and Pinocchio (sample here). Like Dalmatians, both stories existed as respected books before Disney animated them, but Tezuka’s strips look very, well, Disneyesque. The images on the Pinocchio page suggest Tezuka’s strip wasn’t licensed by Disney either, so Dalmatians may be just carrying on an unspoken tradition.

There’s much more to say about Tezuka’s artistic debts to Disney; readers interested in the subject are recommended to the historical analyses by Ryan Holmberg here and here.

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