Payut Ngaokrachang, who died on 27th May, started off drawing backgrounds for puppet shows touring the countryside in his native Thailand. He drifted into animation with Haed Mahasajan (1955), in which a traffic policeman swayed with the moves of a temple dancer, and eventually causes a pile-up when he is distracted by a passing woman’s loose dress.
Payut’s cartoon came to the attention of the US Information Service, a public relations agency set up by the Eisenhower administration to push the American way of life in opposition to Communism. USIS gave him a 10,000 baht bursary (about $400), and the chance to spend six months studying animation with either Disney in America or the recently established Toei in Japan. Payut chose the latter.
Along with “Mr Keith” from the US embassy, Payut hired Tokyo animators led by Taiji Yabushita to make a 14-minute colour cartoon, The New Adventures of Hanuman (1957). Intended for screening at the US embassy in Bangkok, Hanuman drew on the Indian myths of the titular white-faced Monkey God, but depicted him under attack by red-faced monkey invaders who rush out of the jungle. A metaphor for the red menace of Communism in South-East Asia, the film was unreleased in Japan, but nevertheless brought in funding that bolstered the infant anime industry.
Payut was soon back with more American money, this time from the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, to fund The Bear and the Children (1960). A much more heavy-handed parable, it featured a hulking Soviet bear chasing a pig-tailed little girl, clearly intended to be Chinese. The evil bear goes on to pursue children wearing the national costumes of Thailand, the Philippines and Burma, who must unite to defeat it.
Yasuo Otsuka, then a rookie animator on the project, but destined one day to be a stalwart of Studio Ghibli, recalled in his autobiography the interminable meetings in a smoke-filled room between the Japanese, Payut and his American associates. A “Mr White” from the Tokyo embassy kept insisting on “reshoots”, seemingly unaware that the animators would have to go back to scratch on every scene he wanted changed.
Payut returned to Thailand, where he would make the first Thai cartoon feature, The Adventure of Sudsakorn (1979), made on a gruelling schedule that almost blinded him. In later life, he trained Thai animators subcontracting for foreign studios, and bewailed the rising domestic popularity of Japanese cartoons, lamenting that even his own granddaughter preferred them. In a strange turn of karma, he received money from the Japan Information Centre, yet another “cultural outreach” office, to make My Way (1992). This was a different kind of propaganda, posing as an anti-AIDS cartoon educating the youth of South-East Asia, but presumably attracting Japanese funding because of the consequences to Japanese sex-tourists if the disease continued to spread in the region.
Payut will be remembered as a giant of Thai cartooning, but his involvement behind the scenes of Japanese animation is a little-known element in his long and fruitful career.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.