The “location hunt” is the greatest boondoggle in the anime world. These tax-deductible research trips have sent animators all over the world to soak up local colour and amass materials to add a note of realism to their works. For Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steam Boy, photographers clambered over London and Manchester, snapping Victorian-era buildings. For Laputa, Hayao Miyazaki cut a strange dash as the lone Japanese tourist in the Welsh valleys. For Macross Plus, Ichiro Itano and Shoji Kawamori duelled in the air in surplus US military jets. For Gunsmith Cats, the entire crew appears to have gone mad in Chicago at shooting ranges and strip clubs. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
The oddest location hunt known has to have been be the one experienced by Tadahito Mochinaga in 1944, when he was commissioned to make the propaganda cartoon Fuku-chan’s Submarine. His brief was no weirder than that of many modern anime producers: a fun little singsong kids’ film, that also promoted the Japanese Navy. Because the Navy was paying for it, he was sent off to the navy base at Kure to see a real submarine up close.
Unknown to Mochinaga, he’d been booked into the Iwata Inn, a frequent haunt of kamikaze pilots on their last night of freedom. Mochinaga presumably kept quiet about his cartoon mission, but the waitresses misinterpreted this as a sign of shyness or patriotic reticence. That night, the happily married Mochinaga found two of them snuggling under his duvet for a patriotic send-off, and had to shoo them away.
The following day, he and his production crew were taken down to the docks and aboard submarine I-157, where they were plied with whisky in the captain’s cabin, and treated as officers by the trainee crew. They squeezed through the narrow hatches, and experienced the claustrophobic, stuffy longeurs of a dive.
Fuku-chan’s Submarine, like many other wartime anime, mixed cartoonish antics with oddly exacting replications of life in the military. A scene in which the crew snatch up flying fish from the deck and grill them for dinner was based on Mochinaga’s own observations when I-157 surfaced in the Inland Sea. The fish are incorporated into a prolonged kitchen scene, which proved to be the most popular moment of the movie, not for its peppy accompanying tune, but for the simple presence of provisions onscreen. Wartime Japan was already suffering from severe shortages – even as he made Fuku-chan’s Submarine, Mochinaga lost his morning taxi because there was no longer any petrol, and several staff members were conscripted. Food was running low; grocery stores stocked nothing but tea and curry powder, and Mochinaga was subsisting on a single bowl of porridge a day. He poured his personal longing for a sumptuous banquet into the submarine kitchen scene, and his audiences devoured it hungrily.
I say that Mochinaga had the weirdest trip, although I only know about it because he wrote about it in his memoirs. But his colleague Mitsuyo Seo, who would make the legendary Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors the following year, seemed to have an awfully good understanding of what was involved in jumping out of a plane. Did Seo actually grab some sky with Japanese paratroopers in 1945, all for the sake of his art…? Sadly, Seo never wrote an autobiography, so perhaps we’ll never know.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #82, 2011.