Little Tora is an interesting little animated series, by director, Kenzō Masaoka. Mr. Masaoka is cited as one of the earliest Japanese animation directors to use cell animation and sound. Because of his smooth-moving animation, for a time, he was referred to as the “Japanese Disney,” and while certain productions have the same similarities to the classic Mickey Mouse animations; Tora-chan has a similar “je ne sais pas pourquoi” type of milieu as Max Fleischer’s avant-garde animations.
For more of a detailed account of Western cartoons and their influence on anime, watch KaiserBeamz’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eniGm3StEek
⚠️ Each entry in the Little Tora franchise is ten to twenty minutes long, so I am unable to talk about them without spoiling pivotal parts of the plot ⚠️
Suteneko Tora-chan (1947)
Synopsis: A family of cats find a homeless kitten and take him in to their home. But one of the siblings becomes jealous about the attention the new cat gets from her mother and runs away from home. The new member of the family goes looking for her. Can he bring her back home safely and get her to accept him as part of the family?
This short is kind of hard to see, even with the remastered visuals. Since it is so old, it has a misty look to the picture. This version of Tora-chan is a musical with realistic-looking cat people (the art-style gets more cartoonish as the series goes on). For the time it was made, the painted backgrounds are really eye-catching, it reminded me of one of my favorite animated films of all time, The Wind in the Willows (1995). The animation is smooth and the audio quality of the music gives the short an eerie ambience.
Note: There’s also an obvious nod to Disney’s Fantasia (1940), there’s a cloud full of storm people, wielding lightning staffs!
Tora-chan to Hanayome (1948)
Synopsis: Tora-chan and Miike and playing while their big sister prepares for her wedding. Just then a letter arrives; it’s from Grandfather, who writes that he won’t allow the wedding as long as he lives! Bride and groom rush to the church to get married before the old cat can stop them, but his boat has just arrived! Can Tora-chan and Miike keep him distracted long enough for their sister’s happy day to go uninterrupted?
I was really impressed with the animation in this episode-length story, it’s a little bit more of a cartoon style than the previous entry, but it still has art that borders on realistic. The other story had a litter full of kittens and this one just focuses on Tora and the little girl cat, and their mischievous, kid-like shenanigans. The directing in this one was very experimental and phantasmagoric, it’s apparent that Nekojiru-sō took some of its iconography from this animation particularly. There’s a scene where Tora gets a wood bludgeon to hit a bunch of bothersome pigs with; it’s a less cruel version of Nekojiru’s iteration of events, but still is dreadfully similar! The conclusion to this story ends up being really wholesome, too. I would suggest this cartoon particularly if you’re a fan of the old Betty Boop or Felix the Cat animations.
Tora-chan no Kankan Mushi (1950)
Synopsis: Tora-chan and Miike are working on the side of a tuna steamship and manage to run afoul of the short-tempered captain. But the captain makes plenty of trouble on his own!
The official description of this short says that it’s a “tuna steamship,” but I honestly thought it was some kind of naval ship based on the boxes full of dynamite and the sailor’s uniform. This short is far less of a Tora-chan and more of a silly Popeye homage. I didn’t personally like the art in this one, it looked sloppy and the overly simplified drawings of the kitten’s faces made them look terrifying! The weakest link out of the bunch, and the shortest, too. The first two are twenty minutes long and this one is a measly nine minutes!
Conclusively, the iconic imagery of anthropomorphic kittens would become a staple in Japanese cartoons, ranging from Ginga Tetsudōno Yoru (Night on the Galactic Railroad) to Nekojiru-sō (Cat Soup)! Like Japan’s pension for conveying complex emotions through younger characters, the same can be said for their expression of emotion through cat characters. Heck, a famous Type-Moon artist, Takashi Takeuchi, has stated that the faces of his characters are modeled after feline faces! In a way, Japanese creators have taken the racist caricatures meant to insult East Asia’s almond eye shape and made it into something beautiful, just like many of the Japanese myths around foxes. Somehow, during the post-World War II era (the Shōwa era), Japanese artists began to create a style of artistic expression that is refined enough to have its own name: anime.