18 November, 2006

"Banned" Bugs Bunny 8: "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips"

This week's "banned" cartoon is "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" which was released on 22 April 1944, right in the middle of America's struggle with Japan during World War II.

It begins with a view of the ocean and the sky labeled as being "Somewhere in the Pacific". As the camera pans across the scene, we then hear Bugs lazily singing Vera Lynn's "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat". (Lynn was an English singer who was extremely popular during the war. She is referenced by Pink Floyd's in their song "Vera" from The Wall.) We then see a crate floating on the waves with a pair of familiar ears sticking out.

There is then a cut to the interior of the crate where we see our protagonist, Bugs. He looks at the camera and, in a bit of self-reflexivity, says, "Just killin' time til the island that inevitably toins up in this kind of picture inevitably toins up." And the inevitable island does turn up. Bugs sticks his arms out of the crate and paddles towards it. Once ashore, Bugs adoringly talks about the beauty of the island and the quiet, peacefulness there. This is then shattered by artillery fire with clouds of black smoke appearing around him.

Bugs runs and jumps into a haystack which is improbably sitting just off the beach. He pops his head up to see what's going on and then the haystack mysteriously grows a pair of legs. And arms. And the arms plop a hat down on Bugs' head. The legs start creeping along. This is actually a really funny scene with Bugs' head and unknown arms & legs jutting out of the hay. We then discover that a Japanese soldier is in there as well.

The soldier is portrayed as a classic stereotype of Japanese people – short, buck-toothed, and big round glasses – and yells in gibberish that approximates Japanese. Bugs takes off as the soldier slashes at him with a machete and dives into a hole for protection. Tossing a bomb down the hole and piling dirt on top, our antagonist waits for the explosion. He hears it and digs up the dirt only to have Bugs pop out and hand the lit bomb to him. It explodes in the soldier's hands which only serves to irritate him more. Bugs' ear are sticking out of the hole and, as the solider prepares to take the machete to them, Bugs pops up dressed as a Japanese general and his pursuer drops to the ground in deference.

But, when the general pops a carrot in his mouth, the guy sees through the subterfuge. We cut to a close-up of the soldier and he talks directly to the audience in another bit of self-reflecivity: "Oh, honorable a-ha! That-a not-a Japanese general. Oh no! That-a Bugs Bunny. I see in Warner Brother Leon Schlesinger Merrie Melodie cartoon picture. He no fool me." With the jig up, Bugs takes off and jumps into a Japanese fighter plane and the soldier pursues yelling his gibberish. As his plane takes off, we see that there's rope attached to it and Bugs is diligently tying it to a tree.

This leads to the plane being ripped out from underneath the soldier, leaving only the cockpit glass. He opens it, jumps out, and then opens his parachute. Slowly falling back down to the island, Bugs flies up to him and gives him an anvil saying, "Here's some scrap iron for Japan, Moto." And the guy plunges down to the earth.

With his enemy dispatched, Bugs keeps score by painting a Japanese flag on a tree. When done, he turns around and is confronted by a sumo wrestler. Taking the massive guy on in a match, Bugs loses and ends up in knots. The wrestler then goes to the tree to mark up his victory when he notices a woman clad in kimono and clutching a fan approaching.

This is, of course, Bugs' obligatory scene done in drag. Luring the wrestler with a kiss, Bugs pounds him over the head with a hammer. Thinking that he's finally done, Bugs begins to walk away and then notices a Japanese troop ship just offshore with landing vehicles pouring onto the island.

Bugs puts on his thinking cap and comes up with an idea. Next thing we hear is the bell of an ice cream truck which comes into view as it rambles along with Bugs holding up an ice cream bar. A close-up reveals that there are hand grenades in it. He stops the truck and starts barking, "Get yer ice cream here!" Soldiers babbling in faux Japanese and clutching cash scramble to get a bar.

While the portray of the Japanese soldier and Bugs' reference to "Japs" is offensive enough today, it is here that the film really hammers home the racism. As Bugs is handing out the ice cream bars, he says, "Here's yours, bow legs. Here, one for you, monkey face. Here ya are, slant eyes." The soldiers wander off and loud explosions can be heard. "Well, that's that," Bugs says to himself. But there's one last soldier who comes up to the truck. His uniform is in shreds but the stick from the ice cream bar says he gets a free one. Bugs gives him one and it explodes.

We then cut to Bugs painting numerous Japanese flags on trees and he starts talking about how the island is yet again peaceful and quiet. But he turns round and yells, "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's peace and quiet!" He then starts crying and lamenting that he's stuck on the island.

We then hear a ship in the distance. It's an American ship.

Bugs starts yelling for it to rescue him and he runs onto the beach waving a white flag. He suddenly looks to his left and the camera pans to reveal a pulchritudinous female bunny.

This drives Bugs wild and he hops after her into the horizon.

"Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" was not one of the original "Censored 11" and its racist portrayal of Japanese people was largely disregarded until the early 1990s when it was released on laserdisc as part of The Golden Age of Looney Toons, Volume 1. Apparently it did not draw much attention at first as laserdisc players were not very common. But when the set was released on VHS, it drew protests from Japanese-Americans and both formats were withdrawn. When the title was reissued, the short was replaced by "Racketeer Rabbit". Having been given a brief, but official, release on home video, the cartoon isn't particularly rare and can be viewed via YouTube.

As I noted above, "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" wasn't released until the spring of 1944, about two and a half years after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese prompting America's direct involvement in the war. I wondered why a cartoon like this hadn't been made earlier. One would think that propaganda like this would be made right as we were preparing to fight Japan, not 2+ years into it. While I wasn't able to find anything definitive, I did manage to come up with a theory.

I suspect that the cartoon was a response to the Battle of Tarawa. Tarawa is a tiny atoll in the central Pacific and was occupied by Japanese forces in 1943. The battle was one of the first offensive campaigns by the U.S. in the Pacific Theater and was an important conflict in our "island hopping" to the Japanese mainland. As the Wikipedia article linked above notes, it was a very bloody battle with 1,009 American soldiers killed and another 2,101 wounded over the course of 4 days. The piece also notes that "The heavy casualties sparked off a storm of protest in the United States, where the high losses could not be understood for such a tiny and seemingly unimportant island." And so I suspect that the cartoon at hand was a response to the protest over the battle to get Americans fully behind our efforts in the Pacific.

I chose "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" for today because the Pacific Theater of World War II has been on my mind recently. Firstly because of the recent release of Clint Eastwood's film Flags of Our Fathers which concerns the lives of the men who raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. Secondly I read earlier this week about a new book called Impounded which collects photos from the Japanese internment camps during the war by Dorothea Lange. The images were apparently hidden away at the National Archives until now and you can view some of them at this page.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was still about a year away when this short was released but the internment of Japanese-Americans and the creation of an "exclusion zone" had happened about a year previous. The zone was a large area of the West Coast which covered western Washington & Oregon, the entirety of California, and southern New Mexico. People of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and sent to internment camps lest they not conspire with their "homeland". This included American citizens (about 62% of the roughly 112,000 people who were detained) and not just recent immigrants who were deprived of their rights. Wisconsin was part of this as Camp McCoy, an Army base, hosted one of these internment camps which opened on 1 March 1942. While German-Americans received their share of grief during this time, they were not, however, locked up. Folks of German decent had a long history in this country so there were more of them plus they "looked like us", i.e. - they didn't have epicanthic folds on their eyelids.

"Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" is the first cartoon I've looked at which uses racial slurs. It is also the first to, not only portray racial stereotypes, but to also portray violence against minorities. To be sure, it's "cartoon violence" and the violence is little different from the stuff Bugs inflicts upon, say, Yosemite Sam, but, given the context, I think it's a bit disturbing. The images of blacks in "Uncle Tom's Bungalow" and "Sunday Go to Meetin' Time" are not flattering, to say the least, but no black characters die or are shown to be attacked by whites. I don't know of any scenes even close to an ostensibly white character handing out ice cream bars filled with explosives to a bunch of blacks so that they're killed when the bars explode.

Yes, "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" was made during wartime but it's interesting to compare & contrast the cartoon at hand with "Herr Meets Hare", when Bugs meets up with another of our enemies in World War II, the Germans. "Herr Meets Hare" came out in January 1945 and, despite perpetrating genocide at the time, Hitler is merely poked fun at and no one dies. While I don't want to say that this is conclusive proof of anything, it is certainly suggestive to see how whites come down on the Japanese (I guess it's not PC to use "yellow" here) very harshly in one cartoon during this time yet fail to do so when it comes to the Germans, who are also white.

I've tried to emphasize over the past several weeks that any discussion about the racism in these cartoons must not only include our views here in the 21st century but also context or the views of the creators and audiences at the times when they were made. And these aren't easy to suss out. "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" is interesting in that it wasn't deemed so offensive as to be pulled from circulation until the early 1990s. This says something about our priorities when it comes to dealing with racism and probably minorities generally. I briefly touched on this issue last week with "Frigid Hare" and Eskimos. When we go out and are critical of stereotypes, we're very cognizant of how blacks are portrayed. When it comes to racism, white vs. black is at the top of our list. But this shouldn't be surprising as this almost split apart our country and led to the Civil War. Plus there was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and a host of other social upheavals over this issue. So it should be no surprise that black vs. white is paramount in our minds. In recent times women, Native Americans, and gays stood up for their rights to be treated fairly. And today there is increasing awareness of portrayals of Latinos in our media as the Hispanic population of America grows rapidly. But there has never really been a time when Asian-Americans have banded together and really created waves in our society against the status quo. They've been quiet, so to speak, as a minority group so perhaps we let racism against them slide under our radar.

Part of the reason I feel this way has to do with the time I spent living outside of Eau Claire, which is in west central Wisconsin, and saw the attitudes of whites towards the Hmong. Many Hmong fled Laos and Thailand in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and immigrated to America. They were "welcomed" because many of them helped us in that conflict and were relocated with help of the federal government. Now, why Wisconsin was chosen as a place to send these folks is beyond me, but our state was chosen nonetheless and we have a pretty significant Hmong population today. Eau Claire and its surrounds were (and are) overwhelmingly white and it was not uncommon to hear racist remarks. People who made comments about blacks often did so in hushed tones as if they knew they were transgressing a law. But comments about the Hmong were usually made casually and with no attempt to hide anything.

I'll end here but I'd like to point readers, especially locals, to an article that appeared in the Capital Times lately which discussed the lives of Asian exchange students called "Different Worlds. I know it is perhaps only tangentially related, but it's interesting nonetheless.

"Herr Meets Hare"
"What's Cookin' Doc?"
"Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears"
"All This and Rabbit Stew"
"Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time"
"Uncle Tom's Bungalow"
"Frigid Hare"


Anonymous said...

Bugs Bunny you're an embarrassment to cartoon characters as are you're creators God Bless all Japanese persons.

Anonymous said...

There are those among us who harbor hatreds toward all who are "different" in some way. As it says in the movie ' South Pacific', "they have to be carefully taught" to be so hateful. Peers and Parents are the chief culprits. As for the attitudes of the chief perpetrators, they are usually frightened people who are looking to get even with all of society to get even for their own suffering. In other words, they turn into gang members who love to bully others, with the gang providing protection.

Anonymous said...

These are great cartoons. Wish they made more.

Skip said...

More Bugs Bunny cartoons or more racist cartoons?

Unknown said...

The cartoons are funny as hell and my grandparents and parents laughed at them.