The Bootleg Files: Detective Felix in Trouble

BOOTLEG FILES 580: “Detective Felix in Trouble” (1932 Japanese amateur animated short).

LAST SEEN: A video of this rare film is online at the Japanese Animated Film Classics website.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The unauthorized use of the Felix the Cat character.


Today, it seems that anyone with a video camera and a mania for popular movies can make their own fan film based on the latest multiplex hit. But the concept of the fan film is not new, by any stretch. The earliest known fan film was a 1925 short “Anderson’s Own Gang Comedy,” a South Carolina-lensed riff on the Our Gang series.

But while today’s low-cost technology and Internet video sites makes the production and distribution of fan films too simple, back in the day it was far more complicated. Amateur film production required investments of time, money and energy – especially when one factors in the laborious aspects of getting film processed and edited – while venues for the presentation of these works were extremely limited. Nonetheless, a dedicated number of would-be filmmakers made attempts to copy their big screen favorites in a microbudget manner.

One of the most peculiar films of this genre was made in Japan in 1932 under the title “Detective Felix in Trouble.” The title character refers to Felix the Cat, the popular 1920s animated character that, due to a variety of reasons, failed to make the transition from silent to sound films and abruptly disappeared from U.S. screens in the early 1930s. However, Japan still commercially exhibited silent films well into the 1930s, and the silent Felix the Cat cartoons enjoyed a Japanese audience after the U.S. moviegoers had moved on to Disney’s sound film creations.

Among the Japanese moviegoers enchanted with Felix the Cat was Shigeji Ogino. Born in 1899, Ogino began creating his own experimental and animated shorts in the late 1920s using small gauge format cameras. “Detective Felix in Trouble” was shot as a silent work in the 9.5mm format that was popular with the home movie market. But rather than attempt a traditional hand-drawn tribute to Felix the Cat, Ogino purchased a Felix toy and cast it in a stop-motion animation production.

“Detective Felix in Trouble” opens with the Felix doll walking on screen with a large box. He kicks the box to the other side of the screen and it is revealed to be a matchbox. The matches spill out and spell the film’s title. From there, we meet an appropriately distressed damsel Hanako (played by a large female doll in a kimono) with a predicament: she was planning to go on a “flower viewing picnic,” but her “treasured shoes” that she left outside of her front door are gone. Unwilling to walk around barefoot – and, it seems, not having spare set to use as a substitute – she telephones the famous private detective Felix the Cat to solve the case.

Felix arrives at Hanako’s home an immediately spots something suspicious: dog prints leading away from the front door. Felix follows the prints and reaches a dilemma when (in a clever overhead shot) another set of prints crosses the ones he was pursuing. Felix quizzes several domesticated farm animals if they’ve seen a dog, and then he spies a pair of dancing skeletons that detach and reattach their skulls and limbs. (Don’t ask why.) But when a giant tiger turns up, Felix runs and hides in an empty dog house, where he finds the lost shoes. Once the tiger is gone, he tries to sneak out with the purloined objects, only to see the dog returning. Felix then puts on the shoes and walks past the dog, who doesn’t seem to notice a bipedal cat wearing women’s shoes. He returns the stolen property to Hanako, who presents him with a medal and a kiss.

“Detective Felix in Trouble” only runs 10 minutes, but it feels much, much longer. In the first minute or two, there is a fey, folk art-level quality in the childlike nature of the work, complete with cutout paper sets and wind-up toys in animated action. But the film quickly becomes dull due to Ogino’s crude stop-motion animation and oddly charmless execution. Beyond the aforementioned overhead shot and the weird skeleton dance, there is little in the way of genuine imagination – and even the tiger chase is staged in such a lethargic manner that there is no suspense on whether Felix will escape the ferocious predator.

However, “Detective Felix in Trouble” is historically important in regard to the development of the fan film on an international basis – it is possible that this could be the first fan film created in Japan, and maybe the first produced anywhere outside of the U.S. And if the film disappoints as a work of art, it is nonetheless a fascinating oddity within Ogino’s career, which reportedly spanned 400 films in different formats and film stocks until his death in 1991.

On this side of the Pacific, “Detective Felix in Trouble” was not shown on a big screen for two key reasons: there was no mechanism in place during the 1930s to bring avant-garde amateur Japanese films to U.S. audiences, and Ogino’s unauthorized use of the Felix the Cat character made it impossible to be imported. Even today, Ogino is mostly unknown to U.S. animation addicts.

Mercifully, the Japanese Animated Film Classics website has posted a very rare copy of “Detective Felix in Trouble” and several Ogino shorts from the 1930s online. And I came upon thanks to cartoonist Charles A. Brubaker, who shared a link to this short on Facebook – and allow me to pay that forward by sharing that link with you.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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