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By Phil Hall | June 5, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 286: “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” (1942 cartoon starring Popeye the Sailor).

LAST SEEN: Available on several Web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Included in several unauthorized anthologies of banned cartoons.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Racial content and excessive violence.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It was included in a November 2008 DVD collection of Popeye cartoons, although it continues to be bootlegged.

During wartime, there is no such thing as being politically correct. This was particularly the case during World War II, when the American concept of the Japanese brought out an astonishing barrage of blatantly racist caricatures used in the propaganda effort to bolster the national campaign against the enemy from across the Pacific.

Whereas U.S. propaganda never degraded the German and Italian people as subhuman (only the Nazi hierarchy and Mussolini received the rough treatment), the Japanese people were the subject of ridicule. A typical example of this treatment can be found in the 1942 Popeye cartoon “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.”

The title of the cartoon comes from a novelty song that was cranked out after the U.S. entered World War II. The song is heard over the opening credits, and the lyrics give an idea of what kind of humor to expect: “You’re a sap, Mr. Jap, you make a Yankee cranky / You’re a sap, Mr. Jap, Uncle Sammy’s gonna spanky / Wait and see before we’re done / The A, B, C and D will sink your rising sun.” (The acronym stands for America, Britain, China, and the Dutch – it wasn’t widely used during the war.)

The cartoon opens with Popeye sailing a Navy Patrol boat on the open seas. He is the only person on the boat, and he shoos away a seagull that repeatedly lands on his binoculars while he scans the waves for enemy fleets. Popeye spots a rickety fishing boat flying the Japanese flag. He approaches the boat, which is manned by a pair of Japanese caricatures (complete with oversized eyeglasses, bucked teeth, and sloping heads). The Japanese yell in gibberish, capped off with an exclamation of “sukiyaki.”

Popeye goes to board the Japanese boat, but the Japanese put forth a peace treaty. Popeye turns to read the treaty and prepare to sign it, and the Japanese hit him on the head with a giant mallet. When Popeye turns around, the Japanese pretend nothing happened. Popeye mutters to himself, “Somebody fell down and broke their word.”

Popeye turns again, and one of the Japanese puts dynamite in a hole in Popeye’s shoe. The sailor yelps after the dynamite explodes, and one of the Japanese starts to stomp on his aching foot. When Popeye goes to deck him, he is handed a big flower bouquet. But after finding there is a lobster in the bouquet, Popeye shoves it back into the face of one of the Japanese – and the lobster emerges to snip the hair of the Japanese and punch him in the face.

The other Japanese runs about blowing a trumpet, and immediately a Japanese aircraft carrier emerges from beneath the rickety fishing craft. Popeye’s boat is sunk by Japanese artillery and he goes down with his vessel. Then, after pausing to swallow his trademark spinach, Popeye flexes a muscle into a giant V and proclaims, “V for Victory.”

Popeye raises his sunken craft and boards the Japanese aircraft carrier. He singlehandedly takes on the Japanese sailors, declaring, “So you want to tangle with us Americans?” and “Come back here, you double-crossing Japansies.” After clearing the craft of all of its men, Popeye leans against a wall and the entire carrier collapses. Picking up a piece of rubble, he reads the inscription: “Made in Japan.”

But then, Popeye realizes he is not alone. The Japanese commander is still on the vessel, contemplating the ignoble possibility of losing face. The commander drinks a huge jug of gasoline, then lights firecrackers and swallows them. Popeye abandons the carrier as its commander goes into fiery, gassy convulsions. From the safety of his Navy Patrol boat, Popeye watches the carrier blow up and sink. The last thing he sees is the Japanese flag circling in the water before it vanishes under the surface – accompanied by the sound of a flushing toilet!

If none of this sounds particularly funny, that is because it isn’t. “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” was the first Popeye cartoon produced for Paramount by the Famous Studios, who took over the series from the Fleischer Studios. It is subpar Popeye, with the Japanese caricatures as poor substitutes for the overgrown slob Brutus as the sailor’s enemy. Outside of the aforementioned one-liners (all three of them), the cartoon is conspicuously absent of the wacky slapstick and absurdist asides that infiltrated many of the early Popeye cartoons. It is just a lot of dull, predictable violence.

During wartime, however, American audiences weren’t particularly picky about the entertainment they received. Anything that included a message of the U.S. knocking out the Axis powers was well received. The Famous Studios put Popeye back into combat with a similar cartoon called “Scrap the Japs.”

After the war, however, such entertainment was quickly seen as jingoistic and strident. And the racial elements in portraying the Japanese was problematic when Japan became an American ally during the Cold War period.

“You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” was not included in the television syndication of the Popeye cartoons, due to the racist content and the excessively violent sequence with the Japanese commander drinking gasoline and eating lit firecrackers. However, prints of the cartoon have circulated for years and have turned up in collections of banned cartoons. Of course, it is also found on YouTube and other Net video sites. I am not certain if the cartoon is in the public domain, but in any event the prints being circulated are obviously dupes.

If “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” isn’t prime Popeye, you can blame it on the war. Hey, even Popeye makes mistakes!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Nate says:

    Because of the numerous racial stereotypes that would leave less than a minute of the cartoon, if edited, I highly doubt the cartoon is in the public domain. However a large amount of Popeye shorts are in the public domain, so there is definitely a very minimal chance

  2. Herb Finn says:

    Supposedly there’s a colorized/redrawn hand-colored copy of this cartoon, done the same time they did the others about 25 years ago

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