Every nation has their own famous fairy tales and legends passed down throughout time. These tales usually are held in high regard because of their connection to the national identity. "Journey to the West" is a classic of Chinese literature and has gone on to be a retold for each generation. "Princess Iron Fan" is one of the very first cinema adaptations of the tale and was produced in the midst of World War Two. Besides that, it was really one of the very first full-length Chinese animated films.
"Journey to the West" is a 16th century novel which was based partly on Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha)'s flight to the west in search of himself, Buddhist monk Xuanzang, Taoist philosophy, and Chinese mythology. Being an amalgam of these, the tale, uses a group of four heroes who must make their way through a long pilgrimage through mountainous terrain to obtain the Buddhist scriptures.
"Princess Iron Fan" has an opening explanation about how the film is not to be viewed as a fairy tale, but a life lesson. The tale is about the fiery mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng and is to be seen as a metaphor for the difficulties we all find in life. Our four heroes are Tripitaka or Xuanzang (basically meant to be Buddha), Zhu Bajie (a pig), Sun Wukong (the monkey king), and Shā Wùjìng. During their journey through the fiery mountains, they must find a way to reduce the heat, with the help of the palm leaf fan. The magical iron palm leaf fan is in the possession of a princess who lives nearby with her husband the Bull Demon King. If they get the fan from the princess, they can use it to not only put out the fires, but bring rain upon the land.
In their first attempt to obtain the fan from the princess, Sun Wukong creates a powerful gust with the fan and blows him away. He lands on a mountaintop monastery where he is given a wind pearl by a monk. The pearl will enable him to become unmovable by the force of the palm leaf fan. When the Monkey King returns, he is indeed invulnerable to the palm leaf fan, and is able to slip inside the princess' house by turning into a bug. When he gets inside, he lands on a tea cup and dives in. The princess, of course drinks the tea and a the bug straight down, allowing the Sun Wukong to threaten her from inside her stomach in order to get the fan. The Monkey King escapes with the fan. When the Monkey King returns to the fiery mountain and uses the fan, he discovers it a fake.
Zhu Bajie reluctantly offers to go find the Bull Demon King, who is a friend of his. In the next scene, we see a princess in another form, that of a fox creature. Anyone familiar with the Chinese myth of a Fox spirit will be familiar that this does not bode well (as opposed to the Japanese Fox spirit which is benevolent). Outside in the forest, she runs into Zhu Bajie, thinking he's her lover the Bull Demon King. She runs back to the Emerald Cave where she blames her husband for bullying her. Zhu Bajie gets to the cave and begs his old friend for the palm leaf fan, but he refuses, blaming Sun Wukong & Tang Seng for his son's death. Zhu Bajie then transforms into a frog and sneaks into the cave where he encounters a dragon. He transforms again, this time into the image of the Bull Demon King, and rides atop the dragon to get to the Palm Leaf cave himself. In the guise of the Bull Demon King, Zhu Bajie charms princess iron fan into giving him the palm leaf fan. He steals it from her, and gloats about him being able to fool her. On his way back to the fiery mountain, Zhu Bajie is also fooled by a dose of his own medicine, as the Bull Demon King transforms into the Monkey King and steals the palm leaf fan back from him. When Zhu Bajie returns to his companions empty handed, the travelers realize that the only way to defeat the Bull Demon King is their combined efforts in order to extinguish the flames of the fiery mountain.
"Princess Iron Fan" took three years to make by brothers Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming. Some things are confusing like the difference between the Bull Demon King's wives, and which exactly is the princess. There's even some mention of his infidelity, which is interesting. There's a very fluid movement of the characters which was achieved through rotoscope techniques, which was used most of the time in animated films of this era. The voice direction and camera movement is very off at times in this film, and sometimes you can't tell who is saying what. The film's score can also be distracting in most spots of the film, but has some interesting spots like a musical interlude complete with a sing-a-long bouncing ball over the lyrics. So the film is by no means perfect, but this is a historical achievement based on the fact it was made during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Though the film is directly inspired by "Journey to the West", it's also clearly influenced by the war, being the moutain as a metaphor for the Japanese.