The cartoon was made during World War II, and reflects the United States' attitude towards one of its main enemies at the time, the Empire of Japan. In the cartoon, Bugs Bunny lands on an island in the Pacific and is pitted against a group of highly racially stereotyped Japanese soldiers. Bugs shows no mercy against the Japanese soldiers, greeting them with several racial slurs such as "monkey face" and "slant eyes", making short work of a large sumo wrestler, and bombing most of the Japanese army using various explosives, including grenades hidden in ice cream bars. The cartoon's title is a play on the verb "nip" as in "bite" and "Nips", which at the time was a widely used slur for Japanese people, as the Japanese word for "Japan" is "Nippon" (or "Nihon").
"Bugs Bunny, castaway on a Pacific isle, thinks the setting is ideal until he finds his paradise infested with Japanese soldiers. How he single-handedly exterminates the enemy makes for a laugh-filled few minutes of typical Bugs antics, off-screen remarks and action in this Technicolor cartoon produced by Leon Schlesinger."
Somewhere in the Pacific, Bugs is floating in a box, singing to himself, when 'the island that inevitably turns up in this kind of picture' turns up. Bugs swims towards it, and admires the peace and quiet, when bombs start going off ("The Storm" from the William Tell Overture is also heard in the background). Bugs ducks into a haystack, and soon comes face to face with a Japanese soldier; a short, bucked tooth, bare-footed Japanese man who says his 'Ls' as 'Rs' and who might be rapidly stating the names of Japanese cities whenever he moves. The soldier chases Bugs to a rabbit hole, where the soldier dumps a bomb inside. However, Bugs manages to blow the soldier up with the bomb. When the soldier tries to swing a sword at Bugs, Bugs appears as a Japanese general (presumably Hideki Tojo), but is soon recognized by his trademark carrot eating, prompting the soldier (who says he saw Bugs in the "Warner Bros. Leon Schlesinger Merrie Melodies cartoon pictures", referring to the fact that Bugs was originally exclusive to that series) to ask him "What's up, Honorable Doc?"
Bugs then jumps into a plane and the soldier also jumps into a plane. However, Bugs ties the soldier's plane to a tree, causing the plane to be yanked out from under him. The soldier parachutes down, but is met by Bugs in mid-air, who hands "Moto" (cf. Mr. Moto) some 'scrap iron' (an anvil), causing the soldier to fall. Painting a Japanese flag on a tree to denote one soldier down, Bugs runs into a sumo wrestler, whom he confidently faces off against (cockily marking a second bigger flag on the tree). After getting temporarily beaten by the sumo wrestler (and, to be fair, wipes the second mark off the tree before collapsing), Bugs dresses as a geisha girl and knocks the wrestler out, who repaints a second flag on the tree before passing out.
Seeing a bunch of Japanese landing craft making their way to the island (exclaiming "Japs! Hundreds of 'em!"), Bugs thinks of a plan to get rid of all of them. He comes out in a 'Good Rumor' (a parody of Good Humor) truck, which plays Mozart ("Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" from The Magic Flute). Bugs hands each of the Japanese an ice cream with a grenade inside it. All the Japanese are killed off from the explosions, save for one who was killed after redeeming a 'free' ice cream from Bugs. Having now painted dozens of Japanese flags on the trees denoting all the downed enemy, Bugs comments again about the 'peace and quiet - and if there's one thing I CAN'T stand, it's peace and quiet!'.
Bugs spots an American battleship in the distance and raises a white flag, yelling for them to come get him, but they keep going. Bugs is insulted. "Do they think I want to spend the rest of my life on this island?" With this remark, a female rabbit (dressed in a more Hawaiian outfit) appears saying, "It's a possibility!" Bugs then pulls down the distress flag, lets out a wolf cry, and goes running after her.
The films depicting the Japanese enemy during World War II tended to both identify a formidable wartime adversary and to depict said adversary as inferior to its American counterparts. In cartoons, this translated to a tendency to depict the Japanese as either superman or buffoon. This film closer represents the latter tendency. The caricature portrayal of this film serves as a host to well-worn stereotypes.
The film opens with Bugs singing from within a crate. He is somewhere in the Pacific and is waiting for the inevitable island to turn up. He then sees an island and swims towards its beach. Already in the introduction, Bugs identifies his Pacific island setting as a "garden of Eden and a "Shangri-La". This in reference to the exotic havens depicted in South Sea island films and to the epic film Lost Horizon (1937). Only then is Bugs alerted to the mortal danger that awaits him on the island. The seductive first impression serves to set up a hazardous trap.
Bugs escapes rapid gunfire by running for cover into a haystack. The initial encounter of Bugs with a Japanese soldier presents an optical illusion, that the two share a body. Bugs' head peeks above the haystack, while the legs of the soldier appear below it. Then the owner of the feet confronts Bugs. The soldier has buck teeth, a thin mustache, dark eyeglasses, slanted eyebrows and curly, wavy hair.
The soldier pulls out a sword and starts swiping at Bugs. He speaks in Oriental-sounding gibberish, consisting of short syllables spoken in a staccato voice. In response, Bugs assumes the form of a Japanese general and stands stiffly at attention. Bugs' face is briefly transformed into a Japanese caricature, only to be contrasted with the face of an actual, if impish, Japanese soldier. Bugs disguised as a general imitates photographs of Hideki Tojo. The soldier bows in supplication to the authority figure. Bugs accidentally gives away his identity by casually chewing on a carrot.
The soldier resumes use of his sword and talks gibberish again. Bugs takes off in a Japanese plane, followed by the soldier in his own plane. Both planes are presumably based on the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Bugs ties the rival plane to a tree. The soldier parachutes out and Bugs hands him an anvil. Mocking: "Here's some scrap iron for Japan, Moto." There is a spoken reference to Mr. Moto to provide a well-acquainted name to the wartime enemy.
Bugs then bumps into a sumo wrestler. The man is huge with a large stomach, a mustache, a goatee, buck teeth with a large gap between the front teeth, and a Mohawk hairstyle. In response, Bugs transforms into a geisha. He speaks in Japanese-sounding gibberish and coaxes the wrestler into a near kiss. The kiss turns into a fatal blow with a mallet. Bugs triumphantly shouts "timber" as the man falls. The masquerade scene involving the wrestler and the geisha makes use of two relatively harmless civilian-type characters to cast the enemy in a humorous light. In concept, it suggests that an Oriental guise can be put on and discarded at will.
Bugs then sees several Japanese ships floating towards the island. He is next seen disguised as ice cream car vendor in the mold of the Good Humor man. He entices many Japanese soldiers to come get their ice cream. There are many Japanese soldiers besieging Bugs' ice cream truck. Suggesting that their threat relies on their numbers. They are an easily fooled mob, not a group of individuals. They resemble a swarm of bees and they are rendered less as human figures and more like a scourge in need of extermination.
Bugs insults his customers by calling them "monkey face" and "slant eyes". The scene with the ice cream track partially obscures the faces and bodies of the enemy soldiers, but Bugs verbalizes a physical description. The phrases "bowlegs", "monkey face", "slant eyes" both serve as racial epithets and audibly support the visualized stereotypes of the film. They are all elements of the Japanese wartime caricature.
They get served with chocolate-covered ice cream bars embedded with grenades. The soldiers run off as soon as they get served. Then numerous explosions are heard. One battered soldier returns to present his lucky stick, earning him a free ice cream. He is the last one. Bugs' mission is accomplished. He then signals an American ship to come get him.
Bugs hates being confined to a world of "peace and quiet". He celebrates the approach of an American ship and his potential rescue, until he meets a sarong-clad female bunny. The female bunny ignites his passion. He howls and thumps his foot, his eyes bulging from their sockets. He leaps into an amorous pursuit and the film ends.
The short placed an emphasis on physical peculiarities to imply racial inferiority. The preeminent danger is positioned to be treachery and not military might. The Japanese are distinctively othered as physically deformed. The Japanese are characterized as single-minded, subservient to their superiors, and gullible. The gag with the ice cream-seeking soldiers makes use of the American perception of the Japanese as both gullible and greedy. Bugs' stereotypical portrayal of Japanese womanhood renders him a meek and seductive creature, speaking in a falsetto voice.
The short has similarities to both Wackiki Wabbit (1943) and Herr Meets Hare (1945). The soundtrack includes Trade Winds and Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat. There are two musical quotations from Die Walküre (1870) by Richard Wagner. The Japanese soldiers are repeatedly presented on screen to the tune of the Kimigayo (1870) The ice cream truck scene uses the tune of the opening aria of Papageno, from The Magic Flute (1791) by Mozart. When Bugs professes his hatred of the peace and quiet, demanding someone to get him out of this place, the tune is the Ride of the Valkyries.
Neil Lerner attempts to decipher Carl Stalling's intentions in quoting Wagner at the end of the battle scenes. He suggests that it is connected to the role of the Valkyries, taking fallen warriors to Valhalla. In this case, the use is ironic as Stalling would not view the deceased Japanese soldiers as fallen heroes who deserve an afterlife paradise.
As Bugs signals the American ship, the tune is from the scene where Brünnhilde announces her pregnancy. Lerner suggests that Stalling was inspired by the name of Siegfried, "peace through victory". Stalling could intend the scene to represent the United States reaching such a peace. Alternatively, he might be inspired by the stark isolation of Brünnhilde on a rocky mountain - in which case, the reference would have been Bugs being trapped on the island.
Since the 1960s, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips has become very controversial because of its portrayal of the Japanese and the casual violence toward them. However, the cartoon was not one of the "Censored Eleven", and was occasionally shown on television in syndicated packages with other pre-August 1948 Warner cartoons that were under the ownership of Associated Artists Productions. It debuted on home video in December 1991 on the first Golden Age of Looney Tunes laser disc collection. The niche market format did not cause a stir, but when the 5 disc set was later issued in the more accessible VHS format on 10 separate tapes, Japanese groups protested its distribution, and both releases were withdrawn. Reissues for both formats replaced the cartoon with Racketeer Rabbit. The VHS reissue combined volumes 4 and 7 of the 10 tape set.
This was one of the 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons that were pulled out of Cartoon Network's June Bugs 2001 marathon by order of AOL Time Warner due to stereotypes of Japanese people. However, in a promo for this event, the scene where Bugs does a double-take on noticing the female rabbit was used.
This cartoon was shown, albeit in clips, on a special episode of the Cartoon Network show ToonHeads about cartoons from the World War II era while a voiceover explained how Japanese stereotypes in World War II cartoons tended to be very cruel (as shown in Norm MacCabe's Tokio Jokio, this cartoon, and clips of World War II-era Popeye cartoons).