Anime Boston 2017 was another phenomenal gathering for anime fans especially since this year's theme was a huge throwback celebration: Retro! From nostalgic based panels and workshops catered to popular classics like Sailor Moon and Detective Conan to rediscovering obscure classics, fans were bound to garner new insights about the medium. Whether discovering new revelations about familiar classics or coming across rare and forgotten gems, such a throwback themed event certainly would not have been complete without a panel spotlighting the origins of anime. And it all began with Osamu Tezuka’s 1963 beloved classic, Astro Boy, right?...Well...the answer might surprise you.
The First Anime: It's Astro Boy, Right?, presented by Japanese cultural educator and Study of Anime founder, Charles Dunbar debunks the familiar assumption. The panel, as the title implies, delves into Japanese animated works prior to and during 1963. Although, I was not able to attend the panel due to a change in the schedule, I emailed Charles to get a basic idea of what was discussed to gather some information for this blog post. The panel showcased several clips, highlighting how anime evolved in the decades before the 1960's and the stylistic differences between Toei Animation and Tezuka’s studio, Mushi Pro during ’63, (which I’ll go over in Part 3). Upon doing some further research, I came across several interesting facts about the surviving short films, most of which will be covered here.
While Tezuka is famously known as the Father of Manga as well as the Walt Disney of Anime, the art of Japanese animation dates back even earlier in the 20th century. The first known anime ever created is the three second animation, Katsudou Shashin (1907). Unfortunately, most of these works have been destroyed or remain lost to this day following The Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923, which slowed down the industry’s development. In Part 1 of this blog post, I’ll be covering the years building up to World War II and the challenges the Japanese animation industry faced from 1917 to 1934. Part 2 will be focused on the types of works created during WWII, Toei Animation's 1958 full length feature film, Hakujaden and the first anime on television in 1961. In Part 3, I will cover 1963 in-depth and how the art form continued to expand in the coming years.
The 1910's expanded into more story driven animation. Namakura Gatana or Dull-Edged Sword (1917) is a two-minute short that tells the tale of a clueless samurai who thoughtlessly buys an ineffective sword and learns his lesson the hard way upon conceiving defeat each time he encounters an opponent. It is the first known early piece to have a story complete with a beginning, middle and end. Due to the costs of celluloids which other countries were taking advantage of, Namakura Gatana was created using cut outs. It would also be the first animated short to showcase Japan’s animation style. Another known title prior to the earthquake is Urashima Taro or The Fisher Lad (1918), which is based on a Nara Period Japanese fairy tale. It follows the story of a faithful, benevolent fisherman who upon rescuing a turtle is invited to a palace under the sea.
After the Great Kantō Earthquake, Japan was falling behind other countries in animation, most notably Disney. This as a result prompted animators to start their own studios with small teams. In the years prior the mid-1930’s, they continued to use cut out animation techniques, one of which is seen in Kobu Tori or The Stolen Lump (1929). It tells the story of an elderly man with a huge lump growing on his face. After a storm hits, he discovers the forest is inhabited by mythical hybrid beasts and their leader. With his talent to dance, the elderly man impresses them and in return, they remove the lump from his face. Upon returning to his village, he informs someone with a similar problem of their existence. However, this does not mean that he too would be lucky to meet the same fate as the main character. The animation of Mura Matsuri or Harvest Festival (1930 presumably) was designed and animated, using chiyogami. The plot follows the traditional Japanese song and dance of the festival.
Japanese animators began to utilize cels and voiceovers in their later projects in the mid-1930’s. The first known anime to contain voiceover work is the lost film Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka or Within the World of Power and Women (1933). The first anime to use cel-animation was Chagama Ondo or The Dance of the Chagamas (1934 or 1935). Both films were created by Kenzo Masaoka. The first film known to use multicamera was Ari-chan (1941) by Mitsuyo Seo. Masaoka and Seo notably pulled for Japanese animation to be on par with the quality of other countries. It’s possible that Ari-chan was inspired by Disney’s Silly Symphonies animation, The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934). Not only do they share some striking similarities in character designs and movement, but their presentation and stylization is also identical.
While these works still had a long way to go before matching up to the works of American animation as that of Disney, this shift in the materials used and the elaborate camera techniques slightly improved the quality of these films. Unfortunately, as these creative breakthroughs were starting to flourish, most of these works could not be commercially supported unless approved by the government. The years before and during WWII would place limitations on creative input and artistic vision under government control, thus leaving innovation out of the business model as will be discussed in Part 2.
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