In Part 1 of this blog post, I delved into the early origins of Japanese animation debunking the assumption that Osamu Tezuka’s 1963 beloved animated series Astro Boy is the first anime in existence. Based on a panel presented by Charles Dunbar (Study of Anime) at this year’s Anime Boston, deftly titled, The First Anime: It’s Astro Boy, Right?, I discuss some of the early short films used during the presentation plus some groundbreaking films made in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. I provide some historical context of what went into the making of the earliest known and surviving films as well as lost gems and how the art form built up from 1907 to the 1930’s. Moreover, I also review the new innovative approaches that were emerging in the years prior to the second World War.
In the early years of anime, animators used cut outs as seen in Namakura Gatana (1917), Urashima Taro (1918), Kobu Tori (1929) and Mura Matsuri (1930) due to the financial cost of materials other countries could afford. The use of cel-animation rose in the mid-1930’s with Chagama Ondo (1934 or 1935), which was created by Kenzo Masaoka. Ari-chan (1941) by Mitsuyo Seo was the first known anime to use multicamera, a technique used in Disney animation such as in Silly Symphonies, which it’s likely that the film was inspired by the 1934 short, The Grasshopper & the Ants. Not only did Seo utilize the multicamera technique in Ari-chan as seen in the Silly Symphonies short, but his character designs and fluidity in his animation display a slight resemblance. With creative innovators like Masaoka and Seo, the boundaries that restricted the art of Japanese animation were slowly fading and the art form was starting to develop in quality.
Unfortunately, these creative breakthroughs were proven difficult be commercially supported. Due to government control, prewar animation had to be approved and subsidized. This reduced the industry’s productions to public relations (PR) films, as well as educational and propaganda films. One example of a propaganda film of the time was the 1936 short entitled The Toy Chest. This featured Disney’s iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse as the main antagonist attacking Japan. The army accompanying Mickey consists of sinister looking bats and serpents, the islanders are depicted as dolls and stuffed animals and their heroic figure is the Japanese folklore hero, Momotaro, also known as Calm Peach Boy. The film notoriously displayed immense prejudice against Americans and throughout World War II, creative direction was very limited to producing films like it with the same indoctrinating messages.
In 1945, the first full-length anime feature film, Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei or Momotaro’s Devine Sea Warriors was released less than a month before the war ended. The 74-minute long movie is a sequel to 1943 propaganda short, Momotaro no Umiwashi or Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, which runs at 37 minutes. After the war, the Japanese animation industry was at a standstill and thus, no new films were being made until 1948. Japan was the most financially stable among its neighboring countries and therefore, could rebuild its animation industry.
During that year, a new company, Japan Animated Films was founded and eventually bought by Toei Animation in 1956. In 1958, they released the first full-length color anime film, Hakujaden or Panda and the Magic Serpent. The story is about a young boy, who is forced to set his pet snake free. What he doesn’t know is that the snake is a spiritual being. Years later while taking on a human form, she seeks out to find him.
Inspired by the Song Dynasty Chinese folktale, Legend of the White Snake, the project was made as an act of reconciliation between Japan and its neighboring countries. According to Charles in response to an email I sent, he speculates that it possibly might have been "a way to go around censors or avoid old fears that Japan might use new animation as a form of bunka eiga". Because of Japan's history of utilizing animation as a propaganda tool, most notably with Norakuro and Momotaro, it's a perfectly plausible assumption. According to AniPages writer and blogger, Ben Ettinger in his post about Toei Dōga, "[t]o strike a tone of reconciliation with the Asian neighbors Japan had so brutally treated in the recent past, Toei president, Hiroshi Okawa decided on a Chinese story for this film, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of Japan, the historic implications of which he fully understood".
Consisting of over 13,000 team members and eight months to complete, Hakujaden was zealously constructed and with every extensive commitment to detail, it became strongly influential all around the world. Bringing the art of Japanese animation another step further, Toei Animation also garnered the nickname as the ‘Disney of the East’ after the film’s debut as it was their first challenge to emulate the level of artistry of Western animation studios.
The 1960’s was the decade when the anime industry would start to take flight and truly begin to flourish. From the big screen to television, Japan’s first anime television show entitled, Otogi Manga Calendar or Instant History made its debut in 1961. The basic premise of the series, as the title suggests, dealt with major historical events and involved an animated character learning about it through archived footage and photographs. Unfortunately, the series remains lost to this day and never made its way to home releases. Due to technological costs and limitations, none of the episodes were recorded and the master tapes used for television were most likely discarded or repurposed with new content recorded over. The surviving still image from the show documenting its existence, depicting two comedically drawn cavemen, leaves viewers with a basic idea of what the character designs looked like. At first glance, they resemble a Hanna-Barbera cartoon as their appearance shares absolutely no similarities to any traits most viewers associate with anime. This leaves us with not only how Osamu Tezuka contributed to shaping anime, but also how other studios played their part in making the art form what it is today, which will be explored in the third and final part of this blog post.
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