Japanese Cartoons from the 1920s and 30s Reveal the Stylistic Roots of Anime

Those who have become inter­est­ed in Japan in the past twen­ty years have done so, like­ly as not, because of Japan­ese ani­ma­tion, best known by the Japan­ese term “ani­me.” And why not? Japan’s take on the car­toon has at this point evolved so high and so dis­tant from its west­ern coun­ter­parts that you some­times can’t help star­ing, trans­fixed. Even the word “car­toon” now seems too friv­o­lous to apply. Roll the clock back eighty or nine­ty years, and Japan­ese ani­ma­tion looks decid­ed­ly more… car­toon­ish. But even then, you can eas­i­ly see an excit­ing­ly dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic in play. First behold the short above, which since its 1933 pro­duc­tion has become a sur­pris­ing­ly pop­u­lar watch on Youtube. Seem­ing­ly influ­enced by the Amer­i­can ani­ma­tion of the time, this fable of fox ver­sus rac­coon still gar­ners acclaim with its craft. Acclaim from com­menters, any­way: “Much smoother than the cur­rent ani­mes,” writes one. “Not only the qual­i­ty. Sto­ry is also fun­ny and peace­ful.”

Go back a few years fur­ther, to 1929, and you find a strik­ing­ly more for­eign view­ing expe­ri­ence in The Stolen Lump. Tak­ing the form of a stan­dard live-action silent pic­ture, with inter­ti­tles and every­thing, the film adapts a fairy tale about an old man who hap­pens upon a pack of ten­gu. He asks these super­nat­ur­al crea­tures to remove what looks like a goi­ter from his face, but when they do, he inspires jeal­ousy in his vil­lage. Final­ly, for an offer­ing that will seem mod­ern by com­par­i­son, watch Pri­vate Norakuro, from 1935, below. It orig­i­nal­ly appeared as just one sto­ry, in one medi­um of sev­er­al, of the prat­fall-heavy mil­i­tary adven­tures of the tit­u­lar anthro­po­mor­phic pup­py. Cre­ator  Sui­hō Tagawa drew the humor from his own time in the Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Army, to the delight of Japan­ese read­ers and view­ers. The delight last­ed up until World War II, any­way, when the coun­try stopped look­ing so kind­ly on mil­i­tary satire. But Norakuro would soon emerge from retire­ment, going on to star in major ani­mat­ed films and serve as a mas­cot of the Japan Self Defense Force.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ear­ly Days of Ani­ma­tion Pre­served in UCLA’s Video Archive

The Best Ani­mat­ed Films of All Time, Accord­ing to Ter­ry Gilliam

Ger­tie the Dinosaur: The Moth­er of all Car­toon Char­ac­ters

Lots of Free Ani­mat­ed Films in our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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