Watch the Oldest Japanese Anime Film, Jun’ichi Kōuchi’s The Dull Sword (1917)

In 1981, the philoso­pher Mary Midg­ley argued against cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism in an arti­cle titled “Try­ing Out One’s New Sword.” In it, she makes ref­er­ence to “a verb in clas­si­cal Japan­ese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance way­far­er.’ (The word is tsu­ji­giri, lit­er­al­ly ‘cross­roads-cut.’) A samu­rai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work prop­er­ly, it had to slice through some­one at a sin­gle blow, from the shoul­der to the oppo­site flank. Oth­er­wise, the war­rior bun­gled his stroke. This could injure his hon­or, offend his ances­tors, and even let down his emper­or.” Those of us who feel unable to con­demn this prac­tice due to cul­tur­al dis­tance have fall­en vic­tim, in Midg­ley’s view, to “moral iso­la­tion­ism.”

One could object to Midg­ley’s use of this par­tic­u­lar exam­ple: the his­tor­i­cal record does­n’t sug­gest that tsu­ji­giri was ever com­mon prac­tice, and cer­tain­ly not that it was approved of by the wider soci­ety of feu­dal Japan. About half a cen­tu­ry after the abo­li­tion of the samu­rai class in the eigh­teen-sev­en­ties, how­ev­er, it does seem to have become the stuff of com­e­dy.

This is evi­denced by The Dull Sword (なまくら刀), a 1917 short film by Japan­ese ani­ma­tor Jun’ichi Kōuchi. When its luck­less ronin pro­tag­o­nist buys the tit­u­lar weapon and attempts to try it out, he ends up defeat­ed by his unsus­pect­ing would-be vic­tim, a blind flute-play­ing beg­gar. (He has no bet­ter luck after night­fall, as shown in a final sequence in sil­hou­ette rem­i­nis­cent of the work of Lotte Reiniger.)

Upon its redis­cov­ery in an Osa­ka antique shop fif­teen years ago, The Dull Sword became the old­est sur­viv­ing exam­ple of what we now know as ani­me. Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, it resem­bles a news­pa­per com­ic strip come to life, much as, after the advent of tele­vi­sion, more ambi­tious pro­duc­tions would adapt the look and feel of full-scale man­ga books. Ani­me has devel­oped and expand­ed immense­ly over the past cen­tu­ry, but it still — at least in cer­tain of its sub­gen­res — retains a pen­chant for tak­ing acts of vio­lence and thor­ough­ly styl­iz­ing them, in the process often ren­der­ing them com­ic or even iron­ic. You could say The Dull Sword, despite its mod­est scale, does all of that at once. And how­ev­er dif­fer­ent its time and place are from ours, we can nev­er­the­less laugh at the fate that befalls its bungling anti­hero.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917 to 1931)

How to Be a Samu­rai: A 17th Cen­tu­ry Code for Life & War

The Aes­thet­ic of Ani­me: A New Video Essay Explores a Rich Tra­di­tion of Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Watch the First Chi­nese Ani­mat­ed Fea­ture Film, Princess Iron Fan, Made Under the Strains of WWII (1941)

A Vin­tage Short Film about the Samu­rai Sword, Nar­rat­ed by George Takei (1969)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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