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

Japan­ese ani­ma­tion, AKA ani­me, might be filled with large-eyed maid­ens, way cool robots, and large-eyed, way cool maiden/robot hybrids, but it often shows a lev­el of dar­ing, com­plex­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty not typ­i­cal­ly found in Amer­i­can main­stream ani­ma­tion. And the form has spawned some clear mas­ter­pieces from Kat­suhi­ro Otomo’s Aki­ra to Mamoru Oishii’s Ghost in the Shell to pret­ty much every­thing that Hayao Miyaza­ki has ever done.

Ani­me has a far longer his­to­ry than you might think; in fact, it was at the van­guard of Japan’s furi­ous attempts to mod­ern­ize in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. The old­est sur­viv­ing exam­ple of Japan­ese ani­ma­tion, Namaku­ra Gatana (Blunt Sword), dates back to 1917, though much of the ear­li­est ani­mat­ed movies were lost fol­low­ing a mas­sive earth­quake in Tokyo in 1923. As with much of Japan’s cul­tur­al out­put in the first decades of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, ani­ma­tion from this time shows artists try­ing to incor­po­rate tra­di­tion­al sto­ries and motifs in a new mod­ern form.

Above is Oira no Yaku (Our Base­ball Game) from 1931, which shows rab­bits squar­ing off against tanukis (rac­coon dogs) in a game of base­ball. The short is a basic slap­stick com­e­dy ele­gant­ly told with clean, sim­ple lines. Rab­bits and tanukis are main­stays of Japan­ese folk­lore, though they are seen here play­ing a sport that was intro­duced to the coun­try in the 1870s. Like most silent Japan­ese movies, this film made use of a ben­shi – a per­former who would stand by the movie screen and nar­rate the movie. In the old days, audi­ences were drawn to the ben­shi, not the movie. Aki­ra Kurosawa’s elder broth­er was a pop­u­lar ben­shi who, like a num­ber of despon­dent ben­shis, com­mit­ted sui­cide when the pop­u­lar­i­ty of sound cin­e­ma ren­dered his job obso­lete.

Then there’s this ver­sion of the Japan­ese folk­tale Kobu-tori from 1929, about a woods­man with a mas­sive growth on his jaw who finds him­self sur­round­ed by mag­i­cal crea­tures. When they remove the lump, he finds that not every­one is pleased. Notice how detailed and uncar­toony the char­ac­ters are.

Anoth­er ear­ly exam­ple of ear­ly ani­me is Ugok­ie Kori no Tate­hi­ki (1931), which rough­ly trans­lates into “The Mov­ing Pic­ture Fight of the Fox and the Pos­sum.” The 11-minute short by Ikuo Oishi is about a fox who dis­guis­es him­self as a samu­rai and spends the night in an aban­doned tem­ple inhab­it­ed by a bunch of tanukis (those guys again). The movie brings all the won­der­ful grotes­queries of Japan­ese folk­lore to the screen, drawn in a style rem­i­nis­cent of Max Fleis­ch­er and Otto Mess­mer.

And final­ly, there is this curi­ous piece of ear­ly anti-Amer­i­can pro­pa­gan­da from 1936 that fea­tures a pha­lanx of fly­ing Mick­ey Mous­es (Mick­ey Mice?) attack­ing an island filled with Felix the Cat and a host of oth­er poor­ly-ren­dered car­toon char­ac­ters. Think Toon­town drawn by Hen­ry Darg­er. All seems lost until they are res­cued by fig­ures from Japan­ese his­to­ry and leg­end. Dur­ing its slide into mil­i­tarism and its inva­sion of Asia, Japan argued that it was free­ing the con­ti­nent from the grip of West­ern colo­nial­ism. In its queasy, weird sort of way, the short argues pre­cise­ly this. Of course, many in Korea and Chi­na, which received the brunt of Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ism, would vio­lent­ly dis­agree with that ver­sion of events.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Hand-Drawn Japan­ese Ani­me: A Deep Study of How Kat­suhi­ro Otomo’s Aki­ra Uses Light

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

How Mas­ter Japan­ese Ani­ma­tor Satoshi Kon Puhed the Bound­aries of Mak­ing Ani­me: A Video Essay

“Evil Mick­ey Mouse” Invades Japan in a 1934 Japan­ese Ani­me Pro­pa­gan­da Film

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

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.


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