To celebrate the centennial of Japanese animation, the National Film Center at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo has recently uploaded 60 animated films made between the years 1917 and 1941. The ‘Japanese Animated Film Classics’ archive is a treasure trove filled with kaleidoscopic patterns and expressive creatures: there are stories of invincible and boisterous bear brothers and lazy, troublesome pigs; fables about great communities of ants; depictions of fearless frog soldiers riding atop crickets; and snails drawn like tanks. These are of course the great-grandparents of Studio Ghibli’s characters and the Sanrio stable: an older generation just as cute, emotive, and beguiling as those today’s viewers are familiar with, but who were employed predominantly as the obedient, bound right hand of propaganda, or as vessels for the Ministry of Education to instill childhood morality.
“From the 1920s to 1945, the government used these and additional films for political purposes,” says Mika Tomita, curator of film at the National Film Center. “The films were screened in theaters, schools, and at home; played using similar technology to America’s Kodascope. During WWII especially, the Japanese government and military insisted that film studios make feature length propaganda animations, like Momotaro,” the first animated feature length film in Japan, that tells of the adventures of a captain and his army of loyal animals. Directed by Mitsuyo Seo, this cinematic propaganda inspired later generations of animators, notably Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy.
The new archive provides explanatory historical context relating to 10 pioneering directors. It’s an all-male list, and Tomita suggests that it was a male-dominated industry at the time. “There were no female anime filmmakers in those days, or I found no documentation of that. However, there were female workers in the production and drawing of the films.”
You can search through the collection by genre (once you’ve switched on Google Translate), which includes fable, historical drama, documentary, and propaganda, or you can browse by animation technique, like cut-out or silhouette. The films also have an option for English subtitles.
“Of course, the early Japanese animation is the source of modern animation culture. Kenzo Masaoka for example has been called the Father of Japanese animation, and he taught and trained many of the young anime filmmakers during and after WWII,” says Tomita. “Masaoka’s post-war Japanese Animation Film Co. grew into Toei Animation, where Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli first started to work.”
Tomita highlights Shigeji Ogino as a particular genius of the time; an independent artist who created many home movies, documentaries, and experimental films—and a pioneer of Japanese experimental art whose work is difficult to source. There is only one of his films in the archive, a five minute explanatory documentary entitled The Making of a Color Animation, released in 1937. The film offers a fascinating insight into the production of these early cartoons, illustrating how one second of action is divided into 10 drawings, after which each drawing is sketched onto a clear animation cel [short for celluloid]. Over 10,000 of these drawings are required for every short animation reel.
When you first get onto the website, it’s a lot to take in, so Tomita recommends a few films to get viewers started. First, she points to the oldest extant animation, which tells the comic tale of a samurai who makes a terrible purchase. The Dull Sword (1917) shows the samurai’s failed slapstick attempts to use his dull blade as a weapon. Produced by Jun’ichi Kōuchi, the film was only rediscovered a few years ago in 2008 when it was unearthed in an Osaka antique store.
Also recommended is Burglars of Baghdad Castle. “Noburo Ofuji was a genius, a proudly independent artist. This was his first animation in 1926 using cut-outs from Edo Chiyogami (a Japanese paper made of colorful patterns). He was a pioneer of the paper cut-out technique.”
Lastly, she recommends Momotaro in the Sky by Yasuji Murata. “He was a very popular animator of the time, in charge of creating the Athena Library series between 1925-39, which released approximately 50 films (which was a huge amount in the Japanese market in those days). This film shows his characteristic style, the beauty of the movements and the soft curves of his characters. You can enjoy the film as a piece of good entertainment, but on the other hand, it clearly expresses the Japanese mindset in 1931 after the Manchurian Incident.”
Tomita points out that while it’s so simple to watch American classic animations from the same era , Japan’s pioneering examples haven’t been easily accessible until now. “It’s not been possible to watch these Japanese films for a long, long time because of the rights and so on,” she says. “However, you can now watch them easily with the website. I hope that viewers will use it to discover how directly the films have influenced today’s visual culture in Japan.”