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The History of Anime: Part I

Updated: Apr 14

Anime, this wonderful medium. The history of Japanese animation actually spans over a hundred years, and in this series of articles we will go over the first century of anime, from the earliest stages of experimentation to the current state of the medium today. We have divided the history into several easy-to-read chunks spread over four parts, so let us begin with the genesis of anime all the way back in the early 20th century.


The Early Experimentation Era (1917 – 1923)

During this time, Japanese artists were trying to apply traditional art techniques to the burgeoning new medium. Not a lot is known about the animation during this period, although we do know of a few notable artists from this era who laid the first foundations. One of them, cartoonist Shimokawa Ōten, used chalk on a blackboard to draw characters and scenes, which were then animated directly onto film. The results were the earliest pieces of professional Japanese animation released in 1917: Imokawa Mukuzo Genkanban no Maki (The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa), a five-minute short considered to be the first true piece of Japanese animation, and Dekobo Shingacho - Meian no Shippai (Eng: Dekobo’s New Picture Book - Failure of a Great Plan), the first Japanese animated film that was commercially released.


Other early anime films used paper cutout animation – essentially 2D stop-motion animation – including Namakura Gatana (Eng: Dull-Edged Sword, 1917) by cartoonist Jun'ichi Kōuchi and Urashima Tarō (an adaptation of a classic Japanese folk tale, 1918) by painter Seitarō Kitayama, both of which were thought lost to time until they were rediscovered in Osaka in 2008. For their work, Ōten, Kōuchi, and Kitayama are often considered the forefathers of anime. However, many other early anime films are completely lost unfortunately, due to The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 destroying many of the buildings in which these artists’ studios were housed. The Japanese animation industry took quite a few steps back and had to start all over again.


The Late Experimentation Era (the mid 1920s – the late 1930s)

Despite the major setbacks, Japan’s early animators pushed along and with new technological developments Japanese animation evolved. One notable name from this era is Noburō Ōfuji, who trained under Jun'ichi Kōuchi and won international acclaim for his film Baguda-jō no Tōzoku (Eng: The Thief of Baghdad Castle, 1926), the earliest anime to receive significant attention outside Japan. It was made with chiyogami, or Japanese coloured paper, once again showcasing the artistic creativity of early Japanese animators. Two major innovations were the introduction of sound technology and cel animation (in the prior decade, cel animation was considered too expensive and labourious).


Another important figure is Kenzō Masaoka, who created the first anime film with dialogue – known as a “talkie” film – Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Eng: Within the World of Power and Women, 1933) as well as the first cel-animated film Chagama Ondo (Eng: The Dance of The Chagamas, 1934). Cel animation, despite being a massive artistic improvement, remains expensive and thus requires animators to obtain a lot of funding from other sources. The major source of funding was the Japanese government, who commissioned many pieces of animation adapting classical Japanese tales and promoting the national mail system. However, as the government geared up for war, Japanese animation rapidly became militaristic.


Some of the earliest anime: Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (left) and Chagama Ondo (right).


World War II (the late 1930s – 1945)

Once Japan entered World War II propaganda films became very lucrative, and thus it’s no surprise to see the major releases during this time promoted patriotic fervour and the Japanese armed forces. Most famously, this era saw a cast of anthropomorphic animals as part of the Japanese Imperial Navy. They were known as Momotarō no Umiwashi (Eng: Momotarō’s Sea Eagles, 1942), and they were led by the human Momotarō, a figure from a very popular Japanese folktale. The sequel, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei (Eng: Momotarō: Sacred Sailors, 1945), is considered to be Japan’s very first feature-length anime film at 74 minutes long.


Momotarō in Momotarō: Sacred Sailors, the very first anime film ever produced.

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