By Jasper Sharp.
At the end of February, the National Film Center of Tokyo opened its ‘Japanese Animated Film Classics’ online archive to celebrate this year’s centenary of Japanese animation. The site, which features 64 films from the pre-war and wartime period, features many films with English subtitles.
It is a wonderful initiative from the NFC, which has so far lagged a little behind other national film organisations (notably the Korean Film Archive) in making their holdings available to the general public. Many of these films have been shown before, notably with a touring programme that travelled to many international film festivals in the early part of the millennium (I saw quite a few at Puchon in South Korea in 2003) and a rather pricy DVD collection released in Japan back in 2007. Now, however, what with the opening last year of the ‘Gakken Art Animation’ online archive of stop-motion works from the 1950s and 1960s, there is a sizeable body of work accessible to anyone with a screen and an internet connection, and an unprecedented opportunity to explore the evolution of Japanese animation in the first half century before it became the anime we know and love.
With such an abundance, it is difficult to know where to begin. Having Jonathan Clements’s Anime: A History on hand to guide you through this wealth of material would certainly be beneficial. The online catalogue is organized so as to present a number of different lines of attack. These include by story category (there 26 folktales; 4 sports stories; 9 musicals; 9 period dramas; 16 moral tales; 4 experimental/abstract works; and 11 propaganda films), by action type (40 running/walking; 40 singing/dancing; 9 murder/decapitations (!); 5 sleeping; 14 eating/drinking; 11 flying/jumping; and 10 about rotating or wandering around), by animation medium (40 paper cut-out animations; 7 chiyogami cut-outs using traditional Japanese patterned paper; 3 shadow animations; 9 cel animations; and one stop-motion puppet animation) and by character type (too many to mention here, but basically dogs, cats, crabs, supernatural beings or yokai, frogs, rabbits etc.)
The dog category is worth singling out, as it introduces the character of Norakuro, a black mutt serving in the army who originated from a comic strip by Suiho Tagawa published in the youth magazine Shonen Club from 1931 to 1941. Yasuji Murata’s animated versions of his exploits present fascinating marker points for Japan’s own militarisation in the mid-1930s, as he rises through the ranks from the downtrodden slacker of Private Norakuro in Boot Camp in 1933 to Corporal Norakuro the following year.
Murata is among the ten most influential or otherwise important animators one can also zero in on. Each is accompanied by a brief paragraph of biographical information and a list of their works within the archive. The earliest is Junichi Kouchi (1886-1970), one of the initial pioneering trio first to get their work into Japanese cinemas back in 1917 (the others were Seitaro Kitayama (1888–1945) and Oten Shimokawa (1892–1973), none of whose works are presented on the site). Japan’s first three animated films sadly no longer exist, although, Kouchi’s four-minute The Dull Sword (1917), the earliest film in the collection, was released within months of his lost debut Hanawa Hekonai, Famous Swords and provides a good example of the style of the era.
Due to the high cost and scarce supply of transparent celluloid, cel animation didn’t appear in Japan until the early 1930s. Early animators instead had to make use of the more time-consuming process of painting over and redrawing the moving parts of each individual image. Kitayama’s only film in the archive, a rather creaky 2-minute version of the Urashima Taro folktale made in 1918, in which a fisherman voyages to a fabulous undersea kingdom on the back of a turtle and returns to dry land to find several hundred years have passed, similarly suffers from this early crudity in technique, although the design elements are rather charming. Hakuzan Kimura’s evocation of a submarine world in The Nation of Fish (1928) is more satisfactory, showing just how quickly early animators began realising the potential of the medium (Hakuzan is a pretty fascinating character in his own right, a former painter of cinema signs who vanished from the scene after producing Japan’s first pornographic animation, only to re-emerge as one of the guys who made animated TV ads in the 1960s.
The other Kouchi film in collection, Film Address “Ethicization of Politics” by Shinpei Goto (1926), provides a powerful example of how Japanese animation in its early days was not only restricted to narrative shorts aimed at kids. Essentially this is an illustrated presentation of a political address by the elderly statesmen Shinpei Goto, who died just a few years later, aged 71. It was made in the year following the passing of the Peace Preservation Law, which sought to restrict the actions of those thought to be undermining the concept of the “national body” and marked a historical turning point towards increased nationalism and state control that lasted until the end of the war. Historically speaking, it is a revealing example of how animation was employed in cinema to disseminate political messages across the nation, although its technique is fairly rudimentary, and at 32 minutes, it is probably not the best place to start in the collection. Rather more fun out of the public education films are Sanae Yamamoto’s Diseases Spread (1926), with its parade of plague, pestilence and pustules following the opening advice to always cook fish thoroughly (curious for the country that brought the world sashimi!), and Yasuji Murata’s Electrical Telegraphy, Electric Bells and Telephones (1931) and The Development of the Train (1932).
Noboru Ofuji gets several pages on the website devoted to him and his wonderful chiyagami collage animations. His films such as Burglars of “Baghdad” Castle (1926) and The Story of the Monkey King (1926) remind us that not all early animation was hand-drawn. Unfortunately, his early sound-on-disk experiment Spring Song (1931), which originally played alongside a sing-along record released by Columbia Records of Japan, is presented without its accompanying soundtrack. This is a curious omission because the synced music is included on Zakka Films’ 2007 DVD release of The Roots of Japanese Anime: Until the End of WWII, and also because National Anthem, Kimigayo (1931) does play alongside its original score.
Indeed, the one small quibble I have about this online selection is that seemingly all of the silent films are presented entirely silent, which makes viewing them a bit of a cold exercise. I recall this fundamentalist approach to silent film being a feature of the NFC’s screenings in their own theatre in Tokyo, where one’s attention to the screen was continuously diverted by the sounds of snoring elsewhere in the auditorium, although with the online archive I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t choose your own suitable accompaniment. Another gripe is the distracting presence of the NFC watermark in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.
But one could spend hours exploring this fabulous collection. The war propaganda films, Armies of the World (director unknown, 1932) and Murata’s Momotaro in the Sky (1931) and Momotaro under the Sea (1932), which introduce the Peach Boy character who would be the focus of Japan’s first feature-length cartoon, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945), are the ones likely to get the most interest. So too are the earlier films of the figures who worked on this landmark production, Kenzo Masaoka and Mitsuyo Seo, notably the former’s wonderful Nonsense Story, Vol.1:Monkey Island (1930) and the latter’s Arichan the Ant (1941).
There are plenty of fascinating discoveries to be made. For me, the biggest revelation was the work of Shigeji Ogino (1899-1992), a name I’d only encountered in passing before. Ogino was active in the field of small-gauge filmmaking, producing his work using the 9.5mm Pathé Baby home movie camera. Not only was he responsible for the only stop-motion doll film in the archive, Detective Felix in Trouble (1932), but also the four experimental works, ?/Rhythmic Triangles/Fighting Cards (1932), An Expression (1935), Rhythm (1935) and Propagate (1935).
How and where were these films circulated? An Expression apparently won a prize at film competition in Budapest, so clearly there were those outside Japan who did see Ogino’s work at the time it was made. But how well known was it within its homeland, and how receptive were the Japanese public to this very European kind of modernism at a time when foreign-inspired avant-garde art was increasingly viewed with suspicion by the authorities? Perhaps some kind of clue is provided by Propagate, which opens with the English text “This is to show how the plant flowers, go to seeds, and spreads them for its next generation” as if introducing an educational nature film, before its subsequent sequence of wafting leafy fronds and branches and throbbing mushrooms beneath a pulsing sun breaks up into Kandinsky-like geometric abstraction, with an arrow emblazoned with the word “Resist” in English flashing up almost subliminally at the film’s mid-point.
Such mesmerizing explorations within the world of pure abstraction should see Ogino hoisted into the pantheon of such other international pioneers of the cinematic avant-garde as Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Len Lye, while his early innovations with an two-colour additive system modelled on Kinemacolour for An Expression and The Making of a Color Animation (1937), the 5-minute documentary he made alongside Noburo Ofuji, should likewise single him out for attention among those with a specific interest in the global development of colour technologies. However, because Ogino operated in the margins – within a non-professional filmmaking field in a country far from the epicentre of the European arts scene – he has been largely overlooked.
Films such as these prompt many questions, and the value of the NFC making them, and indeed all the collection, available worldwide for all to see is immeasurable. One only hopes it leads to the organisation putting more of their holdings online, but for now those intrigued by how the world’s second largest producer of animation found its feet have plenty to keep them occupied.
Jasper Sharp is the author of The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema.