History of Early Anime

by Jessica Pahutski – Staff Editor

Ever since the late 1990s, anime has been an international entertainment powerhouse. Older people can remember a time when titles like “Robotech” and “Star Blazers” graced TV screens in a heavily-edited and localized state. Going back even further brings beloved classics such as “Speed Racer” and an obscure theatrical release called “Magic Boy”. But what are the origins? Was there an “anime industry” before the 60s?
Records of foreign animations shown in Japan go back to about 1910. The first piece of Japanese animation is shrouded in mystery. Found with a collection of old projectors in 2005, “Katsudō Shashin” (“Moving Picture”) dates from at least 1912. Only 3 seconds in length, this stenciled work shows a boy writing the title in kanji right-to-left before removing his hat and bowing to the audience. No one knows who created it or why, with theories ranging from it being a fragment of a lost short to a company logo.
By 1917, the seeds of the industry had sprouted. Dozens of silent shorts were shown in theaters, such as the four-minute-long “Namakura Gatana” (“The Dull Sword”). Discovered in an antique shop 90 years after its creation, this used cutout animation (a relative of stop-motion) to tell of a samurai buying the titular blunt sword. Short subjects on folktales were also quite popular and numerous. Many of these early works were destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, making “Namakura”’s survival nothing short of miraculous.
Sound film emerged in the West in 1927, with Japan catching up about four years later. “Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka” (“Within the World of Power and Women”), a short film of unknown length, was the first talkie anime ever made. Even though it had a star-studded cast of stage actors, no copy is known to exist. What we know of the plot is as follows: The main character is a man with an overbearing wife. He has an affair with a typist, which his spouse finds out about when he talks in his sleep. One member of Chikara to Onna’s animation team would go on to make another milestone motion picture.
Made in 1945 to boost morale in evacuated children, “Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei” (“Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors”) is thought to be the first feature-length anime film, clocking in at 74 minutes. A sequel to 1943’s “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles”, “Divine Sea Warriors” follows a group of anthropomorphic animal soldiers and their human commander as they take over a British-held island in the Pacific. Mitsuyo Seo, forced by the government to make propaganda, wanted to spread hope for peace once the fighting ended. The film, believed to have been lost or confiscated during postwar occupation, resurfaced in 1983 through a negative print.

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