The Roots of Japanese Anime: Until the End of WW II (Zakka Films, NR)

rootsofanime-header.jpgMany of these early Japanese films are lost to history, which makes this DVD collection particularly welcome.

 

 

Today, animated television programs and movies from Japan are popular all over the world, and often serve as the first contact Americans have with Japanese culture. It was not always so, however: although film animation in Japan dates back to 1907, early production was decentralized and animation techniques often lagged behind that of American studios such as Disney.  

Many of these early Japanese films are lost to history, which makes the DVD collection The Roots of Japanese Anime, available from Zakka Films, particularly welcome. It presents eight early Japanese animated films, created between 1930 and 1942, along with informative essays by Jasper Sharp (well-known among fans of Japanese film as co-editor of the web site http://www.midnighteye.com/ and author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema) and Aaron Gerow (professor at Yale University and author of the BFI guide Kitano Takeshi). Together these films make a significant contribution to our understanding of Japanese animation and its historical development, and also provide fascinating window into Japanese culture in the years leading up to World War II.

Three films by pioneering animator Noburuo Ofuji are included on the DVD. The Village Festival (1930, 3 min.) and Song of Spring (1931, 4 min.) use cutout animation incorporating chiyogami, a traditional type of patterned paper. Both are educational films for children meant to be screened with a companion phonograph recording which is included as a soundtrack on the DVD. Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box (1936, 9 min.) is a sound film which uses cel animation (rare in Japan at this time, due to the cost of celluloid) to achieve more fluid movement than was possible with paper animation: the look is similar to that of early Disney cartoons.

The innovative Monkey Masamune (1930, 8 min.) by Yasuji Murata uses cutout animation to achieve many effects common in cel work, including moving figures against a static background, and cinematic techniques such as irising, panning, and ending scenes with a fade to black.

Chameko’s Day (1931, 7 min.) by Kyoji Nishikura is a humorous look at the life of a young girl in 1930’s Japan: she wakes up, brushes her teeth with Lion brand toothpaste  (perhaps an early example of product placement), goes to school and in the evening attends the movies with her mother. Interestingly, they (and the audience for this animation) see both an animated samurai tale and live-action newsreel footage of Kinue Hitomi, the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal. This film is based on the 1929 hit song of the same title and incorporates a vocal soundtrack.

The Monster Exterminator (1935, 10 min.) by Yoshitaro Kataoka tells the tale of Danemon Ban, a general noted for his fondness for drinking as well as his military leadership. Contemporary movie characters are cited within the film alongside popular folk beliefs including the fabled shape-shifting abilities of tanuki (raccoon dogs). Benkei and Ushiwaka (1939, 14 min.) by Kenzo Masaoka, Masao Kumakawa, Ryotaro Kuwata and Kakusan Kimura, also tells a tale from Japanese folk history, in this case of Yoshitsune Minamoto (Ushiwaka), a leader of the Taira clan in the 12th century, and the soldier priest Benkei. It uses cel animation and was created following the contemporary American practice of recording the voice soundtrack first, then matching the animation to it.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (1942, 37 min.), sponsored by the Ministry of the Navy, was animated by Tadahito Mochinaga, Toshihiko Tanabe, Tamako Hashimoto and Shizuo Tsukamoto. It presents the folk hero Momotaro (often called the "peach boy" because legend has it that an elderly couple discovered him inside a giant peach) as a naval commander leading a force of cartoon animals to attack "Demon Island," clearly referring to Pearl Harbor. It’s an interesting example of wartime propaganda (of which the United States also produced its share) and is also notable for its use of the multiplanar camera introduced by Disney a few years earlier. This type of camera was mounted on a stand which allowed animators to shoot through multiple cells at different distances from the lens, creating a sense of depth which added realism to the animations.

There’s only one extra on the DVD, but it’s well worth a look: a gallery of ads for Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, with English translations. Any doubt about the true location of "Demon Island" or the implied meaning of Momotaro’s adventures is cleared up with these ads. As one states: "Momotaro of the Showa Era bravely goes into action in the Greater East Asia War! He ventures an attack on Pearl Harbor in Demon Island (Hawaii), the main base of the evil demons of America. A thrilling, unparalleled naval battle that makes the red and blue demons tremble!" Another brings professional jealousy into the context of military battle, claiming that that "Roosevelt and the American gangster Popeye are no match. They face Momotaro’s troops and end up all wet!" while a third proclaims "We’d love to show this wonderful cartoon to Roosevelt!"

Further information about The Roots of Japanese Anime, including a video preview, is available from the Zakka Films web site http://zakkafilms.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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