By Mutsumi Morita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer The comical-looking samurai has quite a big head for his body, and his black eyes are always roving around. He's just bought a sword and wants to test it, so he tries to attack a masseuse and an express messenger, only to find himself beaten.
The samurai is the lead character of "Namakuragatana" (The Dull Sword), which was released in 1917. It is the oldest surviving piece of animation in Japan.
"The Dull Sword" is one of 64 works from the early days of the nation’s animation history currently able to be viewed on the Japanese Animated Film Classics website. The site was launched by the National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, to mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of the nation’s first commercial animation.
Courtesy of Center for International Children’s Literature, Osaka Prefectural Central Library
This image was recently discovered in the Yonen Sekai (The world of children) magazine and is believed to be a scene from Seitaro Kitayama’s "Urashima Taro."
Original materials provided by Natsuki Matsumoto / Courtesy of National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
A scene from the digitally restored version of "Urashima Taro (supposed title)," which was mistakenly attributed to Kitayama
Original materials provided by Planet Film Archive / Courtesy of National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
A scene from "Ponsuke no Haru" (Spring Comes to Ponsuke)
Courtesy of National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
A scene from "Osekisho" (At the Border Checkpoint)
The animations will be available to the public until the end of this year, and cover the period up to 1941, when "Arichan" (Arichan the Ant) and "Namakegitsune" (The Lazy Fox) were produced.
Japanese animation production started after the European film industry lost momentum following the end of World War I. This brought financial difficulties for Japanese film companies, as they also distributed foreign movies. A breakthrough came when they embarked on producing original works of animation, a genre that was already very popular at that time.
"The Dull Sword" was the debut anime for manga artist Junichi Kouchi, and shows how passionate he was regarding creative endeavors, as it presents an original story rather than imitating Western works. The film also showcases various artistic techniques as well, such as changing into silhouette animation toward the end.
The pioneering work was described as "outstanding" by a movie magazine at the time.
However, the characters make only simple and somewhat stiff movements, as they were created using paper cutouts, indicating the struggles the film faced in its production process. Characters in later works show smoother and more complicated movements, probably because the creators had developed their expertise, and because cells — transparent sheets onto which characters or backgrounds are drawn — were adopted in animation production.
The Japanese Animated Film Classics drew attention overseas mainly because the BBC introduced the website on its online version, prompting the film center to release an English version of the archive in May.
"I hope many people enjoy viewing the starting point of Japanese animation," said Kazuki Miura, researcher at the film center.
Spotlight on pioneers
Meanwhile, an ongoing exhibition at the Kawasaki City Museum is casting a spotlight on pioneers in domestic animation.
About 150 items are on display at "The Dawn of Nippon Animation: The pioneers of 'moving cartoon,’" such as early works, related photos and film magazines. The show focuses on animation released in 1917 and 1918 and related events, and was first held at the Kyoto International Manga Museum earlier this year.
Among the exhibits is an essay by manga artist Oten (or Hekoten) Shimokawa. A pioneer of Japanese animation, he described many of the trials in the early days of animation production, such as drawing using chalk on a blackboard or using many prints with the same background.
Organizers conducted research before the exhibition, and their new findings are presented at the venue.
Thirty-two works of animation are known to have been released in 1917 and 1918, of which five were tracked down by the organizers. Of the five works, film clips have been discovered for three, and still images of scenes that were carried in magazines were also found for three (both types of images were discovered for one film).
Nue Niimi, a manga researcher who also served as a planner for the commemorative exhibition, has discovered images from four additional works that were carried in children’s magazines at that time.
All four animations were produced by artist Seitaro Kitayama, but each work has different styles.
"The findings show that Kitayama had several assistants," Niimi said. "These materials provide valuable clues into how studios produced animation works at that time."
Kitayama also produced a work about the folktale "Urashima Taro," which was released in 1918. Among the works on the Japanese Animated Film Classics is a film that was believed to have been Kitayama’s "Urashima Taro," but the exhibition’s research has found that it did not actually belong to him.
In the archive, therefore, the film is identified as "Urashima Taro (supposed title)."
Visit animation.filmarchives.jp to watch works on the Japanese Animated Film Classics.
"The Dawn of Nippon Animation: The pioneers of 'moving cartoon’" runs through Dec. 3 at the Kawasaki City Museum, which is closed Mondays and Nov. 24. Please visit www.kawasaki-museum.jp for details.