I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Early Japanese Animation – Part I: The Earliest Days


by Cory Gross
April 13, 2013

Why do anime characters have such big eyes? That is one of the most common questions asked of Japanese animation and it has one of the most unexpected answers: because of Mickey Mouse.

Animation as a popular medium had its start in Hollywood, from there filtering around the world clear across to the Land of the Rising Sun. How it infiltrated Japan, and how the Japanese in turn infiltrated animation, is a perfect microcosom of Japan's entry into the globalized economic and cultural world of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Through the first half of the 19th century, Japan was still secluded in the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Effectively a military dictatorship with a well-defined class structure, the Shoguns restricted contact between Japan and the rest of the world. It is not proper to say that they were isolationist, for they did trade extensively with the Chinese, Koreans and Dutch. Rather, they were guarded and particular about working with “compatible” peoples. That did not include most Europeans or Americans.

This changed in 1852 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States arrived in what is now Tokyo Bay with an ultimatum to open the port to unrestricted trade on pain of canon-fire from his fleet of “black ships.” A treaty was signed in 1854 that shook Japanese society to its foundation. Unfair conditions, Western aggression and newly-introduced diseases provoked the population into wanting to confront the West on its own terms. An unresponsive Shogunate was overthrown and the Emperor restored to full leadership, with the promise of modernizing Japan.

“Wakon Yosai”, or “Western Learning, Japanese Spirit”, was the rallying cry of the Meiji Era, which ran from 1867 to 1912. Massive reforms swept across the country, from the abolition of hereditary Daimyo (nobility) and Samurai classes to a new constitution and religious freedoms to educational and governmental reforms to new technologies and forms of entertainment. The first films produced in Japan were Jizo the Spook and Resurrection of a Corpse, both in 1898. Animation followed in the 1910's. Most of the earliest examples were lost to cultural norms (as animation, and film in general, was considered fairly disposable entertainment) and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Several pieces remain of the “second generation” of animators from the Interwar period.

One of the finest-preserved examples of this generation of Japanese animation is Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki. Directed by Ikuo Oishi in 1933, it demonstrates a level of skill in movement and character design that is easily equal to the work of Ub Iwerks on the first Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons. Many commentators also draw a comparison to the early Fleischer cartoons and Otto Messmer's late-Twenties Felix the Cat. In Oishi's work we see the same fluid, refined animation found in the best examples of American animation of the same time period.

We also see that unique adaptation of the American form to Japanese content. The title roughly translates to “Fox and Racoon-Dog Playing Pranks on Each Other” and features two mythologized versions of Japanese wildlife. After a wandering peasant crawls fretfully through a midnight scene worthy of Disney's Skeleton Dance, we are introduced to Kitsune, the Japanese fox. Foxes are indigenous to Japan and have taken on a unique set of folkloric characteristics there. White foxes are considered to be the messengers of Inari, the “kami” (god-like spiritual being) of fertility and harvests. Kyoto's Fushimi-Inari Shrine with its thousands of tori gates lined up in rows – made world famous by Memoirs of a Geisha – is adorned with white foxes. The more tails a fox has, up to nine, the more powerful it is (think of Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog). Amongst its powers are shape-shifting, and foxes are often thought to turn into humans for various purposes good and ill.

In Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki, the fox turns into a wandering samurai and makes his way to a dilapidated temple. We know something is awry, however, when we see the will-o-wisp Hinotama light up, signifying supernatural activity. Inside the temple, our Kitsune draws the attention of a young Tanuki. Also known as “Racoon-Dogs” in English, Tanuki are a species of wild canine with racoon-like markings found throughout Japan. They are also ascribed special characteristics, foremost of which is shape-shifting and a jovial, playful attitude. You may have seen a statue of one standing in your local sushi restaurant, holding a flask of sake, wearing a straw hat, and flashing his engorged testicles.

The definitive animated treatment of Tanuki is in the film Pom Poko by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. Pom Poko deals with the destruction of the native habitat of Tanuki in the forested hills outside of Tokyo, alternating between their natural and supernatural forms. A vivid scene features a reenactment of the Haykki Yako, or “Night Parade of 100 Demons”, in which the Tanuki imitate a famous assembly of Japanese monsters called Yokai. Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki is one of the first films to animate Yokai.

Once the Kitsune sits down to enjoy some sake, this curious Tanuki adopts the form of Ichigen-issoku. This one-eyed, one-legged Yokai is the ghost of the high priest Jinin of the Mount Hiei Temple in Kyoto, circumnavigating the mountain on midnight strolls. Seeing the ruse, the Kitsune entraps the Tanuki with its love of songs. Bested, the little one calls in the reinforcements. Upon his arrival, the elder Tanuki sneaks up on the Kitsune, in reference to a well-known urban legend. According to an August 1873 illustrated newspaper (Shinbun nishiki-e), a man was woken by the screams of his child, over whom loomed the form of a three-eyed monk. This monk grew larger and larger until it reached the very ceiling of his house. Wise to the trick himself, the father grabbed the monk's sleeve and pulled him down, whereupon the monk transformed back into a Tanuki. What follows is a knock-down, drag-out magic fight between the two shape-shifting pranksters.

Our Baseball Match , directed by Chuzo Aoji in 1931, portrays a baseball match between Tanuki and rabbits. Though the Tanuki do not employ their shape-shifting abilities, they do demonstrate another famous tendency. It is said that they employ their fattened bellies as drums, sounding out a “pom poko pom poko pom” song. It is this song for which the film Pom Poko is named. That they are playing baseball is also interesting. The sport was introduced to Japan by Americans in 1872, whose first team formed in 1878. Initially the American Yokohama Athletic Club refused to play any Japanese team, but eventually relented. The Yanks lost that first match 29 to 4, demonstrating the fervour with which the Japanese took to the game.

Our Baseball Match is also notable for employing the talents of a Benshi, or live film narrator. Japan's silent movie era extended for longer than North America's for both technological and cultural reasons. Benshi were used by theatres to provide the exposition and dialogue customarily given by intertitles in American silent films, and they frequently interjected their own improvised performances in conjunction with the classic Japanese orchestras. Hearkening back to the narrators of Noh and Kabuki theatre, Benshi were a significant part of the movie-going experience in Japan well into the Thirties and the advent of Talkies.

Noburo Ofuji directed The Routing of the Tengu in 1934, which opens with a Neko (cat) being traumatised by a pair of bird-beaked Tengu who go on to kidnap a dancing Geisha from a villa. Tengu are another breed of Yokai. Sometimes hostile and sometimes protective but always frightening, Tengu appear in folklore in two forms, both of which are represented in this short. The bird-like form is the older of the two, and this form has often been anthropomorphised into a human figure with an exceptionally long nose. Regarded as guardians of mountains and nature, their masks and effigies are often found in rural and suburban areas like Mount Takao on the outskirts of Tokyo. In some stories, Tengu are the ghosts of people who succumbed to pride and arrogance, some of whom became enemies of Buddhism while others still maintained that vestige of decency that could be appealed to for spiritual protection. Kidnapping is a fairly normal activity for them, however. Again showing the influence of American animation, the samurai fending off the Tengu in a highly choreographed dance-off looks suspiciously like Betty Boop.

As time drew onwards, animation developed along identical lines on both sides of the Pacific. As Hollywood animation became more technically proficient, so did Japanese animation. In the coming days we will look at one of Japan's great early directors, Kenzo Masaoka, and first feature-length film, Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors, both in production during World War II.   

For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age