1917 marks the centenary of the advent of commercially produced anime in Japan, but unfortunately it is impossible for us to get a clear picture of what those early years were like. In the decades following the Second World War it was believed that all of the animation created in the 1910s was lost either in the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, the firebombing of Tokyo, or due to just plain neglect.
From what little information survives of this earliest period of animation production, we know that at least 17 short films were made in 1917 by Shimokawa Ōten, Seitarō Kitayama and Jun’ichi Kōuchi. According to the reckoning of Katsunori Yamaguchi and Yasushi Watanabe (日本ア ニメーション映画史, 1977), at least 12 short films are known two have been released in 1918, followed by one in 1921, 5 in 1922, 3 in 1923 and 6 in 1924. This may not sound like a lot but considering that the techniques they were using were still experimental in nature and they had only a few assistants to help them, it is actually an impressive number of films for such a short period. To put it in context, the American animation pioneer Winsor McCay was only making a film every couple of years while in France Émile Cohl directed or co-directed 20 shorts in 2016 (only one of which is extant).
From what little is known about this period, most of the animation was done using simple line drawings or cutouts or a combination of the two techniques. Because of the expense of celluloid and the time consuming nature of animation, many of the films that appear to be line drawings only actually used cutouts in order to save money, resources, and time.
1924 is a significant year because it marks the beginning of the directorial careers of two more early animation pioneers: Hakusan Kimura and Noburō Ōfuji. Very little is known about the life and career of Kimura other than the fact that he was mentored by Kitayama at Kitayama’s own studios (which were destroyed in the 1923 earthquake) and went on to make educational films at Asahi Kinema Gomei-sha. He also collaborated with Kenzō Masaoka in the development of the first Japanese animation talkie Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (力と女の世の中, 1933, considered lost). It is interesting to note that one of Kimura’s the co-directors on The Tale of Crab Temple was Tomu Uchida, who was working at Asahi Kinema Gomei-sha during this early phase of his career. By 1927 he would move to Nikkatsu where he develop into one of Japan’s top feature film directors.
Ōfuji was mentored by Kōuchi and was influenced by the silhouette animation films of German pioneer Lotte Reiniger. He completed his first two films in 1924 and went on to become the first Japanese animator to establish a name for himself internationally at festivals such as Cannes and the Venice Biennale. An Old Fool was rediscovered in 2013 by a film collector and was restored by IMAGICA. The NFC animation archive currently lists The Story of Tobacco as being released in 1926, but its official filmography of Ōfuji gives 1924 as the date of completion of the first version of the film, which is why I include it here. It is a fascinating early attempt at mixing live action and animation. This list of extant films is based on evidence I have of film screenings at the NFC and elsewhere. I will update this list when I discover evidence of other extant films.
The Dull Sword
dir. Jun’ichi KŌUCHI (幸内純一)
dir. Seitarō KITAYAMA (北山清太郎)
The Hare and the Tortoise
Kyōiku Otogi Manga: Usagi to Kame
dir. Sanae YAMAMOTO (山本早苗)
The Tale of Crab Temple
Kani Manji Engi
dir. Hidehiko OKUDA (奥田秀彦), Hakuzan KIMURA (木村白山), Tomu UCHIDA (内田吐夢)
An Old Fool
Noroma na Oyaji
dir. Noburō Ōfuji (大藤信郎)
A Story of Tobacco
Kemurigusa Monogatari (shisaku-hin)
dir. Noburō Ōfuji (大藤信郎)
2017 Cathy Munroe Hotes