What Was Anime Like Before World War II Ended?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

A few books talk about how Anime started after the US occupied Japan and great storytellers, like Walt Disney, helped to inspire some of Japan's very own early great Anime makers. But I saw once that Anime was earlier than that, well before WW2. So, when and how did Anime actually start and what circumstances help transform itself into the shape that we see it today?

Motion pictures came relatively early to Japan. Thomas Edison's kinetoscope, an early peephole motion picture viewer, was first shown commercially in the United States in 1894, and appeared in Japan only two years later. Japanese businessmen kept close tabs on the new medium, and by 1897 early Vitascope and Lumière Brothers' Cinematograph films were already being shown -- the same year as the first motion picture projectors became widely available in the US.

Like America, Japan had two firmly entrenched artistic traditions that made animation a natural progression: the first was a robust comics scene. Manga descended from 11th century picture scrolls, 18th and 19th century wood block illustrations and picture books, and the political satires known as Kibyoshi. After Commodore Perry arrived in 1853, Westerners arrived and brought along their own comics, which Japanese artists developed into their own "Ponchi-e" (punch-style pictures). By the time movies arrived, there were already serialized manga magazines aimed at boys and girls.

The second tradition was one of the Magic Lantern show (utsushi-e). Magic lantern shows were popular worldwide, and combined projected fantasy imagery with live storytelling. The images originated from large glass slides, that often contained several moving parts that could be manipulated by the storyteller. These magic lantern shows traveled from place to place, and were great entertainment for everyday people. Unfortunately, between the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and World War II, little of these shows remain today, but we do know that this paved the way for Japanese cinema.

The earliest known example of projected animation (Charles-Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique) predates the photographic motion picture projector by a few years, but after the introduction of the Kinetoscope and the Vitascope, artists around the world immediately began experimenting with animation. J. Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) is thought to be the first hand-drawn piece of animation on standard film, but Japan's oldest known animation, Katsudo Shashin (creator unknown), came only a year later.

Animation in Japan was a small scale affair in the early days, with most productions being done by an artist from home, assisted only by friends and family. These early films were usually aimed at children, and drew their inspiration from Japanese folklore. These were short, silent films, often designed to be accompanied by a narrator known as a benshi (which were common in Japanese silent era cinema). The artwork of these early films ranged dramatically from cartoony to very realistic and ambitious.

In the 1930s, with war on the horizon, the Japanese government started paying close attention to their home grown animation industry, often working with animators to create propaganda works. When the Pacific side of World War II started in 1941, they dramatically ramped up this practice. Momotaro's Sacred Sailors was the most noteworthy result, the first feature length animation produced by Japan. While in black and white, the film is truly stunning in its artistry, especially compared to what came only a few years before. Released on April 12, 1945 (only a few months before the dropping of the atomic bombs and Japan's defeat), the film follows Momotaro, who, according to the traditional Japanese fairy tale, was born from a peach and joins with three animal companions to defeat monsters -- in this case, the Allied powers of the West. (Shochiku Films completed a new digital restoration of this film last year, and Funimation and Anime Limited have licensed it for release along with its original short film Momotaro's Sea Eagle, but haven't announced release plans yet as of this writing.)

After World War II, it took some time for the industry to reassemble itself. Toei Animation (then called Nihon Douga Eiga, or Japan Animated Films) was created in 1948, and was bought by Toei Corporation and re-named in 1956. Not much of note was released for the first few years, but Toei president Hiroshi Okawa had big dreams. He wanted to compete with Disney animated features, and in selecting his first project, a Chinese folktale called "Legend of the White Snake", he hoped to strike a note of reconciliation with the rest of Asia.

Hakujaden (1958), the 78-minute full color feature that resulted, is amazing for a few reasons: the first is that ALL of the key animation is by two people (animals were animated by Yasuji Mori, and Akira Daikubara animated the humans). It got a dubbed, uncut US release (as "Panda and the Magic Serpent"). Noted anime director Rintaro got his start as an in-betweener on this film (he was 17). Add to that, the film basically had to build its infrastructure and work methods from scratch, involving a mind-boggling 13,590 person crew over an 8-month stretch. The film is a little clunky by today's standards (and it bombed in the US), but its historical importance is hard to overstate. The film was the first of a long series of ambitious feature films from Toei Douga, the studio that would give its start to Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Yasuji Mori, Yasuo Ōtsuka, Yōichi Kotabe and many others throughout the 1960s.

In the mean time, a young man named Osamu Tezuka was burning up the post-WWII manga scene. Tezuka is so important to anime history that his story really requires another (several) articles, but suffice it to say that his incredible contributions to both manga and anime basically shaped the industry the way it is today. Many of the best-known anime creators worked with Tezuka in their early career, and his influence is still strongly felt in the industry.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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