The History of Anime: Origins – 1962

by Miguel Douglas


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It’s Origins: 19th Century – 1962

With the ever-growing popularity of Japanese animation throughout the world, it’s becoming extremely difficult to distinguish this specific medium as “niche”, “modest” or “small”. It’s quite normal now to find people who have no previous familiarity with the notion of anime to acknowledge that a specific series derives from Japan and not America. With numerous mainstream cinematic endeavors such as Astro Boy (2009) and Dragonball: Evolution (2009) being released within American and subsequently worldwide cinemas, the idea of the medium being quite small and only reserved to a narrow group of individuals would be to not acknowledge the distinct truth. Yes, while one could most certainly say that Japanese animation is still retained as a small margin within the entirety of the animation fandom, it ultimately remains a dominant force as an exportation of Japan. With this perspective in mind, we should explore how the rather humble beginnings of Japanese animation would steadily be transformed into the worldwide structure we see it as today.

Exploring the realm of Japanese animation stretches back far and beyond from what we consider “animation” today. Henceforth, like any form or medium of artistic creation, its beginning stages can look quite different from its more modern end result. Stemming from primarily the 19th century, the notion of representing moving images gained the interests of artists throughout Japan. Many artists allocated many of their works towards depicting such a stylistic approach, creating highly realistic works that also included exaggerated features for added effect. Most works were constructed through the use of woodblock printings—a relief printing process that was highly prominent within Japanese society at the time and its most popular genre, Ukiyo-e, was used significantly throughout this period. Advocating artistic motifs of various Japanese historical tales, peoples, and places, ukiyo-e became the avenue towards artistic expression for many Japanese artists at the time. One such artist was that of Katsushiha Hokusai (1760–1849), who was an ukiyo-e painter and artist. His distinctive painting style separated him from many of the artists of his day, with numerous paintings focusing on the various traditional Japanese dance movements—in effect creating a sense of movement within the traditional artistic form. As a pioneer in this technique, Hokusai would further go on to create some of Japan’s most famous artistic works, including that of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a work derived from his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji collection series.

Katsushiba Hokusai The Great Wave Off Kanagawa 1830 - 1833

Katsushiba Hokusai - The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (circa 1830-1833)

With the creative resonance of Hokusai’s handling of movement having spread throughout Japan, it was only a short amount of time before other artists would push the medium of animation further. Given the advent of increasing technology concerning print—and an increase in foreign influence on animation in Japan—many artists wanted to venture into the world of animation based on their experiences in viewing Western films. One such artist—who still remains unknown to this day—created a 4-second animated piece only known as Katsudo Shashin (Moving Picture) released in 1907. The piece is very experimental, and featured a young boy in sailor suit writing “Moving Picture” on the board and subsequently removing his hat to salute the viewer. Widely considered the first animation created within Japan, this very short animated piece would provide a basis for what was to become. We then flash forward to three pioneering individuals of Japanese animation: that of the Oten Shimokawa, Seitaro Kitayama and Junichi Kouchi. Oten being a caricaturist, Seitaro being in charge of the art magazine Gendai no Yoka, and Junichi being a painter, these three were already well accustomed to the art world and its many developments. In the year 1914, these three would individually create three different films—all dealing with traditional material and all produced by Japanese entertainment studio Nikkatsu. While these films were considered important catalysts towards expanding animation within Japan, they ultimately did not obtain a level of artistry needed to establish them as significant animated works that would be recognizable in a domestic and foreign market. Moving to 1917, we find Kitayama producing the animated films Sarukani Kassen (The Crab Takes Revenge), The Cat and the Mice and The Mischievous Letterbox. Met with moderate success throughout Japan, Kitayama made his breakthrough a year later with the release of Momotaro (Peach Boy), a Japanese cartoon that made considerable progress concerning Japanese animation when it was shown in movie theatres within Europe, and more specifically France. The film, stemming from Japanese folklore, chronicles a little boy sent from heaven with his animal companions to battle against a group of ogres. Similar to many animated cartoons before it, the reliance on traditional folklore within animation was key—not only for presenting a common familiarity to the viewing audience but to also revitalize such tales in a newfound artistic medium.

Katsudo Shashin Moving Picture first Japanese Animation 1907

"Katsudo Shashin" - The first Japanese Animation appearing in 1907

Also in 1917, two other films were produced—The Lazy Sword and Hanahekonai’s New Sword—both by Kouchi. In 1920, Kouchi—alongside both Sanae Yamamoto and Kiichiro Kanai—pioneered the usage of gray shading within Japanese animation. This was huge step in Japanese animation and was considered an innovative process towards creating more realistic material. During this period, another artist by the name of Oten Shimokawa created Imohawa Mukuzo Genkanban no Maki (Mukuzo Imohawa, the Doorman). Another first in his field, Shimokawa subsequently created films centered on the adventures of the very characters that were showcased in his comic strips. This transferring from comic to animated film was a quite innovative—to have an artist oversee their production from various mediums was quite unheard within the Japanese animation field. In 1925, Sanae Yamamoto directed Obasuteyama (The Mountain Where the Old Are Abandoned) and Ushiwakamuru (Dear Young Ox). Furthermore, in 1928, Yamamoto would collaborate with Kichiro Kanai to co-direct both Shitakiri Susume (The Sparrows With the Cut Tongues) and Issunboshi Chibi Monogatari (The Story of the Dwarf Chisibuke).

Perhaps one of the greatest innovators within the medium would have to be Noburo Ofuji. With his fascination with creating as well as incorporating various elements into his works, Ofuji was a pioneer in numerous areas. His 1927 film, Kujira (Whale) experimented with silhouette animation, his 1930 film Sekisho (The Control Station), which showcased the beginning of sound within animated features, and his 1937 film Katsurahime (Princess Katsura) saw perhaps one of the greatest inclusions within Japanese animated features at the time—that of color. A concept imported from Western animated features, the usage of color changed the way Japanese animators viewed and approached animation. Another innovator was Kenzo Masaoka, who with his 1932 film Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Within the World of Power and Women), brought forth animation that including actual voiceovers, another first for Japanese animation. Besides animated features consisting of folklore, humor, and drama, it wasn’t until the onset of World War II that the usage of animation was viewed as a valuable tool for propaganda efforts.

Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka Within the World of Power and Women Japanese Anime Film 1932

"Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka" - 1932

With the imperialistic excursions of Japan well underway during the 1930’s to early 1940’s, the usage of animation was an important asset towards vilifying the enemy and supporting the nation’s military conflicts. Perhaps the most famous of these films came from director Mitsuyo Seo, who in 1943 released Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles), presenting anthropomorphic representations of the Allied and Axis forces and highlighting the attack on Pearl Harbor. This feature was so popular that Seo was encouraged to do a full-length animated feature film. His next film, Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro: Sacred Sailors) was released in 1945 and made the biggest impact. With a running time of 74-minutes, the film promoted Japan’s notion of the “liberation of Asia” in their effort to create a Greater East Asia—an ideology that stemmed from Japanese imperial propaganda at the time. Still using anthropomorphic characters, the film followed Japanese sailors as they battled to secure an enemy encampment on Sulawesi Island, Indonesia. Considering its running time, it has been credited as Japan’s first feature-length animated film. Besides the usage of animation for propaganda efforts, director Michiko Yokoyama created Kumo to Tulip (The Spider and the Tulip) in 1943. The film was a musical based on Japanese folklore, and he would go on further to create Sakura Haru no Genso (The Cherry Flowers: The Beginning of Spring) in 1949. This film was also a musical, following a group of girls playing under blossoming cherry trees. Both films were unique in their ability to be quite poetic in nature, which was quite a departure from the abundance of militaristic films creating during this time.

Momotaro Umi no Shinpei Japanese Anime Film 1945

"Momotaro Umi no Shinpei" - 1945

We then move forward to director Taiji Yabushita, who directed the 1958 film Hakujaden (The Legend of the White Serpent). Created through the Toei Doga production company (which in 1998, would officially become Toei Animation in Japan) in which both Yabushita and Sanae Yamamoto were founders of, Hakujaden was the first color feature length film in the history of Japanese animation. Referencing back to the work of Noburo Ofuji, the company utilized color to detail the film to a substantial degree. Based off a mythological Chinese legend, the film follows a young boy named Xu-Xian as he copes with his love for a beautiful princess named Bai-Niang, who just happens to be the reincarnated form of a white snake. This period of animation is considered the beginning of the Japanese animation industry because production companies began focusing primarily on creating animation for commercial purposes. Toei Doga would go further to produce Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Sasuke the Ninja Boy) in 1959. Directed by Akira Daikubara and Taiji Yabushita, the film followed a little ninja boy by the name of Sasuke throughout his courageous adventures to save villagers and battle villains. This film is very significant for being the first Japanese animated film to be released within North American theaters. It was released in 1961, but under the title Magic Boy. In 1960, the prolific Osamu Tezuka came to work for Toei Doga. His work there contributed towards Saiyuki, a film based on the Chinese Journey to the West. The film was from his own manga adaptation, which was the primary reasoning for his involvement. Tezuka’s stay at the company was short lived though, as with the expiration of his contract there he soon sought to formulate his own company separate from that of Toei Doga.

Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke The Ninja Boy Japanese Anime Film 1959

"Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke" - 1959

With the coming of 1960, the creative and innovative nature of Japanese animation was steadily becoming more realized as a legitimate industry. Japanese animated productions were being taken more seriously as a form of entertainment that could take their place amongst many Western animated productions, including that of Disney. In a sense, this is the period in which the distinctive nature of Japanese animation began to take center and distinguish itself as a concrete art form. Returning back to Toei Doga, we see the release of Anjuto to Zushio Maru (The Littlest Warrior) in 1961. Following a brother and sister separated from their parents and forced to become slave laborers, the two undergo an adventure to reunite with their parents. That same year, Toei Doga released Arabian Night Sinbad no Boken (Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad). Stemming from the Arab short story collection Thousand and One Nights, the film follows Sinbad and his courageous adventures as a sailor. The commercialization of Japanese animation was also becoming a reality, and its expansion in 1961 came from none other than Osamu Tezuka, who created his own production company entitled Mushi after leaving Toei Doga. The company produced Aru Machi Kado no Monogatari (Stories From a Street Corner) in 1962. In the film, Tezuka chronicles the daily happening of Japan during the Industrial Revolution, with the distinct element of having neither dialect nor characters within the film, only focusing on the visual quality of the film itself.

Arabian Night Sinbad no Boken Japanese Film 1962

"Arabian Night Sinbad no Boken" - 1962

Mushi would go onto later to produce one of Tezuka’s most famous series, Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy). Still within 1962, director Ryuichi Yokoyama—who was the founder of Otogi productions in 1955—came out with Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (Voyage Around the Otogi World), an animated film consisting of anthological works from the Yokoyama and his staff at Otogi. Also released in 1962 was Manga Calendar (Comic Calendar), which was a 52-episode series that ran from 1962-1964. Contrary to popular belief, Manga Calendar is first Japanese animated series due to the year of its release (1962), not Tetsuwan Atom, which was released later in 1963. With the pioneering elements of Japanese animation well underway by 1962, 1963 was shaping up to be even more significant with animated works that would further shape both Japanese animation as well as its exposure throughout the world.


Prominent works during these years:

Hakujaden (The Legend of the White Serpent) – 1958

Hyotan Suzume (The Sparrow and the Empty Pumpkin) – 1959

Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Sasuke The Ninja Boy) – 1959

Saiyuki (Journey to the West) – 1960

Anjuto to Zushiomaru (Anju and Zushiomaru) – 1961

Arabian Night Sinbad no Boken (Arabian Nights: the Adventures of Sinbad) – 1962

Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (Voyage Around the Otogi World) – 1962

Aru Machikado no Monogatari (Stories From a Street Corner) – 1962

Manga Calender (Comic Calender) – 1962-1964

Post-Disclaimer: Please note that this article chronicles the birth of the Japanese animation industry, not the pre-industry. There does exist segments of pre-industry history within the article, but only to formulate a basis towards understanding the foundation of the animation industry itself.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Q. Le

    Excellent article on the history of anime! I just recently heard of Hakujaden from a friend of mine, and seeing the films before and after it and how they influenced foundation of the anime industry is fascinating and incredibly informative. Cheers :)

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the kind comment Q. Le. Hakujaden was a pivotal film within Japanese animation for sure. I’m glad you found the article fascinating as well as informative! Thanks again.

  • shinmanga

    A wonderful article, very interesting (this period of animation is rarely a subject on blog)! i made a link on my website. Thanks a lot!