Early Animations from Japan

Katsudo Shashin
R / P: Unknown. Japan ca. 1907

“A young boy dressed in sailor attire and a bright red cap is shown to write the Japanese kanji characters translating to the phrase ‘moving picture.’ As he completes writing the phrase, he faces toward the viewer and bows. Katsudou Shashin consists of fifty frames of celluloid strip in its three-second duration, with sixteen frames per second. Discovered in 2004, having been purchased with a private collection in Kyoto, it is suspected to have been created between 1905 and 1911. This would make it one of the oldest pieces of animation from Japan.”

“Unlike in traditional animation, the frames were not produced by photographing the images, but rather were impressed onto film using a stencil. This was done with a device for stencilling magic lantern slides. The images were in red and black on a strip of 35 mm film whose ends were fastened in a loop for continuous viewing. Early printed animation films for optical toys such as the zoetrope predated projected film animation. German toy manufacturer Gebrüder Bing presented a cinematograph at a toy festival in Nuremberg in 1898; soon other toy manufacturers sold similar devices. Live-action films for these devices were expensive to make; possibly as early as 1898 animated films for these devices were on sale, and could be fastened in loops for continuous viewing. Imports of these German devices appeared in Japan at least as early as 1904; films for them likely included animation loops.”

Namakura Gatana (The Dull Sword)
R: Junichi Kôuchi. P: Kobayashi Shokai. Japan 1917

“Namakura Gatana is a short Japanese animated film produced by Jun’ichi Kōuchi in 1917. It was rediscovered by an antique shop employee in Osaka in March 2008. This film is a 4-minute silent short that tells a story about a foolish samurai’s purchase of a dull-edged sword. It was released on June 30, 1917, and is among the very earliest examples of anime. Namakura Gatana is a short comedy about a dim-witted samurai and his worn down sword which turns completely useless as he tries to fight even the weakest opponents. The samurai, trying to figure out why his old sword won’t cut anyone he strikes, tries desperately to attack random townspeople who defend themselves and knock him out.”

“Even more dramatic than the film’s plot is the story of the film itself. Namakura Gatana and another antique animation, Urashima Taro (Seitaro Kitayama, 1918) were discovered and purchased by film historican Natsuki Matsumoto at an antique fair in Osaka in July 2007. The films were in remarkably good condition because they had been stored in paper containers that allowed enough ventilation so that the films did not deteriorate.
To put this remarkable story into perspective, Japan had a flourishing film industry during the silent and pre-war periods. Donald Richie has estimated that more than 90% of Japan’s pre-war films have been lost forever. The reasons for this include fires (especially the one that levelled Tokyo following the great Kanto quake of 1923), war (the fire-bombing of major cities and the American’s torching ‘banned’ films during the Occupation), and neglect by the industry itself. Many early films were made of nitrate, which is highly combustible, and led to many films going up in flames. There was also the problem that film was seen by many as a novelty and studios did not see any profit in preserving these films for future generations.”
Nishikata Film Review

Yoshiro Irie, a researcher at Tokyo’s National Film Center, has announced that two of the oldest Japanese animated films were discovered in an antique shop in Osaka in central Japan. In 1917, anime pioneer Jun’ichi Kouchi released the two-minute Namakura Gatana silent short about a samurai’s foolish purchase of a dull-edged sword. Fellow animator Seitaro Kitayama released Urashima Tarō, an adaptation of a folk tale about a fisherman traveling to an underwater world on a turtle, in 1918. These films came soon after Oten Shimokawa‘s 1917 Imokawa Mukozo the Doorman, which is considered the oldest commercially released anime film. Irie noted that these films relied heavily on gags and the novelty of moving pictures. The one film that predates them all is a 50-frame shot of a sailor boy’s salute that was discovered in 2005. An unknown artist hand-drew each frame directly onto the film stock.”