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Rediscovering Japan’s 100-year History of Original Animation

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Part of original materials provided by Natsuki Matsumoto / Courtesy of National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
An image from the longest, digitally restored version of “The Dull Sword,” the oldest surving Japanese animation

Mutsumi Morita reports: The comical-looking samurai has quite a big head for his body, and his black eyes are always roving around. He’s just bought a sword and wants to test it, so he tries to attack a masseuse and an express messenger, only to find himself beaten.

The samurai is the lead character of “Namakuragatana” (The Dull Sword), which was released in 1917. It is the oldest surviving piece of animation in Japan.

“The Dull Sword” is one of 64 works from the early days of the nation’s animation history currently able to be viewed on the Japanese Animated Film Classics website. The site was launched by the National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, to mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of the nation’s first commercial animation.

Courtesy of Center for International Children’s Literature, Osaka Prefectural Central Library.
This image was recently discovered in the Yonen Sekai (The world of children) magazine and is believed to be a scene from Seitaro Kitayama’s “Urashima Taro.”

The animations will be available to the public until the end of this year, and cover the period up to 1941, when “Arichan” (Arichan the Ant) and “Namakegitsune” (The Lazy Fox) were produced.

Japanese animation production started after the European film industry lost momentum following the end of World War I. This brought financial difficulties for Japanese film companies, as they also distributed foreign movies. A breakthrough came when they embarked on producing original works of animation, a genre that was already very popular at that time.

[Read the full story here, at The Japan News]

“The Dull Sword” was the debut anime for manga artist Junichi Kouchi, and shows how passionate he was regarding creative endeavors, as it presents an original story rather than imitating Western works. The film also showcases various artistic techniques as well, such as changing into silhouette animation toward the end.

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The pioneering work was described as “outstanding” by a movie magazine at the time.

However, the characters make only simple and somewhat stiff movements, as they were created using paper cutouts, indicating the struggles the film faced in its production process. Characters in later works show smoother and more complicated movements, probably because the creators had developed their expertise, and because cells — transparent sheets onto which characters or backgrounds are drawn — were adopted in animation production.

The Japanese Animated Film Classics drew attention overseas mainly because the BBC introduced the website on its online version, prompting the film center to release an English version of the archive in May.

“I hope many people enjoy viewing the starting point of Japanese animation,” said Kazuki Miura, researcher at the film center … (read more)

via The Japan News

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