A brief tour by Fred Patten of Japanese animation from its beginnings by hobbyists in 1917 to its current status as one of the major producing countries in the world.
(Note: for convenience, where English-language titles have been established for Japanese films, they are used in this article even when they are not accurate translations. For example, the 1958 theatrical feature Hakuja Den, or The White Snake Enchantress, is referred to by its 1961 American title, Panda and the Magic Serpent.)
The earliest Japanese animation was by individual film hobbyists inspired by American and European pioneer animators. The first three Japanese cartoons were one-reelers of one to five minutes each, in 1917. Animation of the 1920s ran from one-to-three reels. A few were imitations of foreign cartoons, such as the Felix the Cat series, but most were dramatizations of Oriental folk tales in traditional Japanese art styles.
Notable silent-era animators include Oten Shimokawa, Junichi Kouchi, Seitaro Kitayama, Sanae Yamamoto (whose 1924 The Mountain Where Old Women Are Abandoned seems to be the earliest anime title still extant), Yasuji Murata, and the master of paper silhouette animation, Noboru Ofuji. Most of them worked in small home studios, though they came to be financed by Japanese theatrical companies which provided production money in exchange for distribution rights.During the 1930s, folk tales began to give way to Western-style fast-paced humor. These gradually reflected the growing influence of Japanese militarism, such as Mituyo Seo's 1934 11-minute cartoon Private 2nd-Class Norakuro, an adaptation of Suihou Tagawa's popular newspaper comic strip about an unlucky dog soldier in a funny-animal army. After Japan went to war in China in 1937, the need to get productions approved by government censors resulted in a steady stream of militaristic propaganda cartoons. In 1943, the Imperial military government decided Japan needed its first animated feature. Mituyo Seo was authorized to assemble a team of animators for the task. Their 74-minute Momotaro's Gods-Blessed Sea Warriors was a juvenile adventure showing the Imperial Navy as brave, cute anthropomorphic animal sailors resolutely liberating Indonesia and Malaysia from the buffoonish foreign-devil (with horns) Allied occupiers--too late for even wishful dreaming, as it was barely released (in April 1945) before the war's end.
Animation returned to the individual filmmakers right after World War II. However, they were hampered for the next decade by the slow recovery of the Japanese economy. They also found their amateur films competing with the polished cartoons from American studios, which poured into Japan with the Occupation forces. The first Japanese full-color animation did not appear until 1955. It soon became clear that the future of Japanese animation lay in adopting the Western studio system. (However, independent anime artists have never disappeared. Thus, the first Japanese animator to achieve international name recognition was Yoji Kuri, whose art films of usually less than a minute each appeared in international film festivals throughout the 1960s and 70s.)
Akira, 1988. A theatrical sensation in Japan and the first major release of the new American anime market in 1990. Courtesy of Fred Patten. © Akira Committee.
Attempts to create American-style studios began right after the war, but the first real success did not come until Toei Animation Co. was organized in 1956. Its earliest leading animator, Yasuji Mori, directed Toei's first notable short cartoon, Doodling Kitty, in May 1957. But to the general public, Japan's entry into professional animation came with the company's first theatrical feature, Panda and the Magic Serpent, released in October 1958.
Toei's first few features followed the Disney formula very closely. They were produced a year apart; they were based upon popular folk tales--Oriental rather than European--and the heroes had many cute, funny-animal companions. The first six were distributed in America, usually a couple of years after they were first shown in Japan. The second through sixth (with their American titles but Japanese release years) were Magic Boy (1959), Alakazam the Great (1960), The Littlest Warrior (1961), The Adventures of Sinbad (1962, all five directed by Taiji Yabushita), and The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963, directed by Yugo Serikawa with an avant-garde stylized design by Yasuji Mori). Unfortunately, these were not successful in the US and Japanese theatrical animation disappeared from America for the next two decades--unless it could be sold to TV as an afternoon children's movie.
But Alakazam the Great led to something unexpected. Although directed by Yabushita, it was based upon a popular 1950s comic-book adaptation by Osamu Tezuka of the ancient Chinese Monkey King legend. The young Tezuka was Japan's most popular comic-strip and comic-book artist during the 1950s, who virtually invented Japan's modern manga industry. Since the movie used his plot and visual style, he was consulted on its adaptation and became involved with its promotion. This caused him to switch his attention from comic books to animation.
Tezuka was also impressed by the appearance in Japan of the first Hanna-Barbera television cartoons of the late 1950s, which led him to conclude that he could produce limited animation for the new TV market. More importantly, he realized from the popularity of his comic books--especially such futuristic titles as Astro Boy--that there was a strong demand for modern, fast-paced fantasy which the animation establishment, with its narrow focus on fairy tales in antique storybook settings, was completely ignoring.
As a result, Tezuka organized Japan's first TV animation studio, Mushi Productions. Not counting an experimental art film, Stories on a Street Corner (1962), its first release was a weekly series based upon Astro Boy, which debuted on New Year's Day 1963. It was such an instant success that, by the end of 1963, there were three more television animation studios in production and Toei Animation had opened a TV division. By the end of the 1960s, the popularity of TV science-fiction action-adventure anime was so overwhelming that Toei began to alternate it with fairy-tale fare for its theatrical features.
Television animation became much more popular in Japan than it ever was in America. This was largely due to Tezuka's influence. He had drawn in just about every medium available, including childrens' picture books, romantic comic-book soap operas for womens' magazines, risqué humor for mens' magazines, and political cartoons for newspapers. He established the attitude that cartooning was an acceptable form of storytelling for any age group; this is in sharp contrast to the United States, where the attitude became, "Cartoons and comic books are only for children." Tezuka himself brought sophisticated adult animation to movie theaters with his 1969 art feature A Thousand and One Nights (which left in the eroticism of the original Arabian Nights) and the 1970 Cleopatra (a time-travel farce with anachronisms such as Julius Caesar as a cigar-chomping, American-style politician). By the 1970s, TV studios such as TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), Tatsunoko Production Co., Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS), and Nippon Animation, to name just the major ones, were churning out animated mystery dramas, older-teen sports-team soap operas and Western literary classics such as Heidi, Girl of the Alps (directed by Isao Takahata) and The Diary of Anne Frank, along with traditional juvenile fantasy adventures.
Giant Robot & Outer Space Adventures
There was a flood of toy-promotional fantasies, featuring action-heroes for boys and "magical little girls" who could transform into older-teen heartthrobs for girls. Among the most influential was Toei's adaptation of comic-book artist Go Nagai's Mazinger Z, the first of the sagas about a gigantic flying mechanical warrior controlled by an (invariably teen) human pilot to defend Earth against invading space monsters. This combined the dramatic aspects of knights in armor battling dragons, with fighter pilots in aerial combat against enemy armies. Mazinger Z and Nagai's direct sequels Great Mazinger and UFO Robot Grandizer ran for 222 weekly episodes from 1972 through 1977. By the mid-1980s there had been over 40 different giant-robot anime series, covering virtually every channel and every animation studio in Japan. It was these shows, subtitled on Japanese-community TV channels in America, which started the anime cult among American fans in the late 1970s.
Closely related were the futuristic outer-space adventures which began in 1974 with Space Battleship Yamato; basically a wish-fulfillment replay of World War II, with the united Earth armies (Japan) fighting from planet to planet across the galaxy (Pacific) against the conquering Gamilon invaders. Yamato was fortunately timed for the explosive popularity of space operas following the importation of Star Wars from the US; a series of Yamato TV-series and theatrical-feature sequels followed. During the late 1970s and early 80s, the hottest cartoonist in anime was Yamato's creator Leiji Matsumoto, with TV cartoon series and theatrical features based upon his other space-adventure manga, such as Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999 and The Queen of 1,000 Years.
Miyazaki and Takahata
By the mid-1980s, anime had been dominated by TV production for two decades. Two developments changed this. One was the return to prominence of theatrical feature animation, through the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The two were friends who had worked both together and separately at various anime studios in Tokyo since the 1960s.
In the early 1980s, Miyazaki began a science-fiction comic-book adventure, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, for Animage, an animation-fan magazine from one of Japan's largest publishers, Tokuma. This led to a Tokuma-financed feature which Miyazaki also directed. The 1984 Nausicaä was a smash success, resulting in Tokuma subsidizing a new animation studio, Studio Ghibli, for the personal theatrical features of Miyazaki and his friend Takahata.
Studio Ghibli has released an average of a feature a year since then, alternating between the productions of Miyazaki and Takahata: Miyazaki's Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and The Crimson Pig (1992); and Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991) and Pom Poko (1994). Many of these have become Japan's top-grossing theatrical films, live-action or animated. Takahata's Pom Poko was also submitted as Japan's candidate for being an Academy Awards nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Some other notable theatrical features during the past decade include writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo's cyberpunk thriller Akira (1988) and director Mamoru Oshii's adaptation of Masamune Shirow's sci-fi manga novel Ghost in the Shell (1995).
Original Anime Video
The second development was the emergence of the home-video market. Beginning in 1984, animation began to be produced especially for this market (resulting in a Japanese-created English term, OVA or OAV--for Original Anime Video--which has been adopted by American anime fandom as well). OAV animation is usually higher in quality than TV animation, but not as rich as theatrical animation. As with most aspects of popular culture, 90% of it is little better than trash, while 10% may be brilliantly imaginative and innovative. Video productions can run from a half-hour to 2 hours, and from independent titles to serials of from 2 to 10 videos. OAVs are often better than either movies or television for stories which are too long for a standard theatrical release, but not long enough for a TV series. The OAV market is not subject to the public standards for television, so it often becomes notorious for its most lurid examples of violence and pornography. At the other extreme, some of its better examples (such as the Patlabor near-future police-procedural dramas or the No Time for Tenchi teen sci-fi comedies) have become so popular and acclaimed that they have led to their own anime TV series and theatrical films. There are anime-fan magazines devoted to just the anime video market, which list an average of 40 to 45 new releases per month, one-third of which are brand-new OAVs, with the rest being reissues and video releases of theatrical, TV and foreign titles. These OAV titles are the main source for the anime being released in America today, since their licenses are more affordable than those of expensive theatrical features or of multi-episode TV series.
Today, animation in Japan is considered to be in a creative doldrums. Due to the sheer volume of the output over the past three decades, the good ideas have "all been used up." The current trend is for OAV remakes of anime favorites of 20 or 30 years ago, featuring a flashy 90s art slant and a more "sophisticated" (cynical) story line--very similar to the American trend for turning classic live-action TV series into big-budget theatrical films. But many of the titles and concepts that are stale in Japan are still fresh to American audiences, so anime still has an encouraging growth period ahead of it in the US.
Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He currently writes a regular anime column for Animation Magazine.