In the early years, Japan’s animation was produced by individuals with a houseful of assistants. Right from the start, the majority of the films were instructional; cloaked as entertainment, made to promote Japanese culture, ideals, social and civic duties. There were no long running character series. Cartoons were made on an individual basis and either released by the live action studios or sponsored by organizations such as the Ministry of Education.
Like most early animators, Hakuzan Kimura came from a background of graphic work within the movie industry; in his case, advertising posters. He excelled in the creation of animation with historical themes from a land where using cartoon forms such as large eyes and noses to convey serious emotions and stories was not so strange. Kimura’s characters are anatomically believable, even studious, but rendered in a high graphic style steeped in Asia’s long tradition of humorous brush and ink painting. There is often a striking modernity in his art. It’s especially arresting on a theatre screen, a rare occasion.
Kimura remains a mysterious figure. The dates of his birth and death are apparently unknown. His presence as one of the innovators of animation was curtailed after his making of Suumi Matoki (1932), the country’s first pornographic cartoon. (It does contradict the country’s long standing tradition of erotic art.) He was arrested, his film was seized by the government, and I haven’t found anything notable about him after that. Nothing about him is known after the early 1940s.
THRIFT AND SAVING OF TASUKE SHIOBARA (1925):
In much early Japanese animation, when characters were not rationalizing warfare, they were harvesting and storing crops.
Based on a Kabuki story. The hero’s facial features are frozen in a mild smile throughout, but his emotions are remarkably expressed through his gestures, made with shifted paper cutouts. He endures considerable, completely gagless torment, and is at one point ready to throw himself off a bridge. Eventually, he wins success and a bride. A tract baldly instilling thrift and perseverance, necessities long after the film itself was finished (this soundtrack was added for a 1941 release).
The paper cutout technique, favored outside the States until the 1930s, is successfully employed to convey the rough, rustic, very personalized look. The outstanding burning town sequence is a rapid series of camera cuts of bold, savage linework and a rare use of apparent pencil or crayon shading, reflecting nothing of what have come to be considered traditional techniques. It demonstrates that often, other countries were breaking a barrier: drawing their inspiration from live action cinema as well as other animation.
FOR THE COUNTRY (Late 1920s)
This one makes it clear that the cutout method often had the characters manipulated on sheets of glass suspended over the backdrop. Here, the shadows are allowed to be seen, producing an engaging, non literal 3-D effect.
A gagged-up look back at the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Japan’s military had long recruited farm boys, dizzying them with dreams of marching with the heroic elite. This cartoon appears to have been made for a more mature, less credulous audience, and unusually, war is not glorified or made out to be a wonderful time, but is a motif for comic byplay making both sides look asinine. Once the action hits the battlefield, the doings are alternately grim and fantastic. The hero demonstrates a super human strength which doesn’t serve him well later when his limbs are blown off.
YOSHICHIRO SALUTES (1933):
Announced as “A Cartoon Drama”, Kimura is back to conveying a stark morality tale with his picturesque buffoons. There’s as much atmosphere here as in a live action film, and the wrestling scenes are like Hokusai sketches. At this point, the cutout technique has become so polished, it’s barely detectable.
An early example of the “beautiful tears of shame” dramatics destined to become an integral part of anime’s serious side.