February 2, 2014 posted by

Early Anime Features: To 1958

Animation in Japan before World War II was very popular, but not to the point of helping any Japanese animation industry. Instead, Japanese theatrical distributors during the 1920s and 1930s relied on importing American cartoons. The Fleischer Studios’ “Betty Boop” and “Popeye” cartoons were especially popular during the 1930s. The Fleischers were aware of this, and played it up in the 6-minute A Language All My Own (July 19, 1935), in which Betty flies to Japan to make a personal appearance before her hyper-enthusiastic fans there.

Osamu Tezuka, who was a child during the 1930s, said that his family got one of the first home projectors and often showed “Betty Boop” cartoons in home screenings. He later copied the “big eyes” look of Betty Boop in his own comics and animation, starting what became a stereotype of anime. This was bad news for any Japanese animation enthusiasts who wanted to start their own studios. No major Japanese distributor would fund them. Most of the few home-grown cartoons that did get made were individual hobbyist productions in kitchen or garage workshops. The filmmakers who established a reputation for finishing their shorts, usually-one-reelers, could count on some financial support from a theatrical distributor to complete their production in exchange for the distribution rights, but the distributors were not interested in sponsoring more than this. One or two tiny animation studios were created by enthusiasts working together, but they were all underfunded and dependent on the big distributors to get their films shown.

Two factors in the late 1930s changed this. Firstly, the chauvinist-dominated society gradually made all foreign cultural influences unpopular, especially America’s animated cartoons. This left an opening for Japan’s amateur animators. Secondly, as the war went on (it started in 1937 in China for the Japanese), the Imperial Japanese Navy approved of animated cartoons as an ideal way to instill popular support for the Navy and the war effort, especially with children. At a time when critical industrial supplies became impossible to get for most civilians, the amateur animators found their requests for film stock approved.

The catch was that the Navy wanted longer and more martial cartoons, so those were what the now-military-controlled government encouraged. The government did not order anyone to make cartoons, but its “suggestions” were usually followed; especially when any amateur animators who did not follow them were promptly drafted into the Imperial Army or Navy, or were impressed into war labor, usually making munitions. There were several theatrical short cartoons glorifying the Japanese military, usually the Imperial Navy.


Around 1942, the Japanese Naval Ministry encouraged Mitsuyo Seo (1911-2010), the leading director at Geijutsu Eiga-sha (Art Film Company, founded in 1938) to make an animated cartoon longer than the usual one- or two-reeler, with a guarantee of all the critical materials that he needed. Other animators were encouraged to drop their own films and help out Seo. His film, almost a feature at 37 minutes, was Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles), released on March 25, 1943 (poster above). It featured Momotaro (Peach Boy), Japan’s child folk-hero, as a little-boy admiral and his air armada of monkey, puppy, and pheasant aviators (Momotaro’s animal companions in the folk tale; their deck crew on the aircraft carriers are all bunnies) attacking the enemy fleet at “Demon Island”, a very-thin pastiche of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It even included rotoscoped aerial-attack newsreel footage taken by planes among the attackers. The recently-popular Fleischer Popeye character, Bluto, got a supporting part as a panicking American sailor (with a demon’s horn; he is a “foreign devil”) trying to escape the Japanese bombs.

It was very popular, so the Japanese Naval Ministry immediately asked them to make a second, longer film. Incidentally, Geijutsu Eiga-sha technically went out of business and was reorganized as the animation department of Shōchiku, then and now one of Japan’s leading theatrical producers and distributors. Seo’s second film was Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro: Divine Warriors of the Sea), twice as long at 74 minutes, released on April 12, 1945. This was the first Japanese theatrical feature.

Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei has a more complex plot, showing a favorable picture of life in the Navy as the sailors (funny-animals; mostly bunnies, but some dogs and bear cubs) build a base and air strip in the Indonesian jungle (the Wikipedia article says that it was specifically the Indonesian island of Celebes) in preparation for attacking what is clearly the British Army at Singapore. Other scenes show naval cadets returning to their home village to say farewell before shipping out; building a jungle airstrip; a “why we fight” historical lesson (in silhouette) of how greedy Dutch traders established the Dutch East Indies; after the battle, the cowardly British military commanders (with “foreign devil” horns) each trying to deny taking responsibility for the surrender; and a final scene of the folks back home getting the news of their victory on the radio, while the animal children play at being paratroopers conquering the U.S. – the next target. The Japanese public must have considered this frustratingly ironic, considering where Japan was militarily in April 1945. The sharp jump between different scenes suggests that Seo gave the scenes to different semi-independent production units.

For obvious reasons, Seo’s two films disappeared after the Japanese surrender. They were mostly forgotten – in fact, it was widely assumed that the American occupation authorities had seized and destroyed all prints — until they were quietly released on the new home video market decades later; Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei in 1984 and Momotaro no Umiwashi in 2004. Most early anime fans believed that Toei Animation’s 1958 Hakuja-Den/Panda and the Magic Serpent was the first feature-length anime.

bambi-tezukaThe Japanese animation scene just after World War II was basically the same as before the war. Japanese animators made more serious efforts to create a professional studio, but they found it almost impossible to compete with all the American cartoons that poured into Japan. American cartoons of the late 1930s to the 1950s were technically so much better than anything that the Japanese animators could produce. The Americans had animated features by then, too. Osamu Tezuka said that he saw Disney’s Bambi eighty times, and he acknowledged its influence on his own Jungle Emperor/Kimba the White Lion.

(AT RIGHT: cover of Tezuka’s 1951 manga adaptation of Disney’s Bambi).

Finally in 1956, Japan started a “real” animation studio. Tōei Co., Ltd., a live-action studio and theatrical distributor, can be traced back to 1938 through a series of mergers of smaller companies. On October 1, 1950, it incorporated as the Tokyo Film Distribution Company. Tōei was originally an informal nickname, from Tokyo Eiga Heikyu. In April 1951 it became the company’s official name. It continued to grow, often by buying smaller studios.

In 1956, Tōei decided to expand into the animation business. It did this in Tōei’s usual manner; it bought Nihon Dōga Eiga (Japan Animated Films, founded January 1948), the largest of the tiny independent studios, retaining Nihon Dōga’s president Sanae Yamamoto (1898-1981) as Tōei Dōga’s head of production. (“Dōga” in Japanese means “moving artwork”.) Nihon Dōga became the nucleus of Tōei’s new animation subsidiary, Tōei Dōga Co., Ltd., on July 31, 1956. Hiroshi Ôkawa, a Tōei Co. executive, became Tōei Dōga’s first president, with a stated mission of making the new animation studio “the Disney of the East”.

Tōei Dōga spent money lavishly. In January 1957 it built a new state-of-the-art animation studio in Tokyo’s Ochanomizu district. (Not directly related to Astro Boy’s Professor Ochanomizu. Several colleges and universities are also there, and the name of Astro Boy’s mentor is a reference to his wisdom and learning.) Tōei Dōga sent a senior staffer to the Disney studio in Burbank to get production tips. The new studio practiced by producing animated TV commercials.

On May 13, 1957 it made its first theatrical short, the 13-minute wordless black-&-white Koneko no Rakugaki (Doodling Kitty; Kitty’s Graffiti), directed by Taiji Yabushita (1903-1986) and Yasuji Mori (1925-1992), showing a kitten scrawling animals, vehicles, and a railroad train on the outside of a house. It was a popular success, and it confirmed Tōei’s intention of making one theatrical feature a year on the Disney model: a well-known public-domain folk-tale (but using Oriental rather than European folk-tales), with lots of songs and cute animals frolicking around the human main characters.

On April 9, 1959, just after Tōei’s first feature, Tōei released a 16-minute sequel in color, with more elaborate sound effects and dialogue: Koneko no Studio (Kitty’s Studio), directed by Mori alone, with the Kitty and his rat and mouse friends as amateur filmmakers making a samurai movie. It was Tōei Dōga’s last theatrical short; from then on the studio produced only theatrical features, and later TV episodes and OAVs.

Below: Original Hakuja-Den (Panda and The Magic Serpent) trailer, in Japanese, showing off Toei’s production studio and narrated by its first president Hiroshi Okawa. From this feature, all modern anime can be traced.

To Be Continued…


  • thanks for this great post! any idea where to get Koneko no Rakugaki and Koneko no Studio on dvd?

    also, it’s not anime, but princess iron fan bears mentioning, as I would imagine it inspired these pioneer anime artists.

    • Definitely! Osamu Tezuka said often that while he loved the “Betty Boop” and “Mickey Mouse” cartoons that he saw in his youth, it was the Chinese “Princess Iron Fan” feature that inspired him to want to become a cartoonist (and later an animator) himself. The Imperial Naval Ministry took it as a national disgrace that Chinese animators were able to produce a better and longer cartoon than anyone in Japan (“Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei” was the first Japanese animated feature, but “Princess Iron Fan” predated it by four years and was the first Asian animated feature), and ordered Seo’s two productions.

      I don’t know where to get “Koneko no Rakugaki” and “Koneko no Studio” on DVD, but I imagine that if there is a DVD at all, it is in Japan. I’ll look into it.

    • Sorry. As far as I can tell (not really knowing Japanese), the DVD department of does not list either “Koneko no Rakugaki” or “Koneko no Studio”. That does not necessarily mean that there has never been a home video of these two; just that one is no longer on the current market. You might e-mail the Toei Animation Studio to ask if there was ever a commercial home video release; and if there was, look for a used copy of it.

    • “Sorry. As far as I can tell (not really knowing Japanese), the DVD department of does not list either “Koneko no Rakugaki” or “Koneko no Studio”. That does not necessarily mean that there has never been a home video of these two; just that one is no longer on the current market. You might e-mail the Toei Animation Studio to ask if there was ever a commercial home video release; and if there was, look for a used copy of it.

      There was a VHS/LD release of the shorts that Toei put out roughly 20 years ago, at least going by the few pics I can find online.

      I suppose for them to care about putting it out again would take quite a lot of feedback/support from us for a release (either on a physical media or perhaps streaming online someplace, and hopefully a decent newer transfer at that).

    • Chris,
      I had less luck than you had. I did run across this …

      … but it has no info about its contents, it’s vhs, and worst of it’s sold out.

  • One of the other striking features of Betty Boop’s “A Language All My Own” was the complete lack of standard Asian caricaturing of the Japanese audience and more of an effort to draw them realistically. Definitely intended to be a good neighbor short.

    Love that Bluto animation in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. They even got the voice right!

    • Watching it kind of puts Jim Tyer’s Bluto-vs.-the-Japanese bit in “Seein’ Red, White & Blue” in a different light (and yeah, the voice here is way closer to Gus Wicke’s voice than what David Barry was doing down in Miami at the time).

  • Having seen MOMOTARO UMI NO SHINPEI, one thing that’s puzzled me is the voices of the British soldiers surrendering sound like “native” English speakers and not like Japanese actors speaking English. Is it possible that the filmmakers somehow got British POWs to do the voice-work for those characters?

    • It’s been a rumor someplace that they were POW’s they used for those roles (either British or Australian).

    • That was certainly what I suspected when I first saw it. I have never found out if this was true, however.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *