November 6, 2013 posted by Milton Knight

Toons Of The Orient

Editor’s Note: Today we present a guest column from my longtime friend Milton Knight. Most know Milton for his amazing paintings and artwork, his comics (Hugo, Mighty Mouse, etc.) and animation (Cool World, Sonic The Hedgehog, Twisted Tales of Felix The Cat, etc.). I know Milton to be one of the most knowledgable people on the history of animation, the artists, the comics and the films. I’m hoping this will be the first of many columns he will contribute to Cartoon Research. To enjoy more of Milton’s work, I urge you to visit his blog: The World Of Knight. If you are in Los Angeles this week, Milton is having a one-night, one-man gallery show in downtown L.A, at the Brewery Arts Complex on Sunday, Nov. 10. – Jerry Beck

ORIENT2Seeing foreign 1930s character animation from any country can be a unique experience. There is the sense of folk art in motion, usually distorting the Disney-Fleischer traditions, creating a unique blend. Countries of the East, with their strong histories in the fine and graphic arts, produced results that were especially interesting. They can confuse Western audiences and sometimes even their native ones today. There is a sense of looking through a mirror from the other side, a suspicion that anything can happen, and a slight apprehension about what may come next.

A wide variety of approaches may be seen. Animation creators of the time tended to be individualists working with small crews. The films are distinct as the work of one influence. And there is a feeling that the films were made out of love for the medium; realizing the labor involved, there couldn’t have been much money in it.


An adaptation of a traditional fable. Yasuji Murata (1898-1966) was one of the only animators who really followed
Winsor McCay’s lead. He created a prodigious number of films drawn in a most ‘realistic’ style; even his humanized animals were accurate and amusing. Murata successfully used a mix of cutouts and cels. Note the expert interpretations of rain and shadow effects. The rich detail of the faces and hands. The use of sparse movements to create tension. Murata made use of the rotoscope as early as 1936. The artist simply had no peer on an international level, yet his films were rarely, if ever, seen outside of Japan. I know of no Western texts mentioning him during their period. Murata did a few adaptations of the comics character “Norakuro” during the early 1930s. After the war, he joined forces with a group of other animators, founding a short-lived studio, Shin Nihon Doga.


Noburo Ofuji (1900-1974) had a dense, creative style employing decorative papers laid over levels of glass, prefiguring the multiplane camera. He occasionally created films using drawings and the cel technique which retained his colorful graphic look. Instead of ‘gag’ films, Ofuji was dedicated to telling dramatic tales, often with erotic aspects. This cartoon is based on a preexisting record, a popular device of the time, perhaps for publicity purposes. The strikingly rhythmic soundtrack is accompanied by the Fleischers’ ‘bouncing ball’. Ofuji continued to produce animated works into the mid-1950s.

CITY SCENES Segment (1935)

A short animated interlude in a live action feature, made by the three (formerly four) Wan brothers’ studio, with Wan Laiming (1900-) in the lead. The brothers came from a set designing background; the interior backgrounds here have a period Art Deco look. The characters are Western-influenced and ‘throb’ with a herky-jerky life. The Wans would create and produce the first Chinese animated feature in 1941, PRINCESS IRON FAN, which is said to have left a deep impression on the mind of young Osamu Tezuka. In 1964, a feature based on another chapter of the Monkey King saga, HAVOC IN HEAVEN, would be produced by the last active brother, Wan Laiming.


  • Great stuff. So different, and yet as advanced as what was happening in the West.

  • Jerry, without question, these are the best cartoons you’ve ever posted. Thank you, Milton!

  • Great post!

    • Seconded!! 🙂

  • Milton Knight is a great addition to your growing list of contributers, Jerry! He’s well-spoken and knowledegable about this that we all love.

    These cartoons were completely off of my radar until just now, and NOW I want to know more and see them ALL!!!!

  • wow! it’s a treat to have Mr. Knight as a columnist!

  • Also worth noting that the Bray Studios cartoons were distributed in Japan by Yokohama Sinema. Murata watched and studied many of these and this shows in his work.

    On a side note, anything Milton writes or draws is an absolute treat to the mind, so it is critical that anyone who reads his posts starts following him pronto!

  • Thanks for these, Milton and Jerry. Real eye-openers!

    I wonder what, if any, archival efforts are made for these films in their respective countries of origin.

  • I hope someday that someone will post the World War two propaganda cartoons the Japanese made, like MOMOTARO’S FLYING MARINES and SPIES.

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