February 21, 2015 posted by

What Were The Earliest Foreign Animated Films Shown in Japanese Cinemas?

Editor’s Note: For the next few Saturdays we are posting a special series of intriguing historical essays on aspects of early animation in Japan. I think this is information that should not be relegated to obscure academic journals – and will be of interest to those of us studying the full scope of animation history, social history and the roots of anime in particular. Fred Litten has meticulously researched these subjects and I thank him for allowing me to share his work with my readers. Please note there are footnotes and sources provided at the bottom of the post. I want to also thank Tom Stathes for connecting me to Mr. Litten.
– Jerry Beck


The history of Japanese animation for the cinema usually begins in 1917, with the first films by SHIMOKAWA Ōten 下川凹天 (also read SHIMOKAWA Hekoten; 1892-1973), KITAYAMA Seitarō 北山清太郎 (1888-1945) and KŌUCHI Jun’ichi 幸内純一 (aka KŌUCHI Sumikazu; 1886-1970) (Litten[2013]). However, European and American animation films were shown years earlier in Japanese cinemas, although this part of the history of animation in Japan has proved difficult to research. In this note I will retrace my identification in December 2012 of what has often been called the first (foreign) animation film shown publicly in Japan, but also discuss other possible examples of the earliest animations from the West to be released in Japan.

In 1933, film critic YOSHIYAMA Kyokkō 吉山旭光 published a history of Japanese film with a brief chapter on animations. There he put forward a film called Nippāru no henkei ニッパールの変形 [Nippaaru’s Transformation(s)] as the first animated film shown in Japan (1). According to Yoshiyama it premiered in 1909 at the Asakusa Teikokukan 浅草帝国館 in Tokyo and was well received, because stop-motion ‘trick films’ (‘majutsu eiga’ 魔術映画, ‘magic film’) had grown somewhat stale by then with the audience. (Yoshiyama[1933], p. 62f.)

Even though Yoshiyama gave no details on this film beyond its Japanese title and the somewhat vague company name ‘Patē’ (2) パテー , it became accepted as the first foreign animated film shown in Japan, especially in YAMAGUCHI Katsunori’s 山口且訓 and WATANABE Yasushi’s 渡辺泰 seminal history of Japanese animation film (Yamaguchi/Watanabe[1978], p. 8). However, in a study published in 2001, Watanabe pointed out that a comprehensive listing of films released in Japanese theaters (3) includes one called Nipparu no henkei ニッパルの変形 [Nipparu’s Transformation(s)] premiering on 15 April 1912 at the Asakusa Teikokukan (Watanabe[2001], p. 18). Later studies also give this date, but still consider Nipparu no henkei to have been the first animation film shown in Japan (Tsugata[2004], pp. 84, 210; Akita[2005], p. 84).

Yet, any details about this film remained elusive. While several researchers, such as SUGIMOTO Gorō 杉本五郎, already suspected that it could have been made by Émile Cohl (1857-1938) (Watanabe[2001], p. 19), none of his films, or those of others, could be tied to Nipparu no henkei.

Only recently did the identification of Nipparu no henkei succeed. In 1912 cinemas in Australia and New Zealand showed a short ‘rib-tickling’ ‘trick’ film called The Nipper’s Transformations (e.g., Auckland Star, 1 April 1912, p. 12; Wairarapa Daily Times, 17 July 1912, p. 1). It is a reasonable assumption that this film was, in fact, shown at the same time in Japan using the translated title Nipparu no henkei. According to several sources (Lee[1973], p. 328; http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/296863), The Nipper’s Transformations had been produced by Charles Urban’s (1867-1942) company ‘Urbanora’ in 1912. But, as Luke McKernan pointed out to me on 16 December 2012, Urbanora was a trade mark for distribution rather than a production company, and it was much more likely that the film had been produced by Urban’s French production company Eclipse, founded in 1906 (see also McKernan[2003], pp. 103ff.).

This suggestion proved to be an important step towards solving the mystery because, for a few months at the end of 1911 and beginning of 1912, Émile Cohl produced films for Eclipse (Crafton[1990], pp. 362f.), of which two are available on DVD (4).

The final step was the entry on The Nipper’s Transformations in the British film journal The Bioscope (15 February 1912, p. xix):

‘A line-drawn nipper first appears, and his rapid transformations into all sorts of shapes is beyond description. He first becomes a musical box, out of which come tumbling all the notes of the keyboard, chasing one another round the screen, finally fixing up as the nipper, who next becomes a rabbit, menaced by a gun. The rabbit becomes a tortoise, who goes for the nipper, and he immediately resolves into a pig. This strange medley next changes into a balloon. The nipper plays pranks with the man in the moon, and finally falls into the sea, where he is gobbled up by a shark, and further strange configurations take place. (Released February 21st. Length 325 ft.)’

Screenshot from Les Exploits de Feu Follet showing the Nipper and the shark in cutout animation.><p id=Screenshot from Les Exploits de Feu Follet showing the Nipper and the shark in cutout animation.

This description matches Cohl’s film Les Exploits de Feu Follet (Will-o’-the-wisp’s Exploits), produced at the end of 1911 (5) and one of the two films for Eclipse still extant. Les Exploits de Feu Follet is a hybrid of drawn and cutout animation, three-and-a half minutes long, with the main character a stick figure reminiscent of Cohl’s serial hero ‘Fantoche’.

Screenshot from Les Exploits de Feu Follet showing the Nipper in drawn animation.

Screenshot from Les Exploits de Feu Follet showing the Nipper in drawn animation.

Obviously Les Exploits de Feu Follet became The Nipper’s Transformations for export markets – and Nipparu no henkei in Japan.

Yet one major problem remains: Was Les Exploits de Feu Follet really the first foreign animation shown in Japan, especially as the release date had to be corrected from 1909 to 1912? In fact, other titles are mentioned in the literature, although all of them raise questions of their own.

Animation researcher TSUGATA Nobuyuki 津堅信之, for example, lists Émile Cohl’s film Le Mobilier fidèle (1910) as having premiered in Japan on 1 September 1911, before Nipparu no henkei (Tsugata[2007], p. 60). He does not mention this film in the text, however, and it is, of course, a conventional trick film. While one might argue that this was a live-action/stop-motion hybrid, to call it an animation film would seem to go to far.

A similar case would be Segundo de Chomón’s (1871-1929) Pathé film Le Rêve des marmitons (1908). Yoshiyama thought that from this majutsu eiga (with object animation), shown in Japan about 1908, with its scene of faces being drawn on a bald head, the senga or manga eiga might have been born (Yoshiyama[1933], p. 62) (6). But he wisely does not claim that this was the first animation film.

Screenshot from Le Rêve des Marmitons showing a face drawn on a bald head.

Screenshot from Le Rêve des Marmitons showing a face drawn on a bald head.

On the other hand, he wrote that the Pathé film Shabondama no awa シャボン玉の泡 [Soap Bubbles], released in Japan in 1911, should be counted among the masterpieces of senga of the time (Yoshiyama[1933], p. 63; Yoshiyama[1940], pp. 147f.). This might have been La Vérité par les bulles de savons (The Soap Bubbles of Truth; 1910), which was shown, for example, in Singapore in October 1910 (The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser, 19 October 1910, p. 1). But this film has been described as a ‘drama with animated sequences’, so it would again be at best a hybrid, not really a senga. The 1911 Italian film Le bolle di sapone (Soap Bubbles) was a trick film without any animation; about another 1911 Pathé film called Soap Bubbles nothing seems to be known but that it was a ‘beautiful study in light effect’ (Poverty Bay Herald, 13 September 1911, p. 9).

Yet another contender for earliest animation shown in Japan was proposed by Watanabe Yasushi in 2001: James Stewart Blackton’s (1875-1941) Humorous Phases of Funny Faces from 1906. Watanabe had discovered a stock list of films and film projectors from 1910 by Yoshizawa Shōten 吉沢商店, a Japanese film trading company – and the description of a film there called Fushigi no bōrudo 不思議のボールド [Miracle Board] matched Blackton’s film (Watanabe[2001], pp. 19f.). Two questions, though, remain: Was Fushigi no bōrudo ever released in a Japanese cinema? And can Humorous Phases of Funny Faces be called a (pure) animation film?

On the former, Watanabe guesses that a film called Kimyō naru bōruto 奇妙なるボールト [The Strange Board](7), released by the distribution company Yokota Shōkai 横田商会 on 8 August 1907, might have been Blackton’s film and identical to Fushigi no bōrudo (Watanabe[2001], pp. 22f.). But as he writes himself: ‘it is a shame that I cannot prove it’ (Watanabe[2001], p. 17).

Screenshot from Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.

Screenshot from Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.

The second question leads back to how to treat, and define, hybrid films (cf. Litten[2011]), as Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is a mixture of live-action, drawn and cutout animation. This would not be as much of a problem with the final candidate(s) for the title of earliest foreign animation shown in a Japanese cinema: Cohl’s ‘Fantoche’ films. Arguably beginning with his famous Fantasmagorie in 1908 and ending with La Maison du Fantoche in 1921, they were, most of the time, (2D) animation. And, according to Yamaguchi and Watanabe, some of these films were shown already in 1910 under the series title Dekobō shingachō … 凸坊新画帳… (New Picture Album of the Mischievous Boy) (Yamaguchi/Watanabe[1978], p. 8).

Yet there is quite a lot of confusion in the literature about ‘Dekobō shingachō’, which for some time became a generic term for animation. Yoshiyama also dates the series to 1910, but only calls them Gaumont films (Yoshiyama[1933], p. 63). Much more problematic is whether Yoshiyama and later authors in fact had an absolute date for these films, or were just dating them in relation to Nipparu no henkei and its erroneous release date of 1909. FURUTA Hisateru 古田尚輝, for example, while following Yamaguchi and Watanabe’s history, dates Nipparu no henkei to 1912 and the ‘Dekobō shingachō’ films, which he also attributes to Cohl, to 1913 (Furuta[2009], p. 201).

Some authors, on the other hand, don’t seem to accept the notion that the ‘Dekobō’ title came from the prominent head of the Fantoche character – as Tsugata assumes, for example (Tsugata[2007], p. 57), instead pointing to an earlier, very popular manga (comic strip) character by KITAZAWA Rakuten 北沢楽天 (1876-1955) called Dekobō 凸坊, thus severing the connection with Cohl (Animēju henshūbu[1989], p. 4; Jo[2013], pp. 41, 121f.). Others relate the ‘Dekobō shingachō’ to films by John Randolph Bray (1879-1978) and Raoul Barré (1874-1932), dating to the time of the First World War (Ōtsuka/Matsunomoto[2004], p. 34).

And what was held by some to have been the first foreign animation film shown in Japan, Charles Armstrong’s (?-?) British silhouette animation Isn’t It Wonderful! from January 1914, was released in Japan in the same year simply as Dekobō no shingachō 凸坊の新画帳, which has the same meaning as Dekobō shingachō and might indicate that this release marked the beginning of the use of this particular term. (8) That Cohl’s Fantoche-like Les Exploits de Feu Follet was not released as a ‘Dekobō shingachō’ title also suggests that the term was not yet common in 1912.

Considering how quickly films were imported to Japan (beginning in 1896), it seems quite likely that at least some of Cohl’s Fantoche films from his time at Gaumont were shown in Japan soon after their release in France, i.e. about 1909/10, but not under the ‘Dekobō’ title. It might even be the case that Yoshiyama had seen such a film in 1909, but later confused it with Nipparu no henkei. But there is no proof for this (yet?).

At this stage it is still Cohl’s Les Exploits de Feu Follet alias Nipparu no henkei which has the earliest proven release date of any (2D) animation film in a Japanese cinema: 15 April 1912. None of the other titles mentioned in the literature can safely be said to have been theatrically released earlier and to have been fully or mostly (2D) animation. Finally, it should also be noted that German 2D animation, on 35mm film and in colour, was available in Japan at roughly the same time for home projectors; but this topic will be covered separately – in my essay posted here in two weeks. 


• I would like to thank Alan Goble, Jere Guldin, and Luke McKernan for their quick replies in the course of this research. This essay was first published on January 4th 2013; this is the slightly improved, final version. A Japanese translation of the original note was published under the title ‘Nihon no eigakan de jōei sareta saisho no (kaigai) animēshon eiga ni tsuite’ 日本の映画館で上映された最初の(海外)アニメーション映画について in Animēshon Kenkyū アニメーション研究 ‒ The Japanese Journal of Animation Studies, vol. 15, no.1A, 2013, pp. 27-32.

(1) Yoshiyama here uses the word ‘senga’ 線画 (‘line picture’) which, besides ‘manga eiga’ 漫画映画 (‘manga film’), was used at the time for animated film. Senga often implied educational content (Tsugata[2011], p. 36).

(2)This could have referred to the French or the American Pathé company, or to the Japanese company M. Pathe, although Yoshiyama usually seems to be giving the full name for the latter. For some reason later authors, such as Akita[2005], p. 84, tend to specify American Pathé.

(3)The 1960 Nihon eiga sakuhin taikan 日本映画作品大鑑 by Kinema Junpōキネマ旬報.

(4) I have used the DVD collection Gaumont. Le Cinema Premier 1907-1916. Volume 2. However, other DVDs with Cohl’s films are available.

(5) Crafton[1990], p. 328, gives 11 November 1911 as the production date; Emile Cohl[2009], p. 28, says 7 October 1911.

(6) Yoshiyama had forgotten even the Japanese title, but his description matches de Chomón’s film exactly. Apparently this film has not been mentioned in the Japanese literature afterwards.

(7) The ‘to’ ト in ‘bōruto’ is thought to have been a misprint for ‘do’ ト in the Nihon eiga sakuhin taikan.

(8) This was the opinion of film historian TANAKA Jun’ichirō 田中純一郎 (quoted in Watanabe [2001], p. 23) as well as the editors of the Japanese animation journal Animage アニメージュ in their history of anime film (Animēju henshūbu[1989], p. 4). Akita[2005], p. 84, also claims that the ‘Dekobō’ term originated only with Armstrong’s film.

Akita Takahiro 秋田孝宏: ‘Koma’ kara ‘firumu’ he. Manga to manga-eiga「コマ」から「フィルム」へ。マンガとマンガ映画. Tokyo: NTT, 2005.
Animēju henshūbu アニメージュ編集部 (ed.): Gekijō anime 70 nenshi 劇場アニメ70年史. Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 1989.
Auckland Star, 1 April 1912, p. 12 (advertisements).
The Bioscope, 15 February 1912, p. xix.
Crafton, Donald: Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Emile Cohl. L’Agitateur aux milles images 1908-1910. Booklet to the DVD collection ‘Gaumont. Le Cinéma Premier 1907-1916. Volume 2: Emile Cohl, Jean Durand, L’Ecole des Buttes Chaumont’. 2009.
Furuta Hisateru 古田尚輝: ‘Tetsuwan Atomu’ no jidai. Eizō sangyō no kōbō「鉄腕アトム」の時代。映像産業の攻防. Kyoto: Sekai Shisō Sha, 2009.
Jo En 徐園: Nihon ni okeru shinbun rensai kodomo manga no senzenshi 日本における新聞連載子ども漫画の戦前史. Tokyo: Nihon Kyōhō Sha, 2013.
Lee, Walt: Reference Guide to Fantastic Films. Vol. 2: G-O. Los Angeles: Chelsea-Lee Books, 1973.
Litten, Frederick S.: A Mixed Picture – drawn animation/live action hybrids worldwide from the 1960s to the 1980s. Self-published essay, 2011. http://litten.de/fulltext/mixedpix.pdf (accessed 1 January 2013)
Litten, Frederick S.: Some remarks on the first Japanese animation films in 1917. 2013. http://litten.de/fulltext/ani1917.pdf (accessed 6 July 2013)
Litten, Frederick S.: Japanese color animation from ca. 1907 to 1945. 2014. http://litten.de/fulltext/color.pdf (accessed 17 June 2014)
McKernan, Luke: ‘Something more than a mere picture show’: Charles Urban and the early non-fiction film in Great Britain and America, 1897-1925. Birkbeck College, University of London, 2003.
Ōtsuka Yasuo 大塚康生; Matsunomoto Kazuhiro 松野本和弘 (eds.): Nihon manga eiga no zenbō 日本漫画映画の全貌. Tokyo: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004.
Poverty Bay Herald, 13 September 1911, p. 9 (‘Pathé Pictures’).
The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser, 19 October 1910, p. 1 (‘advertisements’).
Tsugata Nobuyuki 津堅信之: Nihon animēshon no chikara. 85 nen no rekishi wo tsuranuku jiku 日本アニメーションの力。85年の歴史を貫く軸. Tokyo: NTT, 2004.
Tsugata Nobuyuki 津堅信之: Nihon-hatsu no animēshon sakka Kitayama Seitarō 日本初のアニメーション作家北山清太郎. Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 2007.
Tsugata Nobuyuki 津堅信之: Anime no rekishi アニメの歴史. In: Takahashi Mitsuteru 高橋光輝, Tsugata Nobuyuki 津堅信之 (eds.): Anime gaku アニメ学. Tokyo: NTT, 2011, pp. 24-44.
Wairarapa Daily Times, 17 July 1912, p. 1 (‘advertisements’).
Watanabe Yasushi 渡辺泰: Nihon de sekai-hatsu no animēshon ga kōkai sareta kanōsei ni tsuite no kōsatsu 日本で世界初のアニメーションが公開された可能性についての考察. In: The Japanese Journal of Animation Studies, Vol. 3, 2001, Nr. 1A, S. 17-24.
Yamaguchi Katsunori 山口且訓, Watanabe Yasushi 渡辺泰: Nihon animēshon eigashi 日本アニメーション映画史. Osaka: Yūbunsha, 1978.
Yoshiyama Kyokkō 吉山旭光: Nihon eigakai jibutsu kigen 日本映画界事物起源. Tokyo: Kinema To Geijutsu Sha, 1933 [reprint: Tokyo: Yumani Shobō, 2006].
Yoshiyama Kyokkō 吉山旭光: Nihon eigashi nenpyō 日本映画史年表. Tokyo: Eiga Hōkoku Sha, 1940 [reprint: Tokyo: Yumani Shobō, 2006].
http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/351119 (British Film Institute database; accessed 1 January 2013)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0175778/ (Internet Movie Database; accessed 1 January 2013)

Le bolle di sapone = Soap Bubbles; produced by Arturo Ambrosio; released 1911; trick film; 5:30 min.
Les Exploits de Feu Follet = The Nipper’s Transformations = Nipparu no henkei ニッパルの変形 (= Nippāru no henkei ニッパールの変形); realised by Émile Cohl at the end of 1911 for Eclipse; released in Japan on 15 April 1912; drawn animation, cutout animation; 3:30 min.
Fantasmagorie; realised by Émile Cohl in 1908 for Gaumont; drawn animation, live action; 2 min.
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces = Fushigi no bōrudo 不思議のボールド =? Kimyō naru bōruto 奇妙なるボールト; realised by James Stewart Blackton for Vitagraph Company of America in 1906; live action, drawn and cutout animation; 3 min.
Isn’t It Wonderful! = Dekobō no shingachō 凸坊の新画帳; realised by Charles Armstrong in 1914; released in Japan on 15 April 1914; silhouette animation; 430 ft.
La Maison du Fantoche; realised by Émile Cohl in 1921 for Éclair; drawn animation; 8:15 min.
Les Mobilier fidèle; realised by Émile Cohl in 1910 for Gaumont; released in Japan on 1 September 1911; live-action, stop-motion; 6 min.
Le Rêve des marmitons; realised by Segundo de Chomón in 1908 for Pathé; released in Japan in 1908?; live-action, animation; 6:18 min.
Shabondama no awa シャボン玉の泡; released in Japan in 1911(?); animation.
Soap Bubbles; 1911.
La Vérité par les bulles de savons = (The) Soap Bubbles of Truth; 1910 for Pathé; live-action, animation?; 350 ft.


  • Very Fascinating, Prof. Litten.

  • Fantastic post, early Japanese animation has always piqued my interest. Interesting to see how the pioneering works of Cohl, Blackton and others found their way overseas, looking forward to more!

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