Murata was always an artist. As withthe majority of early Japanese animators, he began by working in another film connected job, signboard painting, after he graduated from junior high. He studied animation techniques under pioneer Sanae Yamomoto (subject of an earlier article here), soon going off on his own, at first as an assistant for Seitaro Kitayama. But that studio was destroyed in 1923’s Kanto earthquake.
In 1925, the producer Yokohama Cinema Shokai put Murata in charge of the animation of the Athena Library Series, which consisted of folklore and fairy tale adaptations,“edutainment” and lightweight animal frivolities. The distribution was largely to schools and home libraries, sometimes free of charge to cultivate the national spirit as the nation’s war faring escalated. The stories were by Chuzo Aochi, credited as “supervisor”. The team created a few NORAKURO (“Black Stray”) shorts, adapted from the popular comic strip. Murata’s stint on the Athena Library Series was long lived; approximately 50 films had been made by the time he left the post in 1937.
Thus established as an animation master, Murata went on to work for other studios as a supervisor and writer. He directed his last film in 1947. During this time he also established a number of his own companies, handling mainly ads, advertisements, and sequences for live action features (he animated the introduction for a live action MIGHTY ATOM (“Astro Boy”) TV series made in 1959-60, two years before the animated incarnation).
Murata is a rare animator that followed Winsor McCay’s lead: As opposed to the slapstick stylings of Murata’s teacher Sanae Yamamoto, Murata conveyed his fantastic tales in a rather droll, dry manner. Even his beasts are anatomically logical, and when they fleetingly squash, stretch or flatten, the results are sometimes discomfiting and always bizarre. A fine array of his range and methods can be seen in this compilation of clips assembled by “m Uga”.
THE MONKEY SWORD MASAMUNE (1930)
A retelling of a folklore extolling mindful heroism. The animation is sparing, but manages to make for a majestic work. Often, it feels more inspired by live theater or film than by standard cartoon storytelling. Eloquent poses and expressions. Note the artist’s tendency to frame scenes in circles and squares. One can detect the use of cutouts, but it is skillful and graceful. (English closed captioning is offered and recommended.)
TONPEI AND SARUKICHI (1932)
One perpetual motif of Japan’s animated scenarios, industry vs. indolence, unexpectedly gives way to a second, war preparedness. Though with caricatured animals and incorporating incongruous modern technology, this is fairly free of cartoon fun and even the Lion King is decimated by the bullied but brave hero and his allies (likely representing a “victimized” Japan or Manchuria) .
RASCAL RACCOON (1933)
Monks are heckled by a merry but hungry tanuki that steals their sacrifices to the Buddha. This zestful little comedy is framed by a kamishibai, a street entertainer who’d narrate stories illustrated on specially painted boards revealed in succession. In the 1950s, early television sets would be referred to as “electric kamishibai” and pushed the live storytellers out of their business. Many kamishibai illustrators moved on to manga.
TWO WORLDS (1929)
Two worlds; humanized amphibians and insects indulging in Western decadence come to floridly grim endings, while the humble ant family thrives from the wise thrift of their traditional Japanese lifestyle.
Murata’s first film for the Ministry of Education, and reviewed by the Emperor. The film is presented in its original tinted colors.