WORLD OF KNIGHT
August 23, 2021 posted by Milton Knight

Yasuji Murata: The Droll Fantasist

Yusuji Murata

Born on January 24, 1896 in Yokohama,Kanagawa, and died on November 22, 1966.

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.

NOTE: We’ve linked to Murata cartoons in earlier posts. Click these film titles to view those posts: THE STOLEN LUMP (1929) and WHY THE SEA WATER IS SALTY (1935).


More From Milton Knight

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He has a Patreon campaign where you can learn about his work in animation (Cool World, Sonic The Hedgehog, etc) and support his many projects.

To get a sample of his personal style – as well as his versatility – check the video below:

7 Comments

  • These are some incredible films, all new to me. While there are definitely slapstick elements present in the tanuki’s hijinks at the Buddhist temple, Murata’s superb draftsmanship really does recall that of McCay, especially in “Futatsu no Sekai” (two worlds). I’ll have to examine more of his work. And a live-action Tetsuwan Atomu prior to Tezuka? Sugoi!

    The cinematic equivalent to the kamishibai was the benshi, a storyteller who provided narration for Japanese silent films, sometimes (but not always) with musical accompaniment as well. They were so popular that silent films continued to be produced in Japan throughout the 1930s, although sound films were also made from the beginning of that decade, All of these cartoons would have been narrated by benshi when they were first released. Benshi also had to provide voices for every character in the films they narrated and were therefore a precursor to seiyuu, or anime voice actors.

    Oshiete kurete arigatou gozaimasu, Knight-sensei.

  • ありがとう、先生 ! ! !

    (Thanks, teacher ! ! !)

  • Many thanks for an enjoyable evening watching these animated selections.

  • It would appear that anime is a postwar phenomenon.

    • Depends how you define it. If you mean the specific style developed by Tezuka and others for the television market, then yes, you’re right. However, in Japanese “anime” just means animation of any kind, including Western, and in English the word may refer to any Japanese animation regardless of style or vintage. For clarity’s sake, it’s probably best to refer to the work of Murata and his contemporaries as “early anime”.

  • Man. This is great stuff. His art style is very similar to Osamu Tezuka.

  • Fascinating stuff! This is the kind of article Cartoon Research should publish more of

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