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The History of Anime: Part 1 – Humble Beginnings

Anime is, in my opinion, one of the most unique forms of storytelling out there. The beautifully drawn artwork, the colorful characters, the vibrant culture, the sheer weirdness of it all… there’s truly nothing else like it. But when did anime start? How did it become the cultural juggernaut it is today? I wanted to find out, so I’ve been watching and researching the hundred-year-long history of this incredible art form. And as you’ll see, anime has come a long way since the beginning…

First Steps

Most people don’t realize how old anime really is. It predates Disney, and even sound in movies! The first Japanese animated film was made by… someone… at… sometime around 1907. It’s three seconds long and just shows a boy writing on a chalkboard. Okay, not much to go on, but we do have the first commercially released Japanese animated film, Nakamura Gatana. It’s a 4-minute short about a dumb samurai who gets conned into buying a dull-edged sword. It didn’t take a lot to entertain people back then, huh?

“Katsudō Shashin”, c. 1907

Though these early efforts don’t look like much today, they were breakthroughs at the time. Early animation was difficult and expensive, but animators cut costs by making paper cutouts for characters and placing them onto printed backgrounds – a precursor to cel animation. Like many silent movies, they often had live musical accompaniment. Sadly, most films from this era are lost, destroyed by the Kyoto earthquake of 1923. But anime kept evolving, even as the world grew more scary and chaotic with it.

Nakamura Gatana, 1917

The War Years

As technology improved, animation hit new milestones. “Talkies” allowed for pre-recorded voice lines and music. Cel animation, which used transparent sheets of celluloid layered over each other, allowed much more detail and motion. Early Disney films were brought across the Pacific, giving animators the dream to create something as colorful and vibrant as Snow White. Sadly, the world had other plans.

Chikara to Onna no yo no Naka, the first voiced anime film, 1933

The Japanese Empire joined World War II in 1940 on the side of the Axis, with disastrous effects on the animation industry and… everything else, really. Studios were forced to make racist propaganda films for the military. Art was heavily censored, and those who protested were imprisoned. But even in those dark times, there were still new strides taken in Japanese animation. The first feature film, 1945’s Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, was inspired by Disney’s Fantasia and aimed to give children hope for peace as much of the country was already destroyed. One of its fans was a young Osamu Tezuka, known today as the God of manga. He later said of the film: “I sat in the freezing Shochiku-za movie theater, which had somehow survived the bombings, and … I began weeping uncontrollably. I swore then: ‘I will someday make my own animated films.’”

Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, 1945

Post-War Boom and the Dawn of Television

Japan was in shambles after the war, and the animation industry collapsed for many years. But their economy bounced bank after US occupation ended, making the nation the second biggest economic power in the world by the 1950’s. One of the biggest studios of this time was Japan Animated Films, known today as Toei Animation. They made the first color animated Japanese film, The Tale of the White Serpent, in 1958, and it was the first of three anime films to be commercially released in the US in 1961.

The Tale of the White Serpent, 1958

This marked the first time Japanese animation could compete with Disney’s feature films in the West. It also showed that foreign films could be commercially successful outside their home country, paving the way for more anime to be exported to America and beyond. Dubbing animation is way cheaper than making your own movie from scratch, and the colorful characters translate well regardless of their national origin. Toei made hit after hit in the 1950’s, and their biggest animator at the time was our boy, Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was already a successful manga artist, and popularized the distinctive large eyes that would become a staple of the anime art style. But after a union dispute, he left Toei and formed his own studio, Mushi Productions, in 1961. The new medium of television was just beginning to take off, but the detailed style of anime at the time was too expensive to put into a weekly format. So Tezuka created the style of limited animation, using and re-using minimally-drawn cels to cut costs. Mushi Pro’s first project was the first full-length animated series on Japanese television, premiered on New Year’s Day, 1963. It’s based on Tezuka’s original sci-fi manga, Tetsuan Atom. But you probably know it as Astro Boy.

It’s hard to overstate how big Astro Boy was in its heyday. 40% of the Japanese TV audience watched it! At a time when the nation was still reeling from the horrors of two nuclear bombs, its core message was that nuclear power could also be used for peace. The animation is cartoony and dated by today’s standards, but it was actually a darker and more thought provoking show than anything else on TV at the time. Astro Boy became a multimedia juggernaut, spawning new shows, movies, manga, and video games. And the character inspired for another classic Japanese pop-culture icon – Mega Man! Most of the earliest anime is really only worth watching for historical significance, but Astro Boy is the first genuine anime classic.

Phew! That’s a lot of ground covered for today. This early era of anime may not be as flashy or exciting as what comes after, but it’s still important for the development of the medium. Next time, we’re tuning into the groovy 60’s and 70’s, when anime really started to become, well, anime. See you then!

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