Even the BBC has reported on this, so the news has spread that the National Film Center in Japan, in collaboration with the Agency for Cultural Affairs and other institutions, has opened the website Japanese Animated Film Classics to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese animation. The site features 64 pre-WWII animated films that can be viewed in full, some with English subtitles. (Right now, the site itself is only in Japanese, though an English site is supposed to be opened soon.)
Naturally, the site offers a number of important works, starting with Kouchi Jun’ichi’s The Dull Sword (Namakura-gatana), which is counted as one of the first three Japanese-made animated films released in 1917. Kitayama Seitaro, who directed one of the other two (which are not extant), is partially represented through one of his 1918 works, Urashima Taro. Other animators featured include such greats as Masaoka Kenzo, Yamamoto Sanae, and Murata Yasuji. I was particularly happy to see Seo Mitsuyo’s Arichan the Ant (1941) included, since that is not only another example of the work of the director of the two, greatly celebrated wartime Momotaro films, but also reportedly the first use of the multiplanar camera in Japan.
I wanted to point out two particularly important portions of the site. The first is the presentation of seven of Ogino Shigeji’s animated works. Ogino (1899-1991) is legendary in the small, but important world of “small gauge” filmmaking—working in 8mm, 9.5mm, and 16mm film. Ogino made some 400 films in his career as an amateur filmmaker, between about 1928 and 1984. Not all were animated films; he dabbled in a wide variety of genres, including erotic films towards the end of his career. But scholars such as Nada Hisashi have argued for some time that Ogino's 1930s work shows the existence of an avant-garde film world in Japan even before the 1950s, which is when the usual histories of experimental film begin. The works on the Classics site are good examples, with Propagate, An Expression, and Rhythm (all 1935) all showing Ogino working with various forms and degrees of abstract animation. An Expression is a must see because it is in color (reminding us that color film existed in Japan before the supposed “first” color film, Kinoshita Keisuke’s Carmen Comes Home [Karumen kokyo ni kaeru, 1951]), but Rhythm is my favorite of his animated works for its flow and spatiality. Also included on the site is Ogino’s One Day 100 Years from Today (Hyakunengo no aru hi, 1933—the title is poorly translated on the site as "A Day after a Hundred Years”), a film I discussed in last year’s Udine catalog, Beyond Godzilla, as one of Japan’s first sci-fi films. In this otherworldly version of silhouette animation, Ogino’s spirit travels a century into the future via the wonders of “magic television.”
One other Ogino film included on the site is The Making of a Color Animation (Shikisai manga no dekiru made, 1937), which is actually his color documentary of Ofuji Noburo (1900-1961) producing the film Katsura-hime. This is just one of many items about Japan’s most legendary animation pioneers (after whom the most prominent award in Japanese animation is named) on the Classics site. It does not only offer eleven of his films for viewing, including such ground breaking works as The Burglars of Baghdad Castle (Baguda-jo no tozoku, 1926—Daisuke Miyao has rendered the title “The Thief of Baguda Castle"), which actually showed with Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness in an early screening in 1926 (see my book on that film). In what I consider the second highlight of the website, the site also features a section called the Ofuji Noburo Museum, which contains a treasure trove of materials on Ofuji and his films, including scripts, production notes, press materials, letters, and books he illustrated. Many are viewable in book form through their “eReading” viewer. These are absolutely essential materials for anyone studying Japanese animation.
The major problem with the site is that it says it will be online only this year. When other East Asian archives like the Korean Film Archive are putting major feature length films from many eras online for viewing for extended periods with subtitles, it is a sign of how backward and counter-productive Japanese media policy is that the first Japanese government sponsored film streaming project involves only a few dozen animated films from the earlier years and only lasts a year. It is bad enough that the Cool Japan policy has so warped Japanese cultural initiatives that anything that is not anime or manga or game related is relegated to the back burner, but they seem so afraid of rights issues that they can’t allow anything online except under extremely restricted conditions. The fact that the rollout of the English site has been delayed (and already shows some poor translations) only underlines how much Japanese media cultural policy is poor at reaching out beyond the closed confines of Japan.
Still, we should be thankful for what will hopefully be a first step. Enjoy Japanese Animated Film Classics while you can.
Finally, fans of classic Japanese anime should of course check out Zakka Films’s Roots of Japanese Anime, which features films by Ofuji, Murata, and Masaoka not on the Classics site—as well as, of course, the very famous Momotaro’s Sea Eagle by Seo.