Monday, October 03, 2011

Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström: The Birth of Anime: Pioneers of Japanese Animation (GCM introduction)

Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström (GCM Catalogue): "In the past quarter-century, Japanese animation has emerged as a leading international art form. The touching, and often environmentally conscious, fables of Hayao Miyazaki and his colleagues at Studio Ghibli, coupled with the generally dystopian visions of Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii, have been widely distributed and widely praised. International audiences embraced films such as Otomo’s Akira at a time when relatively few modern live-action Japanese films were seen in the West. At home, anime triumphed commercially, largely beating out live-action competitors: in 1997, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke became the most successful film in history at the Japanese box office, a record then surpassed by James Cameron’s Titanic, until the director reclaimed this honour with Spirited Away in 2001."

"However, the international discovery of Japanese animation was not as sudden as it seemed. Japan’s first colour feature-length animation, Tale of the White Serpent (Hakujaden, 1958), had achieved foreign distribution, winning a commercial release in the United States in 1961, and Japanese television cartoons such as Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) and Heidi, Girl of the Alps (Heidi, Arupusu no shojo) were dubbed for international release. Even before that, Japanese animation had enjoyed isolated screenings in the West: in the 1950s, in the first years of widespread distribution for Japanese films in Europe and North America, Noburo Ofuji’s animations won recognition at European film festivals, while as early as the 1930s, the avant-garde cartoons of Shigeji Ogino were acclaimed in Budapest."

"But even these isolated screenings left almost unknown a tradition of Japanese silent animation which had been developing since the early years of the 20th century. The actual date of the first Japanese animation is unclear. In 2005, a fascinating brief hand-drawn animated fragment, only seconds long, was rediscovered in Kyoto. It depicts a boy in sailor costume writing the words “katsudo shashin” (“motion pictures”) on a blackboard, and is thought to date from the last years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). This film was not commercially screened, but by the middle of the Taisho Period (1912-26), inspired by the examples both of American cartoons and of European filmmakers such as the French “father of animation” Émile Cohl, a number of pioneering Japanese animators, in particular Oten Shimokawa, Junichi Kouchi, and Seitaro Kitayama, had begun to work with techniques ranging from chalk on slate to cut-out animation to silhouettes. Cut-out animation found its first master in the talented Yasuji Murata, several of whose works are featured in this series. Later, the American technique of cel animation was imported to Japan. The first Japanese animator to make use of the imported technique was Kenzo Masaoka, whose Monkey Island was shown at Pordenone in 2005.""

"These two programmes exemplify the variety and invention of early Japanese animation, from its earliest pioneers to such major artists as Murata, Ofuji, and Ogino, to each of whom tribute will be paid in the form of a selection of several surviving films. Their subject matter ranges from legend and folklore to sport to pure abstraction, a breadth of theme and style that testifies to the early vitality of Japanese animation. In an age when anime has achieved international fame, it is timely to glance back at its roots in Japan’s silent cinema."

"This retrospective has been organized with the support of the National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, which has provided the prints and arranged their subtitling. We would like to express our profound gratitude to the head of that institution, Hisashi Okajima, and to NFC curators Akira Tochigi and Fumiaki Itakura, who jointly selected the films to be screened in these programmes. In addition, Akira Tochigi provided much of the information that forms the basis of the following notes." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström

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