Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation

Far from the commercial mainstream, Japanese animators have been experimenting with the form since the early years of cinema – an eclectic tradition that’s still thriving.

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The seeds of anime: how Japanese animation arose

Jasper Sharp

Kato Kunio’s Oscar-winning 2008 short La Maison en Petits Cubes (The House of Small Cubes / Tsumiki no Ie)

Kato Kunio’s Oscar-winning 2008 short La Maison en Petits Cubes (The House of Small Cubes / Tsumiki no Ie)

Japan boasts a rich history of independent animation stretching back long before the emergence of anime as a global buzzword. But the pioneers and practitioners of this tradition, seeking to explore the aesthetic potential of a variety of media and techniques, have remained all but invisible to audiences beyond specialist festival circuits and associated artistic circles.


Pre-war pioneers

One early trailblazer, Ofuji Noburo (1900-61), was renowned for ornate collage animations such as The Thief of Baguda Castle (1926) and A Ship of Oranges (1927), fashioned using chiyogami, a traditional hand-printed decorative paper. Japan’s first animator to gain international recognition, with his post-war shorts Whale (1953) and The Phantom Ship (1956) winning prizes at Cannes and Venice respectively, Ofuji was honoured for his outstanding artistic achievements when the Mainichi newspaper established an award in his name the year after his death.

A less heralded contemporary was the intriguing Ogino Shigeji (1899-1991), who worked in the under-the-radar field of amateur small-gauge filmmaking. Ogino’s eclectic output included stop motion (Detective Felix in Trouble, 1932), modernist abstraction (Rhythmic Triangles / Fighting Cards, 1932; Rhythm, 1935) and experiments with an additive two-colour process based on Kinemacolor, a technique used in early silent cinema (An Expression, 1935).

One fascinating title is his eerily prophetic proto-sci-fi A Day After a Hundred Years (1933), in which the spirit of its protagonist, killed in 1942 in a speculative “Great World War”, is afforded a glimpse of Japan in 2032 by means of a “Magical Television”.

A Day After a Hundred Years (1933)

A Day After a Hundred Years (1933)


Mid-century mavericks

The tradition of the solitary creator continued even after animation had been industrialised with the establishment of Toei Animation in 1956. The countercultural zeitgeist of the 1960s saw several notable luminaries consciously positioning themselves outside the mainstream to pursue their own distinctive approaches.

The irreverent, often risqué comic sketches of illustrator Kuri Yoji (1928-) might have been cruder in style and ruder in content than what Toei were offering, but his absurdist takes on universal human foibles, with titles such as Human Zoo (1962), Love (1963) and Man, Woman and Dog (1963), earned him plaudits and prizes at many international festivals.

Kinoshita Renzo (1936-97) was more politically pointed in satires like Made in Japan (1972) and Japonese (1976), but also created a sublimely powerful call for peace with his portrait of the A-bombing, Picadon (1979). (Kinoshita and his wife and collaborator Sayoko founded the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in 1985.)

Picadon (1979)

Picadon (1979)

Celebrated ‘God of Manga’ Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) kept his feet in both commercial and experimental camps, lending his name and fame to Toei’s anarchic Saiyuki (1960) – a feature-length version of Chinese literary classic Journey to the West – and producing the Astro Boy (1963-66) TV series of his own comic-book creation while directing more aspirational works, such as the delicate poetry of Mermaid (1964) and the more grandiloquent Pictures at an Exhibition (1966), which won a second Ofuji Noburo Award for his company Mushi Production.

The first win had been for Tale of a Street Corner (1962), directed by Sakamoto Yusaku and Eiichi Yamamoto (1940-), the latter of whom later made Belladonna of Sadness (1973), a hypnotic hotchpotch of sex, sorcery and psychedelia that forced Mushi into bankruptcy. Tezuka later realised his masterpiece of animated artistry, Jumping (1984), constructed from the perspective of its unseen leaper as he makes a series of vast jumps through a parade of increasingly surreal locations.


Puppet dualists

Two figures working in stop motion spent much of the 1970s handing the Ofuji Award back and forth between them. Kawamoto Kihachiro (1925-2010) was known for his hauntingly beautiful takes on the noh and kabuki Japanese theatrical traditions, staged using exquisitely fashioned puppets he created himself in the likes of Demon (1971) and Dojoji Temple (1976).

Kawamoto Kihachiro, 1925-2010

    The more playful and child-friendly work of Okamoto Tadanari (1932-1990) made creative use of everyday materials: Home, My Home (1970) featured a mole burrowing through earth fashioned from crumpled newspaper, while the stars of Monkey and Crab (1972) were fabricated from crudely hewn lumps of wood. The two were close friends, and Kawamoto completed Okamoto’s adaptation of author Miyazawa Kenji’s The Restaurant of Many Orders (1993) after Okamoto died of cancer during its production.


    Contemporary explorers

    Like Okamoto, Yamamura Koji has demonstrated remarkable versatility exploring narrative possibilities using different animation media. He is best known for Mt. Head (2002), a wry recreation of a traditional rakugo oral comic tale about a tight-fisted grump who eats a cherry pip and winds up with a tree sprouting from his cranium, which was nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2003 Academy Awards. Other Yamamoto works, such as A Country Doctor (2007), based on the Franz Kafka tale, and Muybridge’s Strings (2011), evince an inspiration that is more European in tone.

    Yamamura Animation trailer

    Blocky motifs permeate Kato Kunio’s 2008 Academy Award winner, La Maison en Petits Cubes [pictured at top of page; available to stream on Crunchyroll], portraying a lonely old man literally struggling to keep his head above water by adding storeys to a one-room house as it is submerged by rising floodwater before willingly immersing himself in the emotional comfort of earlier memories.

    Mizue Mirai’s distinctive hand-drawn work pushes further into the pure imaginary, with the organic patterns that occasionally approximate something recognisable in Fantastic Cell (2003), Devour Dinner (2008) and Jam (2009) giving the sense of multicoloured microorganisms swarming across a microscope slide, while the hard Cartesian geometry of Metropolis (2009) and Modern (2010) sit at the other end of abstraction.

    Mizue Mirai showreel

    Such works, along with those of contemporaries such as Wada Atsushi, Yamada Naoko, Oyama Kei and Kurosaka Keita, demonstrate a thriving field of artistic animation in Japan that is far wider in scope than the mass-market commercial face presented to the rest of the world.

    The trailer for Kurosaka Keita’s Midori-Ko

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