The seeds of anime: how Japanese animation arose

The international anime phenomenon was fired in a Japanese crucible of changing technology, financing and demographics in the years after World War II. Jonathan Clements explores the origins of the form.

Updated: 26 June 2020

By Jonathan Clements

Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (1945) © Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Sight and Sound

 In partnership with JNTO

1. The first features

Japanese animation’s first truly full-length feature, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (1945) arrived too late for its era. Made at a heroically breakneck pace during wartime austerity, it was completed by director Seo Mitsuyo and an animation staff chiefly comprising retrained waitresses, having lost most of its original animators to the military draft. Delayed for several months by the censor, Seo’s anthropomorphic tale of heroism on the Pacific battlefield limped out in April 1945, when Tokyo was in ruins and the intended children’s audience had been evacuated to the countryside. For many years, it was believed lost, destroyed in post-war propaganda purges – the version that exists today was struck from the sole surviving interpositive, found in a warehouse in 1983. [Watch the trailer here.]

Whereas Japanese animators had thrived during World War II on contracts for propaganda and instructional films, the immediate post-war period saw severe contraction in the industry. Female labourers conspicuously disappear from the story of Japanese animation in the 1940s as the menfolk returned home. Competition in the labour market was heightened not only by the return of demobbed soldiers and colonists from overseas, but by the influx of former employees of the Man’ei studio, in what had been Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The leading artists of wartime animation suffered attacks from two sides, as propagandists working in the field of “incitement to war”, and hence liable to prosecution, but also as suspected leftists as the Cold War began to bite.

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A handful of animators stayed in business by working on a new form of propaganda, toiling for the US Occupation authority on films for its Civil Information and Education department. Others lived hand-to-mouth, working on animated graphics or inserts in live-action film. The grand saviour of Japanese feature animation was supposed to be The King’s Tail (Osama no Shippo), a fairytale loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, in production at Toho under Seo Mitsuyo. It was, however, mothballed by a union-busting studio head, who decried it as “riddled with Redness”.

There may have been more prosaic issues behind the shutdown, including a post-war hike in the costs of acetate cels and management despondency at the sight of the competition. The King’s Tail, made in black and white with limited resources and a meagre 47-minute running time, would have been barely enough to justify a movie ticket had it even reached the cinema, but Japan also now faced an onslaught of colour foreign features. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the first Disney feature to hit the country, in 1950, heralding a run of high-budget foreign cartoons, dominating almost every school vacation for years to come.

Panda and the Magic Serpent (Hakujaden, aka The Tale of the White Serpent aka The White Snake Enchantress, 1958)

Fittingly for a numbers man, it was Toei’s Okawa Hiroshi who was able to see through the statistics. A former railway accountant tasked with turning around a basket of underperforming film companies, Okawa banked on the Disney motherlode running out by the mid-1950s, as indeed it did with the last significant release, Lady and the Tramp (1955), reaching Japanese cinemas in 1956. In that year, Okawa bought out the struggling Nichido animation studio and rebranded it as Toei’s animation division, declaring that it would release Japan’s first feature-length colour cartoon.

Okawa’s ambition required a massive in-house training scheme, in which groups of new hirelings were trained up by the Nichido veterans, with each group calving off into new sets of key animators, theoretically able to train a group of its own. Okawa’s enterprise took staff numbers from 23 to more than 500. The feature they eventually produced, Panda and the Magic Serpent (Hakujaden, aka The Tale of the White Serpent / White Snake Enchantress, 1958), was part of Okawa’s plan to trump Disney in the Asian film markets by producing a work based on a well-known Chinese legend. Two months before the film’s completion, the People’s Republic of China shut down all trade links with Japan, after an incident in which a Japanese nationalist desecrated the PRC flag in Nagasaki. Okawa had gambled on a huge Chinese market, which was now denied to him.

Panda and the Magic Serpent (Hakujaden, aka The Tale of the White Serpent aka The White Snake Enchantress, 1958)
BFI National Archive

Panda and the Magic Serpent underperformed overseas, although it did become the first Japanese animated feature to play, briefly, in the UK. It inaugurated a treadmill of twice-yearly features from Toei, serving the Japanese market, and also advertising the presence of Toei’s animators to work in commercials, a far more lucrative sector that underwent exponential growth as television reached Japan. By 1958, up to half of the thousand commercials a year made in Japan were animated, a below-the-line industry often overlooked by film historians focusing on the flashier world of features.

2. Insatiable TV

It was widely believed in the Japanese animation industry that it was economically unfeasible to produce a weekly TV cartoon. One investigation estimated that producing 22 minutes a week of ‘full’ animation – 12 drawings for each second (or 24 frames) of film, known as animating ‘on twos’ – would require more than ten times the labour output of the entire Japanese industry.

Toei staffers resisted management requests to cost out a weekly TV cartoon, while the bosses tried to buy in talent who might be able to do it. In particular, Toei tried to recruit Mochinaga Tadahito, the former assistant director on Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, now returned from self-imposed exile in China and producing the stop-motion The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960-61) for the US company Rankin/Bass – at 12 minutes of new animation a week, Mochinaga was already halfway to the necessary target. However, he refused to sell his company MOM Production, preferring instead to work below the line for Rankin/Bass; his most enduring success was the ‘American’ TV movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

Astro Boy (1963-66)

It was Tezuka Osamu who would break the deadlock over TV with his series Astro Boy (1963-66). The notoriously prolific manga creator, long cherishing a desire to ape Disney by going into animation, had put in several months as a storyboarder on Toei’s Saiyuki (1960). Irritated by studio restrictions on his creativity, he set up his own company Mushi Production, poaching many of his start-up staff from Toei. (Tezuka was merely one of several entrepreneurs offering inflated salaries to lure away leading animators. As Toei struggled under restructuring and labour disputes in the 1960s, its training scheme inadvertently provided much of the workforce for its competitors.)

Tezuka reportedly told his staff: “What we are making is not animation, it is anime.” He used a truncated term for a truncated product, slashing the average cel count to just eight new frames per second (‘animating on threes’), and instituting fast cuts, freeze-frames and in-picture zooms. He also established an image bank of cels that could be recycled in later episodes, drastically reducing costs.

It was still not enough. In what has come to be termed ‘Tezuka’s Curse’, he deliberately undervalued his product, offloading it to the Fuji TV network at a knock-down price intended to match the cost of live-action children’s TV, but also to discourage competitors. Anime’s first full-length TV series hence established a precarious price-point, unable to go into profit without sponsorship deals or foreign-rights sales. Mushi Production would collapse within a decade, amid an ill-fated move into adult features such as Cleopatra (aka Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, 1970).

Meanwhile, Toei’s managers prioritised advertising, foreign contracts and television ahead of the features that made the company’s name. The studio became mired in labour disputes, often characterised as a conflict between salaried employees and a growing body of freelancers who were paid by the frame. The shop steward Miyazaki Hayao, reprimanded for suggesting that employees should be paid for what they accomplished, would form what bosses considered a “troublesome” faction with his mentor Takahata Isao, whose Little Norse Prince (1968, aka Horus: Prince of the Sun) was an attempt at engaging with more adult subjects and audiences. Practically disowned by its own studio, and buried at the box office by running against Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967), its failure would ultimately propel its creators out of Toei, and into the unforgiving market of television.

The Little Norse Prince (aka Hols, Prince of the Sun, 1968)

Anime in the 1970s was a TV phenomenon, largely sponsored by toy companies, developing a series of tropes and styles designed to stretch limited budgets as far as they would go, including freeze-frames and hyper-realism. Dissenting against the tendency towards sci-fi flash and warring robots, Miyazaki and Takahata found themselves working on an adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s Swiss pastoral novel Heidi.

Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)

“It was only then we came to understand the danger of television,” Miyazaki wrote. “Television repeatedly demands the same thing. Its voraciousness makes everything banal.” Their Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974) was well received – and functioned as a prototype for World Masterpiece Theater, a successful franchise of animated literary adaptations in the subsequent decade – but the cost risked bankrupting its studio.

3. The video underground erupts

The widespread availability of the video cassette recorder in the 1980s would transform the market yet again. Likened by critic Nagayama Yasuo to the invention of the time machine, it allowed the creation of an anime fandom that could share and evangelise for it.

Mobile Suit Gundam I (1981)

It also permitted creators to bypass TV and cinemas alike, offering more mature material to the now-adult Astro Boy generation. Pornography was a major component of early straight-to-video anime, as were science fiction and fantasy. Anime creators throughout the 1970s had sporadically argued that there was potential to be found in the emergence of a new audience outside the children’s sector. Its existence was made manifest at the 1981 premiere of the first Mobile Suit Gundam film, which was billed as the “proclamation of a new century” and was overwhelmed by the arrival of some 10,000 fans in their teens and early twenties.

The increased revenue generated by video releases of feature films, as well as Japan’s booming economy, saw heightened investment in animated features. The mid- to late 1980s produced a dozen feature releases that would eventually form the long tail of overseas anime fandom, including many classics made by Miyazaki and Takahata for their newly established Studio Ghibli, the Gainax studio’s acclaimed Wings of Honneamise (1987) and the notorious sex-horror Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989).

The Wings of Honneamise (aka Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, 1987)

The decade was capped by Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira (1988) a science fiction spectacle with a conspicuously high budget and quality of animation. Costing 1.1 billion yen (about $9 million), it was released just as the Japanese economic bubble burst. Duplicating its budget in straitened times was impossible without foreign money; but Akira’s success abroad would open up a new market in Japanese animation.

Akira spearheaded Japanese animation brands in multiple foreign countries, as overseas distributors snapped up many of the 1980s features, as well as some of the video dross that went along with it. Anime in the West remained primarily a video phenomenon, with occasional theatrical releases as loss-leaders for video sales, and a few video releases, such as Appleseed (1988), counterproductively blown up on to cinema screens in the scramble to ape Akira’s success.

Akira (1988)

Notably, Studio Ghibli films remained largely untouched – producer Suzuki Toshio, horrified at the hacked-up US video release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) as Warriors of the Wind (1985), had set a price-point on his films that only a major corporation with theatrical distribution could afford. Disney would not take the bait until Princess Mononoke (1997).

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About Japan National Tourism Organization

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Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player

BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.


Kitano Takeshi, 1993

Location: Okinawa

Sonatine (1993)

A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.

Nobody Knows

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003

Location: Tokyo

Nobody Knows (2003)

A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.

The Mourning Forest

Naomi Kawase, 2007

Location: Nara

The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori, 2007)

A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.

The Woodsman and the Rain

Okita Shûichi, 2011

Location: Nagano

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.

Journey to the Shore

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015

Location: Kanagawa

Journey to the Shore (2015)

The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.

Further reading

Tick tick... boom: anime goes global

By Alex Dudok de Wit

Tick tick... boom: anime goes global

Women make anime

By Ren Scateni

Women make anime

Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation

By Jasper Sharp

Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation

A short history of small-screen anime

By Helen McCarthy

A short history of small-screen anime

Originally published: 12 June 2020

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