April 5, 2008

The "To the Source of Anime" retrospective ends its run today at the Cinémathèque québécoise with a tribute to Noburo Ofuji. The "Wartime Japanese Animation" programs included propaganda cartoons that feature strikingly American character designs. I mentioned this to Akira Tochigi, the curator of the retrospective, when I interviewed him during his stay in Montreal. Mr. Tochigi spoke with enthusiasm during our lengthy interview.

Armen Boudjikanian: This retrospective does a survey of Japanese animation from 1924 to 1952. Is there any reason why there are not any films from before the 1920s?

Akira Tochigi: Actually until last year, we haven't had any surviving elements of animation from the 1910s. But a private collector found two elements of early animation from 1917 [35mm prints]. We are now doing their digital restoration. We will showcase them soon in a program highlighting recent restoration projects.

What can you tell us about the state of Japanese animation in the 1910s?

Animation was first imported to Japan between 1908 and 1910 from France [the works of Émile Cohl] and the UK. The Japanese film industry created its first major studio in 1912: Nikkatsu studio. Nikkatsu was very powerful at making and distributing its own films but also distributing foreign films. Gradually, along with its competitors, it began being interested in making animation. Pioneers of early animation found opportunities in these studios.

Around the 20s, as more animation came from abroad, especially the States, the majors lost interest in producing their own animation. Rather, [they decided to focus on] importing. They believed that American animation was much more sophisticated and more appealing to [Japanese] audiences.

But also in the 1910s, there was a heated debate in Japan about the influence of cinema on children. The portion of young audiences was big: about 30 to 40 per cent of the moviegoers. The government, academics and intellectuals were all concerned on the [effect of films] on children.

So in the early 1920s, the Japanese central government set up the policy of supporting educational films [which at the time also encompassed] animation. By this kind of categorization the government supported animation filmmaking and sometimes commissioned independent filmmakers to make animations for kid audiences. Animation became a way to safeguard children [from] the influence of cinema. And so, its quality changed at that time.

Coming to the question of governmental funding for animated films. I have noticed that films from the WWII era which are heavily funded by the government resemble Hollywood cartoons much more than earlier Japanese animation. Is there a principal cause for this?

Yes, [this is the result of the combination] of two elements. In the late 20s, early 30s, more and more American animation came to Japan: Disney, [Fleischer's] Betty Boop and Popeye, etc... Japanese animation was very quick to react to this situation by creating its own [set] of characters which originated from comic books and also from Japanese folklore such as Momotaro, monkeys, badgers, etc...

It seems that the synthesis is very well done, though. These are early cartoons but they are very well executed technically. The western influence is obvious but the Japanese elements are blended in successfully.

[The reason for] this synthesis is that in the 1940s, the Japanese government set up the Film Law which forced culture films [documentaries], educational and animation films to be shown in theatres to [large] audiences.

The law also controlled film projections, and [theatre] personnel. There was severe censorship. [Nevertheless], the field of animation became prosperous in these times because the government supported it with its law. So as the influence of American cartoons on Japanese animation continued in the 1940s, it came together with the film law and this resulted in the making of the first medium and feature-length animated films in Japan [the 1942 war film Momotaro and the Sea Eagle was Japan's first five-reel animation].

[Films from this period] used characterization that was typical of American animation. [This] is pretty ironic because these films were very much anti-American propaganda, but still [laughs] it is very apparent that their character designs and aesthetic were coming from American animation.

Coming to Momotaro and the Sea Eagle, can you talk about its cast of characters? Why is the leader of the Japanese army a young girl and why are its soldiers animals?

I think that it's a young boy, not a girl. It seems that he has a kind of femininity but it's a boy. [These characters] come from the original story of Momotaro, who was a boy character that fought the enemy [with the help] of animals.

What happened to Japanese animation between the end of WWII and the establishment of Toei Doga studio in the fifties?

This is one of the hardest ever periods for Japanese animation. There was a shortage of film stock and taxes were high. The defeat of the war finished the [governmental] support to filmmaking. There were no festivals, no theatrical exhibitions, but there were a lot of talented young artists who tried to make films on an independent basis. So when Toei started in the '50s, and TV animation in the early '60s, they [offered the young] animators a way to sort of continue making films under a well-financed situation.

Noburo Ofuji, an animation pioneer to whom you attribute a program to in this retrospective, made Burglars of Baghdad Castle in 1926. This film is very innovative. The techniques used in it foresee some of those that Japanese animators will employ later such as limiting the movement of characters. Do you see a link between Ofuji's work and some of the techniques that were used later on?

Noburo Ofuji started using chiyogami [Japanese coloured paper] as a medium of motion in the 1920s. Celluloid was very expensive in Japan and most animators were not able to use it until the middle of the 1930s. Even then Ofuji remained interested in using chiyogami.

He would cut them [drawings done on chiyogami] out, right?

Right. Ofuji continued making films in the late '50s, and in his later films, used colored cellophane—not to use celluloid [laughs]. And because of the materiality of the [cellophane] paper, [he had] to find ways to economize the motion of the characters. And this seems very associative with TV animation. As you may know, when Osamu Tezuka started the program Astro Boy, thirty minutes of animation were aired on TV weekly. It was pretty hard to make original pictures for thirty minutes amount of work per week.

The team of Tezuka Productions only animated eight pictures in a second [as opposed to 24] to sort of economize the motion of characters... So when trying to connect history to what came before it, [early] paper animation and TV animation [seem] closely related.

Also, Burglars of Baghdad Castle, like current anime, has also plenty of action.

Yes. The Baghdad film features mass action.

Yes! A lot of crowds.

[Laughs] Something like a Kurosawa movie.

How about other links between the early animations and contemporary anime? Do you see any similarities in terms of inspiration?

I think that [there] is a very clear association with contemporary anime [especially] with the work of Studio Ghibli: in Pom Poko for example, a community of creatures [raccoon dogs, or tanuki] fight against human beings. This Ghibli film is not similar in content to 1930s cartoons that have [similar] characters, but [in terms of] the idea to use creature characters to make a satire of human society, it is very closely related. Ghibli, in this sense, is a very traditional animation creator.

So what got you interested in animation?

To be honest, I didn't have a special interest in animation for a long time. Of course, as a child I was intrigued by theatrical animation—and in fact had a passion for TV animation. I [also] read comics in my elementary school [years]. When I entered college, I continued reading comics, [especially the work of] Otomo [creator of Akira]. He was popular with the college crowd not only because of his aesthetics but also because of his handling of contemporary issues.

At this time, my interest in animation was not so much special. [However], when I started working for the Film Archives several years ago, I found many animations in their collection [from the past]. When I watched these films, I was struck by their power and complexity. Of course most were for kid audiences; but from a contemporary perspective, I found out about the [ability] of animation to deal with fantasy, illusion and delusion in many different ways. It seems to me that because these early animators worked mostly independently [their only support came from the government], their individualities and sense of art as filmmakers is apparent in their films; [whether] they worked on mainstream films or in alternative cinema.

[And since] I was struck by experimental cinema in college, including [laughs] Norman McLaren...

Of Course! [laughter]

[Continues laughing] So... Because of this intrigue, my connection with these animated films [felt] natural. And of course as an archivist, I was interested in the history of animation cinema.

There is going to be a retrospective of Canadian and Québécois animation in Tokyo in 2009. Is there an interest in Canadian animation in Japan right now?

Yes, definitely. Next year's exhibition of Canadian and Québécois animation will be programmed by [Marco de Blois of the Cinémathèque québécoise]. We like to leave him to make the final decisions for that [exhibition], as I did for this one.

The staff members of our institution [the National Film Center in Tokyo] are very eager for [this] program because when Norman McLaren was first introduced in Japan in the late '50s, many young artists were so surprised by his films: they were experimental and personal expressions of ideas and feeling through the medium of animation. Most of the Japanese audiences at the time thought animation would [only] be kid entertainment.

That's something that's common in many countries.

Right... And in the late '50s, early '60s, the word "animation" was first introduced in Japan.
Before then, we used the word "manga" film, not animation. But the exhibition that introduced McLaren's work was called "animation film screening". [This] means that the term animation was related not to Disney type of animation but to experimental film and personal film... So this context of Canadian animation has a special [significance] in Japan: it is a kind of individual expression.

Which filmmaker from the "To the Source of Anime" retrospective is of special interest to you as a researcher?

When I was watching the films of this retrospective again and again, the films of Masaoka Kenzo struck me so much [in terms] of aesthetic, ideas and technique.

The Spider and the Tulip is very well directed and animated, could you talk about the artist and how he got into animation?

[Kenzo] had a unique background; he came from a very rich family from Kyoto. He studied western painting in college. Then he joined a major film studio as an actor. He then made his first film, a documentary. [It is only afterwards] that he moved to animation.

Because he came from a prosperous family, and because of his movie studio contacts; he did not rely on [external] funding to make his films. He was exceptionally able to have his films exhibited in theatres, even his first film. Also, because of this, he did not care about targeting his films to children. He wanted to show his films to regular audiences. He often created in his own small studio. He [also coined] the Japanese term doga which means "animated images" in English.

He [did this to be able] to cover all aspects of animation: from puppet to silhouette animation, [whether designed] for children or not. He wanted to value animation as an art for everybody.

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Hi. Great interview. Was wondering what movie the pic you've got there is from? Cheers

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