Review
Japanese Anime Classic Collection
Yasuji Murata's artwork and his amazing output make him the star of Japanese Anime Classic Collection.
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The star of this collection is Yasuji Murata, whose artwork and animation appears in almost a quarter of the shorts, all of them appearing before 1936. Remarkably, most of his films run over nine minutes long, with some approaching sixteen minutes. His first film here, Kobu-tori (The Stolen Lump), gets his style across perfectly. Murata's illustrations are less cartoony than most, favouring realistic-looking human and animal characters, rendered with detailed ink lines. The Stolen Lump is mostly in stark black and white, and it's easily one of the best-restored films in the collection, so Murata's line work gets its best showcase here. In later films his drawings become a little looser (most notably in the comic Norakuro cartoons, in which the titular black dog looks less like his more canine-appearing costars), but there's still less of the anthropomorphic tendency we're familiar with from Western cartoons of the same era.

If I had to find a Western analogue to Murata, it would be Winsor McCay—not only in terms of style and talent, but in ambition. Several of Murata's films feature things like underwater scenes, crowd scenes, and busy perspective shots; he also rarely repeats himself in these shorts, which gave me the impression that he liked to challenge himself. Whether that's true or not, his films are a treat to watch.

Another artist that deserves special mention is Noburo Ofuji. The four earliest of his six works here all use cutouts of some kind; a standout is Kokka Kimigayo (The National Anthem Kimigayo), which sets the anthem to Japan's creation myth and other sacred stories in silhouette, echoing the films of Lotte Reiniger. Ofuji's cutout films all feature inventive use technique, with ornate imagery and simulated perspective shifts. Interestingly, all of them also have some kind of singalong aspect. When I later looked over the shorts listing, I noticed that three of these shorts were in some way celebrating Japan: aside from The National Anthem Kimigayo, there were Mura Matsuri (Harvest Festival) and Haru no Uta (Spring Song). As it was around the time of Japan's increased militarism, I wondered if there were some kind of propagandistic aspect to the shorts, or if it was simply national pride. I ended up turning to The Anime Encyclopedia by Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, which revealed nothing on these specific films, but did say that Japanese militarism had started to influence some shorts, including the Momotaro shorts I mentioned earlier.

This leads me to my only real complaint about the collection: the lack of context for the films. Each DVD comes with a single sheet of paper that lists the films, their production date, the type of soundtrack, their running time, and production credits—and that's all. The DVDs themselves have no extras, other than a single bonus performance on each disc: a kamishibai, featuring a series of still illustrations, presented by a narrator. It's not animated, but it bridges the gap between manga and the live-performance aspect of benshi-narrated anime.

Without any extra information for context, the viewer has to rely on their own knowledge of Japanese folklore, cinema or history to make sense of these films in any larger framework. If I didn't already have some knowledge of Japanese mythology, I would have had no idea that The National Anthem Kimigayo features Japan's creation myth and the story of Amaterasu's re-emergence from the heavenly cave; I certainly wouldn't have known who Momotaro was, to warrant three different films from two different studios. And I haven't even approached the subject of the films themselves and the conditions they were created in. To be fair, some of the information appears to simply be unknown. Several shorts lack definitive production dates, and some contain mysteries of their own. For instance, Hinomaru Hatanosuke: Bakemono-Yashiki no Maki (Hatanosuke and the Haunted House) and Hinomaru Hatanosuke: Inazuma-gumi Tobatsu no Maki (Hatanosuke Takes Down the Inazuma Gang) are both variations on the same story, and the two films share about half of the same footage. Who knows why? For that matter, what's the story behind the undated Ahiru no Otegara (The Duckling Saves the Day), which is just Disney's 1931 The Ugly Duckling short condensed to a little over a minute, with the re-edited story loosely resembling the last half of Dobutsu-mura no Daisodo (The Animal Village in Trouble), another undated short on the same disc? Still, more information on the relation between benshi and kamishibai and the media they worked with, or on the connection between the studios, the distributors and the Japanese movie industry would have been worth a lot, as would a primer on various cultural references.
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