History of Anime (Part 1) (アニメの歴史)

Cartoons, animations and animated films – nothing uncommon for many of you, I suppose…

Then, what about a nation which commands both sophisticated technology and cultural traditions side-by-side – what would that be? Don’t continue reading this unless you’ve thought of an answer…

Now, if we were to mix these two things together, what would we get?

CARTOONS + JAPAN = ?????????

Anime, of course!


Many of you, I believe, would know or at least have a vague idea as to what an anime is. But, let me explain what an anime is, for the benefit of some of you who may be viewing this but do not know what exactly this article is about.

A scene from the renowned Oscar Award-winning anime "Spirited Away" (千と千尋の神隠し, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

Anime (アニメ) (pronounced as a-ni-meh) refers to what the rest of the world knows as “Japanese cartoons” or “Japanese animations.” Originating from Japan, the term “anime” is coined from half of the pronunciation of the word “animation” in Japanese (アニメーション). Animes are either hand-drawn or produced via computers, and are widely used to produce games, television series, movies, commercials and posters. Animes, alongside mangas (漫画, Japanese comic books) are considered to be a “cute” and appealing form of art, especially for youngsters. As such, they are widely popular in many parts of the entire world.

Animes cover almost any theme and genre. Amongst the most common themes covered are science fiction involving robots and space explorations, friendship, romance and love, crime and mystery, battles of good versus evil, fantasy and sports. Anime designs may differ according to its artist’s style and the storyline of the anime. However, one can almost always differentiate an anime from a Western cartoon, as animes frequently tend to have exaggerated features such as large and shiny eyes, elongated limbs or large and colourful hair. I believe that an anime that most of you have seen or at least heard of before is none other than “Doraemon” (ドラえもん).

Chronicles of the Wings / Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle (ツバサ・クロニクル) - example of an anime based on the theme of love / romance & adventure

So, if you are an anime fan, how well do you know the actual history behind this “cute and appealing” form of art? Well??? Little do many know that animes were first produced in Japan even before the Second World War (1939 – 1945), neither do they know that animes were initially not as “cute” or appealing as they are now. On top of that, many also do not know that animes once served as Japanese war propaganda tools during the Second World War. Did you all know these facts?

Alright, let me take you through a walkthrough in Japanese anime history. From 1633 to 1639, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) enacted a series of policies which resulted in Japan being put under isolation from the rest of the world. Under this isolation policy, Japan’s trade and contact with the rest of the world became very limited. The entry of many foreigners, especially Westerners, was also strictly regulated under this policy. In other words, Japan cut off almost all contacts with the outside world and kept mainly to itself. This was done because Catholic Christianity had spread extremely rapidly throughout southern Japan, especially in Kyushu, thus causing fear on the part of the Japanese Shogunate government. This fear stemmed from the thought that Japan might soon fall into the hands of either the Portuguese or Spanish, because Catholic missionaries from these two nations were the ones who were most actively spreading Catholic Christianity in southern Japan.

Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光)

Japan remained in isolation until 1853, when the policies were then changed so as to open Japan once again to the outside world. Once this occurred, Western influence started to make its way into this Eastern nation. Movies, films and early animations made their way into Japan from the West. Animation techniques used by European and American animators were then discovered and learned by some Japanese who were interested in this field. Hence, it was said that since 1914, Western animation techniques were tried out by these Japanese animators on a serious scale, thus bringing about the first few animes. These animes were very short in length, whereby they fitted a single reel of film and lasted for only a few seconds or minutes.

These early animations were put on strips of film reeled on film reels (wheels) and were shown in cinemas. They were projected onto a screen by shining light through the moving strips of film. In actual fact, many of these early animes were lost or destroyed in time. They were first shown in larger urban cinemas before being sold to smaller rural cinemas. After some time, these reels of film were disassembled, separated and subsequently lost or destroyed. As such, very few early animes survived until the present.

In 2005, an anime, supposedly the oldest surviving anime, was discovered in Kyoto, in which this untitled anime contains fifty frames drawn directly on a strip of film. This anime, running for a period of 3 seconds, features a boy wearing a sailor suit writing the Japanese kanji characters “活動写真” (katsudou shashin), which means “moving pictures” in Japanese. After writing this on a board, he turns to the viewer, takes off his hat and salutes to the viewer. The identity of the creator of this anime remains a mystery. It was produced somewhere in the 1900s.

The supposedly oldest surviving anime, made in the 1900s

Screened in Japan in April 1914, the French animation entitled "Fantasmagorie" by Émile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet (Émile Cohl in short) was the first foreign animation to have really inspired Japanese animators to start animating on a serious scale. It was screened in Japan under the title “Dekobo’s New Sketch Book” (凸坊の新画帳, Dekobou no Shin-gachou). In the following year, the Nippon Katsudou Shashin (日本活動写真, literally meaning Japan Cinematograph Company, also known as Nikkatsu in short), currently Japan’s oldest movie studio, was established and it started researching animation techniques with a private animator at that time, Kitayama Seitaro (北山清太郎).

Émile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet

A simple scene from the French animation "Fantasmagorie"

In 1916, the Tennen-shoku Katsudou Shashin Kabushiki Gaisha (天然色活動写真株式会社, literally meaning Natural Colour Motion Picture Company, Tenkatsu in short) also started researching animation techniques with the famous Japanese manga artist at that time, Shimokawa Oten (下川凹天). Besides, another animator at that time, Kobayashi Shokai (小林商会) worked with another famous manga artist of that period, Kochi Junichi (幸内純一) to learn and apply Western animation techniques into their works. Altogether, these three teams dominated the competition in researching animation techniques and producing animes on large scales during that era.

However, among the three teams, Tenkatsu was the first to produce what many now view as the first “true” anime. “The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa” (芋川椋三玄関番の巻, Imokawa Mukuzou Genkanban no Maki), which was directed by Shimokawa Oten, was released in January 1917 and shown in cinemas. Running for only five minutes, it was considered to be the first “true” anime because it was the first anime to be screened in cinemas for public viewing. All other animes produced before this, including the untitled one that I mentioned earlier, were merely produced for private viewing. “The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa” was produced by drawing a picture on a blackboard using chalk, photographing it, erasing it, drawing the subsequent picture and photographing it as well. This process was repeated until the end of the story.

A drawing of Shimokawa Oten (下川凹天)

Following this, in May 1917, Nikkatsu completed and released the second “true” anime in history. Known as “The Battle between the Monkey and the Crab” (猿蟹合戦, Sarukani Gassen), it was directed by Kitayama Seitaro. Kobayashi Shokai and Kochi Junichi were the last team among the three to have released their “true” anime. This anime, entitled “Hekonai Hanawa’s Great Sword” (塙凹内名刀の巻, Hanawa Hekonai Meitou no Maki), was released and screened in cinemas in Jun 1917.

It was said that “The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa” directed by Shimokawa Oten was badly done, up to the extent that Shimokawa himself was utterly dissatisfied. “The Battle between the Monkey and the Crab” by Kitayama Seitaro utilized a different animation technique, in which the cut-paper technique was used. In this technique, characters were drawn on paper and cut out, before being arranged on backgrounds. They are then photographed with a camera fixed horizontally above the table. “Hekonai Hanawa’s Great Sword” by Kochi Junichi runs for a period of two minutes. It portrays a samurai who obtains a blunt sword via dishonest means. Wanting to find out whether the sword is really blunt, he runs into the streets and attacks the people there. In retaliation, the people knock down and defeat the samurai.

A scene from one of the oldest animes "Hekonai Hanawa's Great Sword" (塙凹内名刀の巻)

Later on, in 1918, Kitayama Seitaro produced and released another anime, known as “Momotaro” (桃太郎). This anime is said to be the first anime from Japan to have attained considerable worldwide success. This anime is based on the traditional Japanese folklore entitled “Momotaro”, which tells the story of a boy named Momotaro, who was born from a large peach and raised by an old, childless couple. When Momotaro grew up later, he befriended a talking dog, monkey and pheasant, of which the four of them then went together on a quest to the Island of Ogres. There, they defeated the demons and ogres, thus allowing Momotaro’s family and fellow villagers to live happily ever after.

A depiction of the traditional Japanese folklore "Momotaro" (桃太郎) (NOT THE ANIME)

So, my dear readers, this concludes the earliest portion of the history behind the “cute and appealing” form of Japanese art known as anime. In the next part of this article, you will then read about the advancements made in anime production up to and during the Second World War, as well as the common themes and genres portrayed in animes of this era.

An anime which most of you should know - Doraemon (ドラえもん)

**Contents of this article:
1. Part 1 - the beginnings of the anime industry in Japan
2. Part 2 - progress in anime industry up to and during the Second World War
3. Part 3 - progress in anime industry after Second World War, up to 1980
4. Part 4 - progress in anime industry after 1980


  1. Shogun Tokugawa 'Iemitsu'(Ieyasu).
    It is wrong dude!!

  2. Actually, it's correct...
    Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu is the grandson of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu

  3. 比特币的投资价值
    得到 全球的肯定

    股票、外汇、等全球千种金融产品的交易与投资 投资世界最受欢迎的金融市场从未如此简单