The final class in my anime history course for the Workers’ Educational Association was held last night. We had a good time, and were all sorry to have the class end. We’re planning to meet up again and I’ve put in some outlines for more classes we could do – now it’s just a case of waiting to see if the WEA can find time and venues for them, and if the demand is there.
The best part of the experience for me was working with such a diverse group of people. We ranged from fans born and brought up in Asia, with a good background knowledge of anime and its context, to a Disney fan who’d never seen any anime and wanted to find out what all the fuss was about, from those born before TV was commercially available to those who were teenagers at the start of the British anime explosion in 1991 and first saw anime on videotape, and someone taking A Levels next year whose first anime experience was seeing Dragonball Z on TV. With such a wide range of starting points and perspectives, we were able to look at many versions of anime’s history, based on chronology, technology, business, culture, international relations and social history.
The challenge of finding interesting ways to bring anime history alive for my students led me to explore new ideas and artists, or go deeper into those where I’d only scratched the surface before. Just like my efforts to find out more about Yukinobu Hoshino for my British Museum talk last month, my afternoons spent trawling the archives and the Internet for material to use in class were hugely enjoyable and enlightening, if sometimes frustrating and surprising.
To take just one example Kenzo Masaoka was a director and animator who influenced both Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto. Trained in both Japanese and Western art and in music, he was responsible for the first Japanese talking anime (The World of Power and Women/Chikara to Onna no Yononaka, 1932,) and the first anime made entirely using cels (Chagama Ondo/Dance of the Chagamas, 1934. He made himself so respected in SFX films that at one time he was known as “the Japanese Melies” after early French SFX master Georges Melies. He’s also one of the elite group of animators to have been labelled “the Japanese Disney”, alongside Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki. Like many early animators, he’s not nearly so widely known as his talent and achievement deserves.
He worked with many of the greats of prewar and wartime anime, and founded the company which would become Toei Animation after the war. He was an animator on his protege Mitsuyo Seo on Seo’s 1945 movie Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (Momotaro Umi no Shinpei) but his own 1943 classic The Spider and The Tulip (Kumo to Tulip,) which powerfully affected both Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto, neatly sidestepped the hardline propaganda demanded by the Government of the day.
There are a couple of his films in the Digital Meme boxset of early anime, but researching my course encouraged me to dig further and see more of his remarkable artistry. Introducing Masaoka to new and appreciative viewers, sharing the blissed-out trippiness of his 1947 film Abandoned Kitten Little Tora/Suteneko Tora-chan, with its mouse-powered sewing machine and its echoes of long-vanished childhoods, was pure joy.
There were so many other pleasures to share, from the insane energies of Satoshi Tomioka to the quirky humour of Jun Aoki. It’s been fun seeing the many strands of continuity that anchor anime to its historic origins, tracing the development of careers and companies, and discussing where the anime business might be headed in future.