Yesterday the world discovered a new anime. Big deal, you might think – but this one was made by a man who went on to become one of the most renowned auteurs of Japanese film. And it was made in 1935.
Kon Ichikawa’s Yowamushi Chinsengumi (Cowardly Samurai Squad) turned up in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. It’s now at the University of California, Los Angeles undergoing restoration.
How it got there is a mystery. Akira Tochigi, chief curator of the National Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, thinks it must have been exported to entertain the sizeable Japanese immigrant population of America’s West Coast. Veteran anime historian Yasushi Watanabe, 80, says it’s “almost a miracle” that the flammable nitrate film has survived at all, let alone in its apparently good condition.
The story of a samurai boy who rescues a woman captured by bandits allegedly shows the influence of Walt Disney. Certainly, lead character Dangonosuke has many of the characteristics of the mouse – black body, white shorts, shoes and gloves. Swap the heads, add a tail and you could be looking at Mickey Mouse.
According to Watanabe, the short film is the third of the Hana Yori Dango (Dumplings Over Flowers) series featuring Dangonosuke as the protagonist. Until now, a 1936 film from the same series was thought to be the oldest existing animation film by Ichikawa.
The director was previously best known to anime fans for Phoenix (Hi no Tori) a 1978 live action film with animated segments based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga of the same name. The film is now rarely screened, and was last seen in the UK at the Tezuka commemorative season I curated and presented at London’s Barbican Cinema in September 2008.
Ichikawa, like Tezuka and many other Japanese intellectuals, had a penchant for berets. The photo above, taken in the early 1950s, could almost be mistaken for one of Tezuka himself. Since both artists were so strongly influenced by Disney it’ll be very interesting to see Ichikawa’s new anime.