The first historical collection from Zakka Films introduces interesting early anime films to US fans.
Review Hardware Used: Sanyo 30 Inch 4:3 TV, Cyberhome DVD Player, Durabrand 5.1 Surround
Disc Description A rare glimpse of early Japanese sound anime and prewar Japanese culture, The Roots of Japanese Anime features the masterworks of such pioneers of Japanese animation as Noburo Ofuji, Yasuji Murata, and Kenzo Masaoka, in addition to Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the notorious war cartoon billed as Japan’s first feature anime. These movies represent the brilliance and variety of anime, ranging from beautiful Japanese paper animation to powerful multiplane cel cartoons. They also evoke the fascinating complexity of Japan, a nation that is then both marching towards war, enlisting kids in militarist nationalism, yet also delighting in a mixture of modern popular culture, ancient folk tales, irreverent comedy, and the everyday life of prewar Japanese children.
Contains 8 Ground-breaking films
Bonus Features: Roots of Anime booklet, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle’s ad collection
Content: (This section may include spoilers)
Today Japanese Anime is a full-blown global phenomenon. In it’s earliest of days though, the process of animation in Japan was more like a cottage industry. Decentralized and spread across various auteurs, many of the works are thought to be lost to history. Zakka Films has changed that with the release of The Roots of Japanese Anime Until the End of WWII, a collected work of early influential anime films. The works themselves differ greatly from Walt Disney’s output during this period. Animation techniques are cruder but the Japanese aesthetic and style come through fantastically. The shorts collected on this disc represent a wide range or creative output from 1930 to 1942 and include what is billed as “Japan’s first feature-length anime”, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. Also included is a very informative booklet including an article on the earliest of animation in Japan and accompanying notes on each short included. The Roots of Japanese Anime disc is more a historical treasure than a standard anime release. Let’s look at what I consider to be the standout films.
A small sampling of Roots of Japanese Anime
The Village Festival (1930) by animation pioneer Noburo Ofuji is a simple and stylish depiction of common festival activities. Ofuji used a moving papercraft style of animation that was popular at the time (think very early South Park). His innovation was in utilizing traditional chiyogami, a decorative paper that was already printed with designs and patterns. This gives the short a very Japanese look. The Village Festival originally screened silently with an accompanying record of a sing-a-long song that would be played alongside the film, but Zakka Films has merged the audio onto the film for the DVD and the results are great. The liner notes mention that the earliest of works were often funded by the government for educational purposes and you can absolutely imagine this short playing on a classroom projector. Two other Ofuji films are included in this collection; Song of Spring, in the chiyogami style and Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box which uses traditional cel animation.
The Monkey Masamune (1930, 8 min.) animated by Yasuji Murata. The Masamune short is based on a Japanese folk tale that teaches children the value of helping each other through a cute little story about a man being given a sword from a family of monkeys. This charming short also uses cutout animation, but in a much more sophisticated way than in The Village Festival. Murata’s technique looks almost like traditional cel animation (celluloid was still very expensive and had to be imported), but with a charm all its own.
Momotaro's Sea Eagle (1942, 37 min.) was animated by Tadahito Mochinaga, Toshihiko Tanabe, Tamako Hashimoto and Shizuo Tsukamoto. This important piece was financed by Japan’s Naval Minestry. The film stars popular Japanese Folk Lore character Momotaro. better known as “Peach Boy” (legend was that an elderly couple found him in a giant peach. His strong sense of justice made him a popular symbol of Japanese morals). Here he’s used as WWII propaganda. The adorable Momotaro acts as naval commander, leading a fleet of cartoon animals on a bombing campaign at Pearl Harbor against the cowardly Americans, represented by Bluto from Popeye. The film is a very stark example of the powers of early animation and their uses in manipulating public opinion. Today the concept sounds almost quant, but the clear transfer preserves all of the film’s power. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle is one of the first Japanese feature-length animations (37 minutes) as well as an early example of multiplaner camera use. Depth is created by this tool as cels can be placed on top of each other as layers. Momotaro stands as one of the more interesting early anime works.
The Roots of Japanese Anime disc can certainly be recommended to any true fans of the medium as it does a steller job of both introducing and educating viewers about several important works. For those less historically inclined, it makes for an interesting curiosity. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of early animation in general, there is much to be gained by seeking out this collection.
Video: Given the age of the source materials, the transfers on Roots of Japanese Anime disc are more than respectable. Noise is very limited and all images are easily discernable with only a small amount of camera shake. Given the history of many of these film reels as educational shorts, it’s very possible master prints were hard to come by. What’s here looks great and conveys every ounce of the original intent of the included works. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle has the best transfer really rivals early Disney work in its smoothness. All films are in 4:3 with English subs.
Audio: Smooth audio accompanies the shorts on the film and Zakka has gone out of their way to include audio not on an original print. The Village Festival was silent and included an educational record to be played in synch with the film, now overlaid on the video for this collection. All things considered, the sound is pretty clean and is very enjoyable.
Menus: Menu design is very simple and snazzy, matching the DVD cover design. Films can be selected individually, extras are easily accessible and Momotaro can be played via 3 chapter marks.
Extras: This collection is made better by a 12 page booklet containing essays by Jasper Sharp, film historian and co-editor of MidnightEye.com and Aaron Gerow, Asst Prof of Japanese Cinema at Yale University. Their added insights really make the entire package a stand-out. The booklet also includes a suggested reading list and an important note about video transfers of these classic films. The disc features a great extra as well in the form of an ad gallery for Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. If you enjoyed that film, seeing the original advertisements add a good bit of bonus. My favorite demonizes “the Yankee” Popeye & Bettie Boop. Disc extras could have contained more, like animator bios or photos of early studios working on the pieces. What’s here is great.
Overall package design is both cute and serious. You’ll have no problem seating this disc on the top shelf with your Criterion editions or early Disney discs.
The Bottom Line: The Roots of Japanese Anime is a very rare product here in America. It truly gives an academic/historic perspective to the anime we all hold dear. Seasoned otaku and film students have much to gain from this collection. This disc is hopefully the first of many from Zakka Films. Packaging, extras, content & presentation all gel together in a profound way to deliver a truly edu-taining experience in The Roots of Japanese Anime.
There's no where else to see this great content stateside. Some wonderful films included.
Serviceable transfers make for an enjoyable time. Rescuing lost films is no easy task.
Every effort made to offer a great audio presentation.
Designs do the content justice and look great to boot.
History notes add so much to viewing. Great booklet. Ad gallery a cool bonus.
Absolutely indispensable for the true otaku and a history lesson for the casual or curious fan.