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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Roots of Japanese Anime: Man, Anime Was Weird Before Astro Boy...

Tetsuwan Atom, a.k.a. Astro Boy, is generally considered the first "modern-day" anime. Before it, anime wasn't really made for television and there really wasn't anything done in a similar style before it. It's easy to argue that if Astro Boy wasn't made we might not have gotten titles like Tetsujin 28, Dororo, the original Cyborg 009 anime, and, if you want to push it somewhat, any other anime made for television, regardless of whether it was adapted from a manga or was an original creation. In fact, most of what you could call "anime" before then was mainly made for advertising or propaganda purposes. Zakka Films, who seem to have died out already, gave North America a small piece of that vague era of anime back in 2008 with their only DVD release "The Roots of Japanese Anime Until the End of WII with 8 Ground-Breaking Films". Well, I certainly can't say that the title doesn't tell you what you get from this.

Zakka Films treats this release not as a piece of entertainment, which is how anime is generally treated nowadays, but rather as a piece of researched history. Along with the DVD itself you get an eleven-page booklet that not only talks about each feature with some nice historic detail but also a prologue that explains the origins of Japanese animation. It's really an interesting read and makes an excellent compliment to the DVD. The features themselves are shown in chronological order and are dated from 1930 to 1942. Also, with exception to the last feature, none of them go beyond 15 minutes in length. But the most interesting thing about these features is that some of them are, without a shadow of a doubt, some of the downright weirdest anime you can buy in North America.

The first two features, The Village Festival and Song of Spring, are simple cut-out animations made by Noburo Ofuji (who's kind of the great-grandfather of what we know as anime now) that are nothing more than animation put to songs. They're worth watching for historical purposes but nothing else. The next feature, Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box, is another Ofuji production and is generally considered to be one of, if not the, very first cel-drawn anime. In fact, Chinkoroheibei (I'll just call him Heibei for short) himself is the giant creature you see on the cover art and the main menu and looks very much like a Disney character that we no one ever knew of. The feature itself is also somewhat similar to an old Disney animated short film but with some weird moments, like when Heibei himself guts a fish (in a comical fashion, of course) so that he can wear the skin and that somehow gives him the ability to breathe underwater. Like I said, weird stuff.

The fourth feature, The Monkey Masamune is a neat addition mainly because it's a cut-out animation, but it is done so well that you can swear that it's in fact cel animation. Chameko's Day, the fifth feature, is based on a hit song from 1929 by Hideko Hirai, a child star of the time and Hirai herself even voices Chameko. This is, by far, the strangest feature on the DVD, with all sorts of imagery used that just makes it hard to explain and describe. In fact, this feature kind of freaked me and my friends out when we saw it, so I'll stop here. Danemon Ban - The Monster Exterminator is probably the most like a "traditional" anime out of them all in that it tells a story, has some neat action, and overall is actually fairly enjoyable to watch. Benkei and Ushiwaka, the seventh feature, tells the story of when Ushiwaka, a young Minamoto no Yoshitsune, first meets up with Benkei, the large man who becomes his friend and partner. It returns to the weird style, complete with an odd scene where Ushiwaka somehow shrinks and is able to stand of Benkei's sword while playing a flute. Yeah, I just typed that.

But it's the last feature that's treated as the "main attraction" of the DVD. Coming in at a whopping 37 minutes, Momotaro's Sea Eagle is the infamous, theatrically-shown propaganda film that showed the bombing of Pearl Harbor as if it were lead by Japanese folk legend Momotaro and the ones flying the planes were his animal friends. It's a really interesting feature that shows just how the Japanese were treating the U.S. at the time; for example, the island Pearl Harbor was on is called "Demon Island" and the DVD extras are ads for the feature that show Momotaro's "forces" sinking ships that have Popeye, Bluto, and Betty Boop on board, while at the same time promising to show this feature to President Fraklink D. Roosevelt. It's really awkward to watch as an American, but I have to admit that it is very nicely done.

Oh, and look: Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day!  I honestly did not consider this when I decided to review this DVD a few days ago.  I'm now going to Hell...

Overall this is definitely an interesting DVD that Zakka Films put out. The company hasn't made any sort of noise since this release came out, and I even forgot about it until MangaNEXT this year, when I happened to find a copy of it at the Kinokuniya booth for 75% off... Now that is certainly a deal! In all honesty, though, this DVD is really only going to appeal to people who are actually interested in seeing how anime was before Astro Boy. This goes beyond the market of people who are OK with watching black & white films; this goes into the market of full-on history nuts.

Or if you could find it at 75% off, like me, I'd say go for it. There definitely isn't anything like it out there right now, I can assure you that.

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