The first anime has been an object of controversy as to what was the first one produced.
Controversy continues to haunt discussions of the first anime in Japan, particularly after Natsuki Matsumoto's discovery in 2005 of a scrap of film; barely three seconds long, drawn straight onto blank film, and possibly never even screened. Depicting a boy drawing the characters for "moving pictures" on a blackboard, the Matsumoto fragment is undeniably a piece of early Japanese animation, but is little help in establishing a date for the beginning of the medium-we still do not know who drew it, or when. It has created further trouble through its discoverer's unwise speculation to a reporter that it could be "up to ten years" older than the anime previously believed to be Japan's oldest. It is not impossible that it might date from as early as 1915, when 21 foreign cartoons are known to have been screened in Japan and may have stimulated home experiments. However, the Japanese press and overeager Western fans immediately seized upon the earlier (and statistically improbable) end of Matsumoto's estimate, assigning dates of "before 1915," "around 1907," and "in the early years of the 20th century," so that within a few days it was being reported as an anime from "shortly after 1900."
While such confusion may seem wholly innocent, some pundits may have political motives. A 1907 date would allow Japan to claim to have developed animation independent of known Western examples, and a pre-1907 date would allow Japan to claim to be the pioneer of the entire animated medium-the first example of which is currently acknowledged as J. Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). Despite the temptation to rename this book A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1907, we have kept to our commencement year from the first edition. We continue to believe, until more compelling evidence is presented, that the earliest animated cartoons in Japan were planned and created in 1916 and screened in 1917.
The first completed Japanese animated film was probably Mukuzo Imokawa the Doorman (Imokawa Mukuzo Genkanban no Maki, 1917), a five-minute short by Oten Shimokawa, a 26-year-old amateur filmmaker who had previously been an editorial assistant for Tokyo Puck magazine. No print of Shimokawa's work survives, but sources including his cameraman claim that he worked using the "chalkboard" method, pointing a camera directly at a blackboard and then erasing and re-drawing one frame at a time in order to create animation. He may also have worked by drawing directly onto film, one frame at a time, in the manner of the Matsumoto fragment. Shimokawa's experiments lasted for six months and five short films before he gave up and returned to newspaper illustration. This, at least, is what is believed by Japanese sources, although none of Shimokawa's anime work survives.
Rivalry and one-upmanship lurk behind the scenes of early anime, as competing studios strove to be the "first"-similar claims and counter-claims have hounded the advent of digital animation almost a century later. Where Shimokawa was supposedly working for Tenkatsu, his fellow Tokyo Puck-illustrator Junichi Kouchi worked for Kobayashi Shokai (formed by former Tenkatsu employees), and both competed with Seitaro Kitayama, a watercolor artist who, it is said, pro-actively approached the Nikkatsu studio himself and offered to create its first cartoons.
Junichi Kouchi's first work was Sword of Hanawa Hekonai (Hanawa Hekonai, Meito no Maki, 1917), with artwork drawn directly onto paper. However, he was soon experimenting with paper cutouts, which were easier to manipulate and allowed, for example, for backgrounds to be reused. The animation cel, a transparent piece of nitro-cellulose that would become the default material for most anime until the 1990s, had been invented in 1915, but had not yet made it to Japan. As with his fellow pioneers, little of Kouchi's work survives, and he gave up on anime in the 1930s.
Seitaro Kitayama preferred fairy tales and legends to Shimokawa's vaudeville humor, producing early versions of The Monkey and the Crab (1917), Momotaro (1917), and Taro the Guardsman (Taro no Banpei, 1918). Kitayama displayed an early aptitude for applied animation, producing anime's first commercials and also anime's first documentary, What to Do with Your Postal Savings (Chokin no Susume, 1917). He also founded Japan's first animation studio, although by 1930 he, too, had left the medium behind and moved into live-action newsreels.
So little of the work of these early animators survives, in part because of the low number of their prints and the relative ease with which a single-reel movie might be mislaid. The main culprit, however, is the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the subsequent fires that destroyed much of Tokyo, including almost all early anime materials.
One of Kitayama's protégés, Sanae Yamamoto, continued in the aftermath and arguably became the founder of modern anime. Crucially, when Kitayama fled to work in Osaka, the younger Yamamoto stayed behind in Tokyo. His works included The Mountain Where Old Women Are Abandoned (Obasuteyama, 1924) and another Tortoise and the Hare (1924)-both still extant, although we have less of an idea of how they were presented. As silent movies, they were expected to be performed not just with live musical accompaniment but with a live narrator, or benshi. The benshi were holdovers from Japan's puppetry tradition and the magic lantern shows of the late 19th century, but their days were numbered with the introduction of movies with sound. Today, their last redoubt is the predominance of frankly unnecessary voice-over narration in Japanese audio dramas. But in the 1920s, their presence was vital and definitive-apparent lacunae, for example, in the onscreen images of Dreamy Urashima, would have been intended for a benshi's commentary, without which the film is "incomplete." Soon after the American movie The Jazz Singer (1927) featured a talkie section, Japanese animators were similarly experimenting with sound. The first was Noburo Ofuji's Whale (Kujira, 1927), a silhouette animation synchronized to the William Tell Overture. He followed this up with the cutout animation Kuro Nyago (1930), using the Tojo company's Eastphone sound system-anime's first genuine "talkie," albeit only 90 seconds long. The first talkie to use an optic track (as with modern films) was Kenzo Masaoka'sThe World of Power and Women (1933), the tale of a henpecked husband accused of having an affair with a younger woman.
The dying days of silent movies also encouraged new animators to enter into filmmaking. Yasuji Murata, whose first job had been cutting Japanese intertitles into silent movies from America to make the "dialogue" comprehensible to local audiences, was inspired by some of the cartoons he saw to make his own. His Animal Olympics (1928) refined the themes of comedic competition, essentially becoming the first in the new sub-genre of sports anime.
Anime of the period were screened not only at cinemas. Those sponsored by commercial concerns often preferred to screen them at shopping areas in order to increase the immediate possibility of sales. Early anime were also screened at schools, particularly if they were of a didactic nature. Murata's Taro's Steamtrain (Taro-san no Kisha, 1929) was an object lesson in consideration for others, as a lone Japanese boy tries to maintain order in a carriage packed with anthropomorphic animals that fight over seating, throw litter, and become increasingly rowdy. Anime's first "sequel" was The Pirate Ship (Kaizoku-bune, 1931), a continuation of the previous year's Monkey Island (Sarugashima), in which a young child cast adrift has adventures on the high seas.
Amid such marvels, however, Japanese Folk Tales continued to exercise a strong influence. Tanuki, Japan's indigenous "raccoon-dogs" appear in several early anime, where their fun-loving nature, their naughtiness, and their constant rivalry with snooty foxes made them an eternal hit with young audiences. In one such example, Murata's Bunbuku Teapot (Bunbuku Chagama, 1927) a kind-hearted man rescues a tanuki from a trap. The grateful animal turns itself into a teapot, which the man then donates to a Buddhist temple, whereupon the tanuki reverts to its previous form to cause chaos.
Similar transformations came with Ikuo Oishi's Moving Picture Fight of the Fox and the Possum (Ugoki-e Kori no Tatehiki, 1931) in which a fox disguised as a samurai is tormented by tanuki disguised as monks, who transform themselves into grotesque demonicphantoms-compare to like antagonisms in Pompoko. Similar creatures would feature in another Japanese first, Kenzo Masaoka's Dance of the Teapots (Chagama Ondo, 1934), in which a group of tanuki break into a Japanese temple to steal the new-fangled gramophone records played by the monks. This was the first anime to be made wholly with animation cels, as opposed to earlier methods that utilized translucent papers.
Color took longer to arrive in anime's early years. Noburo Ofuji pioneered a two-color version of his Golden Flower (Ogon no Hana, 1929), although the version released to the public was in monochrome. The first color anime to be actually released was Megumi Asano's My Baseball (Boku no Yakyu, 1948). Before the advent of recorded sound, it is arguable that anime were merely part of live dramatic entertainment, like Little Nemo-creator Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), whose performance required her creator to interact, benshi-style, in front of the screen. However, such partial performances were increasingly uncommon by the late 1920s, as anime began to exist as single artworks in their own right, integrating sound, story, and image in a unified whole. During the 1930s, the anime medium continued to grow in size and accomplishment, although it also became largely subsumed into the propaganda machine of an imperialist government, with Yasushi Murata's Aerial Momotaro (1931) being the first of the Wartime Anime.