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Animated Film in Japan Until 1919: Western Animation and the Beginnings of Anime (2017) [Book Review]

The year 2017 was many things, but it was a particularly special one for the art of Japanese Animation (i.e. anime). Over a hundred years ago, in the year 1917, saw the release of Japanese animated films, reflecting years of imports of western animated films and knowledge. However, local printed animation, inspired by German models, had been available for home projectors even earlier.

“Animated Film in Japan Until 1919: Western Animation and the Beginnings of Anime” is a 162-page study on the earliest recorded history of Japanese animation. Including information regarding the westerns films imported to Japan at the time along with the lives and influences of three of Japans anime pioneers. The book was written and published by Frederick S. Litten.

Though I didn't know what to expect when I first picked up the book, I was really impressed by how much information regarding the subject I was able to glean from its pages. Litten has been researching the history of anime for over a decade, and his dedication is demonstrated clearly in his writing. From the get-go, he details key terminology that readers will need to be aware of going forward to understand the full scope of the research that was compiled for this topic. Given how much Japanese animation has taken off in the last two decades, it is high time that its history is given serious consideration for study.

(One of the earliest examples of Japanese anime, Katsudô Shashin.Released in 1907)

As its title implies, the core point of the book is to illustrate just how closely linked these imported animated films influenced the development of Japanese animation. It goes a long way to use accurate material and information regarding the formative years of animation in Japan. In particular, I was happy to see an extensive lists of films created in Japan at the time and even the imported “printed animation” from Germany that made its way into the country. And though this is a text-heavy book, Litten makes sure to provide enough images of these early films so that readers have a visual representation of what these early films looked like.

That being said, this is a very technical book. With a long list of references and regarding Litten's numerous sources. Often, I would be spending just as much time reading the footnotes as the content of the book itself. While I am thoroughly impressed with scope of Litten's research into this topic, I would not recommend this book for someone who is looking for a light read. But for anyone interested in animation history this is a wealth of knowledge that is surely a stepping stone to a greater understanding of what makes anime such a unique medium.

Animated Film in Japan Until 1919: Western Animation and the Beginnings of Anime is available for purchase on Amazon.

For more information on the book's author, Frederick Litten, you can find his website here

If you're curious to see more examples of early Japanese animation, follow the link to see the restored 4 minute film "Namakuragatana" or "The Dull Sword". Released in 1917 by Junichi Kouchi.