restricted access Japanese Cartoon Films
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Japanese Cartoon Films
Translated by Thomas Lamarre (bio)


Renowned as the author of the world’s first book of animation theory, Manga eigaron (A theory of cartoon films), first published in 1941, revised and published again in 1948 and 1965, and recently republished in 2005, Imamura Taihei merits special attention for his combination of practical analysis, philosophical inquiry, and Marxist paradigms, which enabled him to develop highly influential theories both of animation and of documentary film. 1

When Imamura embarked into film theory in earnest in 1934, contributing to the reader’s column of Kinema junpō and founding and contributing to a film magazine Eiga shūdan, a series of mass arrests of communists and others deemed politically suspect (including Marxists) was leading to the collapse of the Japanese Communist Party and to “conversions” (tenkō) of intellectuals and artists from Marxism to nationalism, among them Imamura. It is thus difficult to gauge the impact of Marxism on Imamura. Irie Yoshirō calls attention to the Marxist currents of Imamura’s film theory, “Imamura’s investigations into the essence of cinema began alongside his emerging consciousness of Marxism.” 2 In volume 8 of Mechademia, Ōtsuka Eiji stresses Imamura’s [End Page 107] renunciation of Marxism. It is clear, however, that Marxist dialectic analyses of film, especially that of Sergei Eisenstein, appealed to Imamura, evident in his use of concepts such as contradiction, mediation, and synthesis, and in his emphasis on realism.

At the same time, another aim of Imamura’s cartoon theory was to reform cartoon and film production in Japan. Imamura’s theory thus shows continuity with concerns of prior film criticism for reforming national production, particularly as articulated in the Pure Film Movement that gathered steam from late 1910s through the 1920s in Japan. Yet Imamura’s interest in reforming Japanese cartoons took a turn that seems, at least at first, to be at odds with his interest in Marxist social realism. His reflections turned toward how cinema might enable a practical repurposing of traditional Japanese art forms, and he draws inspiration from the aesthetic philosophy associated with the Kyoto School, especially that of Watsuji Tetsurō. The result is a provocative combination of modernism and realism, traditionalism and Marxism, and cultural nationalism and socialism.

Originally published in 1938, the essay translated here, “Nihon manga eiga no tame ni,” not only anticipates the arguments of his famous 1941 book but also presents them in a condensed form, making clear the connections between arguments that are sometimes held apart in the book.3 This essay also addresses a specific moment in the history of animation: the introduction of new techniques for producing a sense of depth in animation, that is, the multiplanar camera system, which received a great deal of popular and critical attention in the context of Disney’s The Old Mill (1937) and the Fleischers’ Popeye the Sailor and the Forty Thieves (1937). Imamura would continue to evoke recent American cartoons throughout his career, but there is a sense of historical urgency vis-à-vis questions of the materiality and realism of cartoons at this early stage of his thinking.

Such historical circumstances and social concerns allowed Imamura to build a theory of animation that is highly unusual in two respects: it does not construct a divide between animation and documentary, and consequently, it succeeds in offering a theory of animation as a form of realism, a real experience of life. And this is what makes his account of cartoon films so timely and thought provoking today.

I recently went into a theater for short films, and there was but one cartoon. To my surprise, it was a Japanese cartoon, Kaeru no kenpō (1933, Frog sword art).4 Accustomed to seeing cartoons like Mickey Mouse and Popeye the Sailor, I found Japanese cartoons quite wanting. [End Page 108]

Walt Disney’s works invariably feel like they’re pulsing with life. The little animals on the screen seem to be more than just a drawing, and the most familiar objects around us appear utterly transformed.5 Even if the background art often looks mediocre, the joy of life overflowing in the moving animals makes for marvels...