Japanese Animation, 1937-1958: or, more notes on Akira Daikuhara

All my thanks go to Mr. Satoshi Tatsuzawa for his availability and assistance, and to Mathieu for sharing references and so many insights.

As I noted in an earlier article, Akira Daikuhara is an elusive figure in Japanese animation historiography, always mentioned by historians but whose full importance does not seem fully grasped. One of the factors for this state of affairs is Daikuhara’s extreme discretion: he has almost never given interviews nor written memoirs, and detailed information about his life and work is extremely hard to find. I was therefore very happy to obtain a book compiling interviews made by Makoto Hoshi for the Mandarake ZENBU magazine, containing what I believe is the only interview given by Daikuhara available in its entirety so easily.

I initially wanted to publish a full translation and commentary of it, but decided against it for a variety of reasons. First, the interview contained too many passages eluding my imperfect translation skills for me to publish it confidently. Moreover, it is very long but not very dense, which would have made a translation and lengthy commentary not quite comfortable to read. Finally, over the course of making the research for said commentary, I ended up using a wide variety of sources, enough to turn it into an article proper – as you can see from the length of this piece.

While the initial idea was for this commentary/article to be an addition or long footnote to my previous biographical piece on Daikuhara, I also found another essential source which will play a major role here: it is Seiji Kanô’s chapter on him, which opens his book The People Who Built Japanese Animation. It is based on an interview Kanô made with Daikuhara, but is not a full transcript like the Mandarake one: it is rather an essay containing lengthy quotations of the man himself. Kanô clearly based his commentary on Hoshi’s interview, as he regularly paraphrases (without ever citing or referencing) it; however, both texts sometimes tell different, even contradicting, stories. This article will therefore be an attempt to make a synthesis of both texts, with the addition of all the contextual information that they lack.

As usual, you will find a list of the sources I used in addition to these two interviews in the bibliography at the end. But I do want to note one thing, which is the sources I did not use: these are the memoirs written by Daikuhara’s colleagues and contemporaries, such as Sôji Ushio, Tadahito Mochinaga, Zenjirô Yamamoto or Yasuji Mori. All these would be essential to understand wartime and pre-Tôei animation, but I was not able to obtain and use them; but if I do and they contain important animation, I will no doubt do another additional article such as this one.

The origin and core of this piece is my personal interest in Daikuhara, but it will not be  another biographical piece like my previous one. I will rather explore the area which I wrote the least about last time: Daikuhara’s pre-Tôei work. More generally, this will therefore be an exploration of Japanese animation production from the time of the Sino-Japanese War to Tôei’s first animated feature film, The White Serpent – that is, an exploration of roughly two decades of animation in Japan, from 1937 to 1958.

Animation in the war

Akira Daikuhara was born on November 23, 1917, in Nakano Prefecture, as the youngest child in a numerous but sickly family: many of his brothers and sisters died in childhood and Akira himself would be plagued by sickness (notably tuberculosis) for most of his life. While he liked drawing since his youth, he did not receive any formal training and started working after graduating from middle school, first as a construction painter, then in an ebonite factory. At the age of 19, in 1936, he is said to have moved in with his older sister in Tokyo and got a job as a factory worker.

It is at this first point, Daikuhara’s move to Tokyo and subsequent entry into animation, that we get the first and most important contradiction between Hoshi’s interview and Kanô’s account. Kanô claims that Daikuhara joined Iwao Ashida’s studio, “Hiromasa Suzuki’s Cartoon Film Institute” (Hiromasa Suzuki being Ashida’s other name) in 1936, and was drafted into the army around the same time, but immediately discharged because of his poor health. Marie Pruvost-Delaspre and Jonathan Clements, probably using Kanô as a source, relay this information, with the former adding that Daikuhara participated in the first entry into Ashida’s Hinomaru Tarô series, which did come out in 1936. Rather crudely made, it is a late representative of the Disney and Fleischer boom that characterized Japanese animation throughout the 20s, with round, cartoony characters and a fluid, rubber-hose kind of motion.

However, the Hoshi interview tells a different story. While the exact chronology isn’t clear, Daikuhara states that he spent up to 3 years in the army, away from Japan:

Daikuhara: I was enrolled in the 50th Matsumoto regiment from Nagano, went to Niigata and then Korea. […] I passed through Gyeongju, in June, and then went to Shanghai. It was when the China Incident [ie Second Sino-Japanese War, starting in July 1937] happened, you know. I didn’t want to go fighting, but there weren’t enough soldiers, so I was assigned to the 1st reserve division. But, as I told you, my health was pretty bad. Do you know about the canals and rivers there are in Shanghai? I liked swimming there, and I got sick.

Did you drink any bad water?

Daikuhara: I didn’t, but I got a fever. I had tuberculosis as well, so I was hospitalized in Shanghai. I had already spent six months or a year in China, and then I was sent from one hospital to the other for much longer, around two years. And then I was sent back.

To the mainland in Japan, right?

Daikuhara: Yes, I was sent back to the mainland, and I was discharged from the army. There was another mobilization, but they saw I hadn’t gotten my health back, so they told me to get cured and discharged me again. I had to cut my hair and let it grow back multiple times… And that’s when I moved to my sister’s place [in Tokyo], I think.

And then you were introduced to Hiromasa Suzuki, also known as Iwao Ashida, and started working there?

Daikuhara: Not really. I wasn’t working at my sister’s place, but I liked drawing so I wondered if there might not be a job in that field. And in the paper, I read about the Hiromasa Suzuki Cartoon Film Institute.”

While it’s possible that Daikuhara misremembered the order of events about his arrival in Tokyo, it appears rather clearly that he only joined Ashida/Suzuki’s studio during the war, and not just before it. If he was drafted in June 1937 and spent around 3 years away from Japan, he would therefore only have started working in animation in 1940. This is in fact confirmed by Satoshi Tatsuzawa’s research on Iwao Ashida and his “Cartoon Film Institute”, which dates Daikuhara’s arrival in 1940. However, he did not stay there for long: Ashida himself was drafted at some point, leading the members of his group to disband – in 1942 or 1943, still according to Tatsuzawa. But Daikuhara’s career thankfully did not stop there: he was invited by Zenjirô Yamamoto (aka Sanae Yamamoto) to work with him, and accepted the offer.

At this stage, it may be necessary to step away from Daikuhara’s individual case to provide a general overview of the wartime Japanese animation industry. Before 1937, it was scattered in small studios over both the Kantô and Kansai regions, and with cel animation still being a recent introduction (according to Jonathan Clements, the first cel-animated work made in Japan was either one of the following two movies, both directed by Kenzô Masaoka: Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka in 1933 or Chagama Ondo in 1935; but by 1936, it is possible that half the production was on cels already). Films, which were all shorts, were made following what I’d call a “commissioning system” not unlike that of American animation in the 1920’s: film studios or other companies would commission shorts from animation studios. This was a consequence of the structure of both the Japanese and American film industries, in which most distribution channels – very concretely, theaters – were owned by major film companies such as Tôhô or Shôchiku. This would play a major role in the postwar situation as well; but what is important to remember at this point is that, already before the war, the animation industry was sustained and funded by the State’s demand for educational and increasingly propagandistic films.

The need to produce propaganda works and increase control over production and distribution was embodied in the 1939 Film Law which put the entire Japanese film industry under the direct supervision of the State. As a result, the wartime era witnessed a double movement of centralization and industrialization. Centralization meant that animation production would primarily take place in Tokyo: the prime example of this was Kenzô Masaoka’s relocation from his Kyôto base to the capital. Industrialization meant the generalization of two major technological innovations, cel animation and the multiplane camera.

The direct and most famous product of these two evolutions was Japan’s first animated feature film, Momotarô’s Divine Sea Warriors, directed by Mitsuyo Seo and co-produced by the Shôchiku Animation Research Institue and the State studio Japan Film. However, while Momotarô is famous and admirable on a technical and artistic level, research has shown that this late (1945) work is hardly representative of the entire industry. In particular, Tomoya Kimura states that “given its brief period of activity, its scale, and the fact that it only released 4 shorts and one feature, it would be difficult to claim that Shôchiku was the leading animation production center during the war”. In fact, Kimura convincingly demonstrates that the 1939 Film Law had very little effect on the animation industry, which remained largely made up of small companies (less than 10 employees) doing commission work for the Army or Navy instead of being directly integrated into it. To quote Kimura’s summary,

There were many companies doing commission films for the military, from long-established cultural film [educational/propaganda film] companies such as the Airforce Educational Materials Studio, affiliated to major film company Tôhô, and the Yokohama Cinema Company, to small, microscopic companies with only a few members. However, at the same time, there was another movement originally not directly sponsored by the military but coming from private enterprises, which sought to produce feature-length animation and was redirected by the demands of the military.”

In the smaller studios, the standardization associated with cel animation was still far from achieved: in his interview with Hoshi, Daikuhara explains that he still worked with a primitive rostrum camera, had to handle all tasks from backgrounds and animation to photography, and that characters and backgrounds were still drawn on the same sheets. This was probably the situation in Iwao Ashida’s studio, which only counted a few members. Things were perhaps different in Zenjirô Yamamoto’s bigger Educational Materials Institute.

The latter was not completely independent: as far as I can tell, Yamamoto was working with the Shigehara Institute, a film processing company created by former Shôchiku film technician Hideo Shigehara, which merged both an animation and a live-action special effects department. This mixture of 2D animation and special effects was common in army-commissioned “educational films”: future tokusatsu legend Eiji Tsuburaya was one of the key members of Tôhô’s own educational films division, more famous under the name of “Special Film Unit”. This merging meant that the number of people involved was quite high: while Kimura does not provide definite figures, adding up the numbers he gives for individual studios provides a general overview of around 2,000 staff members spread across various companies.

More precisely, what were these “educational films”, produced almost constantly from 1939 to 1945? It is in fact hard to tell, as most have been lost or destroyed (such as those made by the Special Film Unit). But, given their titles, such as The Principles of Naval Bombardment, it is easy to imagine their contents: they were learning materials for soldiers, made to teach them how to use weapons or vehicles or basic principles of strategy. These would sometimes be made directly on-site, as Daikuhara mentions in the Hoshi interview that he worked in an air base located in Yokosuka. In his description of his work, Daikuhara uses an interesting term: senga (線画), literally meaning “line drawing”. It was one of the first terms used to refer to animation in Japan, but in this context, it gives an idea of the schematic nature of the drawings Daikuhara was required to produce – perhaps sometimes literal diagrams.

There is no doubt that the quality of these films was rather low, much lower than the similar films commissioned by the US Army on the other side of the Pacific – Daikuhara himself calls the shorts he worked on “primitive”. This is important to keep in mind, as it highlights another way in which Momotarô’s Divine Sea Warriors was not representative of Japanese animation production. The feature truly deserves the title of aesthetic masterpiece, with incredibly realistic animation and a direction that is decades ahead of what would later be made in Japan. But Momotarô was ultimately an exception – though the standard it set would soon be challenged by the best of post-war productions.

(Re)building the animation industry

Japan’s defeat and subsequent occupation by the US had dramatic consequences on the animation industry. Fundamentally, the structures for industrialization and standardization were in place, and this movement would only accelerate with the centralization of most animation creation in a single studio, called New Japanese Animation (Shin Nihon Dôga Kaisha). However, with the collapse of the military regime, the channels for distribution and financing, which had kept animation alive even during the worse days of the war, suddenly disappeared. The main issue in the decade from 1945 to 1956 would therefore not be artistic, but existential: if animation wanted to go on, it would have to find a way to its audience in order to become financially sustainable.

With Japan’s surrender in August 1945, most animation production directly tied to the military disbanded. The most spectacular case was the Special Film Unit, which immediately burned all of its productions. While the Shigehara Institute also disbanded, Zenjirô Yamamoto managed to keep his Institute for Educational Materials alive: he went directly to the Information Bureau of the occupation forces and convinced its members of animation’s potential for the “democratization” of Japan. In December 1945, New Japanese Animation was created, reusing the Institute for Educational Materials’ facilities (including, most probably, a multiplane camera or equivalent) and reemploying some of its staff – among which Akira Daikuhara.

This new studio soon became the core of the Japanese animation world. By early 1946, its 7 executives were the most important names in the pre-war and wartime industry: Zenjirô Yamamoto, Yasuji Murata, Kenzô Masaoka, Kyôji Nishikura, Haruo Honda, Tsutarô Fujimoto and Kakuyama Kimura. It had around 30 members in its first months, but would attain a bit less than 100 by the first couple of years. Approved by the GHQ and sponsored by film company Tôhô, New Japanese Animation was meant to ensure the persistence and revival of animation in Japan, a goal that took shape in Kenzô Masaoka and Japan’s first postwar animated work: Sakura.

While Sakura was never distributed in theaters (prefiguring the distribution problems that would plague animation for the next decade), it deserves its place as the flagship of postwar Japanese production. Artistically, it remained in the continuity of Masaoka’s previous works, but also of Momotarô, showcasing the ambiguity of propaganda production regardless of the client. Its beautiful natural imagery, Nihon-ga and ukiyo-e inspirations and Japanese stereotypes such as the Fuji and geisha are all about the rebirth of nature and Japan as a nation, but are fundamentally not different from the pastoral atmosphere one can find in the first section of Momotarô or Masaoka’s 1943 masterpiece, The Cloud and the Tulip. While not using anthropomorphized animals, its animation philosophy was not that different either: a realistic approach to movement and volume that did not rely on the principles formulated by the Disney artists – which makes sense, as basically no Disney features had penetrated into Japan yet by that time (Snow White was shown in theaters for the first time in 1950). Most basically and perhaps importantly, Sakura was also made on cels, and seemingly shot with a multiplane, as would be the case of all of Masaoka and his group’s films: the industrialization process started during the war had come to fruition.

Whether or not Momotarô itself had any direct influence, a specifically Japanese approach to animation was developing. It was clearly formulated in New Japanese Animation’s next work, the Tora-chan films. Tora-chan is a series of shorts supervised by Kenzô Masaoka, distributed and financed by Tôhô and produced by New Japanese Animation and its rival/follower, Japanese Animation (Nihon Dôga, or Nichidô for short). They all follow the daily life and adventures of an anthropomorphized cat family, and especially the young Tora-chan, a stray cat adopted into it in the course of the first film, Suteneko Tora-chan.

The principles underlying Suteneko’s animation are visible in the sequence shown above, a song which represents one of the emotional high points of the short, as Tora-chan tries to fight off his loneliness as a stray unable to properly integrate in his adoptive family. The movement is extremely slow, sometimes painstaking; it focuses on the rendition of volume, something supported by in-depth angles and strong perspectives – in-depth movement being one of the most remarkable aspects of the short. While there are some more cartoony, exaggerated moments, realistic performance is undoubtedly the core element, which constantly attempts to portray the inner feelings of characters through the acting alone. In that sense, Suteneko’s animation philosophy is already very much that of one of Tôei’s most important artists, Yasuji Mori. But we also find stylistic continuities with previous works, notably Momotarô, not only in the cinematography, but also animation and the way it very frequently focuses on lighting and shadows.

Shadows and lighting in Suteneko Tora-chan

Suteneko was also a turning point in Daikuhara’s career. As mentioned above, he had done a little bit of everything during the war, but his specialization in background art seemed confirmed by his work as a background artist on Sakura. Suteneko was the beginning of his career as an animator proper, as he did his first in-betweens (or animation in general? the use of the word dôga in his Kanô interview is ambiguous) on the short – according to Kanô, on the scene at the end when Tora-chan and his newly-made friend Mi-chan walk together singing, a walk cycle lasting roughly 15 seconds.

Besides the somewhat anecdotal identification provided here, Daikuhara’s account of the work on this sequence provides an important insight into Suteneko’s production. Indeed, he recalls that he brought his completed drawings to Masaoka, who got angry when he saw them and heavily criticized Daikuhara’s inadequate drawing ability. While the credits provide no help (the studio as a whole is credited with “animation” – sakuga, itself a new and important terminology), Masaoka himself probably did no animation on the short but only directed it: therefore, Daikuhara’s anecdote illustrates that a process of animation check was already in place.

Regardless of its artistic success, Suteneko was a difficult production that stretched out for an entire year and suffered from severe budget issues: Tôhô refused to put out more funds for it as it lagged on. This was perhaps the beginning of the breakdown between Tôhô and the animation studio which had been renamed Japan Cartoon Films (Nihon Manga Eiga-sha, or Nichiman). In April 1947, a new director, Tokutarô Iijima, took Yamamoto’s place with an incredibly ambitious program: Nichiman would take its independence from Tôhô, produce 10 shorts a year with an end goal of producing a color feature film in the next few years. Besides the “feature” catchphrase, Iijima’s objective was clear: to create an independent animation company, with its own funding and distribution channels – in other words, to make animation a sustainable business that would no longer depend on the film industry.

However, things weren’t so easy. After internal disputes, Yamamoto resigned in May 1947, followed by Kenzô Masaoka and Tsutarô Fujimoto and, in the next months, around 20 of Nichiman’s staff. They created their own studio, Nichidô, which would remain under Tôhô’s tutelage and keep producing shorts – they would be the ones handling the following entries in the Tora-chan series.

The second Tora-chan short, Tora-chan to Hanayome, is then quite interesting in how it deviates from the aesthetic established in Suteneko while maintaining some of its most singular aspects. The plot this time is less dramatic – Tora-chan and Mii-chan try to delay the arrival of their grandfather, opposed to their sister’s wedding – and the animation therefore far more cartoony. Perhaps because of this, the acting in general is far less convincing: there is simply not as much emotional depth to the characters.

Cartoony characters and deformations in Tora-chan to Hanayome

What is remarkable in Hanayome, however, is Masaoka’s sense for direction and layouts. The short abounds in multi-layered shots as characters move around the depth of the screen and the camera pans inside and outside of rooms, doors and windows. The most impressive technique is background animation. It had already been used in Momotarô and Suteneko, illustrating how central it was to the construction of space in Japanese productions. But here, it is not just there as a means of establishing space or as a technical tour-de-force. For instance, in the sequence below, as Tora-chan falls from the roof, it becomes a way for the viewer to share his perspective – in other words, it is a tool for subjective cinematography, something it would remain in the works of later, post-Tôei and post-Mushi animators.

As Nichidô’s first production, Hanayome is also worth discussing for its staff: it is notably Taiji Yabushita and Yasuji Mori’s very first work. Given the aforementioned affinity and continuity between Mori and Masaoka’s styles, this is of course important; but there is also some issue with the credits that deserves some commentary. Mori is credited on the film under dôga. There is no other animation credit such as genga or sakuga: it makes it difficult to ascertain what exactly Mori did, but seems to indicate that at this stage, there was no clear distinction between key animation and in-betweens. Moreover, according to Kanô, Mori also did tracing and cel painting on the film, but he is not credited: in fact, only one person, one Jirô Tôri, is credited. It is hard to believe that only one person would have been in charge of the entire short. Here, we may remember Jonathan Clements’ remark that women have been almost systematically erased from staff lists and memoirs of the period – and that the majority of cel painters would have been women. In other words, regardless of Mori’s actual contribution, the invisibilization of their work was already well underway.

Daikuhara himself, alongside other future Tôei members like Hideo Furusawa, remained in Nichiman. The studio struggled to remain afloat, as it had very little direct access to distribution channels (almost entirely in the hands of major film companies like Tôhô, which now employed Nichidô), but its ambitions never diminished. In early 1948, Momotarô’s director, Mitsuyo Seo, was brought back to animation to direct Nichiman’s first “feature” – it would be around 45 minutes long, but cut down to 33 – The King’s Tail. Like all of Nichiman’s productions, it suffered from many budget and planning issues, and its production took almost two years. It was completed in the end, but remained fated to be a phantom film: it was never distributed – too left-leaning for some (likened by the few who have seen it to Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird, it seems to contain somewhat unflattering references to the imperial persona and regime), or simply a victim of the increasing concurrence between distributors who didn’t see the appeal of animation. Despite a fire in Nichiman’s basement in 1950 which destroyed many films, however, it wasn’t lost and has been screened at least once in 2017 – and was also apparently seen, in mysterious circumstances, by Osamu Tezuka, who had already been struck by the artistic qualities of Seo’s Momotarô.

The only image I could find from The King’s Tail, from the program of a 2017 film festival

The King’s Tail’s failure was the last blow for Nichiman. It suffered not only from severe financing issues, but was also plagued by internal strife and constant union conflict – to which Daikuhara’s future wife, colorist Michiyo Inoue, participated. By 1949, the studio was unable to pay its staff their salary, leading to the departure of 39 employees, among which Daikuhara himself. Nichiman remained in activity for a few more years, but it was effectively dead – to the point that we don’t even know exactly when it closed down.

Daikuhara’s departure from Nichiman answers a question that I had left open in my previous piece about him. Jonathan Clements and Marie Pruvost-Delaspre claim that Daikuhara left animation for some years, but dated this departure from 1946-1947 and attributed it to Daikuhara’s fear of occupation forces after having been involved in military-commissioned works during the war. I have always found this explanation strange and unconvincing: why would Daikuhara “hide” so late after the end of the war, and after having participated in Sakura? It turns out the dates were wrong and the explanation far more simple: with Nichiman on the brink of collapse, Daikuhara turned to the more profitable illustration business, in which he remained for 2 years.

A 1953 illustration by Akira Daikuhara, taken from the November issue of the magazine Tantei-O

But fate was against the animator-turned-illustrator. In 1950, the publisher he was working for went bankrupt, leaving him again without any source of income – just as his chronic tuberculosis was getting worse. According to the Kanô interview, rumors circulated that Daikuhara was dying or about to – which is when Zenjirô Yamamoto offered him work in Nichidô. Probably desperate, Daikuhara accepted, but had to work from his sickbed. Things were difficult, as Masaoka retired from Nichidô the same year, disorganizing work in the studio as a whole and probably causing it to stop activities for a few years. Judging from credits lists, Daikuhara initially remained on background art. But, in 1953, he was suddenly promoted to animation on the short Tora-chan no Bôken, with a highly unusual credit – sakuga kantoku, that would today be translated as animation direction. According to Kanô, the only one to note that credit (the credits list accompanying Hoshi’s interview only gives sakuga, perhaps presuming that the credits means animation and direction as separate tasks – which could make sense as other Nichidô shorts credit a “sakuga enshutsu”), this is its first appearance in the history of Japanese animation, but does not indicate that Daikuhara’s work was that of a post-Tôei animation director. Instead, it would mean that the short was entirely key-animated by Daikuhara. Sadly, I have not been able to obtain it, and to either confirm whether the credit is here, or what Daikuhara’s animation was like at this point.

Regardless, by the mid-50s, Daikuhara had become an animator for good. In 1955, he first collaborated with his future friend and colleague Yasuji Mori on the short Ukare Violin – a movie commissioned by Tôei, which is said to have convinced Tôei CEO Hiroshi Okawa to acquire Nichidô, which he would do in August 1956. Although it did not try to extract itself from the commissioning system, Nichidô was just like its predecessor and rival Nichiman: constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and in search of funding. It is when Nichidô was about to finally collapse that Okawa came in and “saved” it by integrating it into Tôei.

Before moving on to the Tôei period, however, I would like to discuss one more film – Nichidô’s last production before it became Tôei Dôga, released a mere month before the deal was concluded: Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori, or The Black Woodcutter and the White Woodcutter. Seemingly completely forgotten, it is in my mind Nichidô’s ultimate artistic manifesto and at the same time prefigures Tôei’s productions in many aspects: it is therefore very much worth an in-depth study.

The short was commissioned by Tôei, and as it was made during the negotiations between Okawa and Yamamoto, there was certainly a degree of assistance/interference from the film studio. This is visible in the ambition of the film, in color, with rather complex photography effects. But it was still made in Nichidô’s facilities, and is therefore its work. For that reason, it is very interesting to study its credits and see how many innovations seem to predate Tôei’s “rationalization” and “industrialization” of the animation pipeline. The animation work is clearly divided in two levels, genga and dôga, as it would remain for most of subsequent Japanese animation history. Unlike previous films, the same people are credited for cel painting and tracing, seemingly showing that both functions had been grouped together and a separate “ink and paint” department had been created. 

The short’s plot is basic and moralistic: during the winter, three animals – a bear, a fox and a squirrel – seek refuge in the house of the black woodcutter. He welcomes them, only to kill and skin them. But they are revived, and are welcomed by the kinder white woodcutter. Later, when a snow ghost arrives in each woodcutter’s house, the black one dies from the cold, whereas the white one and animals are saved thanks to their collaboration in maintaining the fire and keeping each other warm.

Probably a paradoxical result of the greater technical proficiency of the staff, the character animation feels far more rigid and impersonal than in the previous Tora-chan films: it’s as if the Japanese approach to realism had already solidified itself into a strict and unappealing attempt to match theatrical and cinematographic performance. But even in this fault, Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori is ahead of its time: this kind of criticism is the one that Tôei’s own artists would (legitimately) leverage against Anju and Zushiomaru, produced 5 years later. In other words, even this latter film’s aesthetic, often blamed on the insistence of Tôei’s higher-ups, may find a precedent in the Nichidô era.

Where Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori positively stands out, then, is not so much in the animation; it is rather in the photography department, led by Mitsuaki Ishikawa. While the storyboarding is rather basic, the use of the multiplane is rather elaborate, with a frequent use of pull-cels, depth-of-field and other techniques that one wouldn’t find in the Tora-chan series. The snow effects are also admirable, as snow falls down during the entire length of the short, sometimes creating translucid dust probably requiring complex filter work and making the depth-of-field effects far more complex. All these are techniques that one would tend to associate with The White Serpent and the elaborate photography of Tôei’s later works – but it is clear that the technical expertise was already there. 

The animation industry, before and after Tôei

With all that precedes in mind, I would like to take a step back from factual narrative and film analysis and answer what I feel is a fundamental question for the understanding of Japanese animation history: did Tôei’s acquisition of Nichidô represent a historical break? Were Tôei Dôga and its organization something fundamentally new, and what were their legacy on the directions Japanese animation would take?

As I have tried to show throughout the entire course of this article so far, Japanese animation until 1956 evolved alongside two, not always related, axes: on the side of production, pipeline industrialization and technical proficiency; and on the side of distribution, channels to find a suitable audience and make animation sustainable on a financial level. As Marie Pruvost-Delaspre notes, the wartime era was paradoxically the only unquestionable “golden age” in Japanese animation history precisely because it was the first time when animation could benefit from optimal conditions on both fronts. The fundamental structures of the industry (scattered, mostly artisanal work and a commission system) didn’t change during the war, but the conjectural parameters were incredibly favorable for its development. The postwar era, then, was so difficult precisely because the production side kept developing, making spectacular leaps, while the distribution side remained a major issue. In other words, the situation was locked, and made it impossible for the animation industry to develop in any significant way.

The creation of Tôei Dôga was therefore undoubtedly a major change, in that it broke the barriers for animation production and distribution. Indeed, Tôei was one of the “majors” – a film company that owned both production and distribution facilities. By acquiring Nichidô – and not just using it as a subcontractor – Hiroshi Okawa realized Tokutarô Iijima’s ambition of making animation sustainable. But this didn’t happen in the way Iijima hoped, which would have been to make Nichiman a fully independent and self-sufficient studio, related to but separate from the film industry – just like Disney was (though I don’t know if Disney every acted as an inspiration for Iijima). In fact, Okawa’s strategy was the complete opposite of Disney’s: it consisted of completely integrating animation in the film industry. However, it is impossible to stop here, as Tôei did not create a media empire and monopoly on animated feature production the way Disney did. Admittedly, Disney never represented the entirety of US animation production, but it had a status that Tôei never had, or only very briefly. 

Moreover, it is necessary to bring some nuances to my statement that Okawa’s goal was animation’s complete integration within the Japanese film industry: on one hand, for him, animated films were mainly made to be exported overseas, not represent an asset on the domestic film market; on the other, Tôei did not immediately break with the commission model, as the early propaganda short it made for the US embassy in Thailand, The New Adventures of Hanuman, clearly shows. In short, while it is true that Tôei Dôga represented a change, it was never a break – only a parenthesis. There are multiple reasons for this.

First, it is important to note that the commission system never truly disappeared: not only did Tôei temporarily keep following it, it kept existing as such outside of it, being in fact the lifeline for what we would now call “indie” animation, often relying on public or private funding for individual works. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that even if Nichiman, Nichidô and later Tôei were central in terms of appeal and scale, they were never the entire Japanese animation industry: Iwao Ashida resumed his activities after the war, for instance, while new studios like Ryûichi Yokoyama’s Otogi Pro kept appearing.

But even if we remain in the field of commercial, industrial animation, the commission system found two equivalents: on the side of production, a structure based on outsourcing, and on the side of distribution, one based on sponsorship. Both these evolutions can be related to Osamu Tezuka and the development of TV animation, although they are not necessarily its direct product.

The outsourcing structure has been one of the most important features of the Japanese animation industry for most of its post-Tôei history. Rather than being made up of a few major studios as in the US, the industry is actually broken down in a constellation of extremely small companies all outsourcing work from each other. While this remains to be more thoroughly established, I believe that one of the origins of that specific organization is manga artists’ networks and apprenticeship-based groupings. The most significant example for that is Studio Zero, created by a group of Tezuka-related mangaka like Shôtarô Ishinomori in 1963, whose first work was the very first outsourced episode in anime history, Astro Boy #43. However, another, parallel phenomenon happened within Tôei: it was the creation of the studio Children’s Corner in 1964 by none other than Zenjirô Yamamoto, alongside many of his students from Tôei Dôga’s Omori branch. The fact that Yamamoto was behind it is of course significant: this would need to be confirmed by his memoirs, but it is possible that he conceived of Children’s Corner as a sort of new Nichidô breaking away from the new Nichiman – that is, a smaller, more independent and less profit-driven organization based on outside commissions. In other words, the drive to create outsourcing studios may also have been a result of the pre-Tôei structure of the industry, itself already broken down in a variety of extremely small companies or informal groups.

Then, we have the sponsorship model. Tôei’s vertical, feature-based model was pretty straightforward: the studio produced films and showed them in the theaters it owned. But, of course, such proceedings could not happen with TV: new actors appeared that took the role that film distributors once enjoyed – TV stations. Unlike the pre-Tôei system, stations would not – or rarely – directly commission series from animation studios. Rather, studios had to come to the stations and prove that what they offered was profitable. This is where two other actors came in: merchandise sponsors, that would commission series from studios as advertisement for their products, and advertising agencies, which would negotiate deals with TV stations. This model was more complex than the previous one, but from the perspective of animation studios, it was fundamentally not that different: they had to answer to their clients’ demands, had little to no direct control over distribution channels, and therefore entirely depended on outside financing.

All of this, of course, is generalization. The management strategies and the involved parties in each model were quite different. However, there are two points that I wish to stress: 1) that is to relativize Tôei’s role and impact in the history of Japanese animation, and 2) to show that the specific structure of the “modern” Japanese animation industry did not come out of nowhere but can find, if not direct origins, at least equivalents or analogies in earlier periods. With this said, I close this lengthy historiographic/theoretical parenthesis.

Revisiting The White Serpent

With all the new industrial and artistic context provided on the pre-Tôei era, I would now like to take the occasion to take another, closer look at Tôei’s first feature, The White Serpent. I especially want to situate it in the longer history of Japanese animation, and compare it with Nichidô’s production as well as Tôei’s first training short, Koneko no Rakugaki. This seems important to me for various reasons, the most notable one being that The White Serpent does not compare favorably to these other works.

In its writing, The White Serpent is very much in the continuity of something like Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori: a folktale adaptation with a basic, linear plot featuring animal mascots besides the human characters and a moralistic message. Its integration of musical numbers is also very similar to Nichidô’s previous productions, such as the Tora-chan shorts, and generally most pre-Tôei animation. There is therefore a strong sense of continuity, which is however broken by Koneko no Rakugaki. As has been often pointed out, this short falls into a classic category of animated films, in which drawings acquire a life of their own in a straightforward mise en abîme of animation itself. If Koneko no Rakugaki is therefore not exceptional in the context of animation as a whole, it is in that of postwar Japanese production: it is not an educational or moralistic film, not a musical, and the diversity of its animation styles – between the highly realistic, Mori-dominated sensibility of the “real” world and the sketchy, cartoony approach of the “drawings” world – is unique in regards to both Nichidô and Tôei’s works. As a result, Koneko no Rakugaki feels more spontaneous and, bluntly said, is just more fun.

Moving on to animation, The White Serpent is a very inconsistent film, and quite clearly the product of a yet immature studio/team – which I would say is actually the case for all of Tôei’s first films, 1960’s Saiyûki being the first to showcase a real and consistent mastery of all the aspects of animation. Koneko no Rakugaki has none of these issues, illustrating that the problem of The White Serpent was perhaps not with the artists themselves, but with the scale of the project and their inability to follow up with it.

Of course, every one of Tôei’s early movies, and The White Serpent in particular, contains some spectacular scenes, on which I will focus. But if they are so spectacular, it is partly because they stand out from a generally dull film. What do I mean by this? Not that it is poorly made: it is in fact far more polished than any of Nichidô’s works, with none of the coloring or in-betweening mistakes that those would have. Moreover, moments such as the long festival scene display a level of ambition and complexity that would have been unimaginable in the Nichidô era.

Some of the many profile shots from The White Serpent

However, most of the time, the animation is simply unambitious, uncreative and boring. This is not the same thing as Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori’s stiffness, as even in this, the short managed to have interesting staging. The White Serpent mostly uses profile shots – the simplest to draw – during most scenes, and movement is often minimal. This is no doubt partly a result of the film’s difficult production and the fact that most of its animation was single-handedly shouldered by Daikuhara; but it is a striking departure from the realism of Nichidô’s productions.

This step away from realism is actually what makes The White Serpent so important. While I would like to emphasize Daikuhara’s work here – both because it is supposed to be the focus of this piece and because it is underdiscussed – this also applies to Mori. Looking at Mori’s work on Koneko no Rakugaki, we see both his absolute technical mastery and the direct continuity between his animation and that of the Tora-chan shorts: the acting is slow, delicate, with an emphasis on volume and shadows. There is none of that in The White Serpent: Mori’s most famous contribution to the film, the fight between Panda and the bandit animals, rather stands out for its liveliness, deformations and irregular spacing.

For this reason, it is clear to me that the lead creative on The White Serpent was not Mori, but Daikuhara, as these are all techniques associated with his style, that he pioneered on the film through what he called “cartoony exaggeration”. At its best, Daikuhara’s animation stands out for its personality: in the sequence below, for instance, every single character moves and acts completely differently. This may seem minor or obvious, but with moments like this, Daikuhara had actually made a major step away from Nichidô’s theatrical realism: he revealed that it was ultimately one-dimensional, always stuck to the same register. Daikuhara’s more spontaneous approach seemed to bring back the performance in character acting, as he would try to cram as much variation and personality in each movement.

Even if we ignore The White Serpent‘s symbolic status as Japan’s first color feature film, what I just noted about Daikuhara’s animation is why I consider him, rather than Mori, the father of “anime” and the aesthetic associated with it. Mori’s work is on an incredibly high level, and stands at the pinnacle of animation as art; but, precisely for that reason, it seems to float in a reign of its own, without any direct successors or followers. On the other hand, Daikuhara’s animation often feels dated and old-fashioned – but that is the paradoxical proof of its importance and the fact that Daikuhara’s followers (direct or indirect) built upon his style to create yet new different forms and movements.

Another way in which The White Serpent seems to break off from the Nichidô films is, more basically, its ambition. By this, I don’t mean the feature format, though that naturally plays a role. Rather, I mean the variety of techniques and “special effects” employed. As I mentioned in my discussion of Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori, Taiji Yabushita and Mitsuaki Ishikawa’s approach to photography was already very much established before The White Serpent. But the latter undeniably goes a step forward with the lighting work, using reflections, diffractions and backlighting in multiple occasions; as would be the case in Tôei’s subsequent movies, one of the highlights of The White Serpent is its dream and fantastic scenes, in which the photography team could give a full display of its talent.

This, in my mind, is the clearest sign of the “industrialization” of the pipeline at work in Tôei. Indeed, other organizational changes, such as the so-called “seconding system”, which introduced second key animation/clean-up between the genga and dôga stages, had their importance but are not directly visible in the films themselves – unlike later innovations such as the animation director. The step-up in the photography department, however, is immediately noticeable. And it does not just follow from the staff’s ability: it was made possible by an improvement in budgets, facilities and planning – things that only Tôei could provide.

As a conclusion, I would like to discuss The White Serpent on the same terms that I did Tôei as a whole, but this time aesthetically: what was its place and importance in the context of wider Japanese animation stylistic history, from the years that precede it to those that follow?

As I explained above, the stylistic difference between Akira Daikuhara and Yasuji Mori was already well entrenched by the time of The White Serpent. Mori, who was in the continuation of early Nichidô and its delicate, volumetric, emotional realism, developed his aesthetic in Tôei’s training shorts, the first of which was Koneko no Rakugaki. Daikuhara, on the other hand, made a clean break with both the early and late Nichidô styles in favor of a more expressive, cartoony style that discarded both traditional “full” animation with idiosyncratic timing and spacing, and realism with an intense use of rubber-hose squash-and-stretch or smears. It dominated Tôei’s first two features, The White Serpent and Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke, seemingly leading Tôei in completely new directions. However, Daikuhara’s early dominance and impact over Japanese animation aesthetics was short-lived: while it was entertaining, it lacked wide appeal and impact, especially when compared to the bold experiments of Daikuhara’s brightest student Yasuo Otsuka. It was then brought to a sudden end on Tôei’s fourth feature, Anju and Zushiomaru.

This latter film was meant to be an animated jidai-geki, or period drama, on which Tôei’s executives pressured the animation staff to create something that would be as close as possible as live-action. As such, it is conceived by some as a vital moment in the history of animated realism in Japan – not least of which because a young Isao Takahata was its assistant director. However, Anju and Zushiomaru was by all means a failure: the animators who worked on it all protested against the pressure put on them. And indeed, as I argued above, Anju and Zushiomaru was but an uncreative return to a form of stiff, unemotional photorealism.

By 1961, it might have seemed like animation in Tôei had reached an artistic dead end. But that was without counting Tôei’s third film, made between Sasuke and Anju: Saiyûki. There, Tôei’s animators worked with someone from an entirely different world, Osamu Tezuka, and enjoyed unprecedented freedom: Saiyûki showed what the future would be made of, with bold direction and experiments in framerate modulation and effects animation – all encouraged by Daikuhara himself. Modern Japanese animation as such was a product of Saiyûki, and truly emerged in 1963, with the Mori-led The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon and the Daikuhara-led Wan Wan Chûshingura.

Very different in surface, both movies in fact share many common aspects: visual modernism, achieved through simple, minimalistic designs that rejected the realism or traditionalism of previous features; further experimentations with framerate modulation, the first steps towards “limited” animation and a rejection of Disney’s style and techniques; and, finally, the introduction and acknowledgement of the role of animation director, who became central in Tôei and took responsibility for most of a film’s aesthetic, even beyond animation.

If both The Little Prince and Wan Wan are so central, it is not just because they both opened radically new ways of artistic expression within Tôei. They were both contemporary with the birth of TV animation and, through what can only be called a miraculous coincidence, all that they introduced would turn out to be a perfect fit for the technical and artistic constraints of TV productions. Put more directly, then, “anime” as we know it was born in 1963 – surely in Mushi Production, but also very much in Tôei Dôga.

Annex: an overview of Akira Daikuhara’s career, 1937-1958

Note: The credits are taken from the shorts themselves when I could obtain them, Kanô and Hoshi’s credits lists, or individual reports in the case of rare works like The King’s Tail (which isn’t listed by either Kanô or Hoshi). Studio locations are taken from both interviews, alongside Satoshi Tatsuzawa’s kind help. I have kept titles and animation terminology in Japanese. But, on that topic, I must make an important note: both Kanô and Hoshi miscredit Daikuhara on multiple instances, for example crediting him on “genga” on Kuroi Kirori to Shiroi Kirori (whereas the credits themselves say “dôga”) or Koneko no Rakugaki (all the animators are credited as “sakuga”). I can only imagine that they assumed or were told by Daikuhara himself that his work was equivalent to that of a modern genga artist, that is key animation. Regardless, this erases the specificity and evolution of credits and animation terminology, which I consider to be a paramount subject in order to understand the evolution of animation work. This also puts into doubt all the other “genga” credits which I couldn’t cross-examine with the works themselves: it makes no doubt that Daikuhara did animation to some degree, but the exact nature of that animation remains vague. I have therefore left a question mark in the cases when I couldn’t check the credits myself.


Clements, Jonathan. 2012. “Akira Daikuhara, 1917-2012”. Manga UK. https://web.archive.org/web/20130312185700/http://www.mangauk.com/?p=akira-daikuhara-1917-2012 

———. 2013. Anime: A History. Palgrave McMillan.

Clements, Jonathan, and Barry Ip. 2012. “The Shadow Staff: Japanese Animators in the Tōhō Aviation Education Materials Production Office 1939–1945.” Animation : An Interdisciplinary Journal. 7 (2): 189–204.

Daikuhara, Akira (大工原章). 2001. “In the Early Days of Toei Dôga, Mori and I Tried to Create a Fun Atmosphere” (東映動画の初期の頃は、森さんと二人で楽しい雰囲気に心がけました). Interview by Hoshi, Makoto (星まこと). まんだらけZENBU.

Kanô, Seiji (叶精二). 2004. The People Who Built Japanese Animation (日本のアニメーションを築いた人々). 復刊.

Kimura, Tomoya (木村智哉). 2010. “Changes in Visual Expression and the Production System in Early Toei Dôga” (初期東映動画における映像表現と製作体制の変革). 同時代史研究 3. https://doi.org/10.34364/doujidaishi.3.0_19.

———. 2022. “The Control of the Film Industry and Animation – The Consolidation of Cultural Film Companies and Military-Commissioned Films” (戦時下映画業界の統制とアニメーション – 文化映画会社統合と軍委嘱映画). In War and Japanese Animation – What Was Momotarô’s Divine Sea Warriors? (戦争と日本アニメ -「桃太郎と海の神兵」とは何だったのか), 111–34. 青弓社.

Oh, Hye Kyung (呉 恵京). 2010. “Animation Author in Shôwa: Seo Mitsuyo” (瀬尾光世の漫画映画における表現手法). 法政大学国際日本学研究所. 8:305-330. http://doi.org/10.15002/00022641

Pruvost-Delaspre, Marie. 2021. The Origins of Japanese Animation – Studio Tôei Dôga (1956-1972) (Aux sources de l’animation japonaise – Le studio Tôei Dôga (1956-1972)). PUR Cinéma. Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Tatsuzawa, Satoshi (たつざわさとし), and Kayama, Takashi (萱間隆). 2020. “Uncovering the History of Nihon Manga Eiga-Sha – Financing Animation Production during the Occupation” (日本漫画映画株式会社の実態解明 – 占領期におけるアニメーション製作事業の資金調達). 公益財団法人徳間記念アニメーション文化財団年報 2019-2020 別冊. https://www.ghibli-museum.jp/docs/2019-2020bessatu.pdf#page=01.

“Masao Kumakawa Biography – 7: Sanae Yamamoto’s Struggles” (熊川正雄 略伝7:山本早苗の奮闘記). n.d. 熊川正雄 Homepage (blog). https://web.archive.org/web/20160831104803/http://kumakawa-masao.com/history7.html.

“Masao Kumakawa Biography – 9: The Days at Seijô High School” (熊川正雄 略伝9:成城高校時代). n.d. 熊川正雄 Homepage (blog). https://web.archive.org/web/20160901050253/http://kumakawa-masao.com/history9.html.

Classic Animation (until Early 1960s) Film List (神⼾映画資料館. 2021. “古典アニメーション(1960年代初頭まで) フィルムリスト). https://kobe-eiga.net/kfpnet/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/planet_animation20210330.pdf

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