Oswald, before Mickey

An archival footage of Oswald, precursor of Mickey Mouse, was found in Japan recently. It is not unusual that a film is discovered outside the country of its origin. For example, a wartime Japanese dramatic film was once discovered in the Russian film archive.

The discovered footage of Oswald was preserved in the form of toy film (omocha eiga). Cinephiles purchased a small projector and toy films which they enjoyed at home with their friends and families. Many films were cut into pieces and sold as toy films after they were screened in theater. Each toy film’s running time is approximately 20 seconds to 3 minutes and the content varies from popular Japanese dramatic films, to European films, to news reels and to American cartoons, as one can see the samples at the website of the Toy Film Museum.

Interestingly, a large number of animated toy films are not segments of films but original works specifically produced for this medium. Indeed, it was an animated toy film that Seo Mitsuyo (1911-2010), the director of the first feature length Japanese animation Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945), was fascinated by and then drawn to the world of animation-making. Being an aspiring artist, Seo was working as a painter of movie poster boards around 1930. One day, he saw a pirated American cartoon in a toy film store in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. He immediately went to the maker to learn the technique, where he was later assigned to draw a cartoon of his own. His works sold well. He occasionally earned double the income as a college graduate made in those days. He became one of the most celebrated animators in Japan in the early 1940s.

American cartoons were extremely popular in the 1930s in Japan, as it was in Germany, France, England, China and other countries. In Japan, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop were the names of coffee shops. In particular, in the Year of the Mouse, 1936, various images of Mickey Mouse were printed on New Year Greeting cards (nengajō). Children’s coloring books included illustrations of Betty Boop in kimonos. These American characters have thus become a part of 1930s Japanese culture.

American cartoons ceased to enter Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. When the overwhelming presence of American cartoons disappeared, Seo stated in a film magazine, “I believe that the time has come for us to establish the form of Japanese animation.” In an attempt to escape foreign influences, Japanese animators quested a culturally purely Japanese style, and Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945) was the embodiment of Seo’s patriotic and nationalistic endeavor. However, most ironically, a careful examination reveals affinities of Sacred Sailors with Disney’s Fantasia whose copy Seo and other filmmakers studied during war.

What does this hybridity of Seo’s work tell us? Rather than putting an emphasis on Disney’s impact, I would argue that a culture is inevitably diverse (though the war provided atrocious situations for Seo’s time period). It exists in the midst of various interactions of people, technologies and cultural products. Travelling films show that they easily cross the national borders and create a space of meeting and sharing. A culture is richly nurtured when a nation is not isolated from the others.

Hori Promiscuous

Hikari Hori is Associate Professor at Faculty of Letters, Toyo University (Tokyo, Japan). She is the author of Promiscuous Media: Film and Visual Culture in Imperial Japan, 1926-45 and articles on gender, film and manga.

Oswald, before Mickey