Helen McCarthy – Re-creating Anime History: The Development of British Anime Fandom and the Developing Comprehension of Anime History as a Transnational Phenomenon

Originally delivered at the University of East Anglia in Norwich as the keynote paper at the symposium “Media Journeys 2018: Animation in Transnational Contexts”, 24 May 2018.

From its earliest beginnings, the appreciation and study of anime – both by its local fandom and in terms of the academic response – has been profoundly and essentially transnational and transcultural. This parallels the anime industry’s earliest beginnings in Japan. In this article I present these two histories in parallel – that of the Japanese anime medium and the fandom for its exported twin – in the hope of illuminating aspects of how we study cultural history via ephemera and how that process is evolving with and through technology. I summarize the development of anime fandom and the commercial market in the UK, highlight the difficulties of research on ephemera from the pre-internet age, and provide links to archival sources. I also look at the ground-breaking scholarship of Frederick S. Litten (2017), which has been invaluable in narrowing down the date of the beginning of animation in Japan as well as its social and commercial contexts. The common drivers for the study of these three strands in my golden braid can be identified as a passion to know more about anime and its origins, a willingness to explore widely and fearlessly across a range of disciplines, and a commitment to test our hypotheses against all available evidence regardless of cultural preference or orientation.









I am part of the reason you can read about anime in English. I wrote the first book in English on Japanese animation (1993), and my critical biography of Osamu Tezuka was highly regarded enough to be re-published in Japanese (2009). Before that, I was one of the first people to write journalism about anime in English, and I was one of the founders of British anime fandom. That may not seem a major achievement in these days of simultaneous streaming, widespread broadband access, million-viewer blogs, and readily available translations, but I began my work in the 1980s, when there was no broadband and the only way for most people, scholars included, to access an Asian country’s popular culture was to actually go there or to have someone from there come here. In those terms, I am one of the team that discovered anime’s equivalents to the source of the Nile or Tutankhamun’s tomb or the Terracotta Warriors (Fans Conference n.d.).

I fell in love with Japanese animation and comics at first sight in 1981. They intrigued me and dazzled me and showed me new ways of telling stories. Yet, when I set out to find out more about them, I ran into a wall. There was no available information in English.  But walls are made to be climbed or broken down, and hell hath no fury like someone reared in public libraries who has just been told that “there’s no book about that subject.” So, I started, very clumsily at first and with dead ends and mistakes and misunderstandings aplenty, to discover the source of the graphic culture that fascinated me. And that path led me to speak to, and write for, academic, professional and fan audiences all over the world.

Along the way, a number of old ideas about anime and manga that were accepted as gospel when I started researching have been found to be inaccurate and have been discarded. For example, it was widely believed among English-speaking fans that Osamu Tezuka originated shōjo (girls’) manga. It was also widely believed that Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy, Fuji TV 1963-4) was the first anime ever shown on Japanese TV (Clements and McCarthy 2015, p.389 and p.542). Furthermore, as I will highlight later, the claims of the three earliest recorded Japanese animators were accepted without challenge even though they were either undocumented or documented very partially.

However, as these inaccurate ideas have been discarded, the greatest joy has been the number of new ideas emerging from the chaos of exploration. One idea that has become stronger as time goes on is that the process of exploring the history of anime in Japan is almost identical to the process of exploring the history of anime fandom in the UK. There are the same problems and pitfalls: gaps in the record, poverty of original source materials, as well as incomplete understanding of a different time and place, and of its social, economic, and intellectual milieu. Today, to some extent, the wide availability of communication technology has eased the archiving and sharing of recovered artefacts. The transnational and transcultural nature of scholarship has expanded, thanks to the availability of tools that empower non-travelling and/or monoglot scholars to form and test theories about cultures completely outside their experience. So, I have more tools, more information, and more humility, and I can begin to reassess those early days of anime fandom and anime history in a more inclusive and rigorous fashion.

Anime in Britain: always transnational

Right from its earliest beginnings in Britain, anime has been profoundly and essentially transnational (Higbee and Lim 2010). Almost all British fans who were first exposed to Japanese animation in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s saw material on TV or videotape from Spain, France, or the USA. If British fans saw their first anime on TV, they usually saw an American-dubbed show like Marine Boy, which appeared on the BBC in 1969, or sometimes a co-production for Japanese and overseas transmission like Ulysses 31, shown in 1986. So, it seems sensible to talk about the two histories in parallel – the Japanese medium and the fandom for its exported twin – like a pair of stereoscopic images, in the hope of illuminating aspects of how we study cultural history and how that process is evolving.

I believe that scholars fill many roles in society, whether invited to do so, intending to do so, or involuntarily. In my keynote address to the first annual Fandom and NeoMedia Studies conference in Texas in 2013, I argued that a scholar is, at various times and to varying degrees, an explorer, a technician, a teacher, an interpreter, a storyteller, a showman, and a shaman. All of these roles are important, but the explorer and the storyteller become particularly so when discussing the history of popular culture before the turn of the second millennium.

So much of the history of popular culture is ephemeral. I have become accustomed to the dead ends, imperfectly matching accounts, and unexplained in-jokes of fanzines and message boards – the primary sources for the history of anime fandom in the 1990s. I can confirm, having spent most of the past decade researching the early history of cosplay in Japan in the 1970s and ’80s, that the situation is the same there. The founders of fandoms and fanzines in those days chronicled their doings on paper, in tiny print runs. When online discussions began, they were sparse at first because of lack of computer access, and many have vanished since. Sources often read as if coded, even when they originate in one’s native tongue, because of references to events and people known within a now-vanished intimate circle. My task as an historian is to constantly sift through whatever I can find and to add each tiny recovered fragment to the mosaic, occasionally remaking an entire section because the one piece I thought would finish it turns it into something completely different. The challenge is to make the revised story that the material now tells as clear and coherent as possible.

Students of British or American popular culture of the 19th and 20th centuries are fortunate. Because both societies were relatively wealthy, well-educated, and stable, even ephemeral materials such as playbills and advertising handouts were often plentiful enough that examples have been preserved and documented. For 19th and early 20th century Japan the case is different. This is due partly to the geographical and political conditions – extreme disruptions such as earthquake, fire, and war – and partly to economics. Many Japanese were still part of the agrarian economy, poor and without access to the latest fads and trends. Those who were more affluent and technologically aware were also more likely to live in or near cities, at greater risk from destruction and disruption. So, fewer traces of their activities survive. Nevertheless, by going through all available resources and collating disparate data across industries and languages, the remaining evidence can be used to remarkable effect.

A masterclass in anime research methodology

In 2017, Canadian scholar and linguist Frederick S. Litten gave a masterclass in this research process. He published an English language version of his 2016 German-language history of early anime under the title Animated Film in Japan until 1919: Western Animation and the Beginnings of Anime. This book is one of the most important ever published on the history of anime, a game-changer for all of us who study Japanese popular culture. And Litten’s methodology is an excellent example for any researcher trying to uncover the origins of British anime fandom.  By drilling down through Japanese newspapers, film magazines, and corporate brochures from both Japanese and foreign companies for fragments of evidence, discussing his findings with Japanese scholars, then piecing these fragments together, he was able to clarify, reinterpret, and augment data that had baffled even Japanese film historians.

One of Litten’s most important contributions to the early history of anime is outlined in a review by my co-author on The Anime Encyclopedia (2001) and The Erotic Anime Movie Guide (1998), Jonathan Clements:

Litten suggests that many scholars have committed an error of historical practice by believing the old-time hype. [That is, by the way, the same hype both Clements and I believed about the earliest known animators when we began to work on anime history together in the 1990s.] The 1923 Kanto Earthquake destroyed most of the materials of the early Japanese animation world, which leaves historical memory in the hands of the people with a vested interest in being remembered. Although Noboyuki Tsugata has done fantastic work in reconstructing the life and films of the pioneer Seitaro Kitayama, Litten accuses Kitayama of “blatant self-promotion”, and calls into question much of what Kitayama wrote about his own achievements. (2018)

This aspect of Litten’s work resonated with me because it chimed with my own exploration of cosplay history in Japan, where much pre-broadband information has gone unarchived. Cosplay history was preserved to the point where it was considered worthy of archiving and study by a few passionate fans turned scholars such as Mari Kotani, a 1970s cosplayer in Japan and now a lecturer and author, and the late Yoshihiro Yonezawa, whose collection is now a library for scholarly use (Anon. n.d. “Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library”).

Litten’s experience of missing and conflicting information also mirrored my examination of my own fandom history. I lost most of my archive material from 1981 to 2000 in a house move. My contemporaneous diaries are encoded with abbreviations that meant something at the time but are now almost incomprehensible. Like most witnesses, I perceived only part of the picture unfolding around me, recorded only part of that, and my memory of that perception is also incomplete. The historical memory of British fandom is in the hands of those of us who were there are the time, but we do not necessarily have a complete and unbiased picture. I see myself as an honest, well-meaning, but not entirely reliable witness to the history I helped to make.  Litten’s meticulous and unflinching scholarship has taught me a great deal about how to approach the history of anime, the history of British anime fandom, and my own past, present and future work.

So, I will outline how British anime fandom began, how it emerged from the primeval ooze of the 1980s and survived the goldrush years of boom-and-bust video companies and media reaction to foreshadow the flawed but still compelling marquee concept that is “Cool Japan” in the current millennium (METI 2014). And then I will return to Litten’s remarkable work and tell the story of the early days of the medium in Japan. After that, I hope, we will find we have learned something about how to study – that is, how to explore – anime’s national and transnational histories, and how to change our minds as often as necessary in service of the available evidence rather than of our own theories.

British anime fandom: the beginning

British anime fandom was born at the 1990 Easter Science Fiction convention, Eastcon 90, held at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool from 12-16 April (McCarthy 2018).[1] I had volunteered to run an anime program at the convention because I’d spent the preceding nine years researching anime for a book I had so far been unable to sell. I wanted to share this material that interested me so much with others interested in science fiction and fantasy, if only to see if every publisher I’d talked to was right when they said there was no market for it outside children’s television.









Distortion of the historical record began to creep in immediately after the convention. Eastcon 90 attendee Jim Swallow wrote to the late Jay Felton, a fan who was at another convention that weekend, that there were about 700 attendees, although the official convention membership count is on record, though without supporting sources, as 1,100 (Anon. n.d. “Eastercon”). The largest audience for the video screening room was considerably in excess of the fire limit of 450; it was usually about a third to half full, but some audiences were in single figures. As I recall, three screenings packed the room: Akira (Katsuhiro Ōtomo, 1988), Urotsukidōji (Wandering Kid, Hideki Takayama, 1989) and Robot Carnival (Katsuhiro Ōtomo et al., 1987). The majority of attendees were probably novelty-seekers, who made no further attempt to engage with Japanese animation after the event (Bernhardi 2014). But a collection of names and addresses scribbled in a notebook that weekend turned into a fanzine, a fandom, a professional magazine, a marketplace, and a number of careers – including mine. This event also marks the first publication for peer review of a paper in English examining an aspect of anime history. British comic artist and illustrator Steve Kyte researched and wrote “Heavy Metal Heaven: a history of the giant robot in Japanese animation” to provide context for the UK premiere robot anime screenings taking place at the convention. We made 100 photocopies to give away and ran out on day one.

Still, Eastcon 90 marks only the self-identification of anime fandom in the UK. For any group to cohere, it requires primary artefacts, concepts, and relationships to cohere around. So where, when, and how did fandom’s gestation begin? There were anime fans in Britain before Easter 1990, just as there were labels distributing anime before Island World Entertainment founded Manga Video in 1991. Before Eastcon 90, a few Britons had been aware of anime, either like myself through European and American contacts or through direct contact with Japanese people in Britain or Japan, but there were no organized anime fan groupings or conventions.

Anime in the UK before fandom









Anime in Britain began on TV in 1969, when the BBC showed Marine Boy, an adapted version of two Japanese series spliced together for the English-speaking market (Clements and McCarthy 2015, p.512). Young viewers were, of course, extremely unlikely to know or care that this English-dubbed cartoon was made in Japan. Japanese exports of all kinds were generally viewed as cheap, trashy stuff by Westerners and animation was no exception. A handful of other anime television broadcasts followed. The transnational trend was Europe-wide (Pellitteri 2011, pp.286-294; McCarthy 2001). Japanese-European co-productions, such as Ulysses 31 (FR3 1981) and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (NHK 1982-83), were cheaper to acquire, translate, and localize for British release because rights were already held by a European company and the dub scripts existed in a European language.  Japanese studios also made series and features for American companies, including Thundercats (1985-86), Transformers (1984-87), and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985-86), produced by comic book and sci fi author J. Michael Straczynski.

But without a major toy merchandising campaign, such as that for Mattel’s Shogun Warriors in the 1970s, anime on TV made little impact (Ruh 2010). Ironically, in 2009 Guardian journalist Owen van Spall would ask why anime was invisible on British TV. The cultural and political shift following the release of Akira in 1990, from children’s TV fare to terrifyingly transgressive medium, came so fast and was so all-consuming that it wiped out the memory of those earlier child-friendly screenings (McCarthy and Clements 1998).









I missed Marine Boy on TV. My first encounter with anime was in 1981, when I started dating illustrator Steve Kyte, who introduced me to the medium via giant robot comics and cartoons found on holiday in Majorca. Like Italy and France, Spain had been buying Japanese cartoons and comics for translation and localization since the mid-1970s (Pellitteri 2011, p.70). As more young Britons went on foreign holidays these localized versions became available to them, expanding on the American versions that were filtering over the Atlantic on videotape. It bears repeating: for almost all Western fans – British, European, and American – our first experience of Japanese animation came through a transnational filter.

I was able to do my early research thanks to friends in Europe and in America, where fans stationed on Japan’s US military bases shared anime with their homebound colleagues via tape trading. The videotape recorder was the key enabler of anime fandom (Drazen 2014, p.26). Anyone who could get hold of a player, a recorder, and a blank tape could copy and share an original. The gradual spread of personal computing, and the tendency for science fiction and fantasy fans to be interested in technology and have access to equipment through school, work, or social life, enabled those same fans to add subtitles to videotapes. The translations weren’t always good, but once you were part of a fan group and had made a few contacts, you could watch anime subtitled in (usually American) English (Leonard 2005, Orsini 2015).

Alongside these illegal subtitled tapes, fans could also get hold of the commercial TV shows that had been dubbed for US and European release. Because some of these TV cartoons had been translated out of Japanese (then considered expensively impenetrable by most commercial companies) into more accessible European languages, they were available for redubbing into English. All were redubbed rather than subtitled because they were aimed at the under-tens market, who were presumed to lack the ability and patience to read subtitles (Ladd with Deneroff 2008).









There were a number of these labels in Britain, and a few of their products can still be picked up on the Internet. The cover design and promotional material makes it clear that the target market was the 3-10 age range. Even though many of the shows were created for a slightly older preteen age group in Japan, the Western assumption was that the target market for animation was younger children.[2] The route for translation was generally either direct from Japan or via Europe to the USA, where the Japanese voice track would be replaced with an American dub, followed by sub-licensing to British video companies. Robotech (1985), Carl Macek’s controversial reimagining of three Japanese series for American distributor Harmony Gold (Anon. n.d. “Codename: Robotech”), was available in Britain through local distributor Screen Gems in the mid-1980s and triggered Britain’s first anime fanzine, a one-shot called Robotech UK by the late comic creator Tony Luke. (Tony later became the first British artist to have a regular series published in a manga anthology in Japan. See: Freeman 2016) Labels like Krypton Force, Kids’ Cartoon Collection, Parkfield Playtime and MY-TV sprang up quickly, exploited the material and then merged or folded, often selling on their rights. I was part of that world for a few years when I worked for entertainment distributor Soto Sound, one of whose directors had worked for Parkfield and ran MY-TV as a sideline.  I persuaded him to come to Eastcon 90 and sell a few videos. He was pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm, but told me it wouldn’t last. Others had more faith.

Uneven distribution of anime across the UK meant that most fans spent much of their spare time in the 1980s and ’90s scouring video rental libraries, hunting down cassettes in specialist stores and sharing information, generally by letter and phone. The Sheffield Space Centre, several of whose staff came along to the screenings at Eastcon 90 and left as anime fans, picked up on this new income stream and ran with it, holding the UK’s first dedicated anime convention in 1991 (flyer available at: Bernhardi n.d.). Soon afterwards, the commercial market for anime in the UK would expand massively with the British premiere of Akira (one of our unofficial screenings at Eastcon 90) and its acquisition by Chris Blackwell’s Island World Entertainment.

Blackwell, a music entrepreneur who had expanded into video distribution, proclaimed anime as “the new punk rock” and a slick marketing campaign moved it from the innocent days of kiddy video into a world of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, of scandal in Parliament and newspaper headlines including “Snuff out these sick cartoons” (Sengupta 1994). Few people now remember that at the beginning of 1990 Japanese animation was considered only fit for children’s television and that every anime title available in the UK market was packaged for 3-10 year-olds on the same labels as Italy’s 1980 television series The Little Train and the aforementioned Thundercats.







Tracing those pre-fandom, pre-1990 releases today is made easier by fans’ archiving of their own historic data. Companies House can provide the basics of any company history, but tracking down dateable information on its back catalogue involves considerable research, digging through trade papers, newspapers and reviews. This is similar to what Frederick Litten did his early anime research in Japan, working on an era where much of the physical record was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the firebombing of Tokyo in the 1940s, and the multitude of smaller events – neighborhood fires, house clearances, archives dumped when companies folded – that knock bricks out of the structure of historical record. British anime history has faced less destruction, but before the widespread availability of broadband it was more difficult to locate and confirm data without extensive research in physical media.

Today, enthusiasts can log their collections and memories online. The overall picture is still patchy, but research on both UK fandom and the UK anime business from 1990 to 2000 has been simplified by the dedication of a few early fans. Carlo Bernhardi and Jonathan Weeks, both at my Eastercon screenings in 1990, have each made an online archive. Bernhardi’s is still a work in progress, as he scans photos and documents for his Anime Nostalgia Facility and solicits more from fellow old school fans (Bernhardi 2014). The records are often only partial, and some guesswork about dating and identification is involved, but as it expands the Facility becomes more useful. By contrast, Weeks started a fanzine called Animejin (Anime Man or Anime Person) in 1992. Animejin, like many fanzines in its day, was a mix of news, reviews, and event ads, but perhaps its greatest value was that Weeks did his utmost to be comprehensive, logging each new label and release as it happened. When he ceased producing and updating, he simply froze the product in 2004. The entire Animejin archive is still available online, and it is very useful in helping to reconstruct the timeline of releases flowing onto the UK anime market, and the companies that released them (Anon. n.d. “Animejin”).

More recently, Leah Holmes has created a timeline for UK anime fandom, drawing information from both fan and press sources to provide a solid spine for further research and a tool for contextualizing information. It is an extremely useful guide and can be expanded as more information is uncovered (Holmes 2019).

Duncan Law-Green’s Britanime website also has a partial listing of both paper and online fanzines and sources.  Well-established in media fandoms such as Star Trek, fanzine-making was embraced by anime fans after the appearance of Anime UK in 1990, although anime robots had already appeared in gaming fanzines such as Ashley Watkins’ MEKTEK.[3] British fanzines burgeoned, with more than a dozen titles, some running for multiple issues over several years. Some were devoted to original anime-style comics, some to general reviews, information and chat. For example, Tales from the Cajun Sushi Bar specialized in anime-inspired fiction. Fan clubs including the Anime Babes, a group of teenage girls claiming their own voice and space in a largely male-dominated fandom, published zines and newsletters (Holmes 2019). All these documents contain useful information on fandom although it can be difficult to track down physical copies. Few fanzine publishers were aware that copies donated to the British Library’s Copyright Receipt Office would have secured them a place in the Library’s catalogue.

After Eastcon 90, Steve Kyte and I started Anime UK (Perkins 2018a), a newsletter for those who wanted to keep in touch and share materials. We and other fans held screenings at our homes. As Akira exploded on the UK art cinema scene, those of us who saw it back at Easter were expanding our anime knowledge as fast as we could. By early 1991, Steve and I were approached by the employer of one of our newsletter subscribers to turn Anime UK into a professional magazine. It made its debut in the autumn of 1991 and we reviewed almost every fanzine we were sent. By 1993, with the anime market growing, Manga Mania, a second newsstand magazine, had been founded by Dark Horse Publishing (Perkins 2018b).









Both magazines were British, Japan-focused and transnational. I consulted for and later edited Manga Mania, but its first editor was Australian Cefn Ridout. Through his Dark Horse connections, Ridout had access to a growing community of bilingual American anime journalists, as well as Japanese corporate and artistic contacts, while Anime UK’s contributors and readers hailed from Scotland to Sapporo and Belgium to Bondi. We received letters from readers around the world and my aim was to have readers on every continent. When the magazine finally folded, we still had no evidence of readership in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Pakistan, or Antarctica, but we could claim readers among Asian and African communities in the UK, and we had one subscriber on a research station in the Arctic, who got his magazines as much as five months late depending on the weather.

Fanzines offered a starting point for conversation about anime that got broader, pulling in a wider range of voices, and the growth of home computing and home video technology began to create an archival trail that present-day researchers can follow. Now, with greater ability to share information and preserve material digitally, researching the history of UK anime fandom no longer needs to rely so strongly on older fans’ partial and unreliable witness to our own past.

On the trail of the earliest Japanese animation

The importance and fragility of that archival trail is borne home by the work of Frederick S. Litten. His achievement in clarifying the route of animation into Japan makes it truly astonishing that he had to self-publish his research both in German and in English. Japanese historians have been quick to recognize its value, and Japanese publisher Shūeisha plans to bring out a Japanese edition. The work has also been plagiarized, mostly un-credited, all over the Internet.









Litten studied archival materials to attempt a definitive identification of the earliest animated film screened in Japan.  According to a history of Japanese film by Kyokko Yoshiyama published in 1933, a foreign film known as Nipparu no Henkei (Nipper’s Transformations) was believed to be the first animated film shown in Japan. It was said to have premiered there in 1909. This was accepted by other scholars including Yamaguchi and Watanabe in their 1978 history of Japanese animated film, although nobody had succeeded in identifying which Western film this was. The title and description of the film did not match any foreign releases shown in Japan in 1909. By 2001, Watanabe had revised the screening date to 1912, based on a comprehensive listing from 1960 by respected film journal Kinema Junpo. Later work tentatively identified the film as Emil Cohl’s Les Exploits du Feu Follet, released in 1911. By careful comparison of all the sources, Litten concludes that this was indeed the first foreign animation shown in Japan, on 15 April 1912. Yoshiyama had simply mis-recorded the date when writing his book over two decades later. This analysis challenged previous understanding, which had identified the first animation screened in Japan as Cohl’s Fantamagorie, shown in Japan in 1914.  But alongside this conclusion, published in a research note of 2014, Litten had begun to develop a theory that was even more exciting (Litten 2014).

In 2005 researcher Natsuki Matsumoto bought a collection of films and projectors from a house sale in Kyoto. One item created an international furor. At the time Anime News Network reported:

The oldest animated film created in Japan and screened has been found in Kyoto. Up until now the oldest Japanese animation was believed to be Shimokawa Hekoten’s (Oten Shimokawa) “Imokawa Mukozo the Doorman,” from 1917, but this newfound animation, on 35mm film, could be as much as ten years older.  Matsumoto Natsuki … found the 50-frame film in an old family projector in Kyoto amongst a collection of foreign animation. It was hand-drawn in two colors, red and black, directly onto the celluloid. The creator is unknown. (Macdonald 2005)

The film was named Moving Pictures (Katsudō shashin), the phrase its only character writes onscreen. The international furor arose from its potential as a Japanese claimant for bragging rights as the originator of animation. Animation as we currently define it is usually held to have originated in the USA in 1906, with Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, a film that mixed stop-motion and animation with live action (AMC Filmsite n.d.). This was itself a transnational product, created by Yorkshire immigrant James Stuart Blackton, later co-founder of the film studio and distributor American Vitagraph. In France, Emile Cohl made the first fully animated film, Fantasmagorie, in 1908. His 1911 work Les Exploits du Feu Follet became the first animated film screened in Japan in 1912.

If Katsudō Shashin originated before 1912, and if it was actually screened – that is, shown to a paying public – before Cohl’s work, Japan could have originated animated film independently of the USA and Europe. If it originated and was screened before 1907, Japan might have made the world’s first animation.

The excitement in animation circles was tempered by the fact that very little information was available about Katsudō Shashin – no title, date, director, studio, or distributor; no container or accompanying documentation with release details. What most commentators overlooked in the excitement of the discovery was that animation in America, Europe, and Japan, didn’t develop in a vacuum. It was not only a transnational product but also part of a broader entertainment media mix. In other words, it was not confined to cinema.

The film found by Matsumoto shows a boy in a sailor suit and hat writing the kanji characters for ‘moving pictures’ (katsudō shashin) on a blackboard, turning to the viewer with a smile, and raising his hat. Projected at 16 frames per second, it runs just over three seconds.[4] Closely examining all the available images and information, Litten’s background in the history of film technology enabled him to point out something overlooked in the early excitement. The images were indeed made straight onto the film but were not drawn by hand. The red colour on the boy’s hat moves out of registration. This demonstrates that Katsudō shashin is stenciled onto film – that it is a mass-produced artefact. Does this lead to the conclusion that Japan already had a mass-production local film industry? The answer is no, but it does lead to something very interesting.

All previous research on early anime suggested that the first domestic animated film screened in Japan was Ōten Shimokawa’s 1917 movie Imokawa Muzuko Genbankan no Maki (usually known as Muzuko Imokawa the Doorman in English.) Shimokawa himself said so in an article written in 1934. Most Japanese film historians accepted this claim, although a few mentioned the lack of any other sources (Akita 2005). Shimokawa, a newspaper cartoonist trained by the great manga artist and political cartoonist Rakuten Kitazawa, had created the character of Imokawa in a comic strip. It was natural to use the character’s existing audience as leverage to sell his film. Hired by the Tenkatsu Production Company to make animated films for the burgeoning Japanese film industry, he made six films in nine frantic months from December 1916 to September 1917, then retired from animation, his health and eyesight wrecked by the pressure of working at high speed with primitive technology (Shimokawa 1934).

The speed was necessary because two other distributors had two other creators, Junichi Kouchi and Seitarō Kitayama, working on animation, each racing to be the first to bring a Japanese animated film to the screen. It’s not surprising that Shimokawa’s memory of events and dates in that hectic period was less than perfect in his reminiscences almost three decades later. And, in the intervening years, Japan suffered the Great Kantō Earthquake, which levelled Tokyo in 1923. Companies, newspaper offices, libraries, cinemas, publicists, and a whole range of other sources for historical information and documentation of cinema screenings lost their archives, their buildings, and frequently the lives and memories of their staff. Most of the documentary record of early anime – the posters and handbills and published reviews and advertisements and invoices from distributors – were destroyed. So, the claims of those early film-makers and their supporters passed largely unchallenged into history.

Working over several years, Litten compiled and cross-referenced all the information from surviving sources. The process was hampered by the tendency of both distributors and reviewers not to stick to one consistent title per film as well as the varying story information and description of each film in different sources. The accumulation of evidence allowed him to confirm that Shimokawa probably did make the first domestic animated film screened in Japan at the Asakusa Cinema Club in January 1917 and that it wasn’t Muzuko Imokawa Genbankan no Maki, which didn’t appear until April, unless one treats that title as an overarching series title for the three films Shimokawa made about his popular comic book character (Litten 2017).

So, what is the position of Katsudō shashin in this unfolding cinematic history? It doesn’t fit in the history of theatrical cinema, except perhaps as one of those shadowy childhood icons like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud.” Thanks to Litten, we can site it instead in the world of affluent Japanese childhood. It is a “toy film” made for family fun, intended to be screened on a magic lantern-style projector at home. Made by stenciling, it must once have been part of a choice of films for sale, either packaged with a projector or independently. It is, as far as we know, the only survivor of a Japanese industry that piggy-backed on the demand for imported European films for home entertainment.

[INSERT IMG10 Magic Lantern ad]

The magic lantern, Eurotech originated by physicist Christiaan Huygens in the Netherlands in the 17th century, was introduced into Japan through the Dutch trading port of Dejima near Nagasaki in the 18th century (Anon. n.d. “The Magic Lantern in Japan”). In the 19th century when Japan opened up to Western trade, companies from Germany, France, and Britain sold their magic lanterns into affluent Japanese homes. Simple enough for a child to operate, and usually sold with a collection of slides, the more sophisticated machines evolved to run short loops of film – “toy films” – providing anything from a few seconds to a couple of minutes of repeating action. The slides and films were originally photographic or “trick” (special effects) films (a magic lantern advertisement of the period promised “effects of the highest class”, see: Litten 2017).

Litten tracks a number of individual titles through European catalogues for the Japanese market. There was probably a high demand for new slides and films to maintain purchasers’ interest in their expensive hardware, and Katsudō shashin demonstrates that Japanese companies realized the potential of making toy films locally, using the same kappa-ban (stencil print) method used to stencil Japanese stereoscopic slides. These toy films were likely to be heavily used, lost in house moves or fires, damaged, or simply worn out. This, combined with Japan’s 20th century upheavals, explains why no such example has been found before.

Other toy films have survived, but they were made in a different way – strips of actual cinematic film, cut from Japan’s early movies and animations and sold on to the home entertainment trade. As Litten’s work shows, animated film had a brief boom in Japan and then went out of fashion. The novelty-hungry public would not pay to see old films re-screened, so the studios sold unwanted prints to the toy film market. Earthquake and war are not, therefore, the only reasons why most early Japanese animated film was destroyed. We can see an example in The Dull Sword (Nakamura gatana), a four-minute toy film adapted from Junichi Kouchi’s 1917 film Haniwa Hekonai’s New Sword (Haniwa hekonai meito no maki). This is another find by Natsuki Matsumoto, who discovered it in an Osaka antiques shop in March 2008 (Japanese Animated Film Archive 2017). It is the oldest surviving Japanese animated film, in that it was originally screened publicly. While exact dating is not currently possible for Katsudō shashin, Litten and other scholars consider that it is unlikely to have been made much before 1907 or after 1912.

[INSERT IMG11 Nakamura Gatana]


So, Katsudō Shashin is not the smoking gun that makes Japan the originator of world animation. Culture is far too ambiguous for that, and in any case this film is much more interesting. It provides evidence that goods from outside Japan were not just imported but assimilated into local culture, impacted on local industries, and became part of everyday life for both Japanese consumers and those employed in local production.

Before animation was first made for cinema in Japan, and possibly before animated films were first screened in Japan, Japanese children were using an imported European toy to watch “moving pictures” made in their own country. More than a hundred years later, Japan’s animated film industry now exports its TV and cinema productions to children and adults all over the world. Whether that industry was first inspired by a Yorkshire expatriate making cartoons in America, a Frenchman making cartoons in Paris, or a Japanese-made toy film looping again and again on a projector imported from Europe is not the most important thing about it.

And just as interesting, alongside Japanese animation’s profoundly transnational journey, whose early history is still being explored by scholars from all over the world, anime fandoms in the UK, Europe, the USA, South America, Asia, and the Arab world are currently exploring and archiving their own histories.

Unless new evidence emerges, we cannot know if one of the three pioneers of Japanese animation or one of their cameramen or assistants ever watched a Japanese toy film on a European projector, let alone whether it was a film showing a boy writing on a blackboard and raising his hat. What we do know and can demonstrate is that their work was transnational from its inception and that their influence continues to transcend cultural boundaries.


Helen McCarthy is an independent scholar, writer and speaker, author of the first book in English on Japanese animation and of several other books on aspects of Japanese popular culture. She first became interested in Japanese animation in 1981, and curated the first anime programme at a British SF convention in 1990. This spun off a fan newsletter and a professional magazine devoted to anime, which sold around the world, including Japan, for six years. Helen has written thirteen books, including The Anime Encyclopedia, co-authored with Jonathan Clements, and contributed to a number of other publications including Rayna Denison’s recent Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess. Her book on Hayao Miyazaki was the first work in English on an anime auteur. Her Eisner Award-winning book on Osamu Tezuka has been translated into seven languages, including Japanese. Helen lives in London and travels to Japan as often as possible.



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[1] There were informal anime screenings at conventions in 1989 and 1990, held by the late Jay Felton.
[2] This assumption led to the British anime industry’s well-publicized battles with the BBFC, recounted in McCarthy and Clements 1998.
[3] MEKTEK ran for four issues, from 1988 to 1990, featuring Japanese robot artwork by Steve Kyte. It is referenced in several RPG archive sources (including at Vintage UK RPG Fanzines n.d.).
[4] You can see the film run several times, as it would have appeared in loop projection, at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHZ8gdoG9uw.

© Helen McCarthy

Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia