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PAINTED TALES: The early art of animated storytelling in Japan

What’s the first anime you can remember watching? Were you attacking titans with Eren Jaeger and company in the 2010s? Hanging out with Haruhi Suzumiya and the rest of the OS brigade in the 2000s? Maybe you were a 90s kid going on a digital adventure in a digital land? Or were you hooked the moment you first saw a giant robot in the 1980s trailblazer Macross? It’s clear that anime has a long and rich history. The first animated film from Japan dates all the way back to 1917 with Hekoten Shimokawa’s :Dekobou Shingachou: Meian no Shippai. From the seeds of this five-minute film a new industry was born, one that is still going strong over one hundred years later.

But though Shimokawa’s groundbreaking work is officially considered to be the beginning of animated films. It was not the beginning of animated storytelling in Japan. Long before Shinji ever got into (or didn’t get into) an Evangelion, before Sailor Moon fought for love and justice, Ash ever threw a poké ball or Goku summoned a Kamehameha, before there were cinema screens and tv screens and whole networks dedicated to animated story telling; men, women and children from all walks of life in Japan would gather around to see fantastical tales brought to life through the art of Utsushi-e.

Utsushi-e tells stories by using a “magic lantern”. These lanterns were made of a box with two lenses inside. Glass slides with images painted on them could be inserted and a light behind the slides projected the images on them outwards onto whichever surface the lantern was pointing at. It’s likely that these lanterns were first introduced to Japan through trade with the Netherlands sometime in the 1700s. Though the original technology came from the west, due to Japan’s isolationist policies a distinct Japanese form and style of lantern show developed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. While European lanterns tended to be metal, Japanese lanterns were made of wood. This resulted in a more lightweight lantern that did not get as hot as its European counterparts, allowing for easier handling. Western lanterns were larger and eventually developed to include multiple gears and levers to allow for a single operator. In contrast, lanterns in Japan were smaller and most shows involved a group of performers operating multiple lanterns.

Most Utsushi-e narratives were samurai tales or ghost stories adapted from traditional Kabuki and Bunraku plays. Accompanied by a musician on a shamisen, these tales would be brought to life on beautifully painted glass slides. Multiple slides could be inserted into a lantern, creating layers not unlike early cel animation. By using multiple lanterns and other tricks like strings and pulleys to shift and switch slides quickly, performers were able to achieve a rudimentary form of animation decades before the first films would appear. Performed in a darkened space with the light of the flickering candles inside the lanterns creating an otherworldly atmosphere, these moving images were no doubt a wonder to audiences back then.

Utsushi-e reached the height of its popularity in the 1800s. With the advent of the movie and television industry in the 1900s, Utsushi-e shows gradually became less and less popular as the Japanese public increasingly went to brand new cinemas rather than traditional Utsushi-e theatres. The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake was also a major blow, with many stockpiles of lanterns and painted slides lost in the destruction. But all is not lost! Like Shenron and the Dragon Balls, there are those who are working to bring the art Utsushi-e back to life. Many theatre companies in Japan have started to stage traditional Utsushi-e shows once more. Utsushi-e is even made in roads in other parts of the world, including here in North America. So, keep an eye on your local live theatre listings, or hit up Youtube if you want to see this beautiful art form for yourself!