Since it first appeared in 1917, anime — or Japanese animation — has grown as both a commercial industry and an art form. The evolution of anime occurred in stages, starting with cutout animation and silent short films, expanding through government-sanctioned propaganda, then moving toward longer, more creative works influenced by Disney, but that took on looks of their own. With the introduction of new genres like sports and mecha anime, animation techniques like CGI, changes in art style trends, and the global access of online streaming available to today's viewers, anime has evolved into a dynamic and progressive media form.
Seeing anime's evolution over the course of its over hundred-year history is a fascinating dive into how culture, politics, art, and globalization ebb and flow. Luckily, anime continues to create and expand — even Netflix is creating original anime — ensuring new generations will continue to benefit from the discourse and entertainment sparked by Japanese animation.
Anime may seem like a modern invention, but it actually has a history stretching back more than 100 years to the early part of the 20th century. The first anime — a short titled Namakura Gatana (The Dull Sword) made by artist Jun'ichi Kōuchi — went into production in 1917 during the era of silent film. The artist created it using experimental cutout animation techniques.
Soon other artists followed suit. Animated short films from France and the USA inspired many of the early Japanese works. While they were generally considered to be quite well done, they were expensive and time-consuming to make. Moreover, they didn't gain the popularity that, for example, Disney animations did — in part because they were still mostly silent and in black and white when other media moved to color and sound.
Some of the of the earliest titles in the anime canon were Seitaro Kitayama's Momotaro, in 1918, and Chikara To Onna No Yononaka, which debuted 14 years later in 1932 and was the first anime film to use voices. These were both short films, made during a period where most people didn't believe animation could be used to tell longer stories.
These restrictive views changed when Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs met with astonishing success on its 1937 debut. Animators all over the world — particularly throughout the fledgling anime industry — were encouraged to seek longer formats.
Disney influenced more than just films' running times. Osamu Tezuka, who is considered one of the founding fathers of anime and reportedly created more than 700 manga throughout his career, grew up watching Disney films. Those movies heavily impacted his style; most notably, he borrowed the round, childlike features and large eyes that Disney used to signify cuteness. This artistic trend became nearly synonymous with anime as the craft evolved.
Unfortunately, in 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake hit Japan and destroyed much of its new animation industry. Many early anime films were lost, and the medium took a few paces back while the country rebuilt itself.
In 2017, the National Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo released a trove of rediscovered and restored historical anime in conjunction with the art form's 100th anniversary. The earliest viewable film in the collection is the 1917 short Namakura Gatana, which a historian found in a Japanese antique market in 2007.
During the WWII era, Japan used its burgeoning anime industry to its full propagandistic advantage, creating short cartoon films attacking Western politics and later, promoting the war effort. Beginning in 1936 in response to America's trade block against Japan, propaganda anime captured the nationalist fervor of the times. These shorts castigated American/Western forces through cute and clever animation that not-so-subtly played on the reigning symbol of America: Mickey Mouse.
In the 1940s, Japanese propaganda anime famously created a cast of characters called Momotaro's Sea Eagles for films produced by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Momotaro's Sea Eagles appeared in multiple propaganda projects, including the first-ever feature-length anime, which detailed a successful attack on Allied forces by the Imperial Navy.