Review of 'Early Japanese Animation'

I am a fan of Japanese Animation so was interested when this even came up in my inbox. The entire description is “Early Japanese Animation (PG*) + live accompaniment by the Guildhall's Electronic Music Studio + live Benshi narration by Tomoko Komura”, the “Benshi narration” was a late addition to the program which consisted of Tomoko adding voices but also sound effects and commentary to the film (in Japanese but occasionally English). The event was held in the largest of the Barbian's cinemas, “Cinema 1”, which is generally used for such live cinema events. The live music element of the show included the percussion section of the Electronic Music Studio along with a computer-based audio track accompanied by live piano often performed by the composer of the music for each piece. The short films were all silent and in black and white with the occasional English subtitle which often caused a bit of confusion with the Benshi narration…

The pieces were:

  • The Dull Sword (1917, Jun’ichi Kouchi, 4 minutes) - The oldest on the program, a confusing story featuring a rather simple samurai looking to have his dull sword sharpened.
  • Urashima Taro (1918, Seitaro Kitayama, 2 minutes) - A fisherman travels to the underwater world of a turtle.
  • A Ship of Oranges (1927, Noburō ÅŒfuji, 6 minutes) - An interesting paper-cut out looking animation.
  • Yasuji Murata’s Monkey and the Crabs (1927, Yasuji Murata, 5 minutes)
  • The Animal Olympics (1928, Yasuji Murata, 13 minutes) - An odd short film featuring animals, er, in their own Olympic games.
  • The Lump (1929, Noburō ÅŒfuji, 14 minutes) - An odd morality tale of two men with large lumps on their cheeks who have an encounter with some demons…
  • Taro's Train (1929, Yasuji Murata, 5 minutes) - Misbehaving animals on a train need to learn some manners…
  • At the Border Checkpoint (1930, Noburō ÅŒfuji, 8 minutes) - The same style as “A Ship of Oranges” (as it is by the same director). Seems like more of an excuse to try new animation techniques than to tell an actual story.
  • My Ski Trip (1930, Yasuji Murata, 9 minutes) - The cutest film of the evening featuring skiing bunnies…
  • Momotaro in the Sky (1931, Yasuji Murata, 13 minutes) - Animals set out in a aircraft to defeat a threatening “rogue eagle”. Very clean and well drawn animation.
  • ?/Rhythmic Triangles/Fighting Cards (1932, Shigeji Ogino, 4 minutes) - Random animation…interesting.
  • Momotaro under the Sea (1932, Yasuji Murata, 13 minutes) - Another film of the Momotaro team who this time work to defeat a shark…

A few things struck me about these films:

  1. They all pretty much were NOT morality tales, simply brief stories with often little in the way of plot.
  2. The lack of quality of some of the prints, surely somewhere thinks they are worth cleaning up for posterity?
  3. They pretty much all featured animals…though perhaps this is understandable with the continuing fascination and attachment the Japanese people have to nature.

Otherwise, the films were all interesting in their own way though I have to say that those sitting on either side of me (in the third row) fell asleep at one point or another during the performance which I can understand…it was not exactly thrilling and the music, while good, was not terribly compelling and all sounded much the same from piece to piece, largely detached from the action on the screen. So, sadly, a bit boring.

An interesting aspect to this was that we were told that audio was added to film quite a bit later to Japanese films than western films due to the strong union of Benshi who made their living voicing the films.

A bit boring but a unique chance to see the beginnings of Japanese animation accompanied by live music and the old art of Benshi narration.

Rating: “A bit better than average”

Review Date: 2019-06-09

Barbican Centre

Location: London (England)

Address: Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS, UK

Public Transport: TUBE Barbican TUBE Moorgate NRLOGO Moorgate

Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7638 8891


The Barbican Centre is in the middle of the brutalist Barbican housing complex. The centre is a mixed-use arts venue with theatres, cinemas (in the basement), galleries and library as well as dining facility (both cafe, buffet and fine). The facilities are quite good and there is always something going on.

Regardless of how you get here you will probably end up walking through the Barbican so watch for the signs directing you to the Barbican Centre itself as the complex is quite large.