In summer 2005, part-time academic Natsuki Matsumoto found a three-second scrap of hand-drawn animation in Kyoto. The tiny two-colour piece of film was less of a movie than a comic drawn onto celluloid, fifty frames in which a boy in a bright red cap dashed off the words “Moving Pictures” onto a black board, then took a bow. It was rudimentary and if screened, would jump all over the place.
Matsumoto (a respected figure in the anime history world, and a leading authority in pre-war anime) announced that the item could be “up to ten years older” than the oldest known cartoon in Japan. It probably isn’t. The oldest cartoon known in Japan is currently Oten Shimokawa’s Mukuzo Imokawa, and there’s plenty of scope for something to turn up that might be older. But ten years older?
The Japanese press ran with it, and so, I’m sad to say, did a lot of English-language journalists. That “up to ten years” estimate swiftly became an assumption of fact. Despite no verification at all, the Asahi began reporting it as a 1907 creation. The Mainichi went further and claimed it was from “just after 1900”. Without any proof at all, the start date of the Japanese animation business had leapt from 1917, to 1907, to somewhere even earlier.
Why the enthusiasm? There were no cartoons at all before 1907. Such wild and arbitrary guesswork about the Matsumoto Fragment implied, accidentally or otherwise, that Japan itself could be the birthplace of the entire medium, and the Japanese press lapped it up. But until there is some sort of proof, this story is a non-story. The age of that piece of film is no more definite than my date tonight with Nicole Kidman, which will only happen if she happens to be lost in London, picks a house at random and rings my doorbell in the next ten minutes. She probably won’t. But she might.
(This article first appeared in Neo #12, 2005)