Kenzō MasaokaOccupation / Title:
5/10/1898Date of death:
Masaoka was one of the first Japanese animators, who also trained and guided artists who would move on to become the next generation of animators. Masaoka is credited with creating the earliest anime using cel animation and recorded sound. He has also been known as the “Japanese Disney” and the “Japanese Méliès.” Two of his most well-known works are Kumo to Tulip (The Spider and the Tulip, 1942) and Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Within the World of Power and Women, 1933) which was the first Japanese animation to feature recorded sound.
Kenzo Masaoka was born in Osaka, Japan in 1898, to a wealthy landlord. He studied Japanese-style painting in Kyotountil 1922, when he switched to focusing more on Western art at Aoibashi Art Institute of Seiki Kuroda. After joining Makino Production in Kyotothe following year, he began a stage of his life in which he worked as actor, director and animator in several studios (including his own). At Makino Production, Masaoka was an assistant director and set maker, and also later appearing as an actor in the film Hitoiichi (Hostage) (1927) produced by the studio.
Masaoka then founded Donbei Production, and released the children’s film Umi to Kyuden (The Palace in the Sea) (1923). Yet in 1929 he also began working at the Nikkatsu Uzumasa Studio in Kyoto. Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest major movie studio and remains a prominent entertainment company. Although Masaoka started working as a cameraman, in 1930 he became the director for educational films produced by Nikkatsu. Soon after, however, there were layoffs and department closings at Nikkatsu. Masaoka thus took a loan from the company and quit, so that he could set up his own animation studio at home. In 1930 he made his first animated film, a cutout animation called The Monkey Island. He made a sequel the following year, called Pirate Ship. During this time, Masaoka also completed contract work and special effects for other companies’ productions.
In 1932, he founded his own studio: the Masaoka Film Studio. Soon after, using his own capital and the support of the film company Shochiko, he imported cell animation technology and began to industrialize the animation process. He was also foreseeing the rise of the talkie, and assembled a preliminary but strong team: Kido Shiro (head of the Shochiku’s Kamata Studio in Tokyo) and Seo Mitsuyo, who would go on to have his own extremely prolific animation career. With the support of the Shochiko production company, they produced Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Within the World of Power and Women, 1933). He then began producing several extremely successful films, which eventually garnered him with the title of the “Japanese Disney.” The films include Adauchi Karasu, Gang and Dancer, Kaguya Hime (special effects), Tahchan no Kaitei Ryokou (Tahchan’s Trip to the Bottom of the Sea), Mori no Yakyuudan (The Baseball Team in the Forest,) Chagama Ondo (Dance of the Cauldron) and Mori no Yousei (A Fairy in the Forest).
Eventually the production company became bankrupt however, and in 1937 Masaoka established the Japan Animation Society in Kyoto. With Shochiko as his film distributor, he produced several new films: Benkei tai Ushiwaka (Benkai versus Ushiwaka), Nyan no Urashima (Cat’s Folktale), Yume no Maiutsushi (Magician in the Dream), and Tori no Hoken Kanyuuin (The Insurance Salesbird).
Masaoka then joined the Shochiko Animation Institute as its Head Chief. It was here that he produced one of his most famous films: Kumo to Tulip (The Spider and the Tulip, 1942). Right after the war, in 1945, he established the New Japan Animation Company with several other animators and partners, which was renamed the New Japan Cartoon Company soon after. They produced Sutenko Tora-Chan (Tora-chan the Abandoned Cat) in 1947. Soon after, in 1949, Masaoka had to retire due to his failing eyesight. The Japan Animation Company changed its name to the Japanese Animation Film Company, then was bought by Toei, to later become the famous Toei Animation Studio. Masaoka continued to teach others the art of animation, writing essays on filmmaking and drawing new storyboards for films.
Yokota, Masao and Tze-Yue G. Hu (Ed). Japanese Animation: East Asian Perspectives. University Press of Mississippi, 2013.