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Rare Disney cartoon discovered in Japan

Dagmar Breitenbach
November 15, 2018

A long-lost Walt Disney cartoon featuring a character that led to the creation of Mickey Mouse was found in Japan, nearly 70 years after it was bought by a high school student.

Walter Lantz with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

Decades ago, Yasushi Watanabe bought a cartoon film that was tagged "Mickey Manga Spide" (Mickey cartoon speedy) in the Japanese city of Osaka. Little did the high school student know he had just purchased a reel of animation history for the equivalent of €3.90 ($4.40).

Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on Wednesday the discovery of the rare lost cartoon produced by Walt Disney and featuring a character that led to the creation of Mickey Mouse.

Anime history researcher Watanabe, now 84, had contacted the paper after reading Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, a book about the history of a Disney character created in the late 1920s, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. According to the book, seven of the 26 short films featuring the rabbit were believed to be permanently lost — and Watanabe remembered the film he had bought as a young man.

The 16 mm reel shows a dog policeman on a motorbike chasing Oswald and his girlfriend in a car, speeding through valleys and along roads. Asahi Shimbun contacted the Walt Disney Archives, which confirmed that the reel was in fact one of the missing films, originally titled "Neck 'n' Neck."

Celebrating Disney’s cartoons

"We're absolutely delighted to learn that a copy of the lost film exists," Becky Cline, director of the archives, told the newspaper. Disney-fan Watanabe, too, was pleased he was able to play a role in re-discovering the film, which is now housed at the Kobe Planet Film Archive.

According to the newspaper, another film showing 50 seconds of the same cartoon was found at the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto.

It is not the first time one of the rare Oswald cartoons suddenly pops up. Four years ago, Norway's National Library discovered the first Christmas film made by Disney, a cartoon titled "Empty Socks" featuring Oswald. In 2015, another short film featuring Oswald was discovered in the British Film institute Archives.

Oswald was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1927. Distributed by Universal Studios, the success of the first Disney series featuring its own character allowed the Walt Disney Studio to expand. However, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney lost the rights to his character in 1928 to his producer Charles Mintz, who took Oswald to Universal. Cartoonist Walter Lantz was hired by Mintz to pursue the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. 

Following this dispute with his producer, Disney decided to come up with a new character to replace Oswald. That turned out to be Mickey Mouse.