Someday my prints will come: Japan to return Disney's lost illustrations

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sleeping Beauty went shopping in Japan, then lost her way and finally ended up slumbering in a dark and dank janitor's cupboard for years, her fine features slowly succumbing to the effects of damp and mould. Awoken from her slumber, however, she is shortly to return home.

This is the rather strange tale of a collection of vintage animation drawings and sketches that were shipped to Japan nearly five decades ago as pieces in an exhibition that travelled through a series of department stores across the country. Many were selected by Walt Disney himself and were dispatched to coincide with the 1960 opening in Japan of Sleeping Beauty.

But in a sequence of events that hardly did justice to the importance of the 250-odd works, including cels – the celluloid sheets on which animation frames were once drawn – they ended up languishing in the caretaker's storage room on the campus of Chiba University near Tokyo. It is the somewhat chagrined university that this week announced plans finally to give them back to Disney.

"We concluded that it would be best to entrust the works to Walt Disney," the university said in a brief statement. The gesture does not come without reward however: the company will pay the university $1m (£500,000) for the collection and supply it with digital copies of all that it contains.

Aside from the cels, the collection also includes rough paintings and other sketches from the animation workshops of Disney dating back to the Fifties and earlier. Among the treasures are pieces from the world's oldest colour animation film, the 1932 Flowers and Trees, which won Walt Disney his first Academy Award.

But there are also numerous other sketches and paintings in the collection that went into creating such Disney classics as Bambi, Fantasia, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Upon its arrival in Japan in 1960, the collection first made its rounds through the department stores. Thereafter, Disney decided permanently to donate them to the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. The museum, however, was apparently not appropriately thrilled. Deeming that the works weren't a fit with the rest of its collections, it handed the Disney pieces over to Chiba University.

But Chiba, where the focus of studies was more on the sciences and technology, was apparently equally unwilling to give the collection a suitable home. And thus, they ended up hidden away for decades in the closet in Chiba's engineering department. It was only four years ago that they were rediscovered and the university, pondering making digital copies, asked Disney about copyright.

What quickly became clear was that the years of darkness and humidity had not treated the pieces kindly. Only those framed and covered in glass had survived more or less without damage. After experts from the United States spent almost a year restoring them they were again sent on the road in Japan on a touring exhibition.

It was the enthusiastic reaction of the Japanese public – whose embrace of all things Disney was confirmed with the opening of a Disney theme park in Tokyo in 1983 (actually in Chiba itself where the university is located) – that convinced campus officials that the pictures meant rather more than they had originally realised. They also saw that they were not perhaps the best caretakers of them.

"The response to the exhibition gave us a new appreciation for the historical and artistic value of these works," said Toyoki Kozai, the president of the university.