Lost Disney 'Oswald' Cartoon, Precursor to Mickey Mouse, Found in Japan

Oswald Balloon 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of BFI/Walt Disney Animation Studios Ltd

An anime historian had the 16mm film for nearly 70 years before realizing it was one of seven of Walt Disney's earliest works that had thought to be lost.

A lost 1928 Walt Disney cartoon featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the character that would lead to the creation of Mickey Mouse, has been found in Japan.

The 16mm copy of Neck 'n' Neck was in the hands of an anime historian Yasushi Watanabe, who had bought it when he was in high school nearly 70 years ago, but had not realized its significance.

Watanabe, now 84, bought the film at a toy wholesaler near his home in Osaka, but only recently read Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons by David Bossert, a longtime animator at Disney who published the book last year.

The film was tagged Mickey Manga Spide (Mickey cartoon speedy) and cost Watanabe ?500, $4.40 at current exchange rates.

"As I've been a Disney fan for many years, I'm happy that I was able to play a role," Watanabe told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which contacted Bossert and the Walt Disney Archives to confirm it was one of seven of the 26 Oswald series thought to be permanently lost.

The original Neck 'n' Neck was five minutes in length, but was cut to two minutes for the 16mm version sold for home projection use.

Watanabe's copy is currently being kept at Kobe Planet Film Archive, one of the largest private film collections in Japan, with more 16,000 titles in its library.

Oswald was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1927 and a series of cartoons featuring the character were made through 1928 and distributed by Universal Studios. It was the first Disney series featuring its own character and its success allowed the Walt Disney Studio to expand.

However, in 1928, Disney lost control of the character in a contract dispute with his producer Charles Mintz, who took Oswald to Universal. On the train home from the fateful meeting, which also led to many of Disney's animators to leave for Universal, he decided to come up with a new character that he would hang on to the rights for. That character would be Mickey Mouse.

In 2006, Disney CEO Bob Iger brought Oswald back to the company, effectively trading commentator Al Michaels to Universal, so he could work on NBC Sunday Night Football, in return for the character. The deal included the rights to Oswald and the original 26 short films made by Disney.

Another of the lost Oswald films was discovered in the British Film Institute archives in 2015.

Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to get a full release, debuted on Nov.18, 1928, 90 years ago this Sunday.