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Rare Disney Cartoon Discovered In Japan Shows Mickey Mouse's Predecessor

An old film reel purchased 70 years ago in Japan has been revealed to be a long-lost Disney cartoon featuring the precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Yasushi Watanabe first bought the film for ¥500, equating to about $4.40 USD today, while he was a high school student in the Japanese city of Osaka, CTV News reported. Now an 84-year-old anime history researcher, Watanabe discovered the significance of this modest reel after he read a book about the history of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit."

Before the famed cartoon mouse became synonymous with Walt Disney, there was first Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – a long-eared anthropomorphic rabbit complete with a pair of two-button trousers, closely resembling early versions of Mickey. First created in the 1920s by Walt himself, this character starred in as many as 27 short films before Disney lost the rights to a rival studio. Despondent by the loss, Walt sought to create a new character. Thus, Mickey Mouse was born, inheriting many of the same characteristics seen on Oswald, including his button trousers and oversized white gloves.

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The book also explained that seven of those short films featuring Oswald were missing, and after reading up about the rabbit, Watanabe came to the conclusion that he was quite possibly in possession of a pretty big part of Disney's history.

The reel in question was labeled in Japanese "Mickey Manga Spide", meaning "Mickey Cartoon Speedy" in English. In this particular film, Oswald (mistaken here for being Mickey Mouse), is driving a car with his girlfriend and being chased by a dog policeman on a motorbike. The film features moments where both the characters and vehicles stretch and shrink, using a technique that would later feature in many Disney works.

Watanabe contacted the Japanese national newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, who then contacted the author of the book he had previously read, as well as the Walt Disney Archives. It was eventually confirmed that the reel was, in fact, one of the missing films and had originally been titled "Neck 'n' Neck" upon its release in 1928.

The film was initially five minutes long but was shortened to two minutes to accommodate home movie projectors, and was then sold to the public as a 16-mm film, The Asahi Shimbun reported.

"We're absolutely delighted to learn that a copy of the lost film exists," Becky Cline, director of the Archives, told the newspaper. 

"As I've been a Disney fan for many years, I'm happy that I was able to play a role [in the discovery]," Watanabe said.

The newly discovered reel is now being safely housed at the Kobe Planet Film Archive in Japan. While certainly a tremendous discovery, this actually isn't the first Oswald film to be unearthed. In 2014, Norway's National Library announced that they had come across a cartoon titled "Empty Socks" during an inventory at the library's facility near the Arctic Circle. This was revealed to be the very first Christmas film ever made by Disney.

Just one year later, another Oswald short film was uncovered in Britain, where it was then screened for the first time in 87 years.

This month is actually quite significant for the Walt Disney company, as November 18th will mark the 90th anniversary of Mickey Mouse's very first appearance on screen in the short film, "Steamboat Willie."

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