Prince of the Sun: The Great Adventure of Hols (impressions)
Anime News Network
4 March 2014
By Justin Sevakis
It's the iron age, somewhere in Scandinavia, and a young boy warrior named Hols is just coming back home from a fierce battle with a pack of wolves. His father, on his deathbed, bids him to return to the Northern village they fled years ago, when an evil sorcerer named Grunwald devastated the town. Hols, he says, is strong enough to avenge the village.
And so, Hols sets off, accompanied by his anthropomorphic bear buddy Coro. They actually don't get very far before Grunwald finds them, and demands that the boy serve him. When he refuses, Grunwald throws him off of a cliff into the snow.
Hols is saved by the townsfolk from a nearby village, which has also been under siege by the sorcerer. He quickly proves himself, and in the ensuing battles, finds another orphan, a lovely girl with a beautiful voice named Hilda. Together, the townsfolk and Hols conspire to bring down the evil sorcerer once and for all. But there's one thing Hols didn't count on: Hilda is not what she seems to be.
Inspired by a puppet play known as The Sun Above Chikisani, which was itself based on the folklore of the nearly-extinct Ainu natives of Japan, Adventures of Hols: Prince of the Sun is one of the most unique and important films in anime history. I often have trouble recommending anime from this era, and specifically the films from the studio Toei Doga. Although lavish and visually impressive, many of the films simply wouldn't hold much appeal to adult audiences except for true animation buffs. They're kids' films, and dated ones at that. Some are difficult to sit through. But this one is the one that shows the studio at its true acme, both creatively and visually.
Even more fascinating than the film itself is its turbulent history. The very first film that Isao Takahata ever directed, the film was intended to be a solid new direction for the studio. By this time, Toei Doga had been making feature films for a decade, all of them decidedly aimed at kids and filled with comic relief that mostly served as a distraction to the main story. They were charming in their own right, but were sort of an Eastern take on Disney features of the era, not the sort of thing most adults would willingly go see on their own.
Hols was to be different. Animated almost entirely by the younger generation of up-and-coming animators, it reflected the attitudes of the youth who had come of age in the post-war era, and the country's new economic growth had given them a lot of hope for the future and a sense of proletariat camaraderie. Politically, the late 60s in Japan were a period of this youth trying to instill unionization and democratic ideals into the stodgy old money that still ran things in Japan.
As a production, Toei afforded these young animators a very democratic production process, with nearly everybody on staff having the ability to contribute ideas towards the final product. Some, including a young Hayao Miyazaki, really rose to the occasion. Takahata himself was also a relative newcomer; at 32 he had proven himself a few years earlier on the TV series Wolf Boy Ken, which won him enough respect to direct the film, but not enough to win many creative battles with the studio. The original setting, among Japan's indigenous Ainu people, was changed to Scandinavia, and its running time shortened by over a half hour.
Even in its shortened form, the project proved to be too much for Takahata and his crew. Originally planned to be done in eight months, work on the film stretched on for three years and went insanely over-budget before Toei finally had enough and decided to cut their losses and give it a half-assed release. The final film is clearly unfinished in a few spots -- there are two memorable shots that are completely missing any in-between animation (and are pretty hard to follow visually.) After playing the film for only ten days with very limited marketing, the film was officially crowned a flop, and Takahata was demoted. He was never allowed to direct at Toei Doga again. The film nonetheless found a cult audience, primarily of young adults, that seized and adored its underlying political themes and appreciated its mature sensibilities.
Watching the film with fresh eyes today, it's amazing just how influential the work is. The animation is fluid and consistent in a way that anime has seldom been since, with action scenes playing out across huge expanses that must've been nearly impossible to animate. Hols himself is almost the template for anime's multitude of young, energetic, spikey-haired action heroes. Echoes of Hilda ripple across everything from Nadia to Nausicäa.
There are small things about the film that don't quite work with modern sensibilities. The pacing of the film is a little slow and definitely of its era. The level of violence, particularly against animals, is kind of incredible - Hols swings his hatchet with full intent to kill. But the most jarring thing is the voice work, which uses a style of Japanese stage acting that was commonly also used in movies in that era. It's a very unsubtle style of acting, and to those unfamiliar, it all just sounds like overdramatic yelling.
Eventually the film found its way to America, where it was released in dubbed form as Little Norse Prince Valiant (a title that I could never make much sense out of), and is now owned by MGM. The dub is directed by Fred Ladd, and featuring Billie Lou Watt as Hols and Corinne Orr as Hilda. This version is streaming on Netflix and Hulu, and while it has the technical limitations of a very old dub, it's actually completely uncut and pretty faithful to the Japanese. I haven't been able to figure out when this dub was made, exactly.
The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun occupies a strange place in anime history. Its animation techniques are eerily close to classic Disney feature animation from the 40s and 50s, while its designs and mature sensibilities are all anime. One might consider it to be the very first film that proved the true power of anime as a storytelling medium, one that could finally be taken seriously by adults. Its failure was the ashes from which Miyazaki and Takahata would rise, partner, and eventually form Studio Ghibli. Flawed or not, it's an absolute must-see.
Note: Various attempts have been made over the years to clarify the origin of the names in the story, but the decision-making process was not well documented. Hols is often romanized as Horus, and neither can be proven or disproven correct.
Critic After Dark
14 November 2010
By Noel Vera
Not a Pixar pic
Isao Takahata's very first animated feature Taiyou no Ouji Horusu no Daibouken (Little Norse Prince, 1968) is I would say a masterpiece - a real achievement, considering that Toei had intended to do yet another of its quickie kiddie features, and interfered with production almost continuously (the script was reportedly based on an Ainu legend, which Toei insisted should be transposed to Norway to exploit the popularity of European mythology (confusing, especially if you happen to be Danish)). The studio was unhappy with the finished product, refused to provide the money to finish animating two major action sequences (you see them here in a series of stills), cut out half an hour from the running time, ran the resulting mess in commercial theaters for only ten days before pulling it out, despite glowing reviews from critics. Needless to say, Takahata was demoted, and never allowed to direct another picture in Toei again.
From the opening sequence onwards you can see how different the picture was, and still is, from most other animated features - no music, no bright and cheerful dialogue or noise, just the desperate gasps and scuffles of a boy fighting for his life against a pack of snarling wolves. The boy - Hols, he's called here, though the original Japanese title names him Horus (no apparent connection with the Egyptian god of the sky and sun) - wields what seems to be an axehead, or at least a heavy throwing axe with a short handle, a vicious weapon that can stun or kill with a single swing of the arm (we see felled wolves, though Takahata softpedals any explicit depiction of spilled blood).
Hols pulls a sword out of the shoulder of a stone giant (inspiration for a similar creature in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army?), who prophesizes that Hols will be the Prince of the Sun; he is told by his dying father to return to their homeland and take revenge on Grunwald, the evil sorcerer who destroyed their village and forced father and son into exile. Later, Hols finds himself near the edge of a cliff, hanging on to a slender line which Grunwald happens to be holding; the villain offers the boy a chance to join him (in the Japanese original it was an offer to make Hols his brother). Hols refuses; Grunwald promptly lets go of the line.
Ten-year-old boy dropped down a cliff by a powerful sorcerer; not the kind of plot twist Pixar is fond of using - but there's more. Hols comes upon a fishing village terrorized by a giant pike and tries to win them over by fighting the monster (it's a titanic battle, masterfully animated, with one gruesome little detail - a fishing spear waving like a chopstick from the pike's eye socket, where Hols had stabbed him). When Hols announces the pike's death, the villagers don't quite believe him (where's the body, then?); one village child whose father was killed by the fish is actually angry - he wanted to grow up and kill the pike himself.
Little details like that, little touches of psychological realism, distinguish Takahata's storytelling. The colors may be bright, the characters round-eyed and faintly Disney-ish, the sidekicks cute small animals, but their words, actions, thoughts, feelings, are not all adorable. Hols has a complicated relationship with these villagers - the trust they give him is provisional, on the apparent death of the fish, but his success has also won him enemies among the villagers, enemies that conspire to turn the people against him, force him back into exile.
Arguably the most striking sequence in the picture is when Hols discovers an empty village, eerie with silence. Among the deserted huts he encounters the mysterious Hilda, an apparent survivor of whatever devastation has emptied the little town. Hols takes her back with him, and her singing enchants the townspeople, who find themselves stopping work to listen.
If Hols relationship with the village is knotty, Hilda's is well nigh hopeless - she often finds herself looking upon the villagers as grotesque in their simplicity, despite their kindness. Hilda's character actually makes more sense if you see her as the traumatized survivor of some unknown holocaust - the inability to open up to people, the tendency to be willful and perverse, the obsession with death and destruction (she suffers from survivor's guilt and exhibits suicidal tendencies). Likewise the villagers' response to her - an uneasy mix of incomprehension and mute fascination - is more understandable if you keep in mind the chasm in experience between them and the girl, how strange yet alluring it can be. Yes they have suffered (the pike's recent reign of terror comes to mind), but they simply cannot understand the effects total destruction can have on a young mind, the kind of nihilistic philosophy it can create, even in a lovely girl with a beautiful voice.
Perhaps Takahata's finest and least appreciated effect would be the sense of roundedness, of solid familiarity, he gives the villagers. Viewers looking for easy entertainment might find the scenes of singing and festival-dancing and everyday living dull, but the scenes go hand-in-hand with Takahata's idea that the real protagonist of the film isn't Hols, but the community as a whole - this in turn going hand-in-hand with Takahata's view of the complex relationship between individuals and the various communities that inhabit his films.
Thus: in Only Yesterday, the heroine Taeko's easy efforts to immerse herself in a small farming community is contrasted with her childhood struggles to integrate herself into her own family; in My Neighbors the Yamadas the focus is on one family and, to some extent, the neighborhood they live in. Pom Poko is possibly the fullest and most complex expression of this idea of community-as-protagonist - yes they are raccoon dogs, yes they are mythological figures, but the way these dogs debate, squabble, compromise, celebrate, and make love reminds one of the interactions and struggles found in any community, particularly one faced with the possibility of extinction. And tragic Pom Poko may ultimately be (a conflict between animals and men can only end one way), it is relatively optimistic in its view of community relations compared to what may be Takahata's finest film, the great Grave of the Fireflies. There a young boy and his little sister struggling to survive the waning years of World War Two begin a gradual and complete rejection of their community - a rejection that will result in consequences the film shows us with simple, unflinching honesty.
Consider the film political, as well - the scenes of Hols' enemies turning the villagers against him can be read as reactionary forces employing propaganda to re-interpret events their way (the way, say, certain news outlets might be said to 'put a spin' on current events). Call this Takahata's test, his challenge to the villagers' sense of comfort, their complacency; when they decide to rise up and take action it's not at all Hols' triumph but theirs, an expression of the collective will (Takahata has always displayed leftist tendencies in his films, and in fact there was an ongoing labor dispute during this feature's production). To animate this, Takahata employs every element in his considerable animation palette - steel, sunlight, fire, ice - to express brilliant righteousness driving darkness and ignorance into a corner.
It's dark, subtle, complex stuff - and to think it was all done in 1968! Takahata's debut feature was hugely influential in lifting Japanese animation out of the pit of kiddie fare and dealing with more sophisticated stuff - from Mori Masaki's historical retelling of the Hiroshima bombing (Barefoot Gen) to Hayao Miyazaki's ecological epics (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Princess Mononoke) to the political, philosophical and metaphysical conundrums of Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell 1, 2 & SAC; The Sky Crawlers). Pixar movies move viewers to tears? Fine and good, but Japanese anime transcended tears decades ago, to deal with politics, history, psychological complexity - and all thanks to Takahata's great, early film.
Fade to Lack
24 January 2015
By Jonathan R. Lack
If you are a fan of Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, or Studio Ghibli, or of animation in general, or Japanese cinema on the whole, or even world film history in its broadest strokes, there is no DVD in recent times more important and revelatory than Discotek Media’s release of Horus, Prince of the Sun.
The film, a Toei animated feature from 1968, was the feature directorial debut of Takahata – who would go on to craft such landmarks as Grave of the Fireflies and the recent, Oscar-nominated The Tale of Princess Kaguya – and was animated by a team of soon-to-be giants including, but certainly not limited to, Hayao Miyazaki. Were it merely the inception point of so many significant careers, the film would certainly deserve some attention, but Horus is so much more than that. As Daniel Thomas MacInnes argues on one of the disc’s two audio commentaries, Horus may well be Japanese animation’s Citizen Kane, the defining moment in which ‘anime’ transcended the limitations of Western influence and proved itself a force of intense artistic and intellectual power.
I had heard of the film many times before, a constant fixture in research I have done on Takahata and Miyazaki; yet until Discotek’s recent DVD release – which arrived at the tail-end of 2014, with minimal attention or fanfare – I had never had the chance to see it, for this is the first time Horus has been made commercially available in the United States. It is a cause for immense celebration. This is a jaw-dropping film, a stunning work of radical power and unbridled cinematic passion that remains a wonder to behold 46 years after its theatrical release. To watch it is to see the history of modern anime unfold; all the potential of Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, and the industry as a whole is contained within Horus’ brief yet dense 82 minutes, and now that I have seen it, it is clear to me that no appraisal of either man’s careers, let alone the last five decades of Japanese animation, can be undertaken without seeing and discussing Horus. It is that sort of milestone, and to finally see it is like uncovering a long-buried treasure.
That this film has finally been brought to North American audiences is significant no matter what, but the work done by Discotek on this release is so exemplary that I feel it warrants further attention. With terrific video quality and a thoroughly researched, expertly compiled slate of extras, Discotek has crafted a DVD package worthy of the film’s underexplored legacy. It is easily one of the most exhilarating and essential home video releases I have come across in months, from any corner of the cinematic world, and since I have barely seen the DVD discussed online, even in places I should think might highlight it, I wanted to take the time to talk about this release in some detail. It truly is an invaluable archive.
The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (as it is titled in full) is one of those historical landmarks that still feels palpably radical, even many decades later. At this point in the industry’s history, Japanese animation was still bound by the conventions of American animation, Walt Disney in particular, as it was the world’s only model of broadly successful commercial animation. This was the context in which Takahata and company were working, and with the animation itself bearing vestiges of Disney – the simple, clean line-work of American animation had yet to give way to the more angular and detailed look we are used to in Japanese animation – and with the many anthropomorphized animals and songs on display, one might be forgiven for thinking Horus a Western film at first glance, or at least a relic of Japanese animation before it came into its own. Yet what constantly fascinates me about the film – what really feels radical and revolutionary – is how Takahata keeps subverting those traditions, or using them to entirely different ends, and doing so with such artistic passion and intelligence that a new artistic model is born before our eyes.
So we have our unflappable male hero, but he’s drenched in violence and conflict from beginning to end, the line of his ‘destiny’ mired in such dense strands of human doubt and fallacy that there is nothing ‘simple’ about his morality or evolution. We have an imposing antagonist with plans for domination, yet here, he is literally the ‘devil’ (an akuma), a force of pure evil and corruption, and facing him means the film directly confronts the nature and psychological toll of violence and death. There are indeed talking animals, and while they can be cute and inviting presences, they too exist as part of this traumatic world too (as Takahata points out in a supplemental interview, the creatures work more as visual extensions of human psyche than they do comic relief foils). There are songs, but they serve to accentuate tone, and evoke cultural atmosphere, and they are so much more emotionally and textually complex than what they appear on the surface. There is action and adventure, but it’s brutal, terrifying even, Takahata setting an important precedent that violence and death mean something, and cannot be taken for granted.
Most importantly, we have a female co-lead, one who is beautiful and prone to singing, yet she is far from the simple window dressing featured in Western animation. Hilda is complex, a demon child wracked with confusion over whether she should walk the path of mankind, and be party to their mortality and flaws, or live above them, removed from the chaos as an immortal, elevated demon. Her psychological turmoil is never simplified or treated anything less than seriously – she is the film’s thematic touchstone, and in her creation is sown the seeds for every great female protagonist Takahata and Miyazaki would ever create; perhaps even the whole rich history of psychologically vivid and complex characters, both male and female, in Japanese animation.
And yet, these are all perhaps the simplest elements of Horus to take apart and digest. When the film dives into more fully experimental territory, as it does late in the story when Horus is sent into a dimension of doubt, the film unshackles itself from all convention, animated or otherwise; there are times, watching the film, where my mind reels considering this could have been made in 1968 at all, anywhere in the world, yet alone in the realm of Japanese animation. Then there are the influences from live-action world cinema Takahata employed here; his love of the French New Wave especially is worn on the film’s sleeve, especially in the film’s wholly unusual, and undeniably invigorating, widescreen composition, or in the dynamic camera movements glimpsed throughout.
The film’s conclusion is an act of cinematic revolution in and of itself, as Takahata and company push the story into the realm of political allegory, turning Horus’ archetypal adventure into an analogue for the worldwide turmoil of the 1960s in general, and the labor disputes of Toei animation in specific (Takahata, Miyazaki, and many of the film’s animators were leaders in the labor union at Toei, a series of conflicts that would push Toei to pull Horus from theatrical release after just 10 days, and would soon force most of its creators from the studio entirely). There is a palpable bravery to the conclusion, a passion to the film’s unrepentant socialist message of people coming together to fight against the opposition of the individual, that resonates powerfully even to this day.
I am, again, amazed to consider that Takahata and his team got away with any of this. Horus was a statement, an announcement of a wide swath of major talents working tirelessly to prove themselves. Everything about the film’s existence amazes me – that it was directed and created by such young, untested artists; that it pushed boundaries as far it did, in as many ways as it did, at the time it was made; and of course, that those responsible for its creation would only go on to improve from here, building on this foundation to do nothing less than transform the face of cinema. This is a film we should speak of in the same tones as the initial works of the French New Wave, or of Italian Neorealism, or any other major paradigm shift in the history of world cinema. Like those works, Horus took what previously existed and redefined ‘convention’ in so many different ways; it was the start of something big, and stands as an essential cinematic text.
There is always the danger of hyping a film like this too much, of course, and I think it is worth acknowledging that there are awkward, unfinished qualities to the film. I do sense some discomfort in the use of various Western elements, as if the animals or songs don’t always feel fully integrated, or the film stylistically yearns, at times, to break free even further. The animation is stunning for the time, taking major leaps forward in background detail, character design, and fluid motion, but less so by the standards these animators would later set, and there is a whole battle sequence in the middle that is effectively unfinished (and yet the film is even influential in that regard – substituting an unfinished sequence with dynamic still frames remains a solution for low-budget or hurried anime productions to this day). Horus is not, all things being equal, necessarily the equal of Takahata or Miyazaki’s later masterpieces, and I do think parts of it will be difficult for some viewers to access today; works from this period of Japanese animation are so rare to encounter in the first place, and seeing one that straddles the line between past and future as completely as Horus does is a challenging experience.
And yet Horus is still so engaging, on so many levels, so haunting and beautiful and deep and accomplished, that it cannot be ignored; and when viewed in its historical context, the film is as staggering and astounding as they come. It puts something like The Tale of Princess Kaguya in even greater focus for me; for Takahata to go from Horus to Kaguya in fifty years, starting his career with a major paradigm shift and abandoning convention altogether by the end, pushing his style and content to a point of experimental poetry, is an astounding evolution for any director to make; in truth, anime as a whole (including towering masters like Miyazaki himself) followed him along the way. That one man could have these two works to his name boggles the mind; that so many other major figures, like Miyazaki, were there at the start of this revolution is equally astounding. But as I said, that’s true of everything about Horus. It’s quite the discovery.
And Discotek really couldn’t have done the film any better here, short of giving it the full Blu-ray treatment (though I in no way bemoan them going DVD only, as I imagine it was the only way to make this release commercially viable). The film looks gorgeous here, perfectly mastered from a shockingly clean, intact source (given Japan’s reputation for poor cinematic preservation, visual quality is never certain with films of this vintage), and it sounds great as well (again considering the film’s age). The new English subtitle translation is fantastic, faithful and expressive in equal measure, and it comes with the requisite English dub track as well, if you want to make your ears bleed from awkward, unnatural line deliveries and a severely degraded audio mix.
This top-notch presentation of the film itself would of course be enough – especially for such a reasonably priced release – but the supplemental package Discotek has curated is an embarrassment of riches, especially when compared with most other anime home video releases. Two full audio commentaries are provided, both well-researched from knowledgeable enthusiasts; the second may not be a recording of professional quality, but the content is great nevertheless. There are two video interviews, one with animator Yoichi Kotabe, a major figure from this era who shares excellent insight into the creation of Horus, and one with director Isao Takahata, which is a rare, supremely informative treat indeed. To hear him talk about the turmoil that went into making the film, or discuss in such depth the inspirations he took from other films and movements around the world, is a joy, and I am ecstatic that Discotek uncovered and translated the conversation.
Apart from the film’s original Theatrical Trailer – also presented with excellent A/V quality – the rest of the extras are text-based, and while it might have been nice to have these offered as a physical booklet rather than on-screen text, I understand budgetary limitations would have probably made that difficult, and am happy to have it all either way. There is a gallery-esque feature that explores all the ways Horus inspired later moments in Takahata and Miyazaki’s career, as well as anime at large, and also considers the works that inspired Horus itself. Daniel Thomas MacInnes, who also provides one of the two audio commentaries, offers an analytical essay about the characters of Hilda and Horus, and there is an additional archival interview with Isao Takahata as well. To my mind, the most revelatory feature on the disc is a tribute to Reiko Okuyama, an incredibly influential female animator from this period whose name will likely be unfamiliar to most viewers (mine included); learning about her contributions not only to Horus, but to the industry at large – especially women’s rights in the animation industry – is fascinating, and provides even greater context for the radical politics of the film itself. All of these text-based features are thoroughly researched and informative; my only wish is that they had taken another editorial pass on all of them, as each is distractingly filled with easily-fixable typos.
Nevertheless, Discotek has put together something really special here. This release is just a great piece of film archiving, collecting supplements from around the world and creating new ones to fill in the gaps. In offering such thorough analysis of the film in question, the disc manages to feel like a ‘film school in a box,’ that sweet spot always aimed for by the Criterion Collection, where one can learn so much about the film and its context right alongside an expert presentation. And it is a dirt-cheap release to boot. There is nothing here not worth celebrating, and no excuse not to buy, explore, and discuss this milestone release. I could not possibly recommend it any more passionately, and alongside other early Takahata and Miyazaki projects Discotek has gradually been releasing (they also recently released Miyazaki’s 1st film, The Castle of Cagliostro, alongside TV series like Lupin the 3rd and Sherlock Hound), it’s clear to me this company is doing some pretty impressive, important work in anime archiving. I look forward to whatever comes next.
24 October 2005
By Daniel Thomas MacInnes
The Citizen Kane of Japanese animation?
Quite likely. At least that's the thesis I find myself coming to. The movie I'm referring to is The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, the Japanese animation masterpiece released in 1968. If it isn't the greatest anime ever made (and one could clearly argue the point), then clearly it is the most important.
Horus was conceived at the Toei Doga studio, which was a leading animation studio churning out movies and TV shows in Japan. It was the creation of a collective of masterfully talented animators: Yasuji Mori, Yasuo Otsuka, Yoichi Kotabe, and a brash, young Hayao Miyazaki. The leader of the group was a prodigously skilled director named Isao Takahata. Horus was his first feature film as director, and he schemed up a grand story that would forever destroy the slavish Walt Disney mold, reinvent animation as a form of serious filmmaking, and make a sweeping statement for his politically-charged generation.
Horus was birthed over the course of three long years, when Takahata endlessly battled the executives of Toei, who expected another simple, Disney-esque children's cartoon. He lost many of those battles: the film's setting was moved from Japan's native peoples to Scandinavia, 30 minutes were cut from the original two-hour length (a length unheard of at that time), and two key scenes were never animated, due to their extreme scale and complexity.
Toei never knew what they had on their hands. Horus, Prince of the Sun was released in 1968, and pulled from theatres after ten days. Takahata was permanantly demoted, never allowed to direct again. But like The Ramones, the film steadily built up a devoted following among college students. In time Takahata, Miyazaki, Mori, Otsuka, and Kotabe were vindicated a thousand times over, with the World Masterpiece Theatre productions of the '70s, and with Takahata and Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli.
Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes - addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.
Horus is available on DVD in Japan, Portugal, France, and now the UK with English-language subtitles for the first time. The French DVD, as usual, has all the best extras, including over an hour of interviews and features, and a 24-page booklet. The Japanese version has the classic movie poster. The UK release, for some infuriating reason, has slapped on an asinine, stupid title: "The Little Norse Prince." 37 years later, and the suits still don't know what they've got on their hands.
26 July 2004
(Excerpted from part 2 of a longer essay about Toei Doga)
By Ben Ettinger
After a few years in the desert, we arrive in Canaan.
What to think of the film? For Toei Doga it was an albatross. Over budget, over schedule, not a chuckle in the entire film. Instead, a deep and dark meditation on the duty of the individual in society. Disgusted, with no idea what they had on their hands, they shirked on the publicity, and it flopped at the box office. Takahata was ousted for good.
For the rest of us, though, Horus was and remains a symbol of everything that is great about anime; the first harbinger of its true potential. A film that simultaneously broke the mold of the Toei Doga film and crowned its apotheosis.
Rarely in the history of the animated film has there been a more cogent example of the content of a film mirroring the ideals and experiences of the people on the production floor. Here we had a studio packed with a new generation of fervent young animators fresh from the experience of having grown up amid the desolation of the surrender, fueled by the new ideals of democracy and socialism, eager to express their values in their work, to make a difference.
Toei Doga furnished them with a compatibly democratic workplace that offered the promise of a genuine share of the artistic input into the final product. That doesn't mean that the path towards enlightenment was strewn with roses. It meant a give and take learning process on the part of both parties, with times of tentative testing of the new relationship (Magic Boy) followed by tragic but inevitable momentary losses for the workers/wins for the bosses (Littlest Warrior), swiftly followed by a backlash of angry demands for improved conditions on the part of the workers, abutting in negotiations leading to new and greater gains for the workers (Little Prince), only to be followed by ominous doldrums during which both parties could only stand by and watch helplessly as the social conditions providing the groundwork for their cooperative idyll crumbled down around them (Andersen).
Horus arrived at the end of this string of tribulations like the handshake that closes Metropolis.
The struggle portrayed in Hols was a symbolic expression of the union activities that Takahata, Otsuka and many of the other employees had been extremely passionate about since their entry into Toei Doga. Soon after joining the company in 1963, Takahata proved his mettle to the execs by his dynamic attitude and masterly directing in Ken the Wolf Boy, and earned the unqualified trust of his fellow employees, leaving little doubt that he was soon to be appointed to the task of directing one of the feature films - an uncommonly rapid accession to that post in the stricty heirarchical Toei.
Starting from the choice of a text, a puppet play called The Sun Above Chikisani based on the legends of the Ainu - the oppressed and nearly obliterated First Nations of Japan - it becomes clear that Takahata approached this task with the utmost seriousness, as an opportunity to express solidarity with the colonized and the oppressed, to express the themes of his generation: democracy, egality and solidarity, and finally to create a damned incredible moviegoing experience like nobody had ever seen before.
With the entire staff enthusiastically behind him and ready for the task, his sub-lieutenant Yasuo Otsuka by his side, he set off on this mad quest to drag a steamboat over a mountain, to build an animation pyramid leading to the heavens. They were ready to follow Takahata to hell to get this film done. And that's just where they found themselves.
Takahata had to fight tooth and nail for every scrap. The first loss was the title, followed by the Ainu trappings. The execs feared that a story about Ainu would either bore or scare people, so they were forced to change the setting to Scandinavia. Then they were behind schedule. They were using too many cels. Takahata was losing credibility fast, and the clock was ticking. By the end he'd been forced to cut more than half an hour off of a film where every second was absolutely essential, because the execs feared people wouldn't come to a 120 minute animated movie. Add to this the two scenes they simply didn't have time enough to animate, and Takahata was feeling roundly defeated by the time the film was released.
Whatever flaws it may have, the film towers above any contemporary anime film - and above most that are made today - in terms of entertainment value, in terms of philosophy, in terms of character depth, in terms of animation, and most of all in terms of directing. Needless to say, Takahata's ambition has since been vindicated hundredfold by the rise of Ghibli and the admiration and praise his films there have garnered around the globe.
To me, this extraordinary film is more than just a first step towards Ghibli. It's one of the most incredible directing debuts in animated film history, and still one of the handful of great anime films of all time, for its unsurpassed inherent quality and its historical significance.
In terms of the animation, no contest: Horus has the best animation of any Toei Doga film, by lightyears. To mention only the most stunning examples: The fight with the big fish animated by Otsuka Yasuo is in the opinion of many of today's most important animators (including Satoru Utsunomiya) one of the greatest fight scenes ever drawn in anime. And Hilda, designed by Yasuji Mori and animated entirely by Yasuji Mori throughout the film, was the single most psychologically penetrating animation of a character to grace any Japanese animation up until that point. She still is. Her performance is Oscar-worthy and then some. If Mori was the soul of Toei Doga, then Hilda is the soul of Horus.