Hello! And welcome to a new limited series here on the ol’ Nerdist.com where I’ll be taking a look at each of the feature films directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. This is a companion to a series I did in 2014 called Miyazaki Masterclass in which I looked at the eleven films directed by Takahata’s partner in Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki.
This’ll be an interesting exploration; I’d only seen a couple Takahata films prior to beginning this, so I’ll be discovering them along with you. Though his career as a director has spanned almost 50 years, he’s only directed eight features. In fact, for our next installment, I’m going to put together his two Panda! Go, Panda! shorts as a single film, since they’re often displayed that way. Despite this relatively small catalog, Takahata demonstrates film to film that he isn’t content to stay in the same genre or even the same visual style. Once he and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, his work became much more focused on Japanese society and contemporary concerns, which Miyazaki either totally eschewed or housed in an epic fantasy. His movies are also much less circulated in this part of the world, perhaps because of the lack of Disney distribution on most of them.
Unlike many who would become anime directors in Japan, Isao Takahata wasn’t an artist and didn’t aspire to be an animator. He wanted to get into films to write and direct and joined Toei Animation studio in the early-60s a) because he knew they were looking for an assistant director, and b) because he was intrigued by the possibilities of the medium. It’s fitting, then, that by the time he was asked to direct his first feature, by mentor and Toei Animation higher-up Yasuo Ōtsuka, the result would be a groundbreaking film that many today count as being the first modern anime and one that began to prove animation wasn’t just “cartoons for kids,” something which most of Takahata’s career would continue.
The 1968 movie, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (known alternately as The Little Norse Prince, Little Norse Prince Valiant, and other such things) is based on a puppet play by screenwriter Kazuo Fukazawa which itself is a reinterpretation of the Japanese folk legend of Yukar, a brave hero. Despite being steeped in Japanese culture, the characters and setting were changed to Scandinavian because of the stigma surrounding anime being set in Japan at the time. That’s preposterous today, but this was the norm in the 1960s.
Okay, so let’s dive into this movie: It’s kind of awesome. It opens with our young hero, Horus (also called Hols), in a life or death battle with “silver wolves” and he’s only got the aid of hand ax. After defeating them, he comes across a boulder–which is actually a giant rock creature named Mogue that Hols accidentally wakes up. After he speaks to the giant for a moment, it reveals that it has some kind of splinter in its shoulder. Hols offers to take a look and realizes after pulling it out that it’s actually a sword, very dull and eroded with time, and it could very well be the mythical “Sword of the Sun,” the only thing that can defeat the evil demon-wizard Grunwald and make Hols the “Prince of the Sun.”
Now that all sounds like epic fantasy of the highest order, and in a lot of ways it is. There are talking animal characters (a bear, a squirrel, and an owl) who fulfill the cute critter quota, but what separates Horus, Prince of the Sun from other films of this nature is how groundbreaking it was in terms of its storytelling. The characters are deep, flawed, and complex figures. We’re introduced to Hilda, a young woman in Horus’ ancestral village whom, we find out, is the half-sister of Grunwald. She is compelled to do evil to Horus, but is conflicted greatly about this. She doesn’t want to, but she feels as though she has to, and at every turn, Hols is trying to give her reason to turn to the good side. The aforementioned squirrel and owl represent the good and evil within her, respectively, being like inner dialogue externalized.
It’s also got a great deal of social and political subtext dealing almost exclusively with the town Hols is trying to avenge and Grunwald is trying to keep oppressed. Doubts about Hols’ true nature are always brought up by characters doing Grunwald’s bidding and Hols has an internal struggle about whether he can or indeed should help these people who routinely accuse him of being a demon. But this story has roots in contemporary Japanese society of the time and the growing idea that a single person can and often will better the whole society through personal growth. Japan was finally beginning to see economic resurgence following defeat in WWII and this film, cased in a fantasy, takes on that idea headlong.
The movie can also be seen as a turning point in visual complexity in the medium. The opening wolf fight is absolutely gorgeous and is much more in line with today’s animation, especially later Studio Ghibli efforts, than anything that had come before it. There’s a sense of scope and depth to everything and the big final battle has a Grunwald becoming a gargantuan mammoth made of ice that Hols has to scale to kill with the sun sword. It’s really, really cool. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Yasuo Ōtsuka was the animation director and a young, untested animator named Hayao Miyazaki proved himself and became a scenic designer and key animator on this picture, thus beginning the collaboration with Takahata that would last for the rest of the century.
While certainly not as pristine as some of the later Ghibli work, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun is a hugely impressive effort from the first-time director and knowing how revolutionary it is makes it all the cooler, I think. It wasn’t a hit by any means when it came out but it has since become a favorite for fans of anime and has earned its place in the annals of animation. Thanks to it being sold to AIP Television in the ’70s, you can now see the movie, under its American title The Little Norse Prince Valiant, with relative ease, being available on several streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Takahata would direct four more films before the creation of Studio Ghibli, and I haven’t seen any of them, so this’ll be interesting. Next week, we’re going to talk about the combined shorts known as Panda! Go, Panda! which he directed and Miyazaki wrote.
Images: Toei Animation
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV crityeahic for Nerdist.com and loves engaging in talks about anime and pretty much anything cool. Follow him on Twitter and talk to him about stuff!