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Today, most people will have some awareness of anime in some form or another, whether they’re die-hard fans that immerse themselves into franchise after franchise or someone who can vaguely remember collecting Pokémon cards as a kid. But, like most forms of entertainment, when anime was young it had to prove itself to the world, and has undergone several landmark renaissances to get to where it sits now as a vital part of international pop culture.
Although early forms of anime existed prior to the 1960s, this decade is the one widely acknowledged to be one of the defining eras in the medium’s history, and certainly the birthplace of what we know as modern anime. Struggling in Japan’s slow post-war economic recovery, Toei Animation – one of Japan’s “Big Five” film studios – adopted the lucrative Disney method of adapting (Eastern) folklore stories into animated musicals, replacing the main characters with animals and children to make them more whimsical.
But whilst the first Disney feature film, ‘Snow White’, opened in 1938 to wide critical and commercial success, the first full-colour anime film did not see a release until 1955, and despite some international accolades and massive strides forward in animation quality, anime features in this decade were largely enjoyed solely on a domestic level.
It’s no place for women. Besides, magicians don’t like girls. They saw them in half!
It’s no place for women. Besides, magicians don’t like girls. They saw them in half!
One of the earliest anime feature films, ‘Alakazam the Great’ was essentially an adaptation by Toei Animation of classic 16th century Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’ by Wu Cheng-en – the first of the company’s musical adaptations of popular Oriental folk tales.
The story follows a brave and popular monkey named Alakazam (a macaque, to be specific) as he rises to become the King of all monkeys. However, his ascension makes him big-headed and power-mad, and believing himself to be superior to all – including humans – Alakazam forces Merlin the magician to grant him magical powers. Growing more and more arrogant, he challenges King Amo of the Majutsu Land (Heaven), only to be defeated and sentenced to accompany Prince Amat on a pilgrimage designed to teach him the humility and wisdom needed to salvage his heroism.
Alakazam’s original name, ‘Son-Goku’, will no doubt sound familiar to fans of the popular anime series ‘Dragon Ball’ as the inspiration for the franchise’s central protagonist, Goku, as will much of the narrative themes and imagery such as animalistic transformations and zipping around on clouds. It’s also clear when watching ‘Alakazam’ that Toei Animation not only attempted to mimic Disney’s economic model but its visual style too, and although ‘Alakazam the Great’ may not be as slickly produced as its American contemporaries, it is beautifully animated nonetheless.
‘Alakazam’ is also notable for possibly giving industry legend Osamu Tezuka his first film credit as “director”. It’s difficult to overstate the influence that a man remembered reverently as the “God of Manga” had on Japan’s cultural landscape. Tezuka was responsible for creating some of the most iconic characters in anime history from Astro Boy to Kimba the White Lion and Princess Knight, as well as fundamentally shaping what we recognise as modern manga.
Curiously, he later denied the role that Toei Animation credited him with for ‘Alakazam’, clarifying that he in fact contributed very little to the feature. He did also reveal though that his presence in the studio began his interest in animation.
‘Little Prince’ (also known as ‘Prince in Wonderland’ and ‘Rainbow Bridge’) was Toei Animation’s sixth feature, and perhaps their biggest accomplishment of the decade in terms of animation quality – placing 10th among the all-time’s top 150 animated films and series at Tokyo’s Laputa Animation Festival in 2003 by an international group of critics and animators.
Continuing the studio’s business model of adapting Eastern myths and legends, the film drew inspiration from the Shinto myth that told of a battle between the storm God Susanoo and an eight-headed dragon known as the “Yamata no Orochi”. In this version, Susanoo takes the form of a cute little boy grieving the death of his mother. Desperate to get her back from Heaven, he sets off on an arduous journey accompanied by Akahana (a rabbit) and Titan Bo (a giant).
Eventually, Susanoo reaches the Izumo Province where he befriends Princess Kushinada, who eerily reminds him of his late mother. The princess’ family tells Susanoo that their other seven daughters were offered as sacrifice to appease the Yamata no Orochi, and – besotted with Kushinada – Susanoo decides to take the dragon down for good.
Fans of the American cult cartoon series ‘Samurai Jack’ will find the style of ‘Little Prince’ vaguely familiar as the series’ creator Genndy Tartakovsky has cited it as a major influence on his art style. Aside from this – and being heaped with honours from the likes of the Venice Film Festival at the time of it’s release – ‘Little Prince’s’ influence outside of Japan has been minimal, which is a massive shame considering what a visually stunning and important piece of work it is.
Produced in “ToeiScope” (widescreen format) it stands dramatically apart from its contemporaries with bold modernist shapes, abstract backgrounds, and sumptuously painted colours. Although it is unfortunately hard to find due to limited releases, I’d certainly recommend tracking it down if you’re able to.
Taking clear inspiration from both Jonathan Swift’s classic novel and from science fiction, this film marked Toei Animation’s first departure from Eastern folklore in the hopes of attracting the wider international audience that it’s previous efforts had failed to do. Unfortunately, the international reception was much the same, leading ‘Gulliver’ to become the studio’s last export outside of Japan until 1978.
The story follows a homeless boy named Ted (Ricky in the dubbed version) who befriends Dr. Gulliver in a forest after seeing a film about him. Gulliver – now an elderly space-travelling scientist – takes Ted and his friends (a talking dog and a toy soldier) into space to the Planet of Blue Hope, ruled by the Queen of Purple Planet and her evil robot troops. Ted and Gulliver take up water pistols and water balloons (which apparently can melt the robots) to restore peace to the planet. The film ends with an unexpected twist… that I won’t spoil for you!
In terms of style, the film continues in the same modernist vein that ‘Little Prince’ pioneered. It’s cell-shaded ‘blocky’ aesthetic and character design reminds me of the animation for Nintendo’s seminal ‘Legend of Zelda: Windwaker’ video game, whilst the semi-abstract and sparsely laid-out scenery of the Planet of Blue Hope is reminiscent of that in the classic 1958 ‘Looney Tunes’ theatrical short “Hare-Way to the Stars” featuring Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian.
However, perhaps the most noteworthy aspects of ‘Gulliver’ are buried in its production credits. Shinichi Sekizawa, who would go on to contribute written material for the ‘Ultraman’ series and popular kaiju films such as ‘Mothra’ (1961) and ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’ (1962), penned the screenplay; whilst Hayao Miyazaki – founder of Studio Ghibli and one of the most celebrated animators of all-time – worked on the film as an “in-between” artist – one of his earliest formative roles in the industry.
The early half of this decade for the anime industry oversaw some important seeds being sown. From crudely assembled black and white shorts to the first colour feature; the birth of the iconic Toei Animation from a collective of skilled independent animators; the debut of Miyazaki; and of course, Tezuka’s first forays into animation that irrevocably remoulded the industry in an attempt to compete on a global level.
Borrowing heavily from American studio giants like Disney and Hanna-Barbara, anime movies in this first half of the 1960s had yet to solidify that quintessential ‘anime style’ that would make it stand out from its international competition, but impressive efforts such as ‘Little Prince’ certainly showcased the potential that was starting to bloom.