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From it’s first feature-length colour animation, ‘The Tale of the White Serpent’ in 1958, Japan’s animation industry grew at an unprecedentedly exponential rate during the 1960s. The first half of the decade saw Toei Animation – the most prolific studio – produce one film every year.
Anime films in this period focused heavily on adaptations of fairy tales and imaginative reinterpretations of folk heroes such as Pero from ‘The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots’ (1969) and Jack from ‘Jack and the Witch’ (1967), which both take inspiration from popular European folklore.
However, with the prevalence of science fiction and space exploration igniting Japan’s love for the animated TV series, some of these film’s historical settings were invaded by George-Jetson-style flying machines in an effort to engage more of the audience – making for some hallucinogenic viewing.
Films like ‘Kimba the White Lion’ (1966) and ‘The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots’ may boast greater awareness in mainstream pop culture; but arguably the most impressive film of the 1960s was ‘The Great Adventures of Horus’, ‘Prince of the Sun’ (1968).
Although a stunning feat in terms of animation quality and adult story telling, this film broke all of Toei Animation’s golden rules: it deviated from European fairy tales; production lasted well over it’s one year schedule; and the prestigious key animation team – which included Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – disrupted the studio’s managerial hierarchy by adopting a more democratic model of working.
Does everyone have a papa? Even me?
Alongside Astro Boy, Totoro, and Hello Kitty, Kimba is undoubtedly one of the most iconic characters not just in Japanese animation, but globally too. Based on the manga series created in the 1950s by industry legend Osamu Tezuka, it also made anime history as the first ever Japanese colour TV series, running for 52 episodes with an English dub version exported in 1984-85 to the US (changing Kimba’s name to ‘Leo’) and – as a testament to it’s enduring popularity – has been re-run in nearly every decade since then, most recently in 2009. The feature length film version was released in 1966 and picked up a major gong at the 19th Venice International Film Festival.
Set in mid-20th century Africa, the story begins with white Lion Panja (Caesar) being killed by human villagers for stealing their cattle for food for the jungle animals. Panja’s pregnant mate, Eliza, is then put on a ship destined for a zoo, and on this ship she gives birth to Kimba (Leo). After the ship is wrecked in a storm, Kimba washes ashore far from his familial home and is cared for by some humans. He returns to the wild, still a young cub, having learnt that only mutual respect between humans and animals can bring lasting peace.
Since 1994, ‘Kimba the White Lion’ has also been infamously connected to allegations of copyright infringement when Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ was released. Although Disney Studios have always refuted claims of plagiarism from ‘Kimba’, resemblances in character name, plot, and character design are unmistakably comparable. In fact, Simba’s voice actor Matthew Broderick has even said in interviews he assumed at the time he had been hired for an American version of Kimba, which he was a fan of as a child.
Into the machine! Into the machine!
The tenth release from the most prolific animation studio in Japan during this period – Toei Animation – ‘Jack and the Witch’ continues the studio’s trend of drawing inspiration from folklore in an attempt to emulate Disney’s wildly successful business model.
This time they created a composite character from two classic English folk heroes: Beowolf and Jack (a stock character used in famous stories like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Little Jack Horner’ and just about any other ‘Jack’ story you can think of in English folk tales!)
Much like ‘Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon’ (1965) Toei’s adaptation is decidedly far more futuristic and surreal than it’s source material; with titular character Jack zipping around the woods (and strangely inside his own house) in a Ford Model T car accompanied by his animal friends.
In the story, Jack is tricked by a child witch named Allegra into travelling to the castle of the evil queen Auriana, infamous for transforming children into harpies. Luckily Jack escapes this fate and flees the castle with Allegra in pursuit, but when she is injured in the chase, Jack kindly takes her back to his house to let her recover. Allegra repays this debt by leading Jack into another trap, which Jack escapes from again. Angered by her minion’s failures, Queen Auriana then banishes Allegra to the ice caves as punishment, which Jack rescues her from and eventually destroys Auriana and her castle by turning her own weapons against her.
It’s psychedelic colours and adorable character designs lend the film a whimsical charm that could appeal to young children if it were not for some other particularly trippy scenes involving walking Venus-fly-trap monsters that may also induce nightmares.
Be brave and show them how human you really are…
Where ‘Jack and the Witch’ awkwardly forayed into dark themes, ‘Prince of the Sun’ is a film defined by them for the better; featuring a level of stylistic violence, realism and complex political and social themes that today mark it as a landmark film in anime history.
Inspired by the Japanese puppet play ‘The Sun Above Chikisani’ and set somewhere in Scandinavia, ‘The Great Adventures of Horus’ tells the story of a boy (Horus) who journeys to the land of his people’s birth armed with an ancient sword in search the ice monster Grunwald. His adventure leads him to a struggling village ravaged by Grunwald’s attacks in which he must not only face physical challenges, but also political ones from the village chief’s jealous deputy, Drago, and emotional ones in the form of Grunwald’s morally conflicted sister, Hilda.
Die-hard Studio Ghibli fans might be more familiar with its English title: ‘The Little Norse Prince’ – the first major film by life-long collaborators and industry legends Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (both of whom would go onto found Ghibli in 1985). Even in this early feature, evidence of what would come to be definitive Ghibli storytelling traits were strong; both aesthetically in the ‘clean line’ animation style and narratively in the film’s handling of socialist, environmental, and coming of age themes.
The depth of storytelling and leap forward in animation quality was widely praised by critics at the time – singled out monumentally as the first time that Japanese animation not only significantly departed from imitating Disney, but also surpassed it.
Unfortunately this success had an ugly side: bitter divisions between Toei’s upper management and it’s animators as to whether or not the studio should be run more democratically led to ‘Horus’ being released late and unfinished, with Toei’s limited distribution almost guaranteeing it’s financial failure by playing it for just ten days in domestic cinemas.
Those familiar with Toei Animation’s iconic feline mascot will immediately recognise the beaming, hatted face of ‘Pero’ from this cinematic reinterpretation of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale, ‘Puss in Boots’, and from the production credits alone it’s easy to see why this swashbuckling hero has sat pride of place above the company’s name for over forty years.
The film essentially serves as a showcase for Toei’s top key animators of that period, most notably Hayao Miyazaki, whose individual talent is particularly detectable during the film’s climactic chase sequence around a beautifully rendered gothic castle.
The story of ‘Puss ‘n Boots’ feels like a tribute to every rollicking, European fairy tale of roguish chivalry, including elements from ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, ‘The Three Musketeers’, ‘Zorro’, and more. After evading capture from the Feline King for the illegal act of saving mice, Pero befriends a penniless boy named Pierre who becomes his travelling companion.
The pair soon arrives in a busy kingdom in which a search is taking place to find a suitor for the young Princess Rosa, and Pero decides – much to his companion’s protest – that Pierre is the perfect candidate. Unfortunately, a villainous sorcerer (fittingly) called ‘Lucifer’ also declares his designs on Rosa along with the threat of the kingdom’s destruction if his demand is not met. Pero now has no choice but to defeat Lucifer not only to save Rosa, but also the entire kingdom.
Although a little derivative of Disney yet again, the film is still very entertaining and charmingly animated, suitably ranked 58th in the Laputa Animation Festival’s list of the 150 greatest animated films and series’ of all time in 2003. It also did well enough commercially to warrant extension into a wider franchise of media including a 12-part colour manga series created by Hayao Miyazaki to promote the first film’s release in 1969; two sequel movies in 1972 and 1976; and a video game based on the third cinematic instalment in 1986 (1990 in the US).
Toei Animation’s dominance of Japan’s cinematic anime output in the 1960s was a seminal if not troubled reign. On the plus side, the studio was hugely successful in developing the medium up to and beyond the high bar set by Disney to draw very positive critical attention – ‘The Great Adventures of Horus’ being the high watermark.
Conclusively, the anime films of the late 1960s that I have selected punctuate the story of the industry at this point: quick expansion; messy internal politics; commercial flops, critical successes, and a flurry of technical and artistic achievements; ultimately: a decade of exciting turbulence.