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Good Anime Movies (1975–80): A Transitional Decade

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Hannah Collins itcherThe 70s is widely regarded as a transitional rather than landmark decade for anime, sandwiched between the initial boom in the 60s and the explosion of commercial videotapes and ultra-violent adult content in the 80s. ~ Hannah Collins

Often-Forgotten Treasures

The general recession hit studios hard and television was king, meaning that most theatrical releases during this time were spin-offs or TV re-edits as opposed to originals.

But this often-forgotten period did produce some often-forgotten treasures, particularly towards the latter half of the decade. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best ones.


Theatrical Anime Movie Recommendations

‘Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid’ (Tomoharu Katsumata & Tim Reid, 1975)

It is true that love makes us blind…

Toei Animation’s adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is a sunken treasure for non-Japanese fans with the original, unedited Japanese version only released on DVD relatively recently.

The story revolves around Marina, youngest daughter of the royal Merman family, who falls madly in love with a human prince after saving him from drowning. Marina – desperate to become human in order to court him – makes a deal with a sea witch to not only give up her beautiful singing voice in exchange for legs, but to turn into sea foam if the Prince marries another. Despite the risk, Marina accepts the witch’s deal. On the surface world, she and the Prince soon form a close bond, but when a rival for his affections appears, their romance turns to heartache.

Unlike the more famous Disney version (1989), Toei opted to stay true to Andersen’s original tragic ending, which is perhaps misrepresented by its charming and colourful animation, and has proven divisive amongst some parents hoping for an ‘easy’ watch to placate their children. There’s also the issue of teenage nudity on display – none of the mermaids sport the typical shell bikini top, which is apparently where most of the censorship in previous VHS versions was directed.

I’m not sure I would go so far as to recommend it over the iconic Disney version, as both adaptations certainly have their merits, but if you’re in the mood for an animated fairy tale without the sugar coating, then this will hit the spot. (Just have a box of Kleenex handy when you watch it.)

‘Ringing Bell’ (Masami Hata, 1878)

We see things we know nothing about; things that surprise us, and sometimes sadden us. But as we explore and grow, the time comes when we learn; we learn about the world and we grow older…

It’s hard to imagine that an animated film fronted by a painfully adorable lamb and produced by Sanrio (the company responsible for ‘Hello Kitty’) would be the first G-rated children’s movie and even banned in some countries. Hard, that is, until you read its synopsis.

Based on the book of the same name by Takashi Yanase, the story follows baby lamb Chirin who lives an idyllic life on a farm until he witnesses the brutal murder of his mother by the Wolf King. Bent on revenge, Chirin tracks down and begs the wolf to train him to become strong enough to avenge his mother’s death – to which the wolf agrees. Where its spiritual predecessor ‘Bambi’ (1942) follows a redemptive story arc, ‘Ringing Bell’ is a cautionary tale charting the darker side of grief – an all-consuming thirst for vengeance that turns the traumatised Chirin into the very thing he swore to destroy.

Similarly to Toei’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, the dark turn it takes seems at odds with its ‘kawaii’ (cute) character design at first. However, as Chirin matures into a beast that is “neither ram or wolf”, he begins to strike a more imposing silhouette against the sparse and brooding scenery, resolving the clash between story and art.

‘Ringing Bell’ is doubtlessly a tough watch for its target age demographic, but with its haunting imagery and gritty themes it’s easy to see why this parable of a fallen hero is considered one of the finest underappreciated works of the 70s.

‘Taro the Dragon Boy’ (Kiriro Urayama & Peter Fernandez, 1979)

Those who are selfish and do not share are punished by the gods. That has been a commandment of the mountains for a very long time…

Beginning life as a Japanese folk tale (and then a novel by Miyoko Matsutani) ‘Taro the Dragon Boy’ could be mistaken for a premature Studio Ghibli release in tone and style, which is surely a testament to its quality.

Set in feudal Japan, the story follows titular protagonist Taro who enjoys a directionless life of eating, playing, and sleeping. Everything changes when Taro wins a sumo match against a ‘Tengu’ (a type of Shinto god) who rewards him with a magic potion that grants him the strength of a hundred men – but he can only use it selflessly. Equipped with his new powers, Taro sets off on a journey to rescue his absent mother who, he learns from his grandmother, was transformed into a dragon.

A recent DVD release in the US not only saved this film from obscurity, but also included interesting audio snippets from director Kiriro Urayama citing his “two reasons” for making the film: “First of all, I wanted to paint the picture of ancient Japan. The other was that I wanted to paint the world through the eyes of a child.” The former is achieved to beautiful effect through a combination of the traditional sumie (Chinese ink painting) backgrounds and the Japanese folk-inflected soundtrack, whilst the latter is expressed in Taro’s playful interactions with the natural world.

Once again, the film’s ‘forgotten gem’ label is most likely attributed to some of the NSFW elements. Taro is not averse to flashing his junk around, which may be consistent with his character but must have perturbed the more prudish foreign distributors. Genitals aside, those familiar with Studio Ghibli films will feel right at home watching this.

‘Galaxy Express 999’ (Rintaro, 1979)

And they took her from the beautiful house and they drove her into the street. And she went away and she never came back…

Serving as a condensed remake of the most popular episodes from the anime series of the same name, ‘Galaxy Express 999’ is notable not only for its quality, but also its financial success and enduring legacy. Not only was it the highest grossing film in 1979 in Japan, but it was also the first anime movie to be theatrically distributed in the US in 1981, exposing a wider international audience to anime movies and manga artist Leiji Matsumoto’s iconic ‘Captain Harlock’ character for the first time.

The ‘Galaxy Express’ is literally – and absurdly – a train that travels through space. In true 70s psychedelic fashion the train also exhibits mystical properties: guiding its passengers to find their true heart’s desire… whether they want to know about it or not. Case in point: the film’s protagonist, a boy called Tetsuro, boards the train hoping to avenge his mother’s death and instead learns the grim secret to immortality.

Though not as smoothly animated as its contemporaries, the film is peppered with striking visuals such as the Galaxy Express streaking past Saturn’s rings as a neon laser, and it is also populated by Matsumoto’s distinctively narrow-featured femme fatales and honourable rogues. Pulling influences from film noir, Westerns, pirates, psychedelia and Romanticism, ‘Galaxy Express 999’ set a precedent for all genre-bending ‘Space Opera’ anime to come. If you’re new to Matsumoto’s work – or a fan of series like ‘Cowboy Bebop’ and ‘Gundam’ – this is a great jumping-on point.

‘Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

Lupin! Is this the secret of this castle? Counterfeiting?

‘The Castle of Cagliostro’ is the second entry in TMS Entertainment’s film series chronicling the exploits of gentleman thief, ‘Arsene Lupin III’. Adapted from Monkey Punch’s (Kazuhiko Kato) manga series and ‘The Countess of Cagliostro’ by Maurice Leblanc, the film may have been a box-office flop when it was released, but a stream of re-releases has secured its position over time as a pioneering movie in the history of anime. It placed 5th in Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs list of best anime and its famous fans include John Lasseter (Pixar) John Musker, Ron Clements (Disney) and Bruce Timm (‘Batman: The Animated Series’).

The story is a hybrid of heist, treasure hunt, and damsel-in-distress tropes sewn skilfully together over a romanticised pan-European backdrop. After robbing the Monte Carlo Casino, Lupin and his partner-in-crime Daisuke Jigen discover their stolen bills are actually counterfeits, sourced allegedly from Cagliostro. Upon travelling to the country they run into a girl – Clarisse – whom Lupin recognises as the princess of Cagliostro fated to wed Count Cagliostro in order to find the legendary treasure of Cagliostro (was that enough mentions of the word ‘Cagliostro’?) Lupin – after swiping Clarisse’s family ring, the key to the treasure – vows to rescue the princess and expose the Count’s counterfeiting operation to the thief’s long-time adversary, Inspector Zenigata of Interpol.

The film marks the illustrious directorial debut of industry legend, Hayao Miyazaki, who also co-wrote the script and storyboarded the film. Unsurprisingly, Miyazaki’s level of involvement shines through nearly every aspect of ‘Cagliostro’, from the scenery based on Miyazaki’s ‘Heidi’ (1974) sketchbooks to his distinctive art style that would come to be the Studio Ghibli ‘house’ style. It’s even clear in the smaller details: Clarisse’s car – a Citroen 2CV – was Miyazaki’s first car.

Also noticeable (and controversial to ‘Lupin III’ purists) is Miyazaki’s changes to Lupin’s character. Whereas Miyazaki’s version is a honourable rogue, Monkey Punch’s Lupin is a scheming anti-hero – a difference that the creator acknowledged despite liking the film. “I wouldn’t have had him rescue the girl; I would have had him rape her!”

I have enjoyed watching this film over and over again from childhood into adulthood. Richly coloured; action-packed; filled with humour, romance, and compelling characters and a superb jazzy score – I really can’t recommend it highly enough.


A Beneficial Shake-Up

Though they may have been low in quantity, the anime movies I’ve cherry picked certainly prove there was no shortage of quality during the 70s. Pressure from both the recession and the greater competition from television productions forced big cutbacks and layoffs for studios like Toei.

However, this shake-up ultimately proved beneficial as many talented casualties of the axing rounds (like Rintaro) founded their own successful studios like Madhouse (‘Death Note’, ‘Ninja Scroll’, ‘Cardcaptor Sakura’) and Sunrise (‘Gundam’, ‘Cowboy Bebop’, ‘Code Geass’). Meanwhile, the surviving up-and-coming talent at Toei were pushed into the director’s chair prematurely, heralding a new age of exciting experimentation.

Whilst ambitious space operas like ‘Galaxy Express 999’ foretold future anime trends, Japan’s cinemas remained home to fantastical fairy tales with dark life-lessons for children (a little too dark for Western palettes). But for me, Miyazaki’s directorial debut encapsulates the spirit of the 70s best – a timeless masterpiece that just couldn’t find an audience.

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