Sunday, November 14, 2010

Little Norse Prince (Isao Takahata, 1968)

(In memory of the late Isao Takahata 1935 - 2018) 

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 prophesies 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 he's earned is provisional, on the apparent death of the fish, but his success has also created enemies who 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 effect 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 Neighbor 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 this 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 towards 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. 


Anonymous said...

hello there thanks for your grat post, as usual ((o:

Noel Vera said...


Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

What a fantastic essay! I'm always thrilled when I find another person who "gets" Horus. To my eyes and ears, this anime's Sgt Pepper, the crucial paradigm shift that ushers in a new era. It's thrilling to watch; even the flaws and battle scars are compelling.

Now if we can only banish that hideous Western title, which was imposed by clueless studio bosses, anyway. It's "The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun," not "Widdle Norse Pwince Schnookums." Hah!

I'll write a post about your essay for The Ghibli Blog later today. More Takahata essays, please! Thanks, again, and best wishes.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks! If you search this blog with the word 'Takahata,' you'll find quite a few already posted. But I'll definitely write more when I can.