16 November 2013

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治, 1963)

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治 / Wanpaku Ōji no Daija taiji, 1963) is the first feature film that I watched on my new Toshiba Satellite Ultrabook with its cinema-wide 21:9 ratio screen and it looked fantastic.  Directed by Yūgo Serikawa, Toei Dōga’s sixth animated feature film was shot using Toei’s anamorphic process Toeiscope (東映スコープ), whose slogan at the time was “Picture Size Three Times as Large; Interest One Hundred Times as Great” (Anderson/Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, p.252).  In so-doing, Toei Dōga was following in the steps of Walt Disney who had produced the first animated film in Cinemascope, Lady and the Tramp (1955), less than a decade earlier.  In terms of its unique art design and colour palette, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon has much more in common with Disney’s spectacular Sleeping Beauty (1958) which was the first animated film shot using the Super Technirama 70 widescreen process.  The epic scope of the story is in keeping with the trend of the times.  I’m thinking of the classic Hollywood epics of the 1950s and 60s, such as The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961), which all employed widescreen technologies and spectacular colours in order to keep cinema competitive against the threat of the new medium of television.

Ichirō Ikeda and Takashi Iijima’s screenplay is an adaptation of various mythological stories surrounding Susanō (voiced by Morio Kazama, at the time going by his birth name, Tomohito Sumita), the Shintō god of the sea and storms.  Many of the key details of the stories are unchanged from how they appeared in the original sources (the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki), but others have been altered or modernized.  One of the main reason for the changes is that children were the target audience, thus many salacious and grotesque details were excised and the stories have been repackaged as the childhood exploits of Susanō.  According to legend, Susanō was the youngest child of the gods of creation, Izanagi (Setsuo Shinoda) and Izanami (Mitsuko Tomobe).  He was reputedly brave; however, his quick-temper would often get him into trouble.

Susanō’s hot-headed nature is established in the opening scenes of the film in which he plays with his friends in the form anthropomorphic animals.  Talking animals are a modern twist to the Susanō story. This may have been influenced by Disney, but certainly anthropomorphic animals appeared in early pre-war anime as well.  Susanō’s sidekick, the rabbit Akahana (literally “red nose”, voiced by Chiharu Kuri), is being chased by a tiger and Susanō comes to his rescue. The young boy almost loses his temper completely with the tiger but his mother, Izanami, intervenes.  The loving bond between mother and child is illustrated with a bathing scene where Izanami washes her son and sings a sweet song to him.  Their actions are mirrored by a tanuki mother and child.   

Susanō’s idyllic childhood comes to a sudden halt when he learns of his mother’s death.  He refuses to accept that she has passed on and in spite of his father’s protests, Susanō sets off to sea with Akahana determined to recover his mother from the Underworld.  His adventures, which are punctuated by dramatic fight sequences with a giant fish and a fire god, take Susanō to visit his brother Tsukuyomi (Hideo Kinoshita), the moon god, in his crystal palace and later to his sister Amaterasu (Noriko Shindō), the sun goddess, where the famous story of the cave takes place.   Because of the trouble Susanō causes Amaterasu, he is asked to leave her realm which leads to climax of the film:  the tale of Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed dragonSusanō meets Kushinada-hime (Yukiko Okada) and learns of the sad fate of her sisters who have been sacrificed to Yamata no Orochi.  Susanō’s fight with the giant beast is one of the most visually dynamic fight scenes in all of anime history, which was principally animated by Yasuo Otsuka and Sadao Tsukioka (Learn more about this scene from: Anipages)

This is the first Japanese animation to formally introduce the role of animation director, who in this case was the legendary Yasuji Mori (filmography).  As animation director, Mori would have supervised all the work done by the key animators (Hideo Furusawa, Masao Kumagawa, Yasuo Ōtsuka, Daikichirō Kusube, Makoto Nagasawa, Chikao Katsui, Yōichi Kotabe, Masatake Kita) in order to correct any errors and maintain continuity.  I associate Mori with the idealised animal characters of Magic Boy (少年猿飛佐助, 1959) and Fables of the Green Forest (山ねずみロッキーチャック, 1973), but this film has a unique look that makes it stand out among other animation of this era.  The central characters (Susanō, Kushinada-hime, Akahana, the Tiger) have broad heads, except for Izanami and Amaterasu who have the more typical idealized doll-like oval heads.  The most unique character designs are the angular ones of Tsukuyomi and his people who look as though they have been hewn from blocks of ice.  (See the Ghibli Blog for original character sketches).

Romantic pastels are a rarity in the mostly high contrast colour palette of this film.  Although the choice of colours and many of the character designs are typical of early to mid-century illustration and animation art, the composition of the widescreen frames seems heavily influenced by traditional Japanese aesthetics.   Frames are not composed according to Western principles as used by Disney, but according to the Japanese aesthetic as seen in art such as sansui-ga and woodblock prints.  From a filmic perspective, the innovative variety of shots from extreme close-ups to extreme high angles keep the spectator actively engaged from start to finish. 

Another element that makes this one of the top anime of all time is the dramatic score.   It was composed and arranged by Akira Ifukube, of Godzilla fame.  He really was the ideal choice for a Shintō epic for he had both a deep knowledge of traditional Japanese and Ainu music (his father was a Shintō priest in Hokkaido) and was inspired to become a composer after hearing a radio performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (coincidentally used in Fantasia).  It is a wonderful score – which can be enjoyed on its own as an audio track as well as with the visuals.  His soundtrack would easily make my list of top ten animated feature film soundtracks of the 20th century. 

Akira Ifukube no Geijutsu / Tetsuji Honna, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Tetsuji Honna, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon won Toei Dōga the Noburo Ofuji Award for 1963 – the only feature length film to do so until Hayao Miyazaki won for Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).  Among those in the anime industry in Japan, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon is considered one of the best anime of all time.  It ranked 10th in the Laputa Top 150 Japanese and World Animation survey (2003).  It is available on DVD (JP only).
©Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  Noburo Ofuji Award series.