The first film I ever watched on DVD was the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s magically excellent Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) back in 2001 (pardon the slight hyperbole!). This was also the first film I watched by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese anime studio that was formed in 1985 with Miyasaki-san and his erstwhile mentor Isao Takahata as creative directors. Needless to say I was immediately convinced about the qualities of the new technological medium as well as the studio’s storytelling abilities. I decided, with a fervour I seldom feel, to immediately delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue. It turned out that I had to wait for the Oscar-success of the studio’s next film, Spirited Away, before Disney/Buena Vista, who held the distribution rights outside Japan and the east, saw fit to grant these other films a DVD release. Well, that is yesterday’s snow under the bridge, and let’s not spoil the good mood these films are bound to instil in any human being with a more or less sound mind and soul.
I won’t be recapitulating the entire story of the company’s formation in this post. I wanted, rather, to concentrate on the films themselves, and what makes them so worthwhile entries in the annals of film (you can snigger at the word if you want to…), and I wouldn’t be too surprised if a tentative history of Ghibli’s place in anime will threaten to surface as well. In short, what are the films about, and why are they so much better than pretty much anything any animation studio in the west has produced since Bambi? (The possible exception being, of course, Pixar, a studio that has taken to heart Ghibli’s insistence upon story over spectacle).
As mentioned, the creative force behind Studio Ghibli, consists of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. (I use here the western custom of not putting surnames first). They first collaborated on what has later been called the first modern anime film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken), in 1968. The film is also known as, among other things, The Little Norse Prince and Hols: Prince of the Sun. Horus was directed by Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san served as “chief animator and concept artist”.
While later seen as a landmark in animation, the film was upon its release a financial failure prompting the two to seek employment elsewhere, to put it carefully. (The Toei Studio only allowed the film a ten day limited release, which goes a way to explain the lack of success). While originally conceived of as a run of the mill-anime, Takahata-san decided to expand the scope of the film both in terms of animation as well as in narrative. As a result the film went over budget, over time, and, according to the producers, all over the place.
The film is the story of Horus, or Hols, depending on which translation/edition one sees, a young boy, who in the film’s very first scene is being attacked by a pack of wolves. It’s an impressive action scene that shows the considerable skill of the director at this early stage in his career. At the end of the fight, Horus is saved by the stone-giant Mogue, out of whose “hide” he manages to pull the “sword of the sun”. He is told that once he manages to reforge the sword, he will be “the prince of the sun”. So far, so Arthur. We learn that his father, who is dying, once escaped the village where they lived because it was under attack by “the demon”, Grunwald. The film then plays out as a classic adventure where the boy will have to “find his way” or “find himself” in order to destroy the evil of the land. On the way he encounters a mysterious girl, Hilda, who, it turns out, holds the key to understand what hold Evil has over the people. The battle within her is mirrored by the battle between Horus and Grunwald; both of them claiming a part of her. In the end it is herself who decides the outcome of both the internal as well as the external battle. While this on the surface is hardly a groundbreaking plot, the real meaning of the story is found in the details as well as in the more complex parts that I allude to above.
The film was originally meant to be based on the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan who were persecuted by ancestors of the modern Japanese. For some reason, be it of a commercial or political nature, Toei Studio felt that the film shouldn’t have a Japanese setting. As a result, we are in, I assume because of the title, a Norse settlement. However, with characters called Drago, Hilda and Grunwald, I suspect a kind of pan-European placement, with Germanic sprinklings. The geographical reason for the name Horus – or Hols, which is the pronounced Japanese equivalent – escapes me. Symbolically, though, it’s probably a reference to the Egyptian god Horus. (I mean, how many Horuses are out there?) He is traditionally considered “a protector of the people” and associated with hunting through his sometimes form as a falcon. This is all fitting to the story at hand.
The name of the villain, Grunwald, is also worth a short note. On one hand, it is deeply ironic, signifying “green forest” in German. Grunwald takes the form of Winter and his weapon is snow and ice. His way of destroying the villages is to cover everything green and freezing the land. On the other hand, it might be a reference to the Battle of Grunwald, which was decisive in ending the reign of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, if memory and Wikipedia serves me. I’m sure interpretative strands can be extracted in this context as well.
The year of the film’s making is also worth a thought. 1968 bears with it many connotations, and while the student protests of Europe and USA were maybe not felt as strongly in Japan, I understand that quite severe unionist disputes were taking place there as well. This can maybe account for the communist tableaus and iconography I noticed a couple of times during the film. The music is also vaguely communist sounding, without me being able to be very clear about this point. (Let me stress that this – communist leanings – is not at all problematic to me!) The protagonist’s main message also seems to be that the people must work together to overcome an evil that has paralyzed them and made them live in fear. As I’ve hinted at, though, the resolution of the film turns out to be a personal, individual resolution as much as a coming together of the people on a macro-level. The interplay between the individual’s concerns and need and the needs of the society to which he and she must belong to, leads us away from uncomplicated dogmas. Maybe the final winner is nature, which awakening and blossoming coincides with the people’s renaissance.
The joys of the film is in its fine action sequences and “unbridled imagination“, as reviewers like to say about films that don’t contain a tenth of the creativity this film has going for it. However, considering the things that were to come from the hands of these anime artists later on, the film is mostly of historical interest as an early intent to utilize the Ghibli touch. Here as well we have benign and evil giants alike, we see the joy of flying and have a complicated female character who turns out to be at least as important in the narrative as the male protagonist. It is only natural that the animation style is not as accomplished as in the works that would appear 15 or 20 years later, but the film is also marred by the studio shutting down production before some key scenes were filmed. While two large-scale attacks on the village (the first by wolves, the second by rats), is presented in still pictures, this does not really harm the film that much. More serious is the fact that Takahata-san had to remove some thirty minutes of the film because of the shut down. As a result, the film can at times seem disjointed and without sufficient resolution of various plot threads. Also, the film is almost burdened with a cutesy side-kick bear cub. I assume this was a demand of the studio, as they probably figured they could sell some cub dolls and earn back its money in merchandise. I say the film is almost burdened with it. Takahata-san gets rid of the talking bear cub immediately after the first scene in which it appears by conveniently having it be separated from Horus. When it returns to the narrative many scenes later, it never achieves a purpose in the film and mostly just lingers in the background. I can imagine the producers were not terribly happy with this handling of their cash-cub.
Anyhow, as they say, this was a brief introduction to the first collaboration between the creative fathers of Studio Ghibli. I chose to begin with this film not only because of its historical significance, but because it was directed by Isao Takahata. When one mentions Ghibli, most people think only of Miyazaki-san. While he undoubtedly is the more famous – and productive – of these two, I’ll try in the coming posts to make a case for the equal importance of Takahata-san. As we get past the seventies and into the eighties and the formation of their studio, I promise that most of the films under discussion will all be not only worthwhile, but indubitable masterworks of Film in general. Sayonara for now!