Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Little Norse Prince (1968)

The Little Norse Prince (Isao Takahata, 1968)
Japanese Title: Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken

It was a rocky relationship between Isao Takahata and his producers at Toei Studios. The studio bigwigs wanted an animated film styled after the ones made by the Disney Studios in America. They wanted to have song and dance numbers, talking animals, and a story that would cater predominantly to young kids.

The story Takahata wanted to film was an Ainu folktale, translated to the screen by puppet-theater drama writer Kazuo Fuzakawa, but the bigwigs thought that setting it in aboriginal Japan would turn off the masses, thus a more Westernized (more specifically Scandinavian) setting was used. After three years of development, the film was released and it was a financial flop. However, little did the bigwigs in Toei or even Takahata (or probably even Hayao Miyazaki who also worked in this film as "chief animator and concept artist") that The Little Norse Prince would spawn an entire culture of Japanese anime and animated films that have in them a natural literary quality as compared to the comedy-oriented ones that are being created in the West.

The Little Norse Prince quickly springs up as soon as the studio credits end. Horus is fighting a pack of wolves with his trusty axe and ends up being rescued by an rock golem. Stuck in the rock golem's shoulder is a rusty sword which Horus removes ala King Arthur. When his grandfather dies, Horus, along with his talking bear friend, travels to a village which is being pestered by a fish monster. Horus rescues the village, brings to them a mysterious girl named Hilda, and protects them from an evil demon named Grunwuld who is behind all the wolves, the fish monsters, and the rats that hound the human village.

The animation of The Little Norse Prince, if compared to the later efforts of Takahata and Miyazaki, might feel a little bit outdated. However, knowing that the film was finished in 1968, it is quite astounding how the movements of the characters, and the colors, and the concepts are so very fluidly developed. The animation feels a bit more Western (the lines on the characters are much more distinct as compared to the more recent anime efforts, the designs also look very Disney-esque), probably to the insistence of Toei Studios. They did get their talking animals, with Horus' best pal bear, and Hilda's companions, a talking squirrel and owl. They also got their song numbers, which I must say give the film a very literary and mythical quality that I very much enjoyed.

Probably more important than the technical advances of The Little Norse Prince is the fact that the film, despite its straightforward narrative, is very much deeply-layered (probably to the annoyance of the studio bigwigs). The character of Hilda is not merely the romantic partner of the hero, but is also the center of a psychological and moral battle. Hilda is an embattled character who has to choose between the inevitability of death by siding with the humans, or eternal life by siding with Grunwald who lets her wear an amulet of life. It's a stirring dilemma that is quite revolutionary at that time, especially when narrative animation is mostly restricted to children fare. Also, The Little Norse Prince feels especially epic. Horus' battles with the different monsters and demons create a folkloric or mythical depth to the entire feature that I was quite surprised to find out that the film's story was not sourced from Norse mythology, or even a richly adorned children's book, but from an Ainu folktale.

Many might say that The Little Norse Prince's value is more for its historical contribution rather than its inherent artistic merits. I disagree. Even if let's say, the entire anime revolution didn't erupt from the film's growing cult status, the film still holds a powerful storytelling sincerity that is very much affecting and resonating even to adults. The film's narrative simplicity transcends the cutesy animation, or the fact that animals do talk in the feature, or the plentiful songs. Forgetting it's important place in film history, watching The Little Norse Prince feels like being told a sprawling epic tale where good always triumphs against evil.

This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.

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