Isao Takahata’s directorial feature length debut film for Toei Company, The Little Norse Prince, was the first time that he worked with Hayao Miyazaki, and the last film they developed for Toei before leaving the studio. Miyazaki worked on scene design and as a key animator.
Original Release: 21st July 1968
Director(s): Isao Takahata
Producer(s): Hiroshi Okawa
Screenwriter(s): Kazuo Fukazawa
Alternative Title(s): The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun / Little Norse Prince Valiant
Released in 1968, it was only in theatres for ten days, suggesting that Toei animation were less than happy with the length of time it had taken to develop the film (roughly two and a half years – production started in Autumn, 1965). Bombing financially on release, it later became recognised as a milestone and turning point in animation, using new stylistic innovation, visual complexity, overt political and social themes, and well developed characters (at least in terms of animation up to that point).
The Little Norse Prince was one of the first major films to emerge within Japanese animation and world animation that was developed specifically for an adult audience, dealing with themes such as overthrowing oppressive influences, and socialism – communities banding together to support themselves. These themes reflected the preoccupations of the director and animators at the time, since they were members of the Toei worker’s union, unhappy with the factory-style working conditions within the company (where a film was released every 8-10 months). They also reflected a changing Japan, where the rights of workers and larger social issues were on the agenda.
The first scene of the film opens in an unspecified Scandinavian location (Toei refused to allow the film to be set in Japan, fearing the cultural and political ramifications), with Hols, the hero, being chased by a pack of silver wolves. Whilst fighting them off, he accidentally awakes a giant rock-god called Mogue, who scares off the wolves and complains that he has a thorn stuck in his shoulder. Hols offers to pull out the thorn, and after climbing up to Mogue’s shoulder, finds a rusty, dull sword lodged in. After eventually managing to dislodge the sword, Mogue tells him that if he can reforge the sword, he will become The Prince of the Sun and Mogue will come to find him.
Hols’s friend Koro, who just happens to be a bear cub, finds him, telling him that Hols’s father is dying. His father tells him the story of how they used to live in a northern village which was wiped out by a devilish creature, forcing him to flee with a baby Hols. Entreating him to go and find the village and avenge the dead, his father dies. The rest of the film follows Hols on his quest to find his people. When he eventually does find them, he discovers that they, too, are oppressed by the devilish Grunwald, who can command silver wolves, owls, and the elements. Hols manages to defeat one of the oppressive forces keeping the villagers from being able to eat, a monstrous, bloodthirsty pike that is hoarding the fish. The pike turns out to be one of Grunwald’s minions.
After a battle with wolves a little later in the story, Hols chases a silver wolf to an abandoned village where he meets Hilda, a girl with a beautiful singing voice and harp. She has two friends – a speaking squirrel and owl – like Hols’s bear cub friend Koro. She later turns out to be a double agent – an ambivalent, conflicted character – Grunwald’s sister. Though Hols and the villagers accept her as one of their own, she tries to find a way of getting them to banish Hols, working with the chief’s deputy, who is power-hungry and envious of Hols’s heroics. Eventually, events conspire for the good of all except Grunwald – Hols manages to forge the sword with the help of the villagers and defeats Grunwald with the help of Mogue, and even the conflicted Hilda finds a happy ending.
In particular, I was struck by how, though I am used to watching animation with in-depth character development, there was such a depth of feeling and personality within the two main characters. Although some peripheral characters appeared stereotypical, such as the chief’s second-in-command, reminding us strongly of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, and Grunwald, Hols and Hilda are both well-developed characters.
The film doesn’t shy away from dark, violent themes, with at least three major battles. Death is treated as a fact of life, and the power of the elements is displayed in all its brutal glory. There is also a strong element of magical realism within the story, evidenced by Hilda’s immortality necklace, Grunwald’s powers, the Sword of the Sun, Mogue, and the talking animals. My theory is that the talking animals may represent some aspect of the characters psychological struggles, or their personality. In Hilda, particularly, the owl is a messenger for Grunwald and is always encouraging her to carry out his evil plans, whilst the squirrel encourages her better nature, her humanity. Koro may represent Hols’s courage, curiosity and strength, though as a character Koro is also quite playful.
The film’s story was based upon a retelling of the Japanese puppet play, The Sun Above Chikisani, re-created by the screenwriter, Kazuo Fukazawa. Though my husband has done far more research into the background and myths the film was based on (please visit his complementary post over at Stray Dog Strut), there were elements of both Egyptian and Norse mythology in the film. The original name of the main character, Hols, was meant to be Horus (Dan tells me that on the Japanese soundtrack they call him Horus, though the subtitles say Hols) – although it is unclear whether this is an allusion to the Egyptian god.
The only bad point of this film is perhaps that in places, the film dragged a little. Some of the battle sequences used still-frame animation, maybe as a time-saver or budget-saver, and because we have been spoilt by the faster, sleeker cinematography of later anime films, I found that the story was a little sleepier than I was expecting it to be. My other observation was that the colouring of the film reminded me of earlier Disney films – such as Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty – a faded, aged look, probably more due to the age of the film and remastering work than anything else. Though I appreciate the work that has gone into it, the style, and themes of the film, it isn’t one of my favourites.
The film also introduces us to later themes that crop up in Studio Ghibli films – nature, environment, community, a complex treatment of the nature of good, evil, and humanity, and political and social issues. It was the beginning of Takahata and Miyazaki’s long partnership, a number of years before the formation of Studio Ghibli.
Next week, we’ll be watching Panda! Go, Panda! and The Castle of Cagliostro, also known as Lupin III, Miyazaki’s directorial debut.
‘Be brave and show them how human you really are.’ – The Little Norse Prince, Hols to Hilda.