First Thoughts on Little Norse Prince / Taiyô no ôji: Horusu no daibôken (1968)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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Welcome back to the First Thoughts Anniversaries series! This week, I’m taking a look at a half-forgotten Japanese film from the late 1960s called Little Norse Prince – or at least, that’s what some people call it. That’s the first thing I noticed about this one; it goes by at least six different titles, depending on where in the world you’re watching it. The original Japanese title is Taiyô no ôji: Horusu no daibôken, which has been translated to both Horus: Prince of the Sun and the much longer The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, while American screenings showed it under either Little Norse Prince (less of a mouthful, admittedly) or Little Norse Prince Valiant. On top of this, the names of the characters also seem to vary depending on the version; some translations give us “Horus”, “Hiruda” and “Grunwald”, while others give us “Hols”, “Hilda” and “Grinwald”, and Moog is sometimes “Mogue” or even “Rockoar”. Very confusing! I only mention all this so we can be sure that we’re all thinking of the same film.

Whatever you know it as, Horus marked the directorial debut of the legendary Isao Takahata, one of the cofounders of Studio Ghibli whose directing career would span an impressive forty-five years, culminating in 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. While his talents are now widely appreciated, Horus’s underperformance at the time effectively blacklisted him, and he never directed at Toei Animation (the studio he made it at) again. In addition to Takahata, the film’s crew also included a young Hayao Miyazaki among its lead animators (he was even given the special title of “scene designer”), working alongside the likes of Yasuji Mori, Reiko Okuyama and Yoichi Kotabe under an animation team led by Yasuo Otsuka.

The inspiration for the story of the film was taken from an old puppet play called Chikisani no Taiyō by Kazuo Fukazawa, which was itself based on a traditional Ainu Yukar (or oral saga) called Okikurumi to akuma no ko. Although the filmmakers were originally planning to stick with the Japanese setting, it was later changed to Scandinavia to avoid causing any offence to the existing Ainu people. Production was only expected to take about eight months – the average for a Toei film at the time – but it wound up running for three years and going massively over budget, beginning in the autumn of 1965 and continuing all the way through to the spring of 1968. The filmmakers (many of them self-confessed perfectionists) were eager to challenge the public’s perceptions of animation at the time, but Toei lost faith in the project and limited it to a measly ten-day release in July of 1968 – the very same month that Yellow Submarine opened in the west. While this scant time in theatres did harm the film’s box office earnings, it was a success with critics and particularly young people, who connected with its “pro-Unionist” slant and its attack on the status quo of animation.

In a time when animation of all kinds had begun to be seen as purely children’s fare, the team of Horus set out to do more or less the same thing as that of Yellow Submarine and create an animated film that could be enjoyed by adults, too. Using more sophisticated storytelling techniques, realistic violence and greater visual complexity than any other Japanese animation had before, they largely succeeded in their goal and made Horus a landmark in the history of anime, although sadly few people here in the west have heard of it nowadays (apart from in Italy, interestingly).

The original Japanese cast included Hisako Ōkata as Horus, Mikijirō Hira as Grunwald the Demon of Ice, Etsuko Ichihara as Hiruda, Kazuo Tachibana and Hiroshi Kamiyama as Villagers, Masao Mishima as the Village Leader, Eijirō Tōno as Ganko, Hisashi Yokomori as Horu’s Father and Toto, Tadashi Yokouchi as Boldo and Moog the Rock Giant and Yukari Asai as Koro the Bear Cub. For those “purists” who hate English dubs, you’ll be glad to hear that this is one film which is usually distributed in the original Japanese, with subtitles; there is apparently an English dub out there somewhere starring Billie Lou Watt in the title role, but I can’t find much info on it.

Little Norse Prince poster

Now, I must admit that prior to this year’s Ghibli Season on Film4, I had barely heard of this one. It’s a real shame that it’s become so obscure; quite a few people still remember Miyazaki’s first film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) (which I’ve also recorded for later), but it seems that nobody ever mentions Horus. Yet even now, at a full fifty years old, it has held up remarkably well – it’s easy to see why it was such a game-changer in its day, as it feels surprisingly “modern” in style for such an old feature.

I took notes as it went along, and at the beginning I was getting strong Sword in the Stone vibes from it as young Horus appeared fighting with wolves and heaving a sword out of a rock. Although it does challenge the standard storytelling tropes of classic Disney films in many ways, it still adheres to them in others; I couldn’t help smiling at Horus and Hiruda’s cute little animal sidekicks, for instance. In terms of pacing, the film gets off to a strong start with lots of well-executed action scenes strung together; actually, it’s a lot better in its first half than its second. Horus himself is a plucky and likeable lead, so it was easy to get quickly invested in his story. After enjoying the jaunty theme song and watching the poor kid deal with the loss of his father and a confrontation with the villainous Grunwald, there comes a scene in which Horus has to fight a gigantic pike that has been terrorising a local village, in order to win their favour. This is perhaps the film’s best-known scene and it’s excellently done, building tension and even verging on jump-scaring you at times. It’s followed by a sort of montage of the villagers enjoying the new fishing prospects opened up by the monster’s defeat, but while I do like the mood of the scene, it does highlight one of the film’s main problems.

There are several sections of the film where the animation gives way entirely to still-image montages, such as during the wolf and rat attacks on the village, and they can be rather awkward to follow (although they’re kept mildly interesting with motion, the “Ken Burns Effect”). Apparently, this was a result of the long delays in production; entire scenes had to be inserted into the final film in little more than storyboard form, as there simply wasn’t time to finish them. However, when the scenes are animated, they’re handled with all the subtle flair that you’d expect of future greats like Takahata and Miyazaki. The climax in particular is downright experimental at times and the gigantic ice mammoth that Grunwald summons is an impressive piece of design work, but the animation also shines in some of the quieter moments, such as during Hiruda’s moments of deception; despite the simplicity of her design, they get a surprising amount of expression out of her face in those scenes.

Hiruda’s arc is actually one of the most memorable things about the film – for the time, she was a very nuanced and complex character, and it’s easy to see when you contrast her with the more typical “one-note” characters she’s surrounded by. (Horus himself is a rough, early version of the Stock Shonen Protagonist trope). While I did suspect that there was something “off” about her almost immediately, it was nice to see a girl in such an old film being given a distinct arc beyond “token love interest”. It turns out that she is the villain’s sister and has been in cahoots with him the whole time; her two animal pals, Chiro and Toto, represent the two sides of her personality, with little Chiro trying to keep her on the straight and narrow like a conscience and narrow-eyed Toto representing her sense of duty to her brother. The internal conflict she goes through keeps you invested in what’s going to happen next, although I must admit I did find her rather unlikeable overall and couldn’t help rolling my eyes at her “redemption” at the end. Other than her, there’s not a lot to say about the characters in general; I like Horus, but he’s hardly complex. Grunwald is entirely one-dimensional as our “bad guy”, too, but I did hugely enjoy Moog’s scenes, he was weirdly adorable for a rock giant (and his running and posing in the climax is the best thing ever).

Overall, I’d say that this film can hold its head high in the year of its fiftieth anniversary. While it lags a bit in the middle and suffers slightly from corner-cutting, it’s still a thrilling adventure with some amazing scenery and a dramatic climax that has weathered the decades far better than most other non-Disney animated films of the time. Despite Toei’s attempts to “kill” it with the limited run in theatres, it has marked a firm place for itself in anime history, and if you’ve not seen it yet I would recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Takahata’s later works. I’m so grateful to Film4 for showing it (it’s literally the only film channel that ever shows anime), as I would probably never have even heard of it otherwise, and that would have been a real shame.

 

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about this obscure Japanese gem! The next entry in this series will be on the infamously scarring classic, Watership Down (1978), which should be going up in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I have more book reviews planned, and eventually we will get to those Wallace and Gromit reviews, I promise. See you again soon, and stay animated!

 

References
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34967909 – credit for poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Adventure_of_Horus,_Prince_of_the_Sun
http://www.nausicaa.net/wiki/Prince_of_the_Sun:_The_Great_Adventure_of_Hols
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtTjnIDzwTY (An interesting video essay, but you’ll have to ignore his butchered pronunciations of the filmmakers’ names)

5 Replies to “First Thoughts on Little Norse Prince / Taiyô no ôji: Horusu no daibôken (1968)”

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