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
We start off Project Ghibli with a look, not at the first Studio Ghibli release, but at the directorial debut of one of the studio’s founders, Isao Takahata. Hayao Miyazaki, the other founder of Studio Ghibli, also worked on the film assisting with key animation and scene design at Takahata’s request.
Takahata and Miyazaki first crossed paths at Toei Animation, at the time Japan’s largest animation studio, with Takahata starting as Assistant Director in 1961 and Miyazaki as In-Between artist in 1963. They were both mentored by Yasuo Ōtsuka, who was also Animation Director on the The Little Norse Prince. Together they collaborated on several tv series and feature animations and, by the time production started on The Little Norse Prince in the autumn of 1965, all were active members of the workers union.
Takahata and his peers were unhappy with the oppressive factory-style management at Toei and their leanings towards a collaborative, socialist outlook are reflected in both the production of the film and the final product. This was to be a shift away from the Disney imitations aimed at children the studio had historically produced.
The Little Norse Prince follows the story of Hols (aka Horus), a survivor from a village destroyed by in-fighting, who finds the Sword of the Sun and, on his quest to see it reforged, finds a new village to call home. Together with his companion, Coro the plucky bear cub, he befriends Hilda, an outcast and gifted singer who is welcomed by the villagers, despite their troubles. All is not well, however, as the orchestrator behind the social tension is a malevolent being called Grunwald who repeatedly attempts to turn the villagers against each other.
While the film has received high praise for its animation techniques and – rather blatant – social commentary, I feel I should add a bit of a disclaimer here. As the first film in our project, The Little Norse Prince doesn’t feel like a good example of a Studio Ghibli film to me. The pacing is inconsistent with large periods with very little happening, while the character audio regularly cuts out just a fraction too early for comfort. Due to budget constraints there are several scenes that aren’t animated at all, including a major attack on the village, with the camera panning a static backdrop while the music or dialogue continues. Changes in the the colouring of the film also crop up repeatedly which is jarring.
That being said, if you can bear with it, The Little Norse Prince, is a pretty good film. The landscapes and seascapes are stunning, and where there are big animated sequences, they are impressive and fast paced. The opening section of Hols fighting off the Silver Wolves is wonderfully choreographed and sets him up as the hero of the film. The characters themselves are very expressive, although their style is not typically Ghibli, some being closer to Osamu Tezuka’s work – creator of Astro Boy – a big influence on anime at the time.
Despite the intention to avoid the Disney style, many of the key characters also seem more than a little Disney-inspired, particularly the young characters and the animal companions, Koro, Chiro and Toto. Grunwald too, is a typical Disney villain, with grand gestures and expressions, and the village deputy, Drago, actually reminds me of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin (albeit about 30 years too early!) Hols meanwhile is portrayed as the people’s champion, broad shouldered and at many times filmed from a low angle like a propaganda poster.
The characters themselves are rather one dimensional. Grunwald gives no reason for his malice, while Hols is the stereotypical male: strong, self-assured, with little emotional range. Hilda has been lauded as an early example of a strong Ghibli female but i’m not so sure. Compared to the others she has more emotional turmoil, and ultimately she does choose to put others before herself at great risk which is a nice character arc, however for much of the film she’s swept along, trance like, by the events around her. Expect much stronger heroine’s going forwards. Lizzie felt the characters were pretty well-rounded, however.
The film blends mythologies and cultures. Originally inspired by Fukazawa’s puppet play, The Sun Above Chikisani, and the oral traditions of the Ainu people of Hokkaido, pressure from the Studio prior to release saw the setting changed to Scandinavia, particularly reflected in Hilda’s clothing. When Hols pulls the Sword of the Sun from rock-giant Mogue, the Sword in the Stone reference is all too clear. Hilda meanwhile wears an amulet granting immortality, reminiscent of the various protective amulets of Ancient Egyptian culture.
Similar to many of Studio Ghibli’s later works, community and collaboration is a big theme in this film. The villagers come together to build defences and repair the damage to their village. Manual, collaborative labour is promoted as positive and wholesome (and an excuse for lots of singing!) in contrast to the isolation and resentment of Grunwald.
There are hints of the future work of Studio Ghibli, and indeed Miyazaki, throughout the film. When Hols battles the giant pike, the monstrous fish charging at him reminds me of the stampeding Omu from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), while the silver foxes in their elemental form are reminiscent of the falling stars from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
While the film has since enjoyed critical acclaim, it was a financial disaster upon release. With an initial production schedule of 8 months, the democratic work ethic and Takahata’s perfectionism pushed the release to 1968, three years later, and a limited showing of just 10 days in theatres stunted its reception. Takahata wasn’t allowed to direct another film at Toei Animation and both he and Miyazaki had left the studio by the time they worked on the second film in our project.
Next up: some cute and cuddly pandas pay us a visit