Jim Emerson, film critic and editor-in-chief for rogerebert.com, has a running series on his own movie blog, Scanners. The series is devoted to great opening shots. Not necessarily opening scenes, mind you, but the opening shot. This got me thinking, and I almost immediately came upon the perfect candidate: the opening shot in Horus, Prince of the Sun, Isao Takahata's debut film from 1968.
Horus was an exhilerating ride when I finally watched it for the first time. It's an explosive, revolutionary movie (both figuratively and literally), and I've always been wise to see each revolution and learn from it. Bob Dylan going electric; Jimi Hendrix arriving with "Are You Experienced?"; that video on YouTube of Elvis Presley swinging his hips on Milton Bearle. Those are the moments when the plates of the earth shift, when Dorothy walks into Technicolor Oz.
Horus is one of those movies. It's the precise moment at which the Japanese animation of the post-war era broke away from the rigid, mollifying Disney standard. It's the beginning of the modern anime era. It's a declaration of independence; Takahata was the general, Yasuji Mori, Yoichi Kotabe, Yasuo Otsuka, and Hayao Miyazaki his liutenants.
Gone are the cuddly cartoon characters, the simple-minded melodrama, the syrupy "moral lessons" that sound patronizing to a seven-year-old. In its place is something new. Dark, violent, desperate, complicated and profoundly psychological. It's message lives in the darker side of the '60s, the '60s of assassinations and war and student uprisings and the labor movements and the struggle for freedom. If Yellow Submarine, released the same year, was Woodstock, then Horus, Prince of the Sun would be Altamont. Yin and Yang.
Here are some screenshots from the opening shot. This is a spectacular scene because the mood and tempo are established immediately. Takahata doesn't waste any time pulling any punches. The camera follows a crowd of birds off in the distance for a few seconds. Then, suddenly, POW! A silver wolf darts out right to left, just inces away from the camera. A hand-sized axe smashes into the ground, just missing its target. The attatched rope slacks, then tightens and is ripped out as a man's feet run past. A pack of brown wolves flash across the screen, also in pursuit, in extreme close-up.
The movement of the wolves is flowing, a crowded rush of curved lines, like the rising and falling of the sea. But it's violent, aggressive. The camera freely pans to the left, regains its bearings, and captures Horus in the far distance, being chased by the wolf pack. He runs up and around, then loops back and runs back towards the camera. This is our first real glimpse of him, a very brief glimpse.
The first shot sets off a two-minute chase, a battle that is fierce, desperate. Horus is badly outnumbered, but he slashes, violently, as he tries to escape. Boulders are kicked downhill. Wolves are struck, slashed, cut; they yelp in pain. They keep on coming. The movements, and the axe, come from every possible angle. Forward. Backward. Directly into the screen. Directly out. Suddenly, the rope tied to the axe is broke; Horus is left defenseless, backed into a corner.
He climbs the nearest rock to gain high ground. Then the ground shakes and gives way. The rock Horus stands on becomes a giant hand, which scatters the wolves. A pair of giant stone feet thrust out of the earth. Horus runs for cover as a rock monster, now standing fully, towers over him, and booms in a deep voice.
How's that for an opening scene? Two minutes.
I try to imagine how shocking this opening battle was meant to be, in an age of cuddwy-wuddwy cartoon animals. The furthest Walt Disney ever took things was Dumbo's mother in the cage, and Bambi's mother being killed by hunters. But you only heard the gunshot; nothing was ever seen. This, dear friends, was Takahata's shot across the bow, and he intended to bring animation into uncharted waters.
Revolution. Learn, America.
(Edit: These screenshots were taken from the UK DVD release of Horus, under the asinine Western title of "The Little Norse Prince" or "Little Norse Prince Valiant." Ugh. What a lousy title. It's like someone released Casablance in a foreign language under the title, "The Brave Little Toaster." The UK release is taken from the Toei DVD in Japan, which is single-layered. There is also an unacceptable amount of ghosting, which comes across here. I hope you don't mind.)