Movie Review: The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

Review: The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun
October 24, 2005

The Citizen Kane of Japanese animation?

Quite likely. At least that's the thesis I find myself coming to. The movie I'm referring to is The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, the Japanese animation masterpiece released in 1968. If it isn't the greatest anime ever made (and one could clearly argue the point), then clearly it is the most important.

Horus was conceived at the Toei Doga studio, which was a leading animation studio churning out movies and TV shows in Japan. It was the creation of a collective of masterfully talented animators: Yasuji Mori, Yasuo Otsuka, Yoichi Kotabe, and a brash, young Hayao Miyazaki. The leader of the group was a prodigously skilled director named Isao Takahata. Horus was his first feature film as director, and he schemed up a grand story that would forever destroy the slavish Walt Disney mold, reinvent animation as a form of serious filmmaking, and make a sweeping statement for his politically-charged generation.

Horus was birthed over the course of three long years, when Takahata endlessly battled the executives of Toei, who expected another simple, Disney-esque children's cartoon. He lost many of those battles: the film's setting was moved from Japan's native peoples to Scandinavia, 30 minutes were cut from the original two-hour length (a length unheard of at that time), and two key scenes were never animated, due to their extreme scale and complexity.

Toei never knew what they had on their hands. Horus, Prince of the Sun was released in 1968, and pulled from theatres after ten days. Takahata was permanantly demoted, never allowed to direct again. But like The Ramones, the film steadily built up a devoted following among college students. In time Takahata, Miyazaki, Mori, Otsuka, and Kotabe were vindicated a thousand times over, with the World Masterpiece Theatre productions of the '70s, and with Takahata and Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli.

Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes - addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.

Horus is available on DVD in Japan, Portugal, France, and now the UK with English-language subtitles for the first time. The French DVD, as usual, has all the best extras, including over an hour of interviews and features, and a 24-page booklet. The Japanese version has the classic movie poster. The UK release, for some infuriating reason, has slapped on an asinine, stupid title: "The Little Norse Prince." 37 years later, and the suits still don't know what they've got on their hands.


Adam M Mason said...

Completely amazing article, comprehensive account about the essence of this classic. It is immense. And yes, it is infuriating that my countrymen at Optimum changed the title to such an inane one. Thankfully though it's easily obtainable unlike many of the other most amazing films we can never get hold of. Such is the way of the world.

jFan said...

Is there perhaps something I'm missing? i watched a subbed version of it, and I have to say I don't think it's as great as Takahata's later masterpieces, or any of Miyazaki's. The single-frame-at-a-time action sequences seemed to be a wasted opportunity, since Takahata can handle action sequences so well in full motion. Even the themes and subtexts you mentioned were completely lost on me. None of the characters struck me as "the most complex" to be found in animation on either side of the Atlantic. That's not to say i didn't like it, because I did, but I feel as if it's been overestimated. Did I watch it the wrong way?

jFan said...

Allow me to retract part of my previous statement: a realize now that you mentioned the two action sequences not being animated due to their size. And there were quite a few things in the film that impressed me.

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