Why Horus Matters
I think there's something more important here than another footnote in cartoon history. We're witnessing a moment at the crossroads in Western animation. There's a greater appreciation and attention given to animated movies, from the Oscar category to the great box office success of Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks. The medium has never been more popular with the public. But there are some very fundamental structual problems.
Animation in the West needs to evolve. It hasn't. It's become more technically sophisticated and more profitable for the major studios, but in a lot of ways, it's still stuck in the middle ages. We're still trapped under Walt Disney's shadow, of tired-out phrases like "wholesome," "magical," "enchanting," "whimsical," and that perrenial "fun for the whole family." Why are we still saddled with fairy tales and simple-minded melodrama and preachy, syrupy "moral lessons"? Who decided that a five-year-old is the only acceptable audience for these kind of movies?
Scott McCloud battled against the same stereotypes in Understanding Comics, but at least he could point to Art Spiegelman or Will Eisner or the underground comic artists as a beacon of hope, as proof that the art form could thrive in a commercial setting. What is there for an animation fan to point to?
There needs to be a revolution in this country. There needs to be something more than children's bedtime stories and rehashed sitcom plots. Even the great Pixar studio, which I love dearly, is in danger of becoming trapped by its formulas. And I don't think this can be sustained forever. Audiences who were turned onto Toy Story and The Incredibles for their innovation will lose interest as safe, easy-to-package movies flood the marketplace. Isn't this what happened to Disney in the '90s?
This is why Horus matters. This is why we need to understand just what Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Mori, Kotabe and company achieved. We need to learn the lessons of the Horus Rebellion, and apply them here.
Horus is more than a film that presages Studio Ghibli. It's a film that expanded the emotional range of animation, exploded its consciousness like those '60s acid tests. It asserted that animation could carry a literary quality; that it could draw upon the history of cinema as well as the visual arts. If movies were an extention of photography, then animation is the extention of painting.
Takahata had to battle for every square inch to get his picture made. And even he didn't realize just how far-reaching it was. The character of Hilda, the shell-shocked tragic heroine, dominates the film with a startling degree of psychological depth and complexity. Movement, body language, color and light, the expressionist compositions and backgound artwork - all of these are used to bring us into the mind of the character. Hell, if it was good enough for Van Gogh, it's got to be good enough for us.
Takahata certainly lost more battles than he won. The Toei bosses expected a family cartoon with animals and sing-a-long songs and safe, predictable plots. After all, cartoons are for kids. That's the rule. The running time was cut down to 90 minutes from two hours, because, after all, little kids can't sit still that long. The original title and theme (based on Kazuo Fukuzawa's puppet play about Japan's indigeonous Ainu people) were changed; that would either confuse or bore the audience. And there has to be some cartoon animal sideckicks, becuase that's the way these things are done.
Each of these concessions was a personal slight, a clumsy intrusion. You can see how everyone felt about those kiddy characters, and took their revenge at every turn. It's fun, in a slightly vicious sort of way, to watch Koro the bear introduced as Horus' sidekick, then literally dumped into a wasteland five minutes later and almost left for dead. Flip, the boy, fares worse. He's introduced chasing a rabbit; in the next scene, his fathter is killed. By the end of the movie, both sidekicks nearly freeze, alone in a blizzard.
Notice, also, the counter-attack employed by Hilda's animal sidekicks. Takahata is saddled with a squirrel and an owl, but reimagines them as extensions of Hilda's tortured psyche. They turn from Bambi throwaways to Freudian symbols; the owl, representing the darker side, overpowers the squirrel, torments Hilda, and boasts of the deaths of the villiage children. A cunning bit of jujitsu, but what do you expect? These young rebels wanted to make a film about the political and social upheavals of their era; they wanted to be real artists and true filmmakers.
The idea that the animation medium could ever be anything else never occured to the studio bosses. They never do, it seems. But Horus opened the doors for a whole new style of intelligent, artful animation. It blazed the trail for Heidi, Girl of the Alps, for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, for Anne of Green Gables. The World Masterpiece Theatre classics of the '70s were conceived as children's shows, but with a literary wisdom that challenged viewers of any age. It's impossible to imagine a Heidi appearing in America under the current corporate mindset. Consider the Canadian TV cartoon based on Anne of Green Gables, with all its Disney-fied cliches from head to toe; then compare it against any single episode of Takahata's Anne.
I don't think there's a better example of where we're creatively stuck now, and where we're capable of going. We should be making our way to the promised land, not some phony corporatist pryamid scheme. Miyazaki once drew a great cartoon, showing the Toei staff struggling to move a giant stone block labeled "Prince of the Sun." They've been blazing trails and creating one animation masterpiece after another for four decades. Isn't it about time that we learned to follow in their footsteps? Isn't it about time we broke the Stepford Family mold and joined the modern world?