When Astro Boy debuted on New Years Day, 1963, the Japanese animation industry was forever changed. The animation industry in Japan was always small compared to America’s, but once television came into the picture, the industry practically grew overnight. Soon more studios began to spring up wanting to get into the business. Toei Animation, however, wasn’t a new studio, having been around since the 1950s producing high quality theatrical films. Realizing that TV is there to stay, they decided to embark on the challenge of producing weekly cartoon episodes for the now-expanding medium. Their first made-for-TV cartoon, Ookami Shonen Ken (Ken the Wolf Boy), premiered less than a year after Astro Boy first made airwaves.
Here we have a cartoon starring a human boy that’s literally raised by wolves. Ken is an orphan that was discovered by a group of intelligent wolves in the Himalayan region. Similar to Tarzan of the apes, Ken grew up with the wolf pack, learning of their ways and surviving the wild with them. Ken is regarded as one of the wolves by the others, but he was distrusted by Jack, a one-eyed wolf, who despised humans (he lost one of his eyes because of them). Jack, however, had a change of heart when Ken saved him from a trap. And thus he finally became allies with him.
In addition to Jack, Ken also interacted with a pair of twin wolves Chicchi and Poppo, who frequently get into mischief. Ken acts as their surrogate older brother, having to constantly watch over them. The wolf pack is led by Boss, an eccentric leader and the brains behind the group. Boss is assisted by Black, a cowardly, nervous wreck of a wolf.
The episode stories can be dramatic. Characters get into real danger often times, like in the first episode, where Ken, while asleep, was almost bitten by a poisonous snake. Jack contemplated on whether he should save him, questioning his dislike of humans after Ken saved his life. In the end, Jack kills the snake and saves Ken, leading him to grow as a character. However, whenever things get too heavy, it’s off-set by slapstick comedy. Twins Chicchi and Poppo act as comedy relief, the two playing off each-other for fun, but there’s also Black as well, being known to overreact, much to the leader of the pack, Boss. The cartoons are primitive by today’s standards, but one can see the appeal the show had on viewers back when it was airing.
Wolf Boy Ken served as a training ground for the young Isao Takahata, who got his feet wet directing several episodes of this show, and Hayao Miyazaki, who worked as an inbetween artist, his first job in animation. The show aired on the NET network from November 25, 1963 to July 12, 1965 for 86 episodes. As with most Japanese shows of the era, it was filmed in black and white.
There was an attempt to dub the cartoon into English. Voice actors Daws Butler and Don Messick were brought in to dub the show. Only one episode was dubbed as a pilot, however. You can see a clip from the dub here:
The important thing, though, is that it proved to Toei Animation that there is a market for television cartoons. After Ken, they began producing more and more shows for television, ranging from Pyun Pyun Maru to Dragon Ball to One Piece. They’re still in business today, one of the oldest animation studios in the country, producing TV cartoons and feature films with no end in sight.
Recently Toei released the entire run in three DVD box-sets. Good to see that the studio hasn’t forgotten about its television roots.