All right, here is my list of Top Ten Anime feature films. To clarify, these are my favorites; not necessarily the ten best anime theatrical features ever made. Another way to look at it is that these are the ten anime features that I have watched, and would be willing to watch again, over and over and over, not just once. There are many features that I have greatly admired, but seeing them once or twice is enough for me.
I got carried away describing why these are my favorites, so this will be spread over at least three weeks.
In chronological order, they are:
1. Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors. Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei. Directed by Mitsuyo Seo. 74 minutes. April 12, 1945.
This is the #1; the earliest Japanese animated feature. I first saw it in 1984 when Kent Butterworth, an American animator who had been sent to Tokyo to supervise some American TV cartoon subcontracted there, returned with it on one of the first commercial video tapes. It cost the ¥ equivalent of $80 or $100, because it was designed to sell to a video rental store, not to the public. It was from this Shochiku video that the public first learned that Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei had not been completely destroyed by the American military authorities in 1945-‘46, as had been believed up until then. Today, it’s on YouTube, and everyone can see it. It fascinated me in 1984, and it continues to fascinate me today.
Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei was a military propaganda feature, designed to instill patriotic spirit into children for Japan and its Imperial Japanese Navy. Mitsuyo Seo (September 26, 1911 – August 24, 2010) was a successful animator who had produced and directed several shorts during the 1930s. In 1937 his tiny studio was absorbed by the slightly larger Geijutsu Eigasha (Art Cinema Company). He built Japan’s first multiplane camera for it, and become its chief director. When the Imperial Naval Ministry decided in 1942 that animated propaganda would be a good idea, it was to Geijutsu Eigasha and Seo that they went to make it. Seo’s 37-minute Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (Momotarō no Umiwashi), featuring Japanese folklore’s little-boy hero Momotarō (Peach Boy) as a modern little-boy admiral with his “sea eagles” (funny-animal naval pilots), released on March 25, 1943 and distributed by the national cinema distributor Shochiku Moving Picture Laboratory, was so popular that the Naval Ministry immediately “suggested” that Seo’s studio make a feature twice as long. Geijutsu Eigasha was too small for that, so – again at the Ministry’s “suggestion” through the military-controlled national government – Geijutsu Eigasha closed down and was reconstituted as the animation division of Shochiku.
The plot is a combination of two events; Japan’s occupation of the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), and the battle and conquest of British Singapore on February 15, 1942. The film has several abrupt jumps, implying that Seo divided scenes among several different production units. (1) Four just-graduated naval cadets, a puppy, bear cub, monkey, and pheasant (Momotarō’s animal companions in Japanese mythology), return to their home village to tell their families and friends goodbye before shipping out. The monkey’s young brother plays with his uniform’s cap, falls in a swift river, and is rescued by the monkey and the puppy. (2) The IJN, shown as bunny sailors, construct an air base on an Indonesian island (Wikipedia says Celebes in particular) while Indonesian animals in native dress look on and help. (3) A plane arrives with Admiral Momotarō and the four animal companions, who are his naval staff. (4) The IJN constructs a jungle school and the puppy musically teaches the Indonesian animals their first Japanese word, asahi (rising sun). (5) Scenes of happy IJN life: washing clothes, getting mail from home, the sweating sailors (Indonesia is on the Equator) marveling at the local animals and plants, etc., interspersed with action showing the Navy preparing to attack the enemy. (5) A “why we fight” sequence, in silhouette animation, showing the 17th-century Indonesian sultanates being conquered by Dutch merchants. (6) Japanese naval planes taking off from their air base, flying to the enemy base (British), parachuting down, and conquering it. (7) The British surrender, in a rotoscoped Ford automobile plant in Singapore (where the British Army surrendered), familiar to the Japanese public through newsreels). (8) The Japanese public (the home village from the beginning of the movie) getting the news of the victory on the radio, and celebrating.
The feature is full of subtleties, especially if you know WWII history. The Japanese sailors are handsome or cute funny animals, while the Indonesian animals are comical and grotesque “simple and happy natives”. The Japanese sailors clearly consider themselves superior to the Indonesians, though they are not used to the Equatorial climate. The British are shown as cowardly, with “foreign devil” horns. The Japanese government had set up several “independent” puppet nations during the 1930s and early ‘40s – Manchukuo, Burma, the Philippines, Japanese-occupied China – but none in Indonesia because it intended that Indonesia would become a wholly integrated part of the Japanese Empire, as Korea was. This may be why the Japanese animals are shown as so patronizing to the Indonesian animals. At the end of the movie, the Japanese animal children play at being paratroopers, jumping onto an outline map of the United States – the next target. Japan was not yet under American occupation and cultural influence, and Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei shows a Chinese artistic influence, particularly in the gently drifting dandelion seeds = falling paratroopers.
2. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Lupin III: Cagliostro no Shiro. Produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 100 minutes. December 15, 1979.
I was blown away when I first saw this as a Cartoon/Fantasy Organization member, in 1980. June Hirabayashi, TMS’ Hollywood agent, asked us fledgling anime fans if we could do anything to help promote anime in America, and showed us this. Wow!
Mark Merlino, the C/FO’s videomaster, and I were both already planning to attend the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston that August 29 – September 1. We both offered to help get it shown there. Merlino volunteered to run a video screening, and I handled the correspondence with the Noreascon 2 Committee to get it a special spot on the Worldcon’s program, and to print, pass out, and bring back audience participation forms to let TMS know what the fans thought of it. Hirabayashi provided what I assume was a video copy of the subtitled 35 m.m. print that TMS had made to try to sell the movie to an American distributor. I don’t think it was shown on Japan Air Lines’ transpacific flights, like the previous year’s dubbed Lupin III feature had been.
The 1980 Worldcon screening was mostly a failure, for two reasons. Firstly, few of the 1980 Worldcon attendees bothered to come to an animated cartoon that they had never heard of. Neither Japanese animation nor Hayao Miyazaki were yet known to the average s-f fan, much less the American public, in 1980. Secondly, while the small audience loved it, few bothered to fill out the audience participation forms.
Incidentally, it was at that Worldcon that Merlino and I, and a few other s-f fans, met Steve Gallacci and began what led to today’s furry fandom, with almost 6,000 attendees at this year’s Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, 1,300+ fursuiters, and over fifty furry conventions around the world. Who knew!?
TMS continued to try to promote The Castle of Cagliostro in America and Europe. I do not know whether it’s true that it was ever shown at European international film festivals, or if it was ever seen by Steven Spielberg; but I know that June Hirabayashi got it shown at one of Dr. Donald A. Reed’s monthly Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films screenings in 1980 or 1981. Again, most people did not bother to come to it since it was “only” an animated-cartoon feature, not a “serious” live-action movie.
Monkey Punch (Kazuhiko Kato), the creator of the Lupin III manga, visited the C/FO several times in its early years. He had nothing to do with The Castle of Cagliostro. He agreed that it was an excellent movie, but it wasn’t his Lupin III. “I wouldn’t have had him rescue the girl; I would have had him rape her!”
Why did I like it? It was writer-director Miyazaki’s first “perfect” movie. It was simultaneously funny and suspenseful, with very rich visuals. Lupin’s gradually-successful fight against the entrenched Cagliostro and his centuries-old deathtrap castle is believable; and Miyazaki’s starting the action again just when the story seems to be over – more than once — is something that few other directors of animated or live-action films have managed. Although nobody in America knew it at the time, Miyazaki based much of it on his previous almost-twenty years’ animation experience. The sunken Roman city at the ending was repeated from Tōei Dōga’s 1971 Animal Treasure Island, and the tenseness and rapid pacing of the climactic battle between Lupin and Count Cagliostro was honed from Miyazaki’s direction of the climactic battle between Conan and Dictator Lepka of Industria aboard Industria’s giant warplane in the next-to-last episode of Nippon Animation’s 1978 Future Boy Conan. Yūji Ōno’s excellent jazz score didn’t hurt any, either. When I joined Streamline Pictures in 1991, this was one of the first anime features that I recommended we license. And it hasn’t been topped since.
3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind(s). Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä. Produced by Top Craft. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 117 minutes. March 11, 1984.
The story of how Miyazaki came to make Nausicaä is well-known today. It is misleading to say that it was “produced” by Top Craft. Top Craft was a pen-for-hire studio, and Nausicaä would not have been made if Miyazaki had not personally directed it, with the Tokuma Publishing Company, the publisher of the Animage anime magazine and the movie’s real theatrical distributor, financing it.
I was a science-fiction fan before I was an anime fan, and Nausicaä is one of the best s-f movies ever made. It is set in the far future; a thousand years after the “Seven Days of Fire”, an apocalyptic global war that is still several centuries in our future. Earth is covered with slowly spreading “toxic jungles” where human life is impossible; the home of a multitude of mutated plants and insects, with the giant ōmu (king bug) pillbugs as the most fearsome. Nausicaä is a young princess-warrior of a tiny neutral country in a small valley surrounded by high hills or mountains. The strong winds over the valley have kept it free of the drifting spores that spread the toxic jungle.
The Valley of the Wind(s) is aware of but has kept out of the vicious war between the kingdoms of Tolmekia and Pejite. Nausicaä, the daughter of the Valley’s slowly dying King Jil, has been conducting research into the toxic plants and exploring the deadly “Sea of Decay”. She learns that the plants are actually purifying the soil in the interior of the jungle, and only the outer edge (which is what most humans contact) is still deadly. Moreover, the giant ōmu are intelligent, and peaceful if left alone.
Before Nausicaä can do anything about this, a Tolmekian airplane containing an embryo Giant Warrior, one of the weapons that created the Seven Days of Fire, crashes in the Valley. It is immediately followed by a Tolmekian occupying force to reclaim the embryo. The Tolmekians are led by their Princess Kushana and her personal advisor, Lord Kurotowa. Kushana has been patronized by her royal father and brothers as “only a girl”, given only minor tasks such as retrieving the embryo, and she sees this as her opportunity to succeed. She intends to take over the Valley as her fiefdom, burn back the Sea of Decay, and raise the embryo to maturity and use it to conquer Pejite. Nausicaä knows that this will fail, and bring a horrible retribution against both Kushana and the Valley. The attempt to destroy the toxic jungle, home of the ōmus, will bring them into active hostility against the humans. Nausicaä must escape and somehow keep the peace between the humans and the denizens of the Sea of Decay.
The story, whether in Miyazaki’s manga story or his animated cartoon, is an excellent s-f adventure. There are no real villains. The toxic jungle and its insects (all right, so the ōmu isn’t technically an insect – if it’s based upon the pillbug, it has fourteen legs) are what they are. Kushana has been held back all her life, and is finally trying to prove what she is capable of in the only way she knows how. Miyazaki’s skill is shown in the slow, subtle way that he demonstrates Nausicaä’s knowledge, competence, and personality, as opposed to Roger Corman’s Warriors of the Wind adaptation that edits out this slow buildup and just tells the audience at the start that “Princess Zandra” is a superwoman. The music by Joe (or Joh) Hisaishi is superb – I suspect that it is no accident that Miyazaki’s movies, and his TV series where he had a say in their music, always featured excellent composers.
Streamline Pictures always tried hard to license Miyazaki’s features. We got The Castle of Cagliostro through TMS, and Carl & Jerry persuaded Tokuma Publishing, which controlled Studio Ghibli at its start, to let them dub My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service into English for JAL’s inflight entertainment. (This was technically before Streamline Pictures was created.) Also to have Laputa: The Castle in the Sky for two six-month licenses during 1989 and 1990, which we always assumed was just for Tokuma’s own test-marketing purposes. But otherwise, Studio Ghibli always refused to let Streamline, or any of the tiny American anime distributors, have its films for the American market. Ghibli (Miyazaki and, in this case, business manager/producer Toshio Suzuki) were holding out for one of the major American cinematic companies. They finally got that with the Walt Disney Company in 1996.
Next week: Three more.