This week we conclude our look at Tōei Dōga’s earliest anime features with a focus on “Dōbutsu Takarajima” aka Animal Treasure Island. The film was originally released on March 20th, 1971 in Japan, celebrating Tōei Company’s (not Dōga’s) twentieth anniversary. There is almost no information on its American release before its DVD release on November 15, 2005, but it was released by American International Pictures Television in 1972 titled just Treasure Island, in a package of four Tōei Dōga features along with Jack and the Witch, The Little Norse Prince, and Wonderful World of Puss in Boots. It was frequently shown on syndicated television during the 1970s and ‘80s as a children’s afternoon movie, and it was also available on the pre-home video 16 m.m rental film market. (Does anyone know when AIP’s license expired?)
Dōbutsu Takarajima, 78 minutes, was directed by Hiroshi Ikeda, based loosely on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. The basic plot was the same, but most of the characters were replaced with anthropomorphic animals. Jim Hawkins remains human, but he is reduced in age to an 8- to 10-year boy, shown as running the Admiral Bembo (Benbow) Inn without any adult supervision (although he is only the temporarily-out innkeeper’s assistant), with the help of Gran (Rex), a mouse. Billy Bones (a peg-legged cat) checks into the inn, telling Jim to be on the lookout for suspicious characters. The latter, cloaked and looking like ninja pigs, fight with Bones, wrecking the inn. After the fight in which Bones disappears, Jim finds the map in Bones’ chest. He and Gran set off in a little homemade barrel boat, the Pioneer, to get the treasure, with the infant Baboo (either Jim’s baby brother or the absent innkeeper’s infant son; summaries vary), as a stowaway. Captain Silver, a hook-handed boar, and his pirate crew on their galleon the Pork Saute (sautéed pork; a popular recipe) intercept them. Other notable pirates include the aristocratic comedy-relief Baron (fox) who steals the map, the vicious first mate Spider (spider monkey), and kindly Otto (Wally; walrus) who becomes Baboo’s guardian. Jim and Gran are impressed into being all-around servants; they rebel by serving the pirates tempura-fried toothbrushes, baseballs, and similar inedibles for dinner. The pirates sail to Pirate Island, where the prisoners are sold into slavery. In the slave pen Jim meets Kathy, the young human granddaughter of Captain Flint, who as his heir has been trying to get his map to his treasure, was captured, and also sold into slavery.
On Pirate Island, the pirate captains argue over which captain should be chairman of the captains’ committee. The Baron produces the treasure map to make his own claim to be a captain, but all of the captains fight to get it, including Jim, Kathy, and Gran (with the baby) who have escaped. Kathy ends up with the map. She and Silver form an uneasy alliance (Silver has the ship; she has the map) and they sail off to get the treasure. The map is stolen back & forth. Silver betrays and imprisons Kathy. The Pork Saute gets into a furious battle with the Pirate Island captains’ chairman’s more powerful Gratin, which Jim blows up. Just before they reach the island, a terrible storm rips the Pork Saute in half. Jim, his friends, and Otto land on the island to find Silver and the pirates, with Kathy as their prisoner, about to find the treasure. Kathy offers to lead Silver to the treasure if he will spare Jim and his friends. Silver agrees, but plans to betray everyone. When the other pirates realize that Silver will abandon them, they switch to Jim’s side. The trail leads to the top of an extinct volcano whose crater has become a lake. As Jim and Silver fight on the narrow trail, Kathy tells Silver and Spider to throw a lever that will drain the crater, revealing the treasure. Silver does, but the flood washes him and Spider out to sea. The friends and reformed pirates find Flint’s sunken ship as well as the treasure. After draining the ship and loading the treasure on it, they sail for home, with Silver and Spider following, quarreling, on floating logs.
(If anyone is curious, Admiral John Benbow (1653-1702) was an English naval hero during the late 17th century, and was probably the most popular English naval hero between Sir Francis Drake during Elizabeth I’s reign and Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Napoleonic Wars of the l790s and early 1800s. A seaside inn named after Benbow during most of the 18th century would have been yawningly unoriginal.)
This feature has become very popular on DVD since Hayao Miyazaki became an anime fan favorite. Although his only credit is as a key animator and story consultant, it moves like a Miyazaki film; its character design looks like a Miyazaki film; and one suspects that he had more to do than just “consulting” with the story by Kei Iijima & Hiroshi Ikeda since its climax, where the drained volcanic crater reveals the treasure, is the same as the climax of Miyazaki’s 1979 Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. The 2005 American DVD release uses the original title translated: Animal Treasure Island, rather than the 1972 dub’s “Treasure Island”.
The 1972 American release was dubbed by Fred Ladd’s usual Titan Production subcontractors of Cliff (Ray) Owens and his voice crew; however, Ladd says that they must have been working for someone else on that occasion – presumably Americn International Pictures — because he did not produce it. Jim’s mouse friend is renamed “Rex”. Billie Lou Watt, the voice of Astro Boy and Kimba for 1960s TV, is the boy Jim Hawkins and probably Rex, and Ray Owens is “Captain Silver” and probably the dog pirate cook. The American 2005 DVD release is in Japanese, with the 1972 American sound track and a good translation of the Japanese script in the subtitles. The viewer can see Jim’s mouse friend named “Gran” in the English subtitles, and hear him called “Rex” on the American audio track.
The movie is lively and clever, unlike most other Tōei Dōga features of the period. It is based on a familiar British story rather than an exotic Oriental one, with a top-notch voice cast and spritely songs, including an unforgettable theme song (fortunately included on the American dub) by Naozumi Yamamoto. It was designed to appeal primarily to children, but was witty enough for the adults. What was there not to like? Marketing it in America as ‘just for little children’ did it a disservice.
All three of these are good all-ages theatrical animated cartoon features, among the best features that Tōei Dōga (Tōei Animation Co., Ltd. since 1998) has ever made, and still very watchable after fifty years. Seek them out. They’re worth it.
By 1971 there were some Japanese animated theatrical features from other studios – Ryuichi Yokoyama’s Otogi Productions with Otogi World Tour (1962), and Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions with A Thousand and One Nights (1969), Cleopatra (1970 – poster at right), and Belladonna of Sadness (1973) – but these were more “arty-intellectual” features rather than films for the general public. Also, their studios were much smaller than Tōei Dōga’s and without Tōei’s advertising budgets. But by the end of the 1970s, Tokyo Movie Shinsha was producing mass-marketed theatrical animated features, with the first two Lupin III movies in 1978 and 1979; and Akira in 1988. In the 1980s Studio Madhouse emerged; primarily a TV series producer, but with such theatrical features as Lensman (1984) and Wicked City (1987). By the mid-1970s, the early era of the Japanese animated theatrical features were over.