FUNNY ANIMALS AND MORE
September 7, 2014 posted by

My Top Ten Anime Features (Part 1)

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.

MomotaroThis 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.

220px-Castle_of_Cagliostro_posterI 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.

220px-NausicaaposterThe 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.

18 Comments

  • I have a copy of that Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors VHS, it is now out on DVD, search for 桃太郎 海の神兵 to find it on Amazon Japan. What I would like to learn more about is the use of native English speakers in the surrender negotiation sequence. The dialog is clever and well written.

    As for your other titles, excellent choices. Looking froward to part 2.

    • I assume that the use of obviously genuine English speakers, with British accents, for the surrendering British generals at the climax of “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors” was due to Japanese use of British prisoners of war for voice actors — possibly even some of the British troops captured at the fall of Singapore, or of Hong Kong. But I do not really know.

    • I’ve often heard of it being captured British troops as well. Hopefully they were treated fine in the recording sessions.

    • Actually it could have been civilians who were stuck in Japan when the war broke out. Many were placed in camps for enemy aliens. For example R. H. Blyth was interned in such a camp. In his case he was also allowed to leave the camp with a guard to do research and publish, in English, some of his studies of Japanese literature.

    • I’m also thinking the voice-actors were expatriates who had been living in Japan for a while.

      Using actual WWII POWs seems a bit…farfetched? Though I guess stranger things have happened.

  • The C/FO’s Mark Merlino said that he gave a private screening of the club’s video copy of “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” for the animators at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank around 1981 or ’82. He attributes this to the similar battle in the clock tower between Basil and Rattigan at the climax of Disney’s 1986 “The Great Mouse Detective”.

    • Someone had to be inspired!

    • I understand that Disney animators were quoted as saying that the clock tower climax of The Great Mouse Detective couldn’t have been done without CG. If so, the. I guess they knowingly misled the public, just as they may have regarding The Lion King’s origins.

      Nice to see Cagliostro and Nausicaa on this list, as they are also two of my favorite anime films that I’ve seen countless times. I must make a point to watch “Sea Warriors”.

      I too started a C/FO chapter here in Florida, though by that time the main club was run out of Texas. I’ve been able to screen Caglistro at cons a few times and Nausicaa was among the first anime films I publicly screened when I started promoting anime in the mid-80s. It seems very hard these days to get permission to publicly screen it or any of the Ghibli films. What especially irks me is that no one ever airs them on TV, even Kiki Delivery Service which did air on Disney networks.

    • I understand that Disney animators were quoted as saying that the clock tower climax of The Great Mouse Detective couldn’t have been done without CG. If so, the. I guess they knowingly misled the public, just as they may have regarding The Lion King’s origins.

      In some way, they needed an excuse while trying to dig their way out of the Ron Miller era the way things were during that time.

      It seems very hard these days to get permission to publicly screen it or any of the Ghibli films. What especially irks me is that no one ever airs them on TV, even Kiki Delivery Service which did air on Disney networks..

      That is rather sad basically, you’d think there would be a push to get more exposure to these films anyway possible, like the way Disney use to syndicate a few films like The Rescuers on TV around the late 90’s or whenever that was. It would not seem like a bad idea if such a TV package could be shopped around local stations that way but I suppose that market has dried up too.

  • I don’t think it was shown on Japan Air Lines’ transpacific flights, like the previous year’s dubbed Lupin III feature had been.

    So we never did get a “JAL dub” of this film with it’s flaws and quirks we come to know and love of Mystery of Mamo!

    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!?

    So all of you are to blame! (Just kidding) 😉

    Again, most people did not bother to come to it since it was “only” an animated-cartoon feature, not a “serious” live-action movie.

    We have to remind ourselves of how unkind history could be.

    • Thinking of Cagliostro again, it’s a shame it took quite a long time before it got traction around here with the Streamline release. Seem like prior to that, the best anyone may have seen the footage was courtesy of a rather gimmicky video game in the arcades. I guess TMS managed to get someone interested in that venue.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mc5MKWJ7j6Y
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QRCwPFoHcg

      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!”

      I’m sure he would! And yet there are those like me who’s first introduction to Lupin had been this film and our thoughts of the characters were hopelessly dashed when we watched the rest!

      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.

      I bet Miyazaki loved that! 😛
      Most people often think this was why it took that long for any of Hayao’s films to seen a release in the US prior to the Disney deal. Makes sense to me if he saw what happens when you let your babies be treated by sleazy distributors.

    • Miyazaki demanded practically from the start — this is, from the moment he saw what Roger Corman did to “Nausicaä” — that one of the terms of foreign licensing was that the licensee would not be allowed to remove one frame of film. The story of Studio Ghibli’s producer, Toshio Suzuki, sending an American licensor a samurai sword with a note, “No cuts”, is well-known. Disney has reportedly gotten around some problems by changing the dialogue. In “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, when Kiki and her artistic friend Ursula are hitchhiking (which is discouraged in the U.S.), Disney rewrote the dialogue to say that Ursula had recognized a driver as an old friend, rather than leaving it obvious that the two girls had hitched a ride with a stranger.

    • The story of Studio Ghibli’s producer, Toshio Suzuki, sending an American licensor a samurai sword with a note, “No cuts”, is well-known. Disney has reportedly gotten around some problems by changing the dialogue. In “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, when Kiki and her artistic friend Ursula are hitchhiking (which is discouraged in the U.S.), Disney rewrote the dialogue to say that Ursula had recognized a driver as an old friend, rather than leaving it obvious that the two girls had hitched a ride with a stranger.

      In some way, that was better than nothing I guess. Interesting I forgot the hitchhiking bit (often I remember the petty complains at the switch from coffee to hot chocolate in another scene). Too bad the Carl Macek version of Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t released in any form domestically here.

  • Fred—You may recall that with your help, Chuck Fiala, Doug Rice & I started a Chicago chapter of the CFO… The copy of CAGLIOSTRO that we had back then (which must’ve come from you guys) had an english soundtrack much superior to the DVD I later bought. Do you know what the story was there, and if that earlier version is available on DVD? (Also–Chris Sobieniak, I concur completely–I LOVED this movie, and had to work hard to maintain my love for the characters once I saw examples of the “real” Lupin films/comics…

    • Not really, I’m afraid. I dimly recall us in L.A. helping to set up the C/FO’s Chicago chapter in the early 1980s, but any videos that you got from us would have come from Mark Merlino, not from me.

      As far as I know, the C/FO had the VHS subtitled copy that we got directly from TMS through June Hirabayashi in 1980. But it was never DUBBED by anyone until Streamline Pictures /Carl Macek did so during 1992, for the Video Comics release that October. I don’t remember for how long Streamline had the license from TMS, but I’m pretty sure that it expired before VHS videos were replaced by DVDs. Any DVD copy of “Cagliostro” would have been redubbed — in fact, I think that Manga Entertainment got the license after Streamline, and had to redub it for its VHS release because it couldn’t use Streamline’s dub for copyright reasons. I don’t know if the first DVD release was under the Manga Entertainment license or if there was a third license by then. I’m pretty sure that Streamline’s English dub was never licensed by anyone for a DVD version, and I strongly doubt that a bootleg DVD using the Streamline audio track would have been made by anyone rather than just buying whatever licensed DVD was on the market.

      Streamline never made any DVDs. I’m sure of that. It legally went out of business during 2002 — we closed the final Streamline office in Beverly Hills at the end of March, and its last P. O. Box was allowed to expire at the end of September. I think that Carl & Svea Macek sold their Beverly Hills home and moved to Houston about then, when Carl went to work voice-directing for A.D.V. Any old Streamline copyrights would have been bought from Carl personally, and he is no longer around to ask.

    • (Also–Chris Sobieniak, I concur completely–I LOVED this movie, and had to work hard to maintain my love for the characters once I saw examples of the “real” Lupin films/comics…

      All the doujins in the world that had been made based on that film certainly don’t do justice to our Green Jacket underdog!

      Any DVD copy of “Cagliostro” would have been redubbed — in fact, I think that Manga Entertainment got the license after Streamline, and had to redub it for its VHS release because it couldn’t use Streamline’s dub for copyright reasons. I don’t know if the first DVD release was under the Manga Entertainment license or if there was a third license by then. I’m pretty sure that Streamline’s English dub was never licensed by anyone for a DVD version, and I strongly doubt that a bootleg DVD using the Streamline audio track would have been made by anyone rather than just buying whatever licensed DVD was on the market.

      Strangely that wasn’t the case in Japan Fred, when Cagliostro first got a release on DVD back around 2001, it contained the original Streamline dub of the film as a nice bonus track. So Japanese viewers got to watch this film with the dub we know by heart, regardless of those quirks that became legendary! I wasn’t sure if TMS still owns the rights to that English version myself but it was nice it got a release at all outside the US. I don’t think the current releases in Japan use that track otherwise.
      http://www.nausicaa.net/wiki/Lupin_III_(Japan_DVD)

      Streamline never made any DVDs. I’m sure of that. It legally went out of business during 2002 — we closed the final Streamline office in Beverly Hills at the end of March, and its last P. O. Box was allowed to expire at the end of September. I think that Carl & Svea Macek sold their Beverly Hills home and moved to Houston about then, when Carl went to work voice-directing for A.D.V. Any old Streamline copyrights would have been bought from Carl personally, and he is no longer around to ask.

      Some of Streamline’s titles that were distributed by Orion Home Video did receive DVD releases in the late 90’s through Image Entertainment. The only one I can think of right now is Megazone 23 part. 1.
      http://www.amazon.com/Megazone-23-Part-Masato-Kubota/dp/6305473129

      That’s not counting UrbanVIsion’s release of Vampire Hunter D that otherwise used Streamline’s audio for it’s release around 2000 (which I suppose they got from the original Japanese licencor).
      http://www.amazon.com/Vampire-Hunter-D-Kaneto-Shiozawa/dp/B00004Y7JH

  • That reminds me, The Castle of Cagliostro will be coming out on DVD again this December through DiscoTek Media, with a Blu-Ray release to follow. Though I don’t have the information on hand with me, I hope the Streamline Pictures dub will be included with Manga Video’s as well, at least for nostalgic sake (DiscoTek was quite good about giving us four English language audio tracks on the Mystery of Mamo release).

  • Around 1986 I first saw Cagliostro at a screening held by my local comic shop. It was exactly the quality of bootleg one would expect from that era: VHS (or was it Betamax?), multi-generational… and I fell in love. Managed to trade the guy for a copy, long since discarded in favor of superior versions.

    I wonder if it had the same origins as your 1980 screening. It had small, hard-to-read white subs without drop shadows (on film if I recall correctly). Zenigata was called “Ed Cott”, and Goemon was simply “Samurai”. It was crudely telecined, with manual breaks in the tape recording at every reel change, resulting in loss of composite video synch every time.

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