Horus, Prince of the Sun
Isao Takahata is a name that will never be as well known as that of Hayao Miyazaki, and in many ways that's a shame. Takahata is Miyazaki's right hand at Studio Ghibli, the production house famous for everything from My Neighbor Totoro to the stunning Spirited Away. Although Miyazaki's works tend to get the most attention, Takahata has proven himself to be Miyazaki's equal in every way.
With films as diverse as Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, and Pom Poko under his direction, Takahata has shown a stunning range. He and Miyazaki worked for many years as a director/animator team, and the first major work where this collaborative effort is on display is Horus, Prince of the Sun. This piece from 1968 shows off little of the character designs that would become Miyazaki's signature, but it has a creativity that was stunning for an animated film made during that era in Japan. In Horus, the anime fan can see the groundwork for many films that have since followed.
The film tells the story of Horus, a young man who lives alone near the sea with his aging father. In the midst of fending off a wolf attack, Horus wakes a colossal rock creature with a blade stuck in a crevice. Horus is able to extract the weapon, which turns out to be the Sword of the Sun. The colossus tells him that if he can reforge the steel, he will become the Prince of the Sun. Unfortunately, not long afterwards, he is confronted with the death of his father. In his dying words, he warns Horus about the evil ice demon Grunwald who wiped out their community when he was just a babe, and he commands Horus to seek out other humans. Horus soon takes a boat out on the waves to try and find more of his own kind.
After a dangerous run-in with Grunwald himself, Horus finds a village hit by tragedy. Grunwald's pet beast, a humongous water monster, has killed several of the fishermen trying to get food for the town. Horus makes a place for himself by taking on the mammoth fish creature, for which the inhabitants are immensely grateful. However, it raises the ire of Grunwald, who thought he'd rid himself of Horus. But Grunwald has plans of his own...and Horus runs into trouble as he brings a lonely girl into the village named Hilda. She's a beautiful singer, but her troubles will soon encompass the entire village and may wind up condemning it to destruction.
That this film was Takahata's directorial debut is just stunning. The film shows a real understanding of action set pieces far before they became popular in cinema. Watch old Bond films from the same era, and they move at a crawl (despite Sean Connery's presence) in comparison to current action movies. Horus just keeps moving, moving, moving. Those who've watched anime for a while are used to many cost-cutting tricks that give the illusion of onscreen movement. In Horus' fight sequences, everything moves and moves fast! There's a battle that's told in still frames for artistic effect, but the rest are done with simply astounding animation for the time. Visually, it's also fascinating as one of the only animated films ever made in the 2.35:1 ratio, which gives it an epic feel.
If it were just an action film, however, Horus would not be much. Horus touches on a lot of ideas, from the cause of strength in unity to fighting one's own destiny to become a better person. In 1968, animated films were still considered childrens' fare, and so the mature themes of death and destruction on full display were way ahead of their time. Even now, this film might be too scary for the youngest children, but it often invokes the spirit of Disney's Pinnochio, a great film in its own right that proved that animation could be for adults. There are deep and interesting concepts at play here. From all reports, the animation team was striving to create a movie that children could see, but would work on a variety of levels. They succeeded.
Horus does have some problems for the modern anime fan, however. There's a lot of extremely out-of-date music that, though usually not sung by onscreen characters, can bring stifled laughter to anyone unprepared. The character designs belong to an older period, and those who might see it just as Miyazaki fans will be sorely disappointed. It also doesn't have the sheer power or magnitude of either Miyazaki's or Takahata's later works.
Horus is a film that I would like to watch again soon despite its age. The film was brought over to the US a while ago in a reasonable adaptation as Little Norse Prince, but that version has been out of print for a while. My suggestion: get past the small checkmarks against the film and find a copy through an Internet fansub group. If you're interested in the history of anime or the early work of two of the most respected animators in Japan, you'll find it an important, if often neglected, milestone.
Horus, Prince of the Sun -- violence, mild language -- A-