He brings joy, but the gods are displeased.
And so his journey never ends.
When I was growing up on a farm outside of a small southern town, there were three ways to watch movies. The first was beg my parents to drive me to the nearest cinema forty-five minutes away. The second was watch whatever happened to air on one of our five (that’s FIVE) television channels. The third was rent a video from a tiny store next to the train tracks in the nearby small southern town. When I think about the odd films that my sisters and I watched as children, it astounds me that three kids on a farm without the culture of a big city to rely on would get exposed to such variety (thanks for that Mom and Dad!).
We watched films that I could only vaguely recall in hazy memory because they are all but impossible to find today (until YouTube came along, that is). Films such as The Peanut Butter Solution, The Mouse and His Child, and an animated Russian tale called The Humpbacked Horse. Somewhere in there I watched my first anime, though I had no idea that it was anime at the time. There was a series that I was over the moon for called Tales of Magic that showcased various fairy tales from around the world. It was one of three early anime features that I have always remembered and loved. The others are about a baby unicorn named Unico.
There were two feature-length films about Osamu Tezuka’s cute unicorn character that were released in the early 80s. The first is called The Fantastic Adventures of Unico (or just Unico in Japan) and introduces us to the title character who is born with the power to bring joy and happiness to anyone he meets. However, the gods become angry because they feel that such power should rest solely in the gods’ own hands. They send the West Wind to banish Unico to the Hill of Oblivion, but she takes pity on the tiny creature and disobeys. The furious gods then send the Night Wind to do their bidding, and so in order to save Unico the West Wind must take him from place to place in the hope of keeping him safe.
If you think that an animated movie about a unicorn has to be cutesy, think again. In the first film Unico encounters a delightfully grouchy character named Beezle (also known as Akuma-kun) who rejects friendship as the current reigning “Devil of Solitude.” He also meets a cat named Katy (or Chao) who wants to become a human girl, and her story takes a turn for the worse when her wish is granted and an evil lord called Baron de Ghost (remember when I mentioned him in my first Otaku Haiku post?) attempts to seduce her. The overall movie is pure fantasy with elements of both light and dark to it, and the second feature-length film is no different.
Unico and the Island of Magic (or Maho no Shima e) has Unico thrown into a frightening plot in which an evil magician named Lord Kuruku is trying to turn all the creatures of the earth into “Living Puppets,” which turn out to be brick-like cutouts that do whatever he tells them to do. His helper is a young man named Toby (Torubi) who does Kuruku’s dirty work in exchange for learning magic. However, Toby is thrown into conflict when his own family is next on the transformation list. He stoically does his master’s bidding and turns his parents into Living Puppets but allows his younger sister Cheri to escape. Cheri and Unico then go on a perilous quest to defeat Lord Kuruku and save not only Cheri’s parents but all living things.
Both Unico films had a great impact on me as a child. The stories weren’t as linear as the cut-and-paste Disney films circulating at the time (and still circulating today; don’t get me wrong, I love Disney, but their stories can be rather predictable) and the animation was interesting, colourful, and beautiful. There were parts that genuinely frightened me and thrilling parts that filled me with an equal amount of wonder. Nothing was black and white, either literally or figuratively, and the characters were new and strange and utterly delightful to my child’s eye. Who’s to say whether or not watching features such as Unico aided in opening my young mind and helped to guide me to the anime that I watch today? All I know is that there is a level of pure fantasy, unexpected storytelling, and “anything goes” aura about anime and manga that I have yet to experience in any other artistic and cultural format. It inspired me as a child, and many years later it continues to inspire me creatively as an adult. I only hope that one day my own stories might inspire someone else’s dreams, or at the very least a nightmare or two.