Thursday, January 19, 2023

Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, at the Japan Society

Legendary Prince Rama and evil King Ravana have appeared in many, many Indian films, even the superhero movie Ra.One, which is named for the super-villain, a digit reboot of Ravana. Yet, their story is probably best known to animation fans through films produced outside India. Nina Paley gave Rama’s loyal wife a feminist spin in Sita Sings the Blues. Before that, respected Indian animator Ram Mohan also collaborated with Japanese co-directors Koichi Sasaki and Yugo Sako to create the classic Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, which screens with freshy restored vividness tomorrow at the Japan Society.

Whereas Paley undercut Rama’s heroics, Mohan and company somehow saved all the best fight scenes for his brother Lakshman or their friend, Hanuman. The latter happens to be a mighty flying monkey, so giving him screen time makes perfect sense—but we get ahead of ourselves.

There is first Prince Rama’s courtship of Sita and their banishment from her Kingdom of Mithila. The king had intended to anoint Rama his successor, but he is honor-bound to grant the two boons requested by his second wife, who insists on Rama’s expulsion, in favor of her own son’s ascension. Yet, the couple spent many happy years in the forest, with only Lakshman and a small army of cuddly woodland creatures for comfort, until evil King Ravana kidnaps Sita for himself.

This is where the film really starts getting good. While on the trail of Ravana, Rama and Lakshman meet Hanuman, who introduces them to his master, Sugriv, who has been deposed from his own kingdom. Rather pragmatically, Rama restores Sugriv to his throne, who then mobilizes his army to aid Rama in his quest. However, reaching Ravana’s island stronghold will be their first logistical challenge. Then they will face Ravana’s freakishly giant warrior-retainers.

A lot of Ghibli veterans worked on
Ramayana, presumably on the stunning fantastical vistas and awesome battle scenes. From time to time, there is a bit of un-Ghibli-anime awkwardness to the characters’ movement, but that sort of adds an element of nostalgia. Regardless, it is impossible to go wrong with army of monkey warriors. The second half is like a Planet of the Apes movie, wherein apes and men work together to fight the hydra-like Ravana and his batwing minions.

is incredibly respectful of the Sanskrit epic. There was a bit of controversy in the early going, but the final product became a symbol of Japanese-Indian cooperation. However, it is still highly watchable for audiences coming from outside Eastern religious traditions. They definitely emphasize the fantasy elements to such an extent, you could almost consider it a Hindu Clash of the Titans (we think of that as a good thing).

Rama is a bit of a grandstanding Picard-ish figure, but Hanuman is jolly good fun to watch whenever he is on-screen. Frankly, he takes over the film for long stretches—and
Ramayana is totally the better for it. Seriously, big simians always work on-screen.

We did not review
Ramayana from the restored print, but we assume the already spectacular colors pop even more. Regardless, this is an anime classic and an important international co-production, before that was a thing (an increasingly dodgy thing). Recommended for anime fans and admirers of the classic epic, Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama screens tomorrow (1/20) in New York at the Japan Society.