Monday, March 05, 2018

NYICFF ’18: Horus, Prince of the Sun

He is a young man of destiny, who will reclaim his legacy with the help of a sword that he dislodged from stone. These might sound like familiar fantasy tropes, but the Norse/Slavic flavor and Ainu inspiration would still make it rather distinctive. However, the adventure of Hols takes on enormous historical significance, because it represents the first feature length work of revered animator Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary collaborator Isao Takahata. It is a forerunner to so many beloved Studio Ghibli masterworks, but there is also plenty of ripping good adventure to enjoy in Takahata’s Horus, Prince of the Sun, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with screenings during the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Hols (or Horus or whatever) is young, but he has a bold spirit that impresses Rockoar, the unfortunately named stone giant (say it to yourself a couple times), especially after the lad manages to pull the legendary Sword of the Sun out of the giant’s shoulder. In fact, the giant prophesies greatness for the boy, but first he must re-forge the sword. He will also have to endure trials and tribulations, starting with the death of his father.

With his dying breathe, the old man urges him to find and rebuild their ancestral village up north that was destroyed by Grunwald, a wintery demonic figure. Recognizing a fantasy hero when he sees one, Grunwald first tries to coopt Hols and then leaves him for dead. He is unsuccessful at both. Soon thereafter, Hols saves a communal fishing village from a number of beastly threats. However, Grunwald will have more success when his siren-voiced little sister infiltrates the village, with Hols’ oblivious help, to insidiously undermine his position.

As a work of cinema analyzed from a strictly formalistic perspective, Horus is a well-paced fantasy, whose primary characters, Hols and Hilda, are quite psychologically sophisticated. There is plenty of action, including the motion-comic effect (panning and scanning over panoramic still tableaux) Takahata effectively uses to render the big battle scenes. Although it is not as visually rich as the work Miyazaki would do at Ghibli, there are still plenty cool images, most definitely including Rockoar.

However, to fully appreciate Horus, imagine seeing it when it was originally released in 1968. As a genre, fantasy was basically Tolkien novels and Hercules movies. Sword of Shannara had not been published yet. The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons had not yet been released. No Wheel of Time, no Game of Thrones, no Stormlight Archive. Nor had anime made much penetration into the western market yet, with the syndication of thin-edges-of-the-wedge Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets years away. It terms of what it was and what it led to, Horus is arguably an under-heralded milestone.

By the way, it is also fun. It zips along, but there are also some real emotional stakes. If you really want to go there, there are even parallels that could be drawn between Hols, Hilda, and Grunwald, with Luke, Leia, and Anakin Skywalker, but to really do it justice requires spoilery analysis of various lines, in various translations. (Nevertheless, it is exactly the sort of film Lucas would have inhaled in his film student days, so who knows?) The important thing is it holds up heroically. Highly recommended for any anime fan, Horus, Prince of the Sun screens again this Saturday (3/10) and Sunday (3/11) as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival.