Saturday, February 29, 2020

NYICFF ’20: Magic Boy

Some fantasy tropes are pretty consistent across cultures. For instance, magic really isn’t something you can pick up in your forties through some continuing education classes. You really need to learn it young, but from a gray-haired oldster. That is exactly what Sasuke sets out to do after he barely survives an encounter with a shape-shifting demon queen in Akira Daikuhara & Taiji Yabushita’s Magic Boy, which screens during the 2020 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The Toei-produced Magic Boy holds the distinction of being the first anime feature ever theatrically distributed in America, by MGM no less. That was back in 1961, two years after its Japanese release. There is definitely a pronounced Disney influence, but it gets refracted through the anime prism in an appealingly eccentric way.

As the film opens, Sasuke is more Nature Boy than Magic Boy, living in secluded harmony with his beautiful older sister Oyu and a menagerie of woodland animals, including bears, deer, and monkeys (where is this forest, anyway?). However, tragedy strikes when one of them (ever so coincidentally the mother of a young fawn) is eaten by a salamander monster that morphs into the evil, long-haired Yakusha.

Realizing how badly he matched up against the demon, Sasuke sets out to learn magic from a reclusive hermit, which is a perfectly reasonable strategy in a fantasy film. That rather inconveniently means Sasuke will leave Oyu alone and vulnerable to the attacks of the bandits aligned with the evil witch for several years. Fortunately, she catches the protective (and perhaps romantically interested) eye of righteous samurai clan-general Sanada Yakimura (he was a real cat) during one of his scouting missions.

Even though Magic Boy’s animation cannot compare to today’s anime standards, the chipper, not-especially detailed 1960s-era style is still a lot of retro fun. For fans of Japanese Kwaidan ghost movies, Yakusha also delivers all kinds of beloved genre motifs. Plus, there is plenty of [bloodless] hack-and-slash swordplay.

There is some cornball humor that will make older viewers groan, but that makes the film more accessible to youngsters. Daikuhara & Yabushita definitely keep things moving along briskly, so even the shtickiest bits never last too long. Regardless, it is cool to go back and revisit an early anime milestone. Arguably, its success helped make an industry possible. There are less than optimal prints in circulation, but you can have confidence in NYICFF to present it in the best condition possible (but fyi, it is dubbed). Highly recommended for anime fans, Magic Boy screens today (2/29) and next Sunday (3/8), as part of this year’s NYICFF.