This anime film tells the story of the god Susanoo (as a cute boy), whose mother Izanami had passed away. He was deeply hurt by the loss of his mother, but his father Izanagi told him that once she had died, she had gone to the heavens. Despite Izanagi's warnings, Susanoo eventually sets off to find her. Along with his companions Akahana (a little talking rabbit) and Taitanbo (a strong but friendly giant from the Land of Fire), Susanoo overcomes all obstacles in his long, wonderous voyage. He eventually comes to the Izumo Province, where he meets a little girl, Princess Kushinada, whom he becomes friends with (He also thought she was so beautiful that she looks like his mother Izanami). Kushinada's family tells Susanoo that their other seven daughters were sacrificed to the fearsome eight-headed serpent, the Orochi. Susanoo was so infatuated with Kushinada that he decided to help her family protect her and slay the Orochi once and for all, as he, Akahana and Taitanbo prepare for the spectacular showdown...
Wanpaku Ouji no Orochi Taiji is a 1963 coloured and voiced animated film produced by the studio Toei Animation. This was Toei's 6th film, released just a year after Osamu Tezuka's (acclaimed godfather of manga/anime) silent colour film "On a Street Corner". As such, some classical Toei conventions are applied vigorously, and some approaches neglected; in assessment of what worked and what did not in their previous films. The film takes its premise from a 720 AD work on Japanese national history in a mythological perspective, entitled Nihon Shoki. Toei adapted this work into Wanpaku, an easily digested kid's film that is rich in artwork,
animation, music, voice acting, and narrative.
The story details of how Susano, son of Izanami and Izanagi, initiates a quest to find his mother and the land she has gone to after she dies (no-one in the film will say she is dead to Susano, rather that she has "gone far away"). Susano is disobedient and stubborn, however as he is true at heart and immeasurably strong, we have no doubt from the opening minutes that we will achieve what he sets out to do. As we follow his quest, we meet Susano's brothers and sisters, monsters that must be defeated, exotic lands and new friends.
This overwhelming sense of adventure and fun within Wanpaku is primarily because of two men. Ookawa Hiroshi, founder of Toei whom was granted a production role, who personally ensured every one of his films was light-hearted fun, and assistant director Yabuki Kimio, whose creative direction resulted in application of moralistically satisfying fairy tale conventions.
Isao Takahata, who you may recognise as a director of a number of Studio Ghibli films, was also a assistant director however, and his presence is directly felt by the complicity and maturity of some of the characters shown. Contrastingly, Yuugo Serikawa, the chief director of Wanpaku, is reknowned mostly for directing by genre, and simple dialogues. Thus there are a few 'auteurs' at play in deciding the scope and aim of Wanpaku, so do not be surprised if at points during the film you are puzzled by something you see or hear as uncharacteristic of the tone of the rest of the film. As per the simple narrative however, I think it's pretty safe to say that Wanpaku is admirably successful in what it tries to portray to the viewer.
The art of Wanpaku is immensely impressive. Koyama Reiji's art style is instantly identifiable from Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke, and for a good reason. Faceted with the work of Hideo Chiba and Fukumoto Tomoo, the background artwork of Wanpaku is simply delightful. The actual character design is less impressive, however fits the plot style of mythological adventure perfectly. The animation is again, incredibly good for 1963, even putting many current anime to shame. This is mostly due to the fact that everything, as per the lack of any digital production methods or outsourcing to Korea, is hand-drawn by Toei Animation- implementing a fleet of 53 animators in full. Wanpaku was also the first anime to credit an 'animation director'- Mori Yasuji. This not only signifies the incredible talent of Yasuji (hailed by many as a lynchpin of modern animation), but also shows how Toei had started to perfect the process of animating.
The music of Wanpaku too is impressive, featuring a score mastered by Akira Ifukube, more reknowned for his work on Kaiju films like Godzilla. It's an orchestral performance, but at times does have the tenacity to revert to more classical Japanese instruments, which does enhance its sense of authenticity as per Wanpaku's plot. Voice acting is great, one slight thing that may irk viewers today is that unfortunately mouth-flaps are not perfectly synced, though there's only so much you can ask of people at that time.
Probably the films weakest tenet are the actual characters though. A quite homogeneous and normal representation at the time, the main character Sasuno is a young teen who is unruly, violent, hyperactive, and often crude. However, because of his "purity of heart and mind", he is fated to overcome any challenges. The movement away from such representations of heroes would largely coincide with the intellectual evolution of the late sixties, occurring largely in schools and universities, causing a wave of disapproval for such irascible yet ineffable characters such as Susano. The other characters are little developed. Susano's main companion, a rabbit called Akahana, is little but type-cast and annoying. Susano's eventual love interest is entirely a damsel-in-distress and absolutely one-dimensional.
These are things however, that were popular at the time, and had been proven to be successful. The target audience of kids too was largely vogue, as they were the major consumers. The manga movement of underground zines that would so revolutionise the mainly western influenced manga and anime industry was in its infancy. So really, wanpaku got it dead on for the time. Anything else would have been a mistake.
So while some parts of Wanpaku may seem a bit childish, and the narrative a bit clunky and predictable, it's a great anime that achieved what it set out to do. And it did it magnificently, with excellent art, animation, voice acting and music. The plot itself is quite clever, as its use of Japanese mythology gives a spark of life to characters that may otherwise be stale at best. Wanpaku Ouji no Orochi Taiji is the best anime of the 1960's probably- an excellent example of anime at the time by those who knew it best.