#207 : The Fantastic Adventures of Unico

Take one… Sanrio… a company known for all that is ‘kawaii’, cute… the home of the beloved feline, Hello Kitty. Sanrio was also at one time a film production company, which created at least one animated feature film a year during the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. They created anime that was very much on the side of the previously mentioned cute factor, anime for children and families to share and anime that also featured a twist of heartbreak. Take two… Osamu Tezuka… the “God of Manga” (much respect to you sensei) and the father of many beloved titles and characters. Take three… Unico, a creation of his from the 1970s, would be published in a Sanrio shojo magazine that by 1981 was ready for the animation world. Add these three elements together and we get The Fantastic Adventures of Unico.

FAoU_1The story of Unico is perhaps one of the most unfair tales of exile that makes me look into the mirror, both personally and collectively. Why are those who are humane, pure and a giver of love and joy often the ones who are a target to those in authority? Simple, they are a solution to the problems that these authorities have either created, or promise to handle if you give up your freedom. Yet these innocent ones when pushed will fight back and defend because they are those who are not corrupted, those who have a heart of pure love to give… those who only want the best for everyone. A baby unicorn named Unico is one of these unsung heroes that because he was born different has a destiny that may be on the side of unfair, but also rewarding to those who meet him.

FAoU_2After angering the Gods, the West Wind is called forth to take little Unico away. What’s his crime? Besides being adorable… he makes everyone happy, he gives love and he will be your friend no matter who you are. He sees the essence inside of each of us and loves us for that and that alone. Talk about a criminal? I guess they feel the same way with Rainbow Brite too? Here’s a theory, maybe Unico is LGBT and the Gods are bigots? I mean he looks a little gender non-conforming and is open to love anyone no matter their gender. Maybe… but then again, he is a little kid who has not been corrupted by adults, or culture. Instead of taking little Unico away, the West Wind decides to hide him in a remote area… at least until he is spoted again and she must find yet another place of refuge for the baby unicorn. The question remains if Unico will ever have a place of permanent residence.

FAoU_3Unico’s journeys has him meet a little devil who has no friends and eventually a cat who wants to be a witch. While light on plot, this film could have gotten away with a shorter run time (maybe by half/45 minutes?). The story of the cat, who becomes a girl becomes the major focus of the movie and could have been the entire plot in its own right. Some make too much of a mention of the creepy baron who seduces the girl, the one who was a cat, by getting her drunk. Hard to believe that much of the themes and situations in The Fantastic Adventures of Unico would label this as a family movie, but then again this was made in a different time. Back in the 70s and 80s animated films had a little more edge and danger and showcased to us at the time that not all the world was squeaky clean and perfect, i.e. The Transformers: The Movie and Watership Down.

FAoU_4Most Sanrio films leave me crying a little on the inside. Inside?! Come on now, I shed tears outside as well since the emotions can be so great. Tezuka as well is a genius at bringing out the feelings with the universally moral messages we all can relate too. You never forget a story that touches your heart. Even at the end of The Fantastic Adventure of Unico Unico is once again swept away with the West Wind to another place to secure his safety and longevity. This in a way is a gift wrapped in silver lining. Unico will still be alive another day, will still spread love to another lonely soul and leaves a trail of influence to all those he has met already to live their lives with a little more joy. Maybe one day he will meet you as well?

… one more thing… did you see the Hello Kitty cameo!?

#170 : Phoenix 2772: Love’s Cosmozone / Space Firebird 2772

1980… the height of the space opera boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s would enter a new decade. Yamato, Gundam and Galaxy Express 999 would come before and now a familiar name would throw his hat into the ring. Enter the ‘God of Manga’, Osamu Tezuka, and his first presentation of his grand myth, The Phoenix, in a full animated production. A live action film with animated segments would tell a historical account from one of the chapters of The Phoenix in 1978, but this film would be an alternate retelling of the space related chapters and 100% pure anime. Tezuka’s Phoenix anime re-workings are some of the most special anime ever made (personal opinion), but how does Phoenix 2772: Love’s Cosmozone fare?

SF_1In the far future, the Earth is in dire trouble. Over polluted, lacking resources and at the point of social collapse we find our beautiful planet at both a major crisis and a crossroads. We begin our filmic journey by following our hero, Godo, as a a test tube baby and witness his process of growing up in isolation. Eventually he is joined by a robot companion, Olga, who helps to raise him. These beginning sequences remind me of silent films, or perhaps the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with dialogue being nonexistent and fluid motion being the only storyteller… as well as the background music. Once Godo reaches full maturity, his place is to become a pilot, but this is short lived since he shows a trait of humanity by not wanting to kill innocent life. Also he has eyes on a girl who is set to wed one of the powerful elite… another no-no. This gets him into serious trouble, which leads to a prison sentence where he meets a stock in trade Tezuka archetype, the large nosed man older man and a fellow who happens to be none other than Blackjack.

SF_2Godo still believes in his mission despite the setbacks, which I have yet to devulge. That is to capture the Phoenix from which the blood can be used to give life back to the dying Earth. Eventually with the help of friends Godo escapes and sets off to find this mysterious bird. When Godo eventually comes into contact with the mythic bird of fire the true essence of the story begins to speak as Godo  learns what all protagonists in any of The Phoenix stories, that life is more precious than anything else and the love between souls is far stronger than any want or need in the name of ignorance, or power. Sacrifice and karma must be weighed in order to achieve a true sense of enlightenment and fulfillment.

SF_3The space opera sci-fi of Phoenix 2772 is well animated, as expected from the likes of Tezuka, who was Chief Director of the project… The BIG Boss! He incorporated techniques seen in his more experimental projects, which makes Phoenix 2772 unique looking amongst the other films of the time, Toward the Terra as an example. Also Tezuka’s character designs harken back to a previous era, though with updated fashion and hairstyles. All in all, a true blockbuster of a film, yet, I have to scratch my head on this portion of the Phoenix mythology. Phoenix 2772 is kind of awkward. A few of the animation sequences take on an almost comedic or fluid quality and a couple of the animal/alien characters seem to be added in for comic relief and juvenile appeal. Mixed with the epic story of finding the Phoenix and understanding true love, Phoenix 2772 can feel a little schizophrenic.

SF_4Phoenix 2772 may be the weakest entry in all of the Phoenix anime I have seen, but it is far from bad, or even average. It has it’s quirks and for some of you it may not be much of a problem, but I hold The Phoenix name very high. The trilogy from later in the decade (Karma, Yamato and Space) is some of the best anime from the 1980s (again my opinion) and I would recommend these first. Even so, at the heart of Phoenix 2772 is a tale of sacrifice, redemption and emotional drama, all qualities that make Tezuka’s Phoenix entries special. This in it’s self makes Phoenix 2772 qualify as a close second to the trilogy and a unique entry into the beginning of the decade of the 1980s.

#155 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Space Chapter

YSC_1The distances between stars or planets can be compared to some of the relationships we have with the closest people we see on a daily basis; many times it can be vast and wide. How well do we really know each other by way of how each of us truly feels about each other? A more intriguing thought, what secrets do we conceal, or what elements from our past do we struggle with that haunt us and affect our current relationships? The final production of Madhouse’s adaptations of Osamu Tezuka’s collective Phoenix manga, The Space Chapter, would leave historic Japan behind for the far future and outer space and would deal with these issues of inner space head on. The lessons of karma, duty and fate are yet again front and center stage.

YSC_2Bias here, this is my personal favorite of the three as this is the most psychological, the darkest and the most passionate in terms of relationship dynamics. As an OVA set in the far future, in deep outer space and with highly advanced technology you would think the clothes of science fiction would overtake the content of the the story’s relationship dynamics with spectacle and fantasy. The Space Chapter is a great example of science fiction done very well by integrating both and pushing the intensity even higher. Outer space can be a place where much contemplation can be observed and where isolation, or being alone, can bring out the best and worst in all of us. If Ingmar Bergman borrowed the set from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to make a movie, I think this would be the product… except in this case it is animated and not live action.

YSC_3Four passengers on an interstellar spaceship are suddenly awoken from stasis to realize that the ship they are traveling on has been hit by a meteor, or something similar. In haste they rush to find their fifth comrade who was piloting and watching over the ship had mysteriously died during their sleep. Realizing the damage is beyond repair, they all decide to all abandon ship in separate escape capsules. Now adrift in space alone with limited air and food, the situation becomes one of survival and opening up about their mysterious fifth crew member. Everyone had a different story to tell. He was rumored to be immortal and forever young. He also seemed to be an android from medical examinations. There were even romantic feelings between him and the lone female crew member. His last words left in the ships log struck a note of fear in the others, someone was out to kill him. Who could it be?

YSC_4To add more drama to our story a mysterious fifth capsule appears and catches up with the other four belonging to the fallen mystery man, including signs of a passenger. One by one the original four members would be reduced to two leaving the remaining duo to land on a mysterious planet. From here the story’s mysteries begin to twist even more with the ultimate truths coming out. … and what of our friend the phoenix? She is most definitely here and is a very integral part of the story as she has a very special relationship with our mysterious crew member. The lessons of karma and balance abound with his past as we see the corruption of what was a good innocent man showing a side of evil that we wish did not exist in humanity.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll), the inclusion of his personal touch is seen throughout the OVA, minus the super heavy action he is often noted for. The stylized character designs add a layer of maturity to Tezuka’s originals and mixed with Madhouse’s signature heavy use of limited color (blue for this OVA) in the capsule scenes and stark lighting add to this production’s intensity. While this may have been the final outing for Phoenix in the 1980s it would not be the last overall (the 13 episode TV series from the early 2000s is great!). Osamu Tezuka’s work is key and essential for all of us who regard ourselves as fans of Japanese animation. This trilogy as a whole (Karma Chapter and Yamato Chapter) is one of the best examples of the output from the 1980s and is finally now a part of the Classic Anime Museum. It has been a long time coming.