"Taro The Dragon Boy" A Decent Alternative to Miyazaki and Disney
We have seen an extremely limited amount of old school anime here in the ‘States. Sure, we have the popular series such as Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Mobile Suit Gundam, Lupin III, Gigantor, and the like, but the vast majority stays in Japan. Whether it’s because the tapes are in bad condition or that most old school anime doesn’t sell well without a reconizable name, the lack of anime from before 1980 is becoming fixed, at least partially, by Discotek Media. Our first entry: Taro the Dragon Boy.
Well before cities, television, or even irrigation, there was a small village on a mountain that was so poor they couldn’t even grow rice successfully. There, a young boy named Taro Tatsunoko, which literally means Taro the Dragon Boy (hence, the title), has been living rather lazily. He prefers to play with the animals of the forest instead of working on the fields. After a run-in with the traveling wizard Tengu, Taro is granted the strength of a hundred men, but only when he is helping people. He’ll need this strength when he discovers that his mother might be alive and he decides to search for her. Along the way, he’ll face off against two differently colored Onis (Japanese for Demons), rescue the female love interest, deal with several onry old ladies, and fight off a group of screeching spirits. Can Taro find his mother and possibly save his village?
Created in 1979 by Toei (known nowadays for Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and One Piece), this movie is a product of the times. The story is very charming, and is reminiscent of some of the older Disney titles, like Bambi, where you just sit back and watch instead of questioning every little thing. Taro himself seems rather plain compared to the multi-faced characters of today, but he is still rather endearing, especially for those looking for a relatively non-violent, non-bloody, non-shoujo anime to watch (which, aside from Miyazaki, is getting rarer and rarer these days). Sure, there is some violence, but Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse are more violent than this movie. The movie has a real sense of wonder as Taro travels across the land and learns how to make rice, how to respect others, and the wonders of underwear. Though it does get a bit grim at times, as parts of it seem like a kid-friendly Grave of the Fireflies. The side characters are, on the whole, rather enjoyable, though I do wish Aya had done more beisdes ride a horse, but this is long before butt-kicking girls became popular, so I’ll let it slide. The two Onis are pretty funny, as is the old lady Taro works for in the middle of the movie, though her punishment may seem cruel, even if she does deserve it.
However, not everything is perfect. The story, though charming, is exceedingly simple, and seems to fit more along the lines of those third-party, direct-to-video movies that you can get for a buck at Family Dollar. Granted, this isn’t a big detriment, but once Taro leaves a village, we never see any of the inhabitants (aside from Aya, her horse, and the Red Oni) ever again, even when the movie ends. Speaking of “ending,” the movie strangely lacks an ending title sequence. While all of the credits are listed in the insert (except for those who worked on the English version), it still feels weird that the movie just ends instead of going through an actual ending. Finally, for those who are really protective of their children, note that there is some nudity in this movie. Taro goes through the first third of the film without underwear and he does a lot of handstands, though it’s not any worse than seeing Goku’s and Gohan’s packages in Dragonball Z. Also, there is a scene, that lasts all of 10 seconds, where an old hag demigod’s top falls off while trying to seduce Taro, and there’s a non-sexual scene of a naked female, though I’m not going to elaborate since I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s really not nearly as bad as it reads, and is no worse than looking in a sex-ed textbook, so it’s not of any real concern.
Because this is an old movie, the animation is extremely limited compared to today. Luckily, since it’s a movie instead of a series, the animation is a lot more fluid than normal and holds up rather well, though children nowadays may not like the faded colors after being raised on digitally-colored series. There are also several scenes, mostly flashbacks, where the drawings look like pencil drawings instead of the usual ink and paint. While for the most part I like this technique, many of the scenes have giant smudges (I’m assuming it wasn’t intentional) and it can become really obvious during some scenes. Still, for a movie from 1979, the animation does hold up relatively well. Transfer is about as good as you can get and there is little pixelation, although there is a lot of grain.
It wouldn’t be a very good anime release if it didn’t include the original Japanese track as well as the English track, and this release is no different. Both tracks are in mono, since both were done over 20 years ago, but they should hold up to the target audience. The Japanese track is slightly better due to its better quality, but the English dub is no slouch either, even though there’s a lot of hiss in the background. Unfortunately, there isn’t an English cast list on the DVD, so I don’t know who did which voice, but they mostly fit, except for the Onis, who are portrayed as a bit sillier (as well as making a bunch of modern-day puns), but it’s excused due to the old age, and all the important story details are kept intact. Though the DVD includes a Japanese subtitle track and a song subtitle track, the latter gets very little use since all the songs are dubbed.
Unfortunately, there are few extras, as all we get are the Japanese trailers for Taro and Animal Treasure Island. Not only are both trailers ungodly long, but they prove that, even 30 years ago, the Japanese seemingly can’t make a good movie trailer.
Overall, this is a fine film for those looking for some good, true family entertainment and don’t feel like watching anything from Disney, Pixar, or Studio Ghibli. And as an extra, you get to learn that plain white rice is apparently the most delicious food in the world.