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Did You Know This Was Anime? – The Last Unicorn

by on June 28, 2009

Allow me an introduction. This is an anime column for everyone.

This means exactly what it implies. With any luck some anime fans will learn a lot, but this is targeted to all of you animation buffs. The word “anime,” after all, is basically Japanese shorthand for animation. Outside of Japan, of course, we associate the term with Japanese animation specifically. Why is this so? I would say that the most reasonable explanation is the degree to which it has been marketed abroad over the years, especially in the United States. Thanks to this exposure, it has earned a hard-won place in American popular culture in a way that animation from elsewhere has not. Magazines and even entire books have been published on the subject.

Furthermore, certain characteristics tend to be associated with the Japanese art style. Weird hair, big eyes, exaggerated expressions, and disproportionate character designs are seen as common features. It is not unusual for someone to distinguish an anime from other cartoons simply on the basis of certain visual cues.

Unfortunately, while the distinction is reasonable, it can foster unnecessary divisions. There is a sect of anime fans out there that look down on non-Japanese animation, referring to western productions as supposedly childish “cartoons” in the absurd belief that they are actually issuing an insult. Yet the undisputed “father of manga” himself, Osamu Tezuka, drew great inspiration from the cartoons of Walt Disney and enjoyed western movies and literature. Meanwhile a casual viewer may take notice of a handful of “mainstream” anime and believe that he or she has figured anime out, believing that there is a generic “anime style” that makes most of it look the same. In the best case scenario such people are willing to see an animated film from a great talent such as Hayao Miyazaki, or know what Cowboy BeBop is, but the general impression remains.

In reality, East has met West time and again throughout the years when it comes to animation. Without this collaboration, animation history would look quite different. The point of all this is not to say that all animation is on the same level, or to whitewash differences. It is to show that “anime” and “cartoons” are not to be divided by false biases, and that animation by any name has manifested itself in many different ways.  Time and again, with any luck, this blog will highlight some of them.

Our first case is a treasure from the filmography of Rankin/Bass Productions, 1982’s The Last Unicorn. When most people think of Rankin-Bass, it’s usually during Christmas season while the television networks are showing delights such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, and Frosty the Snowman. However, Rankin-Bass is also responsible for 2D animated works that are less famous but no less impressive. Prior to 1982 these included adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980). With The Last Unicorn, Rankin-Bass brought another fantasy adventure to life. The film is a faithful adaptation of the much-acclaimed 1968 novel of the same name written by Peter S. Beagle, which has sold more than five million copies in at least twenty different languages since it was published.

I will not give it all away, but here’s the premise. The film follows the quest of a Unicorn who leaves her forest after overhearing a conversation between two hunters. The younger man believes that Unicorns are only the stuff of fairy tales. But his elder asks “Then why do the leaves never fall here, or the snow? Why is it always spring here?” He correctly attributes the timelessness of the woods to a unicorn’s magic–they are known to bring blessings and good fortune to their surroundings. As they leave, the elder hunter declares that the Unicorn of that forest is the only one in the world. The Unicorn is troubled, for she knows this to be impossible. Unicorns may be killed, but they are gifted with immortality and do not die. Determined to discover what has happened to the world’s Unicorns, the Unicorn embarks on a quest to find them. Her only clues are vague rumors of a demonic creature known as the “Red Bull” that hunts Unicorns, as well as a possible connection to the realm of the old King Haggard.

As one might expect from a fantasy adventure the Unicorn encounters various trials and adventures on her journey, gaining travel companions in the process. The first is the apprentice magician Schmendrick, who aspires to gain true mastery of his craft and be able to call upon magic at will. The second is a middle-aged woman named Molly, who is cynical about her lot in life until she meets the Unicorn and insists on accompanying the pair. The group eventually does arrive at King Haggard’s domain and they do meet the king and his son, Prince Lir, but–well, suffice to say that many unexpected things happen to our characters, and that this is not your average fantasy story.

The Last Unicorn is an American anime in the best sense. It was directed and produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. It adapted the work of an American writer, with Mr. Beagle himself even writing the screenplay. The soundtrack is credited to songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose songs were performed by the folk rock band America. The voice acting featured voice talent from actors such as Mia Farrow (the Unicorn), Alan Arkin (Schmendrick), Tammy Grimes (Molly), Jeff Bridges (Prince Lir), and Christopher Lee (King Haggard). As for the “anime” part, the film was animated by the Japanese animation studio Topcraft. Topcraft was founded in 1972, consisting of staff formally employed by Toei Animation. The Last Unicorn was not their first collaboration. In fact, Topcraft was contracted to do animation work for Rankin-Bass throughout the 70’s and 80’s since the year they got started. Among many things this work included the adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King referenced earlier, as well as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

For anime fans, Topcraft’s legacy endures even today. You see, two years after The Last Unicorn, the studio was employed to produce another movie in 1984. It was supervised by the writer and director of the film–one Hayao Miyazaki. You may have heard of him. The movie, as some of you have undoubtedly guessed by now, was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The smashing success of that film led to the creation of Studio Ghibli in 1985. When Ghibli was founded, most of Topcraft’s staff and artists were brought on board. The rest, as they say, is history.

Below you can find a short video showcasing the very beginning of The Last Unicorn. It is a fine display of the film’s evocative landscapes and backgrounds, and a good example of the memorable character designs that anime is known for. This film was very well produced for its time.

If you want this movie for yourself on DVD–as you very well should–you want the 25th anniversary edition. A couple of mild swears are inexplicably censored, but the film is adapted to widescreen and the video and audio quality was drastically improved compared to the obsolete original release. In addition, I would encourage purchasing it directly from Conlan Press as you have the option of ordering a signed copy there. Furthermore, due to ongoing legal disputes, Mr. Beagle receives very small royalties for his work. However, for copies of the film sold through Conlan Press, more than half of the price goes directly to the author.

Beyond the classic movie and novel, those who yearn for more will be happy to know that this isn’t quite all there is. The short story Two Hearts, a coda to the original novel, was published in the anthology book The Line Between along with other short stories written by Peter Beagle. It is also in the recent deluxe edition of the novel, if you can find it. In Two Hearts the main characters from the novel apparently return, and rumor has it that other related stories will be published soon. Fans of fantasy will want to keep an eye out.

Links Of Interest:

  • Otakon 2008 panel on The Last Unicorn
  • Toon Zone Interview with Peter S. Beagle
  • A history of Topcraft
  • Finally, an excellent old review and overview of the book and film, dating back to 1996.

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