Buried Treasure
The Legend of Sirius

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 30th 2008

Most Americans know Sanrio. They're the company behind the ubiquitous Hello Kitty, Chococat, Badtz Maru, Keroppi, Pochacco, and countless other mascot animals so cute they make your head explode. But few know that once upon a time, Sanrio produced anime. And we're not talking about the latest Hello Kitty's Adventures in Saccharine Land, either. They made fully animated, high-budget, gorgeously rendered anime features that served as art as much as they offered new characters to pimp. Two of these films were the Tezuka co-production known as Unico (which I'm sure will be featured in a later installment). But perhaps their most ambitious film is the 1981 feature Sirius no Densetsu.


SIRIUS NO DENSETSU (A.K.A. The Sea Prince and the Fire Child)

Sirius no Densetsu is a fairy tale in the grandest sense, a fantasy love story that infuses Romeo & Juliet with elemental mythology, a lovable supporting cast, and some of the grandest sights ever animated. It's jaw-droppingly beautiful in its rendering of vast underwater worlds and a mysterious land of fire. It's a story of forbidden love between a nymph of the water and a nymph of fire.

The mythology is that once upon a time the lands of fire (headed by Queen Hyperia) and water (led by King Oceanis) were joined as one, and were a thing of beauty. Algorac the Wind God was jealous and spread rumors about each other, and the whole thing ended in a very messy divorce. Now the Ocean is utterly incompatible with fire, and the "children of fire", butterfly-like fairies, are taught to fear the savage "Children of Water" that live in the sea... and vice-versa. Algorac, as punishment for the war he started, had his eye removed and was put to permanent sleep in the depths of the Forbidden Zone separating the two.

This culture of mutual loathing is turned on its side, when Prince Sirius, a rambunctious teenager who's soon to succeed Oceana as King of the Water, happens into the Forbidden Zone and happens to see Malta, the beautiful heir apparent to the crown of Fire Queen. Malta's job is to guard their kingdom's sacred eternal flame. They are scared of each other at first, but soon start having secret rendez-vous every night. They develop an intense love, just as each of their destinies demand they stop meeting at night -- the solar eclipse is coming, which will grow Malta into a woman. Sirius is soon to be coroneted. And then, Malta accidentally allows the eternal flame to extinguish.

Their cover blown, the two lovers find themselves imprisoned by their respective leaders. Their only hope, according to the ancient sea turtle, is to find their way to a distant star where fire and water live together still. Their friends are on their side, but the forces keeping the two lovers apart may be too strong for even them.

Sirius no Densetsu is clearly a family film. It's innocent, features lots of comedic moments and cute characters, and clearly falls into the "cartoon" vein that American audiences would expect of the genre. One thing it does NOT do, however, is insult children's intelligence. It pulls no punches in its depictions of danger and death, and young lovers Sirius and Malta are barely clothed at all. It expects that children can tell the difference between fantasies involving clearly non-human sprites and reality, an expectation in its audience I find refreshing in an era of stupid and cynical kids' fare. Consequently, the emotional gravitas hit hard. Even though every grown-up has seen something like this story played out hundreds of times, the film still has a strong impact.

The Disney influence is unmistakable, to the point where the film could almost be confused for something from the studio's mid-20th century heyday. Director Masami Hata was one of the earliest creators spawned from Osamu Tezuka's studio (making his debut as an episode director on The Amazing Three and later Princess Knight). His appreciation of the Disney school of animation is apparent both in its epic scope as well as its fluidity. The sweeping orchestral musical score, courtesy of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, would sound right at home among Disney scores. Sirius himself looks like he was separated from Peter Pan at birth, while other secondary characters look like earlier incarnations of The Little Mermaid's supporting cast. Hata has since gone onto direct Little Nemo - Adventures in Slumberland and, most recently, Disney's first 100% Japanese production, Stitch!.

That said, Sirius no Densetsu isn't EXACTLY a Disney film. The technical standards are a little sloppier, and the sense of humor has more of an adult tint in its style, if not its content. (One scene has Sirius' sidekick Chiku attempting to break Sirius out of jail in a hilarious succession of jump cuts, a filmmaking technique unheard of in most American animation.) The overall style has a bit of Tezuka flavor, and early scenes of Sirius make it clear he's a bishounen. But regardless, the character animation is remarkably fluid and consistent, while the backgrounds are simply awe-inspiring.

But more important is its story, an inspired fantasy riff on Romeo & Juliet that makes brilliant use of its surroundings and challenges the viewer's imagination. It also pulls no punches: characters die, and while the ending makes it clear that Shakesphere's tragic finalé may not be so final in this incarnation, it only barely serves to cushion the dramatic blow we just witnessed.

An English version, unseen by me, was released in the mid 1980s on VHS by Columbia/RCA Home Video (under their "Magic Window" kids' imprint), where it adorned video store shelves for years, and occasionally it played on cable. It was released uncut as far as I could tell, save for a slight censoring of Malta's nipples in the film's final moments. I've heard complaints about the dub, but given that this was the early 80s, I think I'd be a little forgiving of it. That was not an era known for its faithful dubbing. In Japanese, Tohru Furuya (Kyosuke from Kimagure Orange Road) is memorable as headstrong young Sirius, while the utterly amazing Mami Koyama steals the show as Malta.

Sirius no Densetsu is beautiful in a lyrical sense, innocent and moving. It's the kind of children's entertainment that they don't seem to make very often anymore (if they ever did), the rare work that can be appreciated by parents on a different level than their children. Had I seen the film as a kid, I'd remember it fondly. Heck, I'll remember it fondly anyway.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
The old Columbia/RCA VHS tape is long out of print, and heavily sought after by collectors and nostalgic twenty-somethings. There are plenty of used copies on Amazon and half.com, but expect to pay at least $30 for an ex-rental and well over $100 for a mint copy. I've found one fansub out there, but whoever translated it must not have known Japanese and used the dub as reference -- any similarity between the subtitles and what is actually said in Japanese is purely coincidental.

The Japanese DVD, meanwhile, is untranslated but is the lowest priced Japanese import I've ever seen -- you can get it for well under $20 from various online retailers without even trying. Perhaps someone will use this to make an actual decent fansub someday. I hold out little hope of an official US release. Which is really too bad, as surely this film can find as much love among kids of today as half the garbage that's out there.


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