Buried Treasure

by Justin Sevakis,

Back when I started writing Buried Treasure, Windaria was on my short list of titles I wanted to write about. But I kept putting it off. You see, the film is so depressing that I found myself avoiding the task of rewatching it. It's not that it's as violently wrenching as something like Grave of the Fireflies or Now and Then, Here and There; rather the angst comes from the undertones: that we are all inherently selfish and will, no matter what, do great harm to the ones we love in the pursuit of our dreams, which are naïve and have little to do with reality, and the only escape is death.

Okay, so it's not exactly a party. But it sure is beautiful. It's one of the most criminally under-appreciated anime features of the 80s.

WINDARIA (a.k.a. Once Upon a Time)

Windaria gets its name from a gigantic tree in a small town between the countries of Itha and Paro. It's so old (at its base it's at least 100 feet in diameter) that it's worshipped as a god by those who live around it, who believe it to be a bringer of blessings. There are actually two stories happening, simultaneously: the story of Izu, a young farmer who lives with his girlfriend Marin in the small town, and Itha's princess Ahnas, who is having an ongoing affair with Jihl, the prince of neighboring country Paro.

One quiet morning Izu and Marin are in the Itha bazaar selling their vegetables. They always save the last of their merchandise for the old widower that controls the massive aqueduct that brings the water into the beautiful city. But on this particular day, as Izu is dropping off the produce, something terrible happens: a terrorist has opened up the dam, sending a huge rush of sea water into the city. Izu rushes up to close the dam, and narrowly saves the day. The terrorist was an agent of Paro, which is planning a military invasion.

Despite his heroic act passing relatively unnoticed, Izu brags to his neighbors about his heroism. He's not a bright boy, but he's strong, earnest, and full of dreams. Armies of both sides keep visiting the small village, hoping to recruit soldiers, and Paro in particular butters him up with the gift of a hovercraft. Utterly seduced by the potential power of the military, and having just tasted his first real excitement in life, Izu becomes intoxicated on the dreams of what might be. Marin is against him leaving, of course, but after he attempts to steal away in the middle of the night, she finally relents. "I'll wait for you," she promises.

Meanwhile, the Princess of Itha and Prince of Paro are having issues of their own, namely that their parents have brought their respective countries to war. The king of Paro won't listen to Jihl's pleadings that their military is in no condition to invade a foreign country, and before long both sides are preparing for battle. Itha has no choice but to defend itself.

And so the war begins, and it's a terrible one. The village is directly in harm's way but Marin, faithful to a fault, refuses to leave. Soon Izu is completely caught up in his world of intrigue, destroying the places and the people he once loved. And the prince and princess are leading the front lines in the war to destroy each other.

As pure fantasy Windaria doesn't venture too far into unexplored territory; tales of warring kingdoms and the star-crossed lovers caught in the middle have been told since ancient times. What separates Windaria from the piles of mindless fantasy anime out there are two things: its indescribably beautiful technical execution, and its guts to not chicken out in the direction it was going. There are no false "no wait a second, it's a happy ending!" moments like so many lesser stories. That would be cheating.

Despite the sobriety of the themes involved, Windaria is surprisingly cheerful in appearance. A brightly-colored storybook dividing itself between fairy tale fantasy and science fiction, the appearance of the film could be easily mistaken as a children's story. Itha is a beautiful seaside city with Central European stylings, which comes absolutely alive in vivid watercolor backgrounds. Contributing further to this are the cherubic character designs are by Mutsumi Inomata, illustrator of Utsunomiko and Weathering Continent and character designer for Brain Power’d, Future GPX Cyber Formula and many others (along with most of the other major Kaname Pro titles). The animation is on the high end of anime feature films of the era.

Its music, likewise, is pure magic; the sort of electronic etherial work being produced by the likes of Kitaro and Ryuichi Sakamoto back in the 80s. There's a gentle quality, a sense of timelessness that this kind of score brings to a fantasy piece. Just like the elements of science fiction technology in the film (mostly in the form of hovercraft and vehicles), the musical score lends the world a sense of wonder. This combination of lush orchestral analog synth and extremely articulate cel animation feels like a direct channel into an emotional center: the epitome of what the anime art form was capable of at its peak.

What struck me most about Windaria is its eye for nostalgia. Ruins of cities like Itha dot the Silk Road to this day, and when seeing them one can't help but wonder about how they met their tragic ends. Like so many of these small kingdoms, Itha fell because of human greed, because of stupid youthful dreams, and because people forgot what was really important in life. Director Kunihiko Yuyama directed Windaria one year after GoShogun: The Time Étranger, and I can't help but wonder what it must have been like to go from a film that celebrated the blessings one life could bring to those around it, to a film that chronicles the folly of man as it eats away at itself.

Few fairy tales end this way, with the protagonist a broken man as he lay crying at the foot of the great Windaria tree. The lilting music makes us think of all the follies the ancient tree must have witnessed, how much bloodshed, how much horror. When all of human civilization is taken into account, it seems inescapable that this is our destiny.

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, no English version.
R5 Import only, and out of print.
R6 Import out of print and rare.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Do digital fansubs exist*? YES
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com. *at the time of writing, to the best of our knowledge.

How to get it:

Unfortunately the only legal release of Windaria in English was one produced by Harmony Gold's Carl Macek back in the late 80s and released by Streamline Pictures in 1992 on VHS, then on DVD by ADV Films in 2004 (as "Once Upon a Time"). Harmony Gold, of course, was intending on selling the film to children's television syndication markets, and so Macek cut out about 7 minutes (of mostly nudity and violence), rearranged footage and changed the character names. He also laid on a truckload of narration, trying to bend the story into something less relentlessly depressing. Despite the sub-par dub and the editing, there was no way to make the film happy enough to be suitable for children, and the storybook look of the film and it packaging turned off potential American fans who were, at the time, longing for the next Akira. The DVD is now out of print, and a little challenging to find even online.

The original Japanese DVD is out of print, and despite its low profile many Japanese fans consider the title to be an under-valued classic; at my last check of Amazon Marketplace, used copies were going for over 15,000 yen. High quality fansubs are available, however. I highly recommend passing on the edited version entirely.

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