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Pile of Shame
Kenya Boy

by Justin Sevakis,

One of the benefits to writing a column on obscure anime for so long is that occasionally friends hand you things that they think would inspire a good column. Maybe it says something about the company I keep that these recommendations are usually along the lines of "you have GOT to see this -- it's one of the worst things ever made!" Inevitably I'll get home, pop in the disc, watch 2-3 minutes, and after muttering, "yep, this looks pretty terrible," I put the disc in my collection and forget it's there.

This week I pulled out one such ironic "gift", the absolutely embarrassing Kenya Boy. It was definitely an interesting relic, and it was most certainly not good. Its high production values make it difficult to label it one of the worst things I've ever seen, but it is certainly one of the most insane and inexplicable.

Kenya Boy

Wataru Murakami was just a Japanese kid living with his mom and textile trader dad in Kenya in 1941. But with his home country on the brink of war with England (which still claimed Kenya as a colony back then), the threat of deportation loomed large. His father decides to take the boy on a tour of Kenyan countryside while they still have a chance. But after animals storm their tent in the middle of the night, father and son are separated, and Wataru is deep in the wilds of Africa, alone and unarmed.

Wataru wanders around for a while before happening upon a native man named Zega. Zega has been ill and unable to move for several days, so Wataru goes and fetches him water and some medicinal herbs. Zega is so impressed by the boy (and so grateful for saving his life) that he leaves his tribe and joins Wataru on a quest to find his father. Four years later, both father and son are still lost and wandering the wilderness, but Wataru is now a young man with some meat on his bones and some pretty serious spear and sword skills. Which is a good thing, because in Kenya, there are apparently elephant-sized toads and skyscraper-sized snakes.

When Kenya Boy made its first appearance as a daily newspaper comic strip in 1951, Japan was still six months away from being a sovereign country again, following the post-war occupation. Six years after the most horrifying defeat in world history, the country was still rebuilding its economy and its confidence, and the story of a Japanese boy facing down all sorts of danger in a wild and unfamiliar world must have been both a fun and empowering diversion. The comic strip spawned a small media empire, first as a radio drama, then a live action movie, then a TV drama series. But the story was very much of its time, and as Japan matured as a reborn country, the wartime tale of a boy lost in Kenya became less and less relevant. By the time Weekly Shonen Sunday reprinted the story in 1961, the franchise's life had come to its natural end.

But the funny thing about kids' properties is that they become such a nostalgia trigger for the kids who grew up with them that, inevitably, those kids grow up, get jobs in the entertainment business, and one of them tries to reboot them for the next generation two or three decades later. In 1984, hot on the success of Harmagedon, publishing magnate Haruki Kadokawa decided to make an anime adaptation for a modern audience.

His first mistake was thinking that the story held up by 80s standards -- it didn't. His second was hiring live action director Nobuhiko Ōbayashi to make it. Best known for his horror comedy House, Obayashi's work was mostly deeply personal, experimental art house works -- not dopey populist entertainment like Kenya Boy. He also had zero experience with animation, and some very weird ideas.

The result is a bizarre hodgepodge of very poor filmmaking decisions. The film is inexplicable right from the opening frames, where two different English fonts declare what you are about to see "A MOVIE", and then we see creator Sōji Yamakawa dressed in a tux at a fancy desk leafing through his Kenya Boy books, artwork flashing behind him in the most awkwardly superimposed composite job ever. Once we get to the story things even out a little bit, but stay weird: art styles change in the middle of scenes, which suddenly turn from full color to black and white ink drawings, or sometimes eschew black outlines entirely. Editing is so jarring and confusing that I found myself wondering if the DVD was scratched and skipping in the player. The musical score seems completely disconnected from the action on screen -- gentle orchestral music plays while Wataru is chased by lions, and animals drown in quicksand.

All of this is punctuated by the sort of hilarious jingoism you'd normally hear on a playground. Wataru needlessly proclaims his ethnicity at every opportunity ("I'm not scared! I'm Japanese!") and the rest of the cast is sure to be really impressed every time. ("Wow, Japanese? You must be strong!") A few minutes after we meet Wataru as a teenager, he meets a pretty blonde-haired blue-eyed jungle girl, clutching a spear and ready to attack him. "I'm Wataru," he introduces himself. "I'm not a suspicious person at all!" She puts down her spear and dances in delight.

We find out that the girl, Kate, was kidnapped by the dictator of an evil tribe. He points to her as a "god", and uses her to trick people into doing his bidding. Wataru and Zega basically take on the entire tribe and bust her out of there, randomly enlisting help from a dinosaur-sized snake that appears randomly.

The three new friends hang out, and for a while, it looks like Kenya Boy might stabilize as a film and become a somewhat normal, if incompetent, anime feature. But then, we are introduced to the Lizard Tribe, which is a bunch of guys in stupid dinosaur suits who conspire to kidnap Kate and dress her up in a dinosaur costume as a human sacrifice. And then ACTUAL dinosaurs appear. Wataru's father, meanwhile, has accidentally fallen in with the Nazis, who are threatening to detonate their own nuclear weapon. Somewhere amid all of this insanity, the director gets ahold of an early video processor and decides to pixelize the lower half of the screen for no apparent reason.

I really don't know what else to say about this movie. I don't know what to say because every time I think about it, I just kind of vacantly stare at the floor. Somewhere along the line my brain just refused to process it anymore. The animation is good, the designs aren't terrible, but everything creative about it has the logic and common sense of watching a 4-year-old play with a mixed-up bin of toys. I am upset. I want to go to bed and never think about Kenya Boy again.

Japanese Name: 少年ケニヤ (Shōnen Keniya)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 106 min.

Vintage: 1984

Genres: Shounen, adventure, WTF

Availability (Japan): A good-looking DVD was released a decade ago and is now out of print. Used copies are pretty cheap by Japanese standards, though.

Availability (English): Nothing legal, but digital fansubs are out there.

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