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Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun

by Justin Sevakis,

Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun

It's the iron age, somewhere in Scandinavia, and a young boy warrior named Hols is just coming back home from a fierce battle with a pack of wolves. His father, on his deathbed, bids him to return to the Northern village they fled years ago, when an evil sorcerer named Grunwald devastated the town. Hols, he says, is strong enough to avenge the village.

And so, Hols sets off, accompanied by his anthropomorphic bear buddy Coro. They actually don't get very far before Grunwald finds them, and demands that the boy serve him. When he refuses, Grunwald throws him off of a cliff into the snow.

Hols is saved by the townsfolk from a nearby village, which has also been under siege by the sorcerer. He quickly proves himself, and in the ensuing battles, finds another orphan, a lovely girl with a beautiful voice named Hilda. Together, the townsfolk and Hols conspire to bring down the evil sorcerer once and for all. But there's one thing Hols didn't count on: Hilda is not what she seems to be.

Inspired by a puppet play known as The Sun Above Chikisani, which was itself based on the folklore of the nearly-extinct Ainu natives of Japan, Adventures of Hols: Prince of the Sun is one of the most unique and important films in anime history. I often have trouble recommending anime from this era, and specifically the films from the studio Toei Doga. Although lavish and visually impressive, many of the films simply wouldn't hold much appeal to adult audiences except for true animation buffs. They're kids' films, and dated ones at that. Some are difficult to sit through. But this one is the one that shows the studio at its true acme, both creatively and visually.

Even more fascinating than the film itself is its turbulent history. The very first film that Isao Takahata ever directed, the film was intended to be a solid new direction for the studio. By this time, Toei Doga had been making feature films for a decade, all of them decidedly aimed at kids and filled with comic relief that mostly served as a distraction to the main story. They were charming in their own right, but were sort of an Eastern take on Disney features of the era, not the sort of thing most adults would willingly go see on their own.

Hols was to be different. Animated almost entirely by the younger generation of up-and-coming animators, it reflected the attitudes of the youth who had come of age in the post-war era, and the country's new economic growth had given them a lot of hope for the future and a sense of proletariat camaraderie. Politically, the late 60s in Japan were a period of this youth trying to instill unionization and democratic ideals into the stodgy old money that still ran things in Japan.

As a production, Toei afforded these young animators a very democratic production process, with nearly everybody on staff having the ability to contribute ideas towards the final product. Some, including a young Hayao Miyazaki, really rose to the occasion. Takahata himself was also a relative newcomer; at 32 he had proven himself a few years earlier on the TV series Wolf Boy Ken, which won him enough respect to direct the film, but not enough to win many creative battles with the studio. The original setting, among Japan's indigenous Ainu people, was changed to Scandinavia, and its running time shortened by over a half hour.

Even in its shortened form, the project proved to be too much for Takahata and his crew. Originally planned to be done in eight months, work on the film stretched on for three years and went insanely over-budget before Toei finally had enough and decided to cut their losses and give it a half-assed release. The final film is clearly unfinished in a few spots -- there are two memorable shots that are completely missing any in-between animation (and are pretty hard to follow visually.) After playing the film for only ten days with very limited marketing, the film was officially crowned a flop, and Takahata was demoted. He was never allowed to direct at Toei Doga again. The film nonetheless found a cult audience, primarily of young adults, that seized and adored its underlying political themes and appreciated its mature sensibilities.

Watching the film with fresh eyes today, it's amazing just how influential the work is. The animation is fluid and consistent in a way that anime has seldom been since, with action scenes playing out across huge expanses that must've been nearly impossible to animate. Hols himself is almost the template for anime's multitude of young, energetic, spikey-haired action heroes. Echoes of Hilda ripple across everything from Nadia to Nausicäa.

There are small things about the film that don't quite work with modern sensibilities. The pacing of the film is a little slow and definitely of its era. The level of violence, particularly against animals, is kind of incredible -- Hols swings his hatchet with full intent to kill. But the most jarring thing is the voice work, which uses a style of Japanese stage acting that was commonly also used in movies in that era. It's a very unsubtle style of acting, and to those unfamiliar, it all just sounds like overdramatic yelling.

Eventually the film found its way to America, where it was released in dubbed form as Little Norse Prince Valiant (a title that I could never make much sense out of), and is now owned by MGM. The dub is directed by Fred Ladd, and featuring Billie Lou Watt as Hols and Corinne Orr as Hilda. This version is streaming on Netflix and Hulu, and while it has the technical limitations of a very old dub, it's actually completely uncut and pretty faithful to the Japanese. I haven't been able to figure out when this dub was made, exactly.

The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun occupies a strange place in anime history. Its animation techniques are eerily close to classic Disney feature animation from the 40s and 50s, while its designs and mature sensibilities are all anime. One might consider it to be the very first film that proved the true power of anime as a storytelling medium, one that could finally be taken seriously by adults. Its failure was the ashes from which Miyazaki and Takahata would rise, partner, and eventually form Studio Ghibli. Flawed or not, it's an absolute must-see.

Note: Various attempts have been made over the years to clarify the origin of the names in the story, but the decision-making process was not well documented. Hols is often romanized as Horus, and neither can be proven or disproven correct.

Japanese Name: 太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険 (Taiyo no Ouji HORUSU no Daiboken)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 86 min.

Vintage: 1968

Genres: Fantasy, action, classic

Availability (Japan): A Japanese DVD was released a while ago, but is still in print, and can be found easily online.

Availability (English): The English dub is available streaming on Hulu. A subtitled DVD was released by Optimum Releasing in the UK.

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