The Mike Toole Show
Poster Children

by Mike Toole,

Think of that moment when you realized that you weren't some dumb kid anymore; that revelation that you could no longer be truly carefree, but instead had to at least pretend to be a grown-up. I don't think it's when you graduate high school or college, or when you move into your own place, or when you successfully pay all of your living expenses for the first time, or even when you have a dumb kid of your own. No, it's specifically when you get rid of your beloved, ratty old dorm posters (Reservoir Dogs, Breakfast at Tiffany's, that one Led Zeppelin one with the angel dude, etc.) and replace them with fine, smartly framed artwork… of similar nonsense. Only, you know, now it's framed, so it's classy.

This thought loomed large a couple of months back, as I moved house. I've got plenty of interesting posters and pictures in frames, and plenty more that have spent years in tubes. Some of them are actually old posters dating back to my time in the dorms, but I haven't gotten around to getting rid of them. Dammit, this Specials promotional tour poster I have is in Dutch, what if I can't find another one like it?! Others are posters I've picked up in Japan, which means it's a royal pain in the ass to get them framed, because they're in B2 size, and you can't get those frames at Michaels or AC Moore. One poster in particular finally demanded my attention, because the move was harrowing, and I worried that it'd get damaged. So I got that single anime movie poster framed, and it cost me about four hundred bucks.

I guess you could say that anime posters are something I collect. But I don't clip them out of the pages of Newtype or Megami or Otaku USA magazines. I don't snatch them from convention promo tables, nor do I harvest the preorder bonus posters that sometimes come with Japanese Blu-Ray or DVD releases. I have less than a dozen of them, because I'm selecting from a very narrow subset. Here's the oldest one I have.

Depending on who you ask, Magic Boy is the first anime to be released for mass audiences in North America, premiering on June 22nd, 1961. The movie itself is part of a marvelous run of feature films by Toei Animation, and was first released in Japan in 1959. It's a fun, buoyant adventure movie about a boy ninja named Sasuke (the Japanese title is Ninja Boy Sasuke, after all) as he trains under a wise hermit and then does battle with a nefarious witch. Along the way, he's helped by his cute, fuzzy little animal buddies. It's fascinating to me that a film like this was picked up by MGM, of all studios, who were still very much a force in the Hollywood of the 1960s. Foreign animated films for kids weren't strangers to the American box office, but they were usually snatched up by smaller distributors like Lippert Pictures or Fine Arts Films and shown exclusively as weekend matinees. The fact that MGM were willing to take a flyer with a such an unabashedly foreign-looking animated movie would bode well for future releases.

Here's the next oldest piece of framed artwork in my collection. This one isn't even a poster—it's a lobby card, a piece of movie memorabilia that's gone extinct in the face of crap like promotional cardboard standees, digital signboards, and expanded poster displays. Lobby cards are typically 11” x 14” pictures printed on slightly heavier stock—in their heyday, they'd be issued in groups of eight. I have two cards from Panda and the Magic Serpent, which got its American release from the indie Globe Releasing Corp just a few weeks after Magic Boy. There's some talk of this movie having a screening back in March of 1961, which is why it's a little unclear which movie was actually the first to hit American cinemas.

Panda and the Magic Serpent was the first full-color animated feature feature film to be made in Japan, so it's a crucial historical marker for the anime world. The movie was the first product of Toei Animation, a company which sprang forth from a small studio called Nihon Douga and the ambitions of a smart businessman named Hiroshi Okawa. Okawa was a fascinating figure—known to be gruff, demanding, and confrontational, he's also been spoken of by luminaries like Hayao Miyazaki and Yasuji Mori as having shown an unfettered, childlike enthusiasm for animation. Toei Animation, as a business, is largely a creation of Okawa's, a railroad finance guy who came up through the Tokyu Railway company in the 1940s. He had really broad, far-reaching strategies—he spent a legendary week planning the Keio, Odakyu, and Keikyu lines, and when the stations were built, it was Okawa who pushed to open Tokyu-owned restaurants and movie theatres at those stations.

Those theatres would need movies, and it just so happened that Tokyu also had a company that made them: Tokyo Eiga, which people had taken to calling “Toei.” And not only did Okawa like animation, he had noted that his company's theatres were burning through the supply of glitzy overseas movies from Disney to exhibit at their theatres. They could release a couple each year, but by the time they made it to Peter Pan, they would have run out. Kids would still need animated movies, and that's where Toei Animation came in. Okawa acquired Nihon Douga for Toei in 1955, assumed its presidency, and smartly kept on senior staff like producer Sanae Yamamoto and director Taiju Yabushita, who'd spent the previous few years creating lavish, colorful shorts that, in retrospect, feel like dress rehearsals for the movies that would come in the next decade. Apparently, Okawa fancied himself the “Disney of the East,” which I've mostly heard talk of in articles that disparaged him in favor of Osamu Tezuka, so I'd probably take that with a grain of sa—wait a minute.

Oh. Oh man, there he is, introducing the trailer for Panda and the Magic Serpent. Yeah, Mr. Okawa was really doing it, wasn't he? And just what was Walt Disney himself looking like in front of cameras at about the same time?

Haha wow, I guess that really was a thing! Anyway, Panda and the Magic Serpent is an artistic triumph, a colorful, bombastic fairytale about a nice young man who falls in love with an enchanted snake disguised as a beautiful girl. Their love is real, but it's opposed by a strict, upright monk, who engages them in magical battles and chases. The lovelorn kids are helped by the boy's panda buddies, hence the US title; the character pictured in my lobby card is Xiao Quing, the snake girl's little pal, who floats through the movie with a cheerful attitude and a rakish, knowing smile. It's not that difficult to get actual posters of Panda and the Magic Serpent, but I've had no luck finding them in reasonable condition; one of the challenges of dealing with posters this old is that they're literally falling apart in many cases. If you look closely, you'll notice that this card is numbered 61/228. All of my old posters have this numbering system, which tells me that most anime posters of this era got anywhere from 100 to 299 prints made, so they're true rarities.

Then I've got this fine poster, another full-size 27” 40” monstrosity touting the thirteen fabulous, hilarious miracles of Alakazam the Great. American International Pictures (yep, that's Roger Corman's studio!) went all out on this release, hiring celebrity voices, buying up radio and newspaper ads, and even going all in on the “thirteen miracles” aspect—if you collect all of the Alakazam posters and lobby cards, you'll see them all listed out. AIP's gamble didn't pay off – Alakazam never became a hit – but they still produced a fine adaptation of a zippy, fun retelling of Journey to the West. Magic Boy is only available as a print-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive, and Panda and the Magic Serpent is a perennial bargain bin dollar DVD, but you can still catch Alakazam on TV on deep broadcast stations like Comet. A number of years ago I investigated the licensing status of Alakazam, wondering why more of these movies haven't gotten fresher, nicer-looking DVD releases; what I learned is that Alakazam, and some movies like it, are licensed more or less in perpetuity to Toei's overseas partners. AIP was bought by MGM, and their film library is now owned by the Turner people, so it's gonna be up to them to rescue this classic.

I don't own a poster of this film, but here's what the poster looks like. By this point, Toei were producing a steady supply of great-looking animated movies that racked up awards around the world, but were pretty firmly consigned to the children's matinee category in America. Signal International delivered The Littlest Warrior to US theatres in 1962, and I have to commend them for picking up what is literally an adaptation of a grimly hopeful Kenji Mizoguchi movie from the 50s about the triumph of the human spirit over slavery and despair… and marketing it to kids. That spider appears In the movie, but just for a few fleeting minutes. Remember, we're still dealing with a film market that absolutely won't put up with subtitles and looks askance at most dubbed foreign movies, and here's a kids' cartoon that opens with a girl in a flowing kimono plucking away at a koto!

Most of The Littlest Warrior, an adaptation of Sansho the Baliff, is about a couple of kids, Anju and Zushio, trying to survive after their dad, a local lord, is driven into exile by a rival. Their fuzzy animal buddies are sold off, they're separated from their mom, and they must then labor under a cruel master. After immense suffering and some surprise kindness, Zushio rises above it all and gets a melancholy reunion with his scattered family. Only, you know, for kids, so there's a mermaid in there, and lots of funny animal hijinks, and an enchanted swan too. It's still a very stately, serious film. I haven't found a poster I've liked, but for many years I held a 16mm film copy of this movie, mainly to preserve the soundtrack—the film is decaying and turning red, a common issue with old film reels, but the soundtrack still sounds OK. This is important, because every extant copy of the movie I've found, from dodgy old VHS releases to dodgy new DVD releases, has been made using a master that has a staticky, muffled soundtrack. My film is now in the hands of a fellow collector, whom I'm hoping will soon have some time to capture that soundtrack so a better fan-made restoration can be assembled, if nothing else.

A couple of weeks ago, I took the above poster artwork to a local frame shop, where I learned the grim truth: putting this lovely 2-sheet poster behind a 5-foot piece of museum glass would cost me hundreds of dollars. But the thing is, I'd been searching for years for posters of Signal International's 1962 release of Toei's Adventures of Sindbad, and had no luck finding anything. This Japanese poster, which is actually two overlapping B2-sized posters, was the closest I'd gotten. It's a marvelous curio, all in English with both artwork from the film and a framing painting by the legendary Yasuo Otsuka. There's very little fading or damage—not even fold lines!—but I couldn't keep it in a tube forever.

The funny thing is, Sindbad the Sailor isn't even that great of a film. It's probably the weakest of Toei's fabulous run of animated movies in the 50s and 60s, a pretty but boring movie depicting the exploits of the adventurous sailor from Baghdad. I like having the thing up on my wall, though, because when I stop and think, “Wait, did Osamu Tezuka really work on that?” I can just turn my head and look at it, and yep, there's his name. The next poster on my wall is pretty inarguably the best of this early run of movies, a picture that both Genndy Tartakovsky and Tomm Moore cite as a major influence.

Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon, released in the US on New Year's Day of 1964, boldly breaks away from the painterly style that was previously established by Toei's earlier films, rendering its characters in an appealing flat, abstract style. Punctuated by an amazing score courtesy of Godzilla composer Akira Ifubuke, it tells the Shinto creation myth of Susanoo versus the 8-headed dragon Orochi in fine style. Columbia Pictures' release features a solid, straightforward dub by William Ross, the Tokyo-based localizer who spent the 60s and 70s dubbing samurai tales, Godzilla adventures, and the first Lupin the 3rd movie. A ton of different posters, newspaper ads, and lobby cards were made for this movie; the poster I have is what's referred to as an “insert” poster, a shorter, narrower 14” x 36” deal. Insert posters are also pretty much gone. Of all of these films, it seems the weirdest to me that this one, with a major studio in the picture, plaudits from animation luminaries, and a good quality release back in Japan, remains out of sight and out of mind in the US.

Toei had another film they pushed for international release in 1963—a fanciful animal movie called Bow-wow 47 Ronin. MGM duly picked it up. There's just one problem—they never released it in English! I would have never known about this if it wasn't for animation historian Jerry Beck. When he was working for MGM/UA in the early 1980s, he came across a folder with information about a movie called Doggie March. That information was this sales sheet:

Yep, same movie. Digging for this was fascinating—it's a free adaptation of the tale of the 47 Ronin, only with dogs. The “Doggie March” title is a conceit of Toei, and appears on marketing material for the movie all over the world. I've found some chatter about a 1970s Australian TV broadcast of the film, under the title Doggie Tales of Canterbury, but have found nothing to corroborate this. What I did find was a poster—for the movie's Spanish-language release!

Rock El Valiente was released in Spain in 1965, which purportedly makes it one of the first animated movies to be dubbed and screened in that country. The film has stuck around, too—you can still get it on DVD in Spain. Look closely, and you'll see that Toei's “Doggie March” title is visible, as a subtitle. This is common across multiple markets-- "Doggie March" also appears on the movie's Italian release, for example. Toei could be kind of weird with those international titles.

I've written about Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon a few times, because it's a weird, wonderful movie that looks like nothing else Toei made before or since its release in 1965. Americans would see it in 1966 courtesy of matinee distributor Continental, where it would scar childrens' psyches forever with fare like Rise Robots Rise. Like The Littlest Warrior, it's been a huge pain in the ass to find an English-language copy of the film that doesn't sound terrible. You can go to Youtube and find clips, where you can hear the muffled, distorted audio for yourself. It's not so bad for much of the film, where the young Ricky banters with his older buddy Lemuel Gulliver as they take a great trip through space, but the movie has a number of songs courtesy of Gong Show bandleader Milton DeLugg, and they really oughta sound better. I've got a sinking feeling that this one just might have been poorly mastered to begin with, so even the film copies don't sound great. If you have a film copy, please digitally capture it and send me a high-resolution file when you have a moment!

Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon might be the weirdest-looking Toei animated film, but Jack and the Witch is right behind it. This movie never made it to theatres in America, but as you can see, in other places it was on the silver screen. Jack's story feels like a twisted modern update of a classic “Jack” fairytale (e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Jack Horner, etc.), in which a kid named Jack and his animal buddies are confronted by a witch who turns kids into monsters. It's a wonderfully fun, brightly-colored picture that has stuck around in the memories of a lot of people who saw it on TV in the 70s and 80s, thanks to its nightmare-fueled transformation sequences. I've been told that this movie, too, is in licensing limbo, but I'm not sure I believe that—it was originally dubbed in English and released on TV by AIP as part of a syndication package that also included The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun, and Animal Treasure Island, both of which eventually saw DVD release.

This is the last one, folks—at least, it's the last of Toei's run of 60s animated films that saw stateside theatrical release. This is another movie that's kind of average— a cartoony fusion of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales, from The Red Shoes to The Little Match Girl. It didn't actually make it to US theatres until 1971; courtesy of United Artists, it sports a charmingly catchy, bowdlerized dub by comedian Chuck McCann and pals, who expertly rewrite the movie's many zany songs. What's interesting about this poster is that, while most previous ones at least give Toei a throwaway credit at the bottom, there's no credit given to the Japanese studio here. This is a Hal Roach picture, you hear me?! Toei??! Never heard of 'em.

By the time of Hans Christian Andersen's release in Japan, Toei was undergoing a seismic shift in how they produced animated movies. Driven partly by the relative success of quick, cheaply-made TV tie-ins like Cyborg 009, and by the animators' labor disputes, the studio gradually abandoned their lavish, fully-animated approach in favor of simpler fare. Their final “big deal” theatrical film would be Hols, which came out late and unfinished, and thanks to that same Hiroshi Okawa's enmity towards the film's director Isao Takahata, only ran in Toei's theatres for ten days. The final nail in the coffin was The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots, a cheaper, simpler movie that was finished in just 8 months and went on to become a huge hit. In 1969, just over a decade after Toei Animation debuting as a studio that delivered on Okawa's “Disney of the East” vision, the dream was over. Mr Okawa died in 1971.

So to me, these posters aren't just interesting old anime collectibles—they're a picture of a time when theatrical anime was a little different, a little fuller, more visually ambitious, and maybe even more imaginative. Of course, that sense of ambition and imagination would come roaring back in due time, but there was nothing quite like this run of movies. The fact that most of them circled the globe, even in an era before cable TV and home video emerged and started hungrily looking for more content to spread, is a testament to their quality. At times, they're also a huge pain in the ass to frame and hang in the home. I'll leave you with this: while I never found a US poster of Sindbad the Sailor and settled for that gorgeous international version, I've never stopped looking. I've found newspaper ads for the movie, so some sort of marketing collateral had to have been created. And just a few weeks ago, look what popped up in my searches:

Yep, that's a lobby card, alright. A Sindbad the Sailor lobby card! Which means that a poster may yet survive, so my hunt isn't over. Have you struggled with storing and hanging cool anime posters in your fancy home for grownups? Share some of your favorites in the thread.

discuss this in the forum (9 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

The Mike Toole Show homepage / archives