Some of the most famous images in cinema have lesser-known inspirations. The opening wedding sequence of The Godfather, with its stark contrast between Don Corleone’s dark office and the blinding light in the reception area, is inspired by the look of old Anscrochrome film. In the world of animation, Ursula’s distinctive look in The little Mermaid was, in part, inspired by the cult film actor and the drag queen Divine. And several movies, TV series, and video games you probably grew up with were inspired by a groundbreaking but rarely seen 1963 Japanese film.
This film is The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, also published in French under the title Prinse in wonderland and The Rainbow Bridge. Toei Animation’s sixth feature film is an adaptation of several of the most famous founding myths of the Shinto religion. The “Little Prince” in the title is Susanoo, who is one of the most prominent Shinto deities, and the eight-headed dragon he faces is the legendary Orochi. The title notwithstanding, the film mainly deals with Susanoo’s quest to find his mother after his “departure” for paradise and the various adventures he has in the countries he crosses during his trip which ends with the battle with the dragon.
The tales of Japanese mythology depicted are softened from their original forms. Susanoo is tame, compared to the raging god of the sea and storms that some legends describe as, and a comedic relief bunny follows him everywhere. Against this, the film’s soundtrack is heavy and dramatic, typical of the acclaimed composer Akira Ifukube. The little Prince was not a major hit when it was released and has largely been forgotten outside of Japan, but its reputation among animation circles is immense. An international survey of animation workers for the Laputa Animation Festival in Tokyo ranked it as the tenth best animated film ever made.
The reputation of The little Prince comes more from its animation and its overall sensibility to design than from its history. The film represented a break with the more traditional, rounded characters that Toei had worked with in their previous films. Drawing inspiration from influences apparently as disparate as the American studio UPA and the Soviet production of Snow Queen, the staff of The little Prince developed a very stylized approach. While reference to live-action has been used for some footage, the proportions of the characters in Susanoo and most other human figures are separate from the actual anatomy. They’re built on geometric shapes, and even with the construction lines erased and the characters fully inked and painted, that geometry is still evident.. Even characters with more realistic anatomy, like the rabbit, have a geometric quality. For the most part, these graphic forms are fully animated (12-24 drawings per second of film), but the limited UPA animation techniques are used in some scenes to suggest more speed. Animated characters and effects are rendered with thin, colorful lines that almost disappear against the backgrounds. And these backgrounds are heavily stylized, with apparent influences not only from UPA and Soviet animation, but also from American artist Eyvind Earle, Disney’s color stylist. The Sleeping Beauty.
These design choices define The little Prince outside of contemporary anime releases, and arguably the majority of modern anime. This is also what caught the attention of the Russian-American host Genndy Tartakovsky after finishing working on his breakout series Dexter’s lab. Tartakovsky had proposed to Cartoon Network the idea of a show about a samurai warrior projected in time by an evil shapeshifter wizard. There were narrative issues to be resolved – simulating the level of violence of action had to be done in a way that would appease Cartoon Network’s standards – but Tartakovsky also faced stylistic challenges after spending so long working with it. a particular style. “I had made black lines all along Dexter, all along Powerful [Girls]“He said,” and I was just sick of it. “Tartakovsky also wanted” a cartoon action show – a stylized action show. Then while working on Super girls, Tartakovsky saw The little Prince for the first time. The quality of the laser disc he watched diminished the already thin outlines around the character to the point where Tartakovsky thought there were no lines. “And that was great,” he said, suggesting what he wanted for his samurai show: “Lots of lighting and ambiance … very little dialogue, [more] about the action, the simple stories and the character.
When the show, which we all know as Jack Samurai, premiered in 2001, it was indeed a stylized action show, with a graphic background, geometric character design, and no outlines. There is expressive lighting to evoke a variety of moods, and the dialogue is minimal. These are great similarities, of course, and Tartakovsky had been working with geometric characters for some time. A more obvious and direct nod to The last prince can be seen in the design of the sorcerer Aku, who looks a lot like the fire god Susanoo fights halfway through the film.
Jack Samurai was not the only animation project in recent years to draw inspiration from The little Prince. Tom moore of the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and director of The secret of Kells, the song of the sea, and Wolf walkers, cited the film as a major influence. And in the world of video games, a former host of The little Prince, Yoichi Kotabe, used it as a template for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Sadly, anyone in the West looking to see the film that inspired all of these productions faces an uphill battle. While Toei released a Blu-Ray of the film in 2020 for the Japanese market, that of the little prince The last official release available elsewhere was on DVD in 2002, briefly reissued in 2008. A box set released by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2019 included a version of the film, but it was cropped and dubbed.
Yes The little Prince is doomed to remain obscure outside of his home country, however, his lively descendants continue to cause a stir. Samurai Jack’s the awakening season was a success, The awakening of the wind went from being divisive and underperforming to being hailed as a classic game, and Wolf walkers has garnered Cartoon Saloon some of its best reviews to date. Not bad for such a little prince.
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