on February 16, 2005
Although this film was released on home video in the U.S. in 1984 as "Taro the Dragon Boy" (five years after it appeared in Japanese theaters in 1979), not many people seem to remember it, which is a shame, as it is one of the best anime films I've ever seen. I rented the English-dubbed version, helmed by the legendary Peter Fernandez (also worked on the English dubs of "Speed Racer" and "Superbook"), on video from my video store on several occasions as a child, and was awestruck. Taro is a remarkable young man - he possesses immense strength and an enormous appetite, but he also has a heart of gold, and the object of his quest is to find his mother, Katsu, who was changed into a dragon many years ago. (One scene which made a big impression on me is the scene in which Taro and the villagers are feasting after Taro defeated a demon who was threatening the village, and Taro - who has an appetite to rival Garfield's - can't enjoy the celebration because he keeps thinking of the folks back in his home village who have nothing to eat. That shows what a pure, good heart he has.) This film holds up very well even to this day. The animation is remarkably fluid given that the film is now over a quarter-century old, and the music is also very well-done. There are even vocal songs, which were dubbed into English for the U.S. release along with the dialogue, and they're also pretty good, even in English; the dialogue is also well-written and well-dubbed. The ending will absolutely have you in tears. If you can find a used copy of this film on VHS, by all means pick it up. It's a real classic. (Incidentally, despite the Japanese title, "Tatsu no ko Taro," this animation was NOT produced by Tatsunoko Production, but by Toei Animation, which later became internationally famous for "Dragonball," "Sailor Moon," and "One Piece.")
on May 4, 2013
Taro the Dragon Boy is exactly what it sets out to be --- an animated retelling of classic Japanese folklore. At this it succeeds, as it does an excellent job of portraying the original story in the same sort of way it might play out in your imagination. This can be its strength or its weakness, and I think mileage can vary from viewer to viewer. There's a constant distance you feel to the events of the film, the same sort of distance you might feel to the events that happen in your dreams. While some might find this makes the film less engaging, I found it to be a very effective and entertaining approach to capturing the Japanese folktale spirit.
The story first introduces us to Taro, a young, seemingly magical, but also somewhat lazy and inconsiderate young boy, that lives with his grandmother in a mountain farming village. Taro isn't a mean kid --- he's just oblivious in a very simple, even dumb sort of way, and is content with spending his time playing with the animals of the forest, when he ought to be helping his tired Grandmother with the farming. His village (and many others throughout the film) are suffering from bad crops and farming conditions, sometimes because of the gods, sometimes because of demons, sometimes from the greed of other people, and sometimes just because of circumstance and the conditions of the environment. One day when Taro is playing in the woods, a Tengu spirit gives him a 'magic potion' (although it's more like magical saké), which gives Taro the strength of 100 men. The Tengu tells Taro to use his new-found strength to help others, to which Taro thankfully agrees. Later that night, Taro's grandmother decides to finally reveal to him the unusual circumstances surrounding his birth --- before he was born, his mother was caught in a rainstorm in the mountains, and for unknown reasons was transformed into a water dragon. A short time after the strange event, his grandmother found the new-born Taro drifting down a river, and upon picking him up, his mother appeared before them, saying that she could not stay but would lie waiting in a pond far away, in hopes that Taro would someday visit her. Upon hearing this haunting and mysterious tale, Taro immediately decides to set out on a journey to find his long-lost mother. And what a journey it is --- along the way, he meets all manners of strange and magical beings, all the while slowly but surely coming to understand the problems his village and humans at large are having with their crops, using his magical strength to help them overcome their obstacles and sufferings.
When I was first watching the film, it felt as though the story was whimsically wandering wherever it wanted to go, but in retrospect there's definitely a narrative structure to the film. Taro journeys from place to place, overcoming magical creatures, ill-hearted individuals, etc. in order to ultimately help people with their farming circumstances, which winds up being an important plot point at the end of the film. Each vignette is so uniquely structured, however, that the overall framework isn't immediately obvious until the last third of the film. I've never much enjoyed folk stories that wander about aimlessly, so the realization that the film actually had a distinct structure was a pleasant surprise, and helped to put the gist of the folktale into perspective (namely, that Taro learns the importance of self-lessness, in the context of human difficulties with farming in ancient Japan).
For an early Japanese animated work, it understandably carries some of the sensibilities of Walt Disney films (as even the God of Manga himself, Osamu Tezuka, was greatly influenced by the works of Walt Disney). "Taro the Dragon Boy" features talking animals, and on occasion Taro breaks out into song, though it's all done rather tastefully and in a very Japanese sort of way. The talking animals, while amusing, are clearly a part of the ancient mythos, and Taro doesn't sing as part of a musical sequence, but more like he's simply recounting a folk-style song from the days of old.
The film itself is a visual treat for the late 70's, and is wonderfully restored for the DVD release from Discotek Media, such that it looks just as crisp as it likely did when it first released back in the day. The movie is filled with beautifully rendered backgrounds that distinctly capture a highly detailed and more realistic imagining of ancient Japanese style artwork, and the animation is of a surprisingly high technical skill, at least in the complex scenes where you might not expect it (the film does employ limited animation techniques to a good extent, but it's hardly a distraction).
Now the question is, who is this movie for? Arguably, the target audience was little Japanese kids in the late 70's and their parents, who were mostly likely to have the cultural background to understand a movie like this. For the most part, I think Western audiences might be confused and less able to recognize the magical and strange beings that show up throughout the film, many of which are classic folktale creatures that are well-known to Japanese people, but would leave question-marks floating over everyone else's heads. The film also carries more "brazen" Japanese sensibilities from the 70's --- an early shot of the film shows Taro fully naked with all to see, and there are a number of scenes with frontal female nudity throughout the film that, while tasteful, may be off-putting for more conservative Western tastes.
Overall, Taro the Dragon Boy is not a 'fun' movie, and lacks the whimsy of most children's films. It's much more of a straightforward retelling of a folk classic, and is more amusing, strange and haunting, than it is pleasant, gripping or exciting. Especially if you're not familiar with Japanese folktales, you may find the movie more strange or even boring than entertaining. I was personally able to appreciate this film on its merits and original intent, though, and would recommend it to fans of animation and Japanese folk culture.
on March 8, 2008
This is one of my favorite children's movies hands down. It's based on a few traditional Japanese folk stories that are woven together to make a beautiful whole. The animation is lush and gorgeous, and gives a wonderful sense of visiual depth, and the music compliments every scene. The main character, Taro, is a little boy who lives in a small village in Japan, who has extraordinary strength. As we get to know him, he battles a local forest demon, befriends a magical flute-playing girl, and then for the better part of the story he's on a search for his long lost mother, having many adventures along the way, which show what a tender heart he has. If you like folk and fairy tales, or simply beautiful and moving animation, I highly recommend this!