Taro the Dragon Boy
Dave Merrill rates it:
If you're interested in the mythology of ancient Japan or the mythology of ancient Japanese animation video releases, you'll find this DVD an engaging find; and if you want a great late 70's fantasy film, look no further than Taro the Dragon Boy.
The people behind this new version of Taro are Diskotek Media, a new outfit carving a niche for itself by releasing overlooked or neglected titles from the world of Japanese pop culture. Taro the Dragon Boy recieved a U.S. home video release back in 1980 and went straight to the children's section of local video rentals, never to be seen again. This new widescreen DVD has both the Peter Fernandez-produced dub (featuring Billie Lou "Astro Boy" Watt and other dubbed anime veterans) and the original Japanese soundtrack with subtitles.
Taro recalls a lot of the films Toei was producing in the late 50s and early 60s; the fairy tale story, the talking animals, the historical Japanese setting all harken back to Panda and the Magic Serpent, Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, The Littlest Warrior, and so on. Taro himself is a tubby layabout living with his grandma in an impoverished Japanese mountain village back in the days before history. One day, a passing wizard (the big-nosed Tengu) gives Taro a magic potion that makes him as strong as 100 men. But the selfish Taro can only use the power to help others!! If that's not a setup for an Afterschool Special, I don't know what is. Grandma lets spill that Taro's mom was turned into a dragon years ago; so Taro sets out to find mom and change her back. Along the way he wrestles Red Oni and gets him a job making thunder and lightning, rescues a girl from Black Oni, and in an interesting detour probably sponsored by the Japan Rice Growers Association, he learns the proper way to grow and prepare rice. Soon Mom is found and turned back into Mom, Japan's peasants have all the rice they can handle, and all's well with the world.
This is based on Japanese folklore. In fact it more or less IS the folklore. There isn't a lot of padding to the story - no Disney-style pop culture references (apart from a baseball-slugging demon) or detours into obvious parallels to modern events or cutesy sub-plots about cutesy talking animals. What Taro has is gorgeous backgrounds and the kind of full-motion animation that Japan usually reserves for prestige projects, which this more or less is. The director, Kirio Urayama, better known for award-winning, socially conscious live-action films like Each Day I Cry and Cupola, Where The Furnaces Glow, was the second choice; Isao (Horus Prince Of The Sun, Pom Poko) Takahata was originally supposed to direct, but scheduling conflicts forced him to decline. A happy accident, I think; we've seen Takahata's great work on lots of anime films, but this is Urayama's only venture into the animated field.
Unlike Toei's earlier fairytale films, Taro's characters are rounded and naturalistic. The figure animation is fluid and fits well with the beautiful backgrounds, which are largely ink-wash and realistic while at the same time evoking traditional Japanese printmaking. The film's subdued, earth-tone palette grounds the more fantastical elements and forces you to take them seriously.
If you've spent any amount of time watching Japanese animation, Taro will be an education. Many of the themes and motifs in this folktale are reflected over and over in Japanese popular culture. Children will also enjoy Taro; while the lack of Disney-style gags or musical production numbers will definitely set this film apart, I think kids will enjoy the variety of talking animal characters, the great animation, and the story, which does not shy away from the harshness of medieval Japanese rural society, especially when Black Oni keeps you from growing rice. There might be a little more nudity than is considered appropriate for American audiences, but nothing that's going to scar anybody for life.
Discotek's release is just about perfect. The transfer is beautiful, the sound quality is top-notch, and while it's a bit skimpy on the extras (just the original Taro trailer and the trailer for Discotek's other current classic anime release Animal Treasure Island) that's no crime. The original Turner Broadcast Services dub by Peter Fernandez is quite good; probably one of the best and most faithful American versions ever produced, and it's a treat to see it on top of a slick widescreen copy. As a rare animated venture by a live-action director, as a Japanese fairy tale brought to life, or as a fantasy movie for the whole family, Taro the Dragon Boy is worth your time.
Added: Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Related Link: Discotek Media