The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon.
A landmark animated film, the Toei Doga studio’s sixth feature The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon reimagines a Shinto myth and casts the storm god Susano’o as a headstrong, young child on a fantastic journey to find and save his dead mother. The boy adventurer, aided by Akahana the rabbit and the giant Titan Bo, travels to the crystalline land of night, faces the god of fire, and battles to save a princess from the Yamata no Orochi, a legendary Japanese dragon. Memorable for animator Yasuji Mori’s break from the established Toei house-style and a rare score for an animated film by famed composer Akira Ifukube, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon is a modernist treasure from one of the world’s great animation studios, presented here in its original Japanese version.
- New, restored high-definition transfer in full Fujicolor and 2.35:1 Toeiscope, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Isolated score by Akira Ikufube
- New video piece with animator Genndy Tartakovsky on The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon and its influence
- New video piece with animation critic and historian Charles Solomon on Toei Doga
- New interview with animator and historian Takashi Namiki on animator Yasuji Mori, including an extensive gallery of Mori’s illustrations
- Kitty’s Graffiti (1957) and Kitty’s Studio (1959), two short animated films by Mori
- Trailers for The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon and other Toei Doga animated features
- PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by animation historian Jerry Beck
Despite approaching 700 spine numbers, the Criterion Collection still lacks animated cinema in any clear and obvious sense. (The laser disc for Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) is now far too remote from the current DVD/Blu-ray Collection to consider it an answer to this criticism.) It’s hard to say why this gap exists, although the decision not to bestow spine numbers on William Mason’s Paddle to the Sea (1966) or Albert Lamorisse’s White Mane (1952) and The Red Balloon (1956) begs the question whether anything resembling family cinema could be considered within the Criterion Collection’s canon. The exclusion of such films seems arbitrary and there’s certainly nothing in Criterion’s mission statement that disqualifies children’s films or animated features, so let’s start promoting such films for inclusion by embracing a classic and influential work of Japanese animation – The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (Yugo Serikawa, 1963).
Almost universally considered the high water mark of Toei Doga (the Toei Company’s animation studio), The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon was the studio’s sixth feature and took inspiration from the Shinto myth of a storm god’s battle against an eight-headed dragon. In the film, the strong-willed boy/god Susano’o attempts to find his dead mother Izanami after being told she has travelled to a far-off land. His search takes him to the lands of night and light, doing battle along the way with a giant fish (a trope that seems to appear in almost every classic animated Toei feature), crystal soldiers, fire gods, and even agricultural systems, until arriving in Izumo Province and vowing to save Princess Kushinada by slaying the titular dragon, the Yamata no Orochi.
There are many things that distinguish The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon and deserve celebration in a Criterion release. Most significant is the film’s style, relying on simple geometric shapes and increased abstraction from Toei’s existing house-style of smooth, rounded designs. This technique has made the film influential in animation circles, cited by Genndy Tartakovsky as a significant work and as a direct inspiration for his approach on the Samurai Jack TV series. One can primarily credit this modernist design to chief animator Yasuji Mori, an instrumental figure in Toei Doga’s feature films from their inception and a nurturing mentor to a who’s who of Japanese animators. Also notable is the film’s score, created by famed Japanese classical composer Akira Ifukube (also responsible for the score on another Criterion release – Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)). More broadly, it seems unlikely that another Toei Doga film could snag a spine number, so a release of The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon should be an opportunity to consider the Toei Doga studio broadly given its contribution to the world of animation.
While Criterion’s knack for original cover commissions are usually stellar, this is a rare instance where the film needs to speak for itself. Accordingly, a cover treatment should celebrate Yasuji Mori’s historic designs. This is a classic animated feature, so why hide it? ANIDO, a group established and run by a number of animators working in various Japanese studios, held a retrospective free exhibition a couple of years ago on Mori’s work, suggesting a bounty of material that included finished illustrations and original drawings. Cover art should feature Mori’s work, using the iconic image of Susano’o on his flying horse, along with Princess Kushinada and his little rabbit buddy Akahana, and depicting a gradual transition from line-drawing to fully completed animation cell.
Credits: The significance of The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon to Genndy Tartakovsky is reviewed above. Charles Solomon is an expert critic and historian on anime, making him well-suited to review the fascinating history of Toei Doga. (More on that topic in another post, perhaps.) Takashi Namiki is a contributor to ANIDO and was the executive editor of the book Yasuji Mori: Master Animator – His Animated Drawings. The 2 Mori shorts were discovered over at Cartoon Brew. Jerry Beck is arguably our greatest living animation scholar and historian and his website Cartoon Research is a trove of fascinating films and content. Take some time to check it out.