Recently I came across an old film with art direction by Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator behind Studio Ghibli and such great films as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968) is an animation from his early years as a key animator and background designer and is considered by some to be the first modern anime. The film was directed by Isao Takahata who went on to do Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies.
The name ‘Horus’ is misleading. Suggesting an Egyptian background, the Japanese name ‘Horusu’ is actually supposed to be ‘Hols’ as the characters are from a Scandinavian or Eastern European Stone Age era. I’ve never heard this name used before, and the OED says its root (hol) is ‘hollow’ or ‘hole’ which of course makes no sense to the story (unless of course it’s supposed to be ‘whole’). The film takes place in the frozen north with characters, costumes, and culture that seems related to the Finnish epic, the Kalevala while other elements, such as the unscrupulous adviser to the village leader, seem archetypes borrowed from Beowulf. Hols, a young boy, finds a magical Sword of the Sun while defending himself from a pack of wolves. He takes the sword and heads to civilization.
The villain of the story is Grundewalde, an ice demon who uses black magic, wolves, and monsters to assert control over humanity. This is significantly different from later Miyazaki films, which do not place the evil and darkness of the world in the hands of a single individual. Instead, evil and disaster arise from the nature of the world and from the hearts of people, and cannot be defeated by lopping off a head with a sword.
Hols takes on many heroic tasks in his effort to destroy Grundewalde and save humanity from his evil. He’s just a kid, but he’s got enough determination to make him a man. In a sequence reminiscent of Legend of Zelda, he fights a giant fish, and he also heads off into the woods fighting wolves. There is also the strange girl, Hilda, who plays the harp and entrances anyone who hears her songs.
The film contains some epic battle scenes as well, but they are a sharp difference from later Miyazaki films. The reason for this is it appears that the studio’s budget ran out and as a result, there are several sequences where still images or pans of still images made from key frames are used to illustrate motion. Thus, in a large battle scene between the villagers and a pack of wolves, there is no animation, but merely still images, which proves very shocking.
Though described as a ‘modern anime’, Horus, Prince of the Sun contains ties with earlier films. In it are many musical sequences, particularly the opening credits, which contains a lyrical song describing the adventurous and heroic spirit of Hols. As a result, it has more in common with the later Taro, Dragon Boy (1979) and seems more in line with an earlier era of Japan.
As there is better anime out there (and the film is hard to find), Horus, Prince of the Sun is probably best seen as a curiosity that is a key example of the evolution of anime, in particular Miyazaki’s style (or perhaps seen by big fans of Miyazaki or the Kalevala). This isn’t to say it’s not a bad film – if you ever get a chance to see it, definitely take that chance! It’s just not worth shelling out $60 or more to import.