New Anime

Horus, Prince of the Sun

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am thrilled to announce we’re returning to the classic films of Toei Doga, and what’s more, we’ll be watching the film that’s generally considered the pinnacle of the era: Isao Takahata’s directorial debut, Horus, Prince of the Sun.

Though even the earliest films of Toei Doga demonstrate the talent of mainstays like Yasuji Mori and Yasuo Otsuka, it was Horus where a new generation of talents really came into their own, including Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Bonded all the closer by the ongoing labor protests, Horus’ team would create a high water mark in animation that simultaneously served as a broadening of animation’s potential. As Miyazaki would describe it, Horus embodied the world of animation shifting from one of farce to “Chishu Ryu’s world,” widening the medium’s dramatic priorities and opening the door to thoughtful, meditative works that went beyond energetic escapism.

So basically, that strain of inquisitive melancholy that so fascinates me in anime was in many ways forged in the production of Horus, owing largely to Isao Takahata’s unique and far-seeing perspective. It’s the same thoughtful approach that would lend such gravity to his later Ghibli films, that would migrate out to inform generations of future animators, that would ring through to the modern era through the works of artists like Naoko Yamada. Otsuka would happily admit that this turning point was the moment anime as a medium stretched beyond his own ambitions, and that he’d rather “let the director direct, and have fun doing my own thing.” Miyazaki’s description of this change was humble as well, as he admitted that “only Yasuji Mori” understood the essence of Horus was the melancholy girl Hilda, not the adventures of Horus himself.

Even today, anime for the most part constrains itself to stories of adolescent adventure, indulgence, and bravado. But for the productions that reach beyond such topics, that struggle to depict ordinary happiness and everyday melancholy, the substance of lives as they are lived – for those stories, Horus was a guiding star, and a triumph of animation by any standard. Let’s get to it!

Horus, Prince of the Sun

Oh wow, dynamic action both in the boarding and the animation right from the start. We open on a scene inherently laden with momentum and discord, as the camera pans out from a cliff face towards roiling water, with a flock of birds calling and rising to echo the sense of commotion. From here, wolves and a boy’s feet swiftly rush across the foreground, further amplifying the energy of the scene, as well as creating a distinct sense of depth. Earlier Toei Doga films often seem ornately staged, and can trend towards a flatness of characters in the middle distance against a painted backdrop. Horus immediately pushes against this instinct, creating a sense of cinematic depth in the composition right from the start, and refusing to immediately center characters in the frame such that it feels like the camera is actually struggling to catch up with them – like we’re witnessing hastily documented action that the camera just happened to witness, not a show put on for us specifically

Horus races across the rocks, slaying one after another of the wolves chasing him. No fanciful, exaggerated action here, just brutal connections of ax and body. Both Horus’ and these wolves’ designs also feel a touch more realistic than the prior standard, further enhancing the immediacy of the action

I believe both Miyazaki and Otsuka worked on this wolf sequence, alongside several of their fellows. The team at Toei Doga had expanded a fair amount at this point, and this film also falls in their two simultaneous productions era

Yeah, I love the rough, thick linework for these wolves, as well as the bold three-tone shading. Everything really pops off the screen

Also a great clarity of action in the faceoff between Horus and this white wolf – his unique coloration and distinctive expression make it clear that he is the pack’s leader

And as the rope attached to Horus’ ax snaps, the tenor of battle immediately changes, the wolves now swarming to take advantage of this chance. The action feels much like a great martial arts film, with a clarity of narrative progression expressed through the physical actions of the characters

What a tricky signature weapon they’ve given him, too! Animating Horus swinging, releasing, and regaining this ax demands a precise understanding of physical action fundamentals – it’s a perpetual articulation of the “raise and strike with an ax” animation tests these studios employed, except with the added constraint of conveying the sense of momentum inherent in the ax’s trajectory, as well as the force that momentum exerts on Horus’ body

Holy shit, the scale of this great rock monster! God, every moment of this film is a feast of animation and triumph of ambition – you can really feel the new generation just firing out the gates with everything to prove

The rock golem introduces itself as Maug, the Man of Stone

Love his goofy overall proportions, with a long ovular body and stocky limbs. This guy feels like a Miyazaki design, though he could also be Otsuka. Really, it’s trickier to tell with this film who animated what, as the overall art design is quite different from the modernist aesthetic of Little Prince and Gulliver

Upon hearing of the “silver wolves,” Maug reflects that “Grunwald has unleashed his henchmen once again.” With animated films so far removed from our own era, there’s a natural tendency to think the drama will feel slow or stiff for modern audiences, but Horus isn’t wasting a single second in establishing its engaging fantasy conflict. And the animation is so goddamn impressive! The peaks of anime are a scattered and eclectic bunch, with shining jewels like Baron Omatsuri or Rainbow Fireflies proving the power of committed teams in a hostile commercial climate

This creature’s design is so playful – its head is basically a large bush with a boulder attached to it

Horus successfully pulls the “splinter” that is a great sword out of Maug’s shoulder

The sword is the “Sword of the Sun.” Horus was initially based on an Ainu legend, but was transposed to Scandinavia to avoid controversy. Though Takahata’s films are already bristling with social and political commentary, the films he just avoided making were even more incendiary. His followup to Grave of the Fireflies was initially intended to be Border 1939, a film about Japan’s invasion of mainland Asia

Unsurprisingly, Takahata was the one who also convinced Miyazaki that art should serve a greater purpose beyond indulgence and escapism. Both of their careers would stray beyond the playground of animation for its own sake that Otsuka inhabited, as they strove to create art that would teach and inspire, not just entertain. Like Gainax’s founders during the Royal Space Force era, they strove to elevate the medium – a noble but perhaps impossible task, given the inherent market constraints of commercial animation. There will always be artists who strive to make animation that’s thoughtful and transformative in its perspective, but they will likely always be outliers, too

Horus attempts to swing the sword and immediately eats shit. Simple pleasures, too

Maug tells him that if he can reforge and master the sword, Maug himself will bow before him, and dub him “Prince of the Sun”

He’s even got his own theme song! Horus’ running during this opening sequence again shows careful attention paid to weight and momentum, as he grapples the oversized sword and rests it on his shoulder

A little bear informs Horus that his father is dying. Apparently we’ve still got talking animal companions, though I’m not sure if they’re still handled by Yasuji Mori, considering Mori was also animating Hilda for this film

I can already sort of sense the tension Miyazaki described, between Takahata’s somber intentions for this narrative’s tone and the bounding energy of the animation itself

Horus’ dying father explains how a devil once tricked humans into fighting amongst themselves and destroying their homes. The depiction of this event seems to once again call back to Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia

The threat is unsurprisingly more nuanced than prior antagonists, with destruction ultimately stemming from man’s cruelty to man

His father says he must join forces with his fellow men, and that if he fights with them he will never have to fear anything

Horus’ angry expressions remind me of Otsuka’s one critique of the final film: that Horus was always scowling, never smiling. Otsuka’s a pretty funny guy

Great overhead layout with Horus’ tiny hut centered within a vast darkness, emphasizing the isolation and loneliness of this moment. Takahata’s direction feels like a step up for Toei on the whole, and I can sorta guess why – Takahata’s not actually an animator, so he’s directing with an eye for overall cinematic effect first, not simply prioritizing clarity of the animated objects in frame

Horus burns the hut after his father passes. Otsuka’s a deft hand with fire animation, and is actually seen correcting the flames of new animation students in his documentary

Horus sets off to find his people with his bear companion Koro

Coming ashore on a great beach, the two are attacked by a giant, malevolent crow

Koro’s entrapment in quicksand is impressively animated; whether it’s sand, fire, or water, the effects animation of this film is consistently remarkable

Horus is carried away into a beautifully painted mountain range 

More impressive layouts as Horus slides down a mountainside, with the camera fixed above him so he’s actually moving into depth as he plummets “away” from us. A difficult trick to accomplish, but the benefits are clear, as we in the audience feel the tension of the distant ground laid out beneath him. A flat profile shot wouldn’t create anything close to the same vertigo-like effect

As Horus throws his ax to drag himself back up the cliff, it is caught by none other than Grunwald himself, flanked by his white wolves! He proposes that Horus become his brother

Cuts between reactions and long profile shots emphasize the danger, how Grunwald literally holds Horus’ life in his hands

Excellent character acting as Horus refuses his offer. There’s a gritty fury in his eyes that feels unlike the expressiveness of prior Toei Doga heroes; these rounded yet sharper-edged character designs have a real vitality to them

And so Horus plummets from the mountain peak, only to be discovered by a young boy as he floats down a river

Clever trick of shifting perspective versus a static background here, as the river turns in the foreground and Horus begins to diminish in size as he approaches a village in the background

And he wakes into another layout with a strong sense of place and depth; his resting spot and the wall to his right form a sort of looking glass in the foreground, leading the eye towards the smith in the background. You feel like you could really fall into these compositions in a way that wasn’t true of the more flat (sometimes deliberately so, as in the modernist era) aesthetics of prior Toei films

The fire in the center of the composition further amplifies the sense of depth through the rings of shadows it casts on the various objects within the scene

Horus’ saviors are apparently living under some form of duress, but are certain the strong and courageous Molas will save them

They state a monstrous pike has settled downstream. Oh shit, we’re getting there! We’re approaching Otsuka’s masterpiece!

A tragic scene as we learn Molas has died in battle. Here the layouts carry the weight of the drama, through still blue-hued shots of the whole town in mourning. Takahata really understands seeking a holistic intent across a full composition, imbuing the whole shot with a clear emotional tone

Followed by a composition that emphasizes Horus’ imposition into this new world, with him and the blacksmith framed as silhouettes overseeing this sad display

This time, the composition creates a sense of depth through the layered tiers of villagers, who are themselves granted distinct spacing via the different blue and purple hues used to signify each layer in turn

“Don’t do this! Don’t waste your lives!” This woman is animated with the gentle, flowing movements that are Mori’s signature, and possesses the tapering design sensibilities of a large core and smaller limbs that Otsuka defined as Mori’s preferred style

Even the base conflict is more complex here, with both those who wish to kill the beast and those who wish to preserve the villagers’ lives having reasonable points

God, such a sense of anticipation as Horus approaches the pike. Love this shot that pans up over Horus’ shoulder and down towards the pike’s lair, once again situating us alongside the characters in this moment. Creating horror in animation is a difficult feat, but Takahata’s rigorous alignment of the audience and Horus’ perspective is doing a great job of conjuring it

Getting more acquainted with individual animators also makes moments of anticipation like this all the sweeter. Once you move past the initial illusion of the film or episode as a single holistic object, you can start to appreciate the marvelous voices that ring out in their own tones through each individual setpiece. Watching through the end of One Piece’s Wano arc was like watching a chorus of my favorite singers all trading off verses in one anthemic song

It’s such a huge, ungainly fish. I believe Otsuka animated it with more frames per second than Horus as well, creating a further sense of otherworldly power and movement

Yeah, its movements are genuinely horrifying. You feel such a sense of vulnerability as Horus grapples with this monster, his own movements seeming stiff and slow compared to its terrible flailing

The frantic death rattles of a desperate and violent animal, all captured with more vibrant intensity than even live action could attempt. God, what a scene

When Horus returns to the village, he is confronted by the teary-eyed son of the dead warrior, who claims he’s lying and shouts “you didn’t have the right!” Violence is never glorious in Takahata’s world, but it is frequently inevitable. In a medium all too often dedicated to violence as the ultimate form of spectacle, Takahata never lets his audience forget that every life stolen leaves a mournful village in its wake

Horus apologizes to the young boy Flip, showing tender understanding as well as strength

Dear lord, an utterly preposterous cut as the entire village rushes to catch the returning fish, featuring at least fifty different characters all acting out their own forms of celebration. How does this movie exist

It’s a flex Miyazaki is well fond of, though; you see similar sequences in films like Kiki or Porco Rosso, and even his Sherlock Hound episodes manage a few similar moments

Another boy named Potom congratulates Horus for his efforts, while a song of busy labor plays in the background. Takahata always comes back to venerating the natural rhythms of life lived alongside and in harmony with nature, whether it’s the country getaway of Only Yesterday or the longed-for provincial life of Princess Kaguya

The animators seem to maintain the trick of animating fish with more frames, such as to convey their frantic out-of-water movements

It’s funny, you can always see the tension in Miyazaki’s films regarding his love of technology versus his veneration of nature, but no similar tension exists for Takahata – he sees technology and modernization as pretty much inherently suspect, as films like Pom Poko demonstrate

Koro arrives at last, and is tearfully greeted by Horus

Grunwald is not pleased to learn Horus is alive, and has furthermore killed his beloved fish. Excellent, convincing slinking animation for his subservient canine accomplice

“If he attacks, we will all fight and chase him away together!” Solidarity is consistently framed as the only bulwark against oppression, a sentiment that surely resonated with this protest-bonded crew of animators

Horus is given new clothes, and participates in a musical celebration with the whole village. Not just the glory of battle, but the splendor and warmth of peace are also celebrated

In spite of Otsuka’s complaints, we’re actually getting a lot of kindly, happy expressions from Horus throughout this sequence

And more preposterously fluid crowd shots, though at least now they’re relenting and only having every fourth or so character actually moving

On the edge of the celebration, the village chief is fed anti-Horus propaganda by his sallow-eyed advisor

But oh shit, there’s like a hundred wolves descending on the village! Get ‘em, Horus!

Interestingly, they use a succession of still shots to convey the chief’s barn being broken down in order to create a barricade. Basically looks like we’re just getting the keyframes of the intended sequence, with the sound design working to bind them into progressive action. Even the medium’s greatest works can’t escape the perils of aggressive production schedules

Horus chases the white wolf leader far away from the village, until he loses him somewhere in the mountains

Through the mists, he sees a village that has been partially submerged in a mountain lake. This film is suffused with all these sequences of rich melancholy, contrasting the fierce action against visual meditations on loss. This is the sort of tone that Anju to Zushiomaru should have been striving for; Takahata served as assistant director on that one, and I wonder how that experience shaped his future sensibilities

The use of music is also quite effective and pronounced; sometimes sung by characters, but mostly just used to accent and complete the effect of these tone sequences, each articulating a fresh sliver of life’s joys or sorrows

The boarding continues to effectively create a sense of depth through layered compositions, here frequently spying through some foreground elements of debris towards the buildings beyond, then panning up them to turn the further buildings into framing devices for the lake in the distance

And at the village’s edge, staring out across the water, he finds a girl bearing a harp

She explains that she has no village, as her home was destroyed by a devil, and she was cursed in the process

God, Mori is just in a class of his own. The gentle fluidity of this woman’s moments, and the swift rush of expressions as she laughs and shakes her head, fall into a class of naturalistic character acting that feels unlike anything else in this film. She is truly alive on camera, in the same way Mori’s best characters have been since all the way back in Saiyuki – though here, Reiko Okuyama is also shouldering some of the character acting weight

She introduces her animal companions, Chiro and Toto. Always gotta have some cute animal companions

You can easily see what Miyazaki meant in saying that only Mori understood Takahata’s intentions. Hilda embodies strength through perseverance, her actions measured, body language laden with the weight of tragedy. She feels like an encapsulation of Takahata’s mournful yet hopeful philosophy, and Mori captures both the heaviness of her grief and the lightness of her enduring personality

Hilda sees a fellow lonely soul in Horus, and Horus tells her to follow him to the village

“Hilda makes the most beautiful songs.” “But they’re a little sad.” Could well describe Mori or Takahata as well

The village elder is outraged that Horus presumptuously brought a girl back to the village. His advisor’s villainess nature is accentuated by his tendency to lurk in the shadows of this hut

Ooh, I like this fade transition out of the village elder’s house – the shot pans to the window and then fades, as if we’re actually peering outside to see Hilda singing

Her song strikes everyone in the village silent. This film’s musical interludes feel like a precursor to the dialogue-free sequences and montages common in Takahata’s later films; sequences moving beyond the elaboration of narrative action, and into the pure veneration of everyday life. It doesn’t surprise me that Takahata’s films would trend towards collections of vignettes rather than propulsive, Miyazaki-style narratives; Takahata is all about the appreciation of everyday moments, and that comes through in Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. It feels like a very pure style of animation, using the medium’s hyperreal effect to draw our eyes towards the everyday miracles we so frequently overlook

It’s also not a surprising focus for someone who is not an animator himself; it is not exaggerated, playful movement he is seeking (as is true for someone like Otsuka), it is reality as it is experienced

Unsurprisingly, this musical interlude continues as we watch the villagers work together to repair their homes. The value and dignity of honest, communal labor would remain a key theme of Takahata’s work

“Whenever Hilda starts singing, everyone stops working!” Interesting

The advisor believes he can use Hilda, to which the owl Toto muses “yes, if you wish to destroy yourselves”

Hilda appears to have instigated a wave of lethargy across the villagers. They sit listening to her beautiful lamentations, rather than working to repair the village and construct a brighter future

She continues to possess a more nuanced range of expressions relative to the other characters. A casual, almost condescending ease as she informs Horus of where Potom is, and then this disgruntled look with a hint of jealousy as he rushes off to forge his sword

Mori is such a singular talent that I’m frankly not sure how else his animation might be employed; making him animation director won’t suddenly make his team capable of echoing his style, so assigning him to one or two characters and making their expressiveness a key part of their personality and narrative role seems like all you can do. In Gulliver, he was assigned a cherub, basically a literal angel to make use of his uniquely fluid and expressive style

Fairly unique style of animation for this owl Toto as well – he’s got an extremely busy design, with lots of linework delineating the spread of feathers in his wings

Love how the bellows of their forge is actually a pig skin that occasionally opens its eyes to inspect their process

Hilda appears to be pained by proximity to the sword. Her position is much more fraught and interesting than Horus’ – an innocent who is doomed to have a cursed connection with the antagonist, rather than a born hero

“You must be tired. He’s always ordering you to fight.” Ah, so Hilda is the white wolf. Yeah, her position complicates the morality of the film nicely

Horus attests he will kill the devil with his ax, but Hilda claims the devil cannot be killed

Lord Grunwald claims that Hilda is his “sister,” and that she must kill Horus

The village chief’s advisor asks Hilda to help him restore the village. Her condescending laughter in reply again demonstrates her wider range of emotional expression – she is capable of not just large, one-note emotions like anger or grief, she possesses a cynical edge and sense of fatalism that adds shades of sarcasm and irony to her feelings

A distinct contrast in animation styles as he lopes energetically across the beams in the background while Hilda maintains her stately walk

Hilda comes to a grave decision in her mind, and agrees to sing for him. The film simply wouldn’t work dramatically if not for Hilda’s expressiveness – her despair and unhappy bargains have been guiding the narrative since she appeared, with most of her internal discord conveyed only through her shifts in expression

One of the village children shows Hilda to another house, where a bridal dress is being made for Philia. While the advisor and Grunwald seek to use her, the other villagers are happily accepting Hilda as one of them, saying she will soon wear a dress like Philia’s

“No matter what you do, it will all end up… burning to ashes!” Hilda can see no future beyond the devils haunting this land

She wishes to join with them, but cannot allow herself such hope, and so bitterly exclaims “I have better things to do than sewing clothes” before leaving with her head in hands. A convincing portrait of a deeply conflicted character, and a significant change from the generally straightforward characterization of Toei’s earlier films

Another impressive sequence of crowd animation as Rusan and Philia are married. And once again, great care is taken in illustrating the natural rhythms and joys of life in this village, with no real narrative “purpose” being served

They ask Hilda to sing for them, but she flees instead. Hilda can only sing of sadness, and does not wish to grow closer to this village that she is destined to help destroy

Alone in the forest, she seems to come to a difficult decision. Remarkable how entirely she’s taken over the film since her arrival; Horus simply acts, but Hilda considers and negotiates, acting as a bridge across these two worlds

Seeing her in her wolf form, Horus just barely misses her with his ax

She then sends a tide of rats into the village. Love this shot framed just above the grasses of the village, pitting her against the yellow sky as an ominous harbinger

This time, the illusion of continuous action is created by superimposing translucent, repeated cuts of the waves of the rats over still images of the panic and destruction they inflict. This feels like a natural consequence of Horus’ director not being an animator himself; Takahata’s ideas are unfettered by the practical concerns of animating his sequences, meaning several segments of this film demand more large-scale animation than his team can actually produce. This feels like a stark change from Toei’s animator-directed earlier films, where climactic sequences seemed designed specifically to best exploit the abilities of the animators who would be working on them

It’s an interesting contrast. It’s obviously a less seamless production than something designed wholly by and for animators, but in return the film is blessed with Takahata’s narrative ambition and moral complexity, tones that were in shorter supply in Toei’s playful earlier work. Of course, there are also people like Yuasa, animators who also seek to instill all their works with thematic complexity

Philia’s beautiful shawl is swept away by the rats. Hilda’s fatalism has become prophecy

But Philia herself survives, and retains her positive spirit, asking Rusan to take her to their new home. Seeing this, Hilda seems to take some consolation as well – this might be a fallen world beset by forces beyond human control, but we can still demonstrate resilience and kindness within it, still rebel through our determination to love and laugh and carry our legacy forward. The somber consolation that was the conclusion of Pom Poko, tanukis still reveling in the slice of grass provided by the city’s new golf courses

But Hilda cannot rely on that hope. She instead casts aspersions on Horus, wondering why he’s always absent when monsters strike, and why he cannot prove the truth of any of his accomplishments. She’s such a great character! Bound by despair and quite effective as the devil’s lieutenant, but still bearing the sorrow of her sins, and still capable of hoping for better. The film is certainly lopsided, but Miyazaki is right that Mori’s character acting for Hilda holds it together, instilling what could be simply an antagonistic trickster with a fundamental dignity and sympathy

As the village advisor cackles over his victory, Hilda flings Horus’ ax right next to his head, then smiles innocently at him. Hilda’s messy, sorrowful, cynical personality would make her a big hit in the modern era; her personality feels significantly more multifaceted and current than the simple heroes and villains otherwise populating this film

The advisor slinks off to misuse Horus’ ax in some way, while Hilda continues to lament the necessity of her deceitful actions

And once again, a carefree song sequence illustrating the pleasures of life in the village, with the local children now calling Hilda to come play with them. Life is short and often cruel – to celebrate joyfully is not to turn away from the truth of the world, but to make the most of the time we have

Wonderful scene with her and Mauni, a village girl. After complaining that Hilda “is no fun,” Mauni asks her to sing her favorite song. Hilda briefly perks up and smiles at this, but then declines, saying she “cannot sing with all her heart.” But by that point, Mauni is already asleep on her lap, perfectly content with Hilda’s company. Once again, Hilda’s knowledge of misfortune prevents her from fully engaging with the happy day-to-day life of this village, but she is accepted and finds warmth here nonetheless

The evil owl Toto cackles that Mauni will soon be dead, to which Hilda responds that no, she will save this one child at least

“What do you hope to gain by saving Mauni? You’re only fooling yourself. You’ll just leave another lonely soul, just like yours.” Her squirrel friend Chiro urges her to abandon Grunwald, and to live like the other villagers as she so clearly wants to

“All men die eventually, but Mistress Hilda is immortal. Master Grunwald’s medallion of life protects her.” It protects her, but also keeps her divided from the natural rhythms of life and death. Is that a life worth living?

“Are you truly so afraid to die? Would you kill Horus and Mauni for the chance at eternal life?” In spite of the title, every scene makes it more clear that Hilda is the heart of this film. Horus only acts in one way, always striving towards conflict with Grunwald, while it is Hilda who must make difficult decisions and costly sacrifices

“I am a demon… the sister of a devil! My only purpose is to destroy men!” It would be easier for her if she actually believed that

Hilda stands alone on the desolate steppes, singing a song of isolation to the barren trees. She stops with a tear in her eye, then realizes she’s not alone as Horus asks her to continue

“You must be very lonely here.” “You wouldn’t understand.” And he wouldn’t – there’s no way Horus could comprehend how a person like Hilda might feel even lonelier within the village, surrounded by cheer and warm feelings that she is unable to reciprocate

“What’s troubling me? Soon I will have to kill you with my own hands!” I particularly love how ungracefully she bears the weight of her duties; she is very human in the bitterness she expresses towards others, her frustration and sorrow frequently redirected towards whoever asks her what’s wrong. Far from the gracefully suffering Anju of Anju and Zushiomaru, she possesses a vitality that is articulated through friction, through anger and ugliness

Returning to the village, Horus learns he has been framed, his ax implicated in an attempted murder

“If there is a devil in this world, it is you, who tried to murder me!” Mankind will always embrace gratifying, immediate answers, swift to punish and swift to forget

Horus is tricked into throwing his ax at Hilda, and thus condemned by the villagers. A betrayal by inaction from Hilda; she could have saved him, but instead stands silently and watches him fall under the suspicions of the crowd

Horus leaves, but pledges he’ll return with proof that the devil exists. Hilda once again infusing the narrative with moral ambiguity – the villain is not the devil, but mankind’s willingness to distrust and devour itself

“My poor Horus. You’re only human after all. Just like that imbecile Dragon, that worthless chief, and all those double-crossing villagers.” I love the genuine venom in Hilda’s words. She has been suffering alone with the actual truth of this conflict, forced to play nice with villagers she knew she was destined to destroy, and the contempt welled up inside her all along. And yet she is not here to actually defeat Horus – she’s telling him the truth at long last, determined to at least arm him with that before his battle. Perhaps she’s even hoping to make her own death easier for him, by proving herself “villainous” and thus worthy of destruction. But these two instincts exist at once within her – the fury at a humanity which has obliviously abandoned her, and the desperate desire to join with that humanity and escape her destiny

“Hilda, tell me it’s not true!” In a more traditional heroic narrative, we’d likely be positioned to share Horus’ surprise here – instead, our time spent with Hilda throughout the second half positions us closer to her perspective, her fatigue with all the lies and suffering

“I don’t want to become human!” “That’s not true! You’re lying to yourself!”

Hilda sends Horus plummeting into an abyss, and is condemned by Chiro. “Even if Grunwald kills me, even if you were to murder me, I will live and die with the people. Farewell, Hilda.”

Apparently Horus was dropped into the Forest of Doubt, where “he will wander until he dies”

Our brief vision of the forest dips into haunted impressionism, with Horus depicted as trapped within a thicket of ever-shifting brambles

“Horus will return! One Horus after another!” Hilda’s warning to Grunwald seems to reach beyond the immediate narrative, echoing the spirit of worker solidarity uniting the film’s staff. “Even if you strike down one of us, another will surely replace them.” The film is a fiery thematic artifact, and also proof of concept for the eminently message-driven features that would define Takahata and Miyazaki’s later careers. Making art purely to entertain is a fine endeavor, but the truly searing stuff is generally informed by a desperate need to articulate some human truth

“The day will come when the people trust Horus, and one another.” The true enemy is not Grunwald, but the mistrust that divides us. If we stand together, we are unstoppable

Grunwald reveals that if she disobeys him, she will die by Horus’ and the villagers’ hands

“Hilda… was it all a lie? Everything you said?” And even as we near the climax, Horus notably possesses no agency in this story – it is still Hilda’s tale, still her decision whether to rescue him or not. It’s an interesting structure; it’s as if Takahata is saying that while the human spirit is indomitable, and some heroes will always inevitably rally against the injustices of their times, the true battle takes place in the hearts of those who fear and doubt – those who have too much to lose, and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into the revolutionary struggle. Takahata sympathizes with those doubts, and Hilda embodies the emotional struggle of accepting your potential destruction for the sake of a better future, a future you yourself might not live to appreciate

Back at the village, the specter of Grunwald rises over the horizon, and summons a great wave of ice and snow. Grunwald’s chill is preceded by spectral wolves that fly on the breeze, each extending backwards towards their source – an effect very much like Little Prince’s eight-headed dragon, making me assume Otsuka also helped with this sequence’s animation. I recall it was Otsuka and one other animator who handled that dragon climax, and that Otsuka was seeing dragons in his dreams for weeks during the process

A procession of ominous visions as Horus remains trapped in the forest – he is first condemned by the villagers, and then commanded again by his father to seek his people. In the context of this film, “seek your people” seems like a more general directive than a request to find a specific group, a hope to find and integrate with other humans wherever he can. All people are his people – these villagers, and also Hilda

Grunwald reveals he wanted Horus to join him and Hilda as a brother, a collaborator against humanity. Were these your people, Horus?

“Let’s all make a large fire and protect the village.” “All of us?” And rather than being saved by Horus, the blacksmith urges the people to rise up as one and defend themselves from the storm

“Hilda divided the people.” “You’re divided, too!” It is at times easier for Hilda to embrace the mantle of a monster, that she might silence her hopes of living among the people. At least being a monster provides certainty of your path, rather than the cruelty of a hope unfulfilled

Horus’ path out of the forest is conveyed as literally rushing towards solidarity, towards workers forging in unison and summoning a bright dawn. It brings to mind the joyful labors of Princess Mononoke’s bellows-workers, or the harvest scenes from Only Yesterday, or really any number of scenes from Takahata and Miyazaki over the years. The politics they forged at Toei would seemingly have a profound impact on their view of a life well-lived all throughout their careers

“I realize we can draw the false Hilda away from you, but only if we work together.” In spite of having realized only working together can overcome this challenge, Horus still doesn’t understand that there is no “false Hilda” – that Hilda is Hilda, in all her contradictory complexity. The Hilda who wishes desperately to live as a human and the Hilda who brings hateful calamity upon the village are one and the same

Fantastic fluidity of character choreography as Hilda swings her sword against Horus

Hilda cannot join him. She seems to believe she has neither the power nor the right to abandon her nature

More impressive crowd animation as the villagers flee Grunwald’s powers. And it is a child who asks the key question, “what’s the point of running away?” Oppression will find you wherever you flee – it is only through standing together as a community that you might seek to live freely

Love this terrible, saw-toothed mammoth that Grunwald is riding

“Even a demon isn’t invincible”

It is only once the people already rally together that Horus arrives to help them. And even then, his ability to defeat Grumwald is contingent on the villagers’ collective efforts. “The Sword of the Sun! We can forge the sword in the fires we built together.” “Let’s do it! Let’s use everyone’s strength!”

Meanwhile, Koro and his young rider Flip are out seeking Horus in the blizzard, and collapse only for Hilda to find them

Great tenderness in her movements as she places a scarf around Flip, then offers her medallion of life to Koro. God, what a poignant moment, and a sad yet perfectly appropriate ending to Hilda’s story. She never believed herself worthy of joining with the humans, but even as Grunwald’s accomplice, she held onto the hope of saving one innocent child. Now she gets the chance to exchange her life for that child’s, accepting that she will never enjoy the community she longed for. While Horus proves a hero of the sun, Hilda will die unacknowledged in the darkness, having given everything for a people who could never truly accept her

She smiles briefly as the two call her name, happy to be cared for, if only for a moment. Her expressions are so powerful! Just an absolute triumph for Mori, I’m so happy Takahata offered this opportunity for his talents to be put to such emotionally impactful purpose

Unlike Horus, Hilda is no great martial hero. Her only powers are charity and sacrifice: with her medallion relinquished that an innocent may live, Grunwald’s wolves swiftly knock her to the ground. Her fragility makes her courage shine all the brighter

And here comes Maug to face off with Grunwald! God, this really does feel like two films spliced together – one ends in a lonely sacrifice in a blizzard, the other involves a giant kaiju battle

The ice mammoth’s mouth extends and tapers into something like a crocodile’s snout in its attempts to consume Maug. I have to imagine this creature inspired some number of nightmares among the film’s original viewers

Flip arrives with the medallion, handing it off to Horus

Maug tosses the mammoth off a cliff. Love the goofy detail of him wiping his giant rock hands after a job well done

The battle remains an ensemble affair right through the end, with the villagers chasing after Horus on their makeshift sleds. These villagers are starting to feel like a precursor for Miyazaki’s beloved pirate crews from films like Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso

Through the end, it is their collective raised arms that defeat Grunwald

But what’s this!? As the snow thaws, we see Hilda rise in a field, amazed as well to be alive without her medallion

She approaches the village, and is lovingly embraced by Mauni, the one child she was always determined to save

And Done

Ah, what a joyous ending. And what a beautiful, remarkable film! I’d expected bravura displays of the original Toei animation team at their best, and we certainly received that – from the thunderous energy of Otsuka’s pike to the tender portrayals of Hilda’s suffering, Horus is absolutely overflowing with some of the best animation ever committed to film. But beyond its formal beauty, I didn’t expect to be quite so impressed by Horus’ clear thematic striving, or by the poignant, ambiguous melancholy of Hilda’s character. Hilda proved far and away my favorite part of this altogether excellent film; her attempts to grasp beyond her fated ruin were heartbreaking, and Mori and his collaborators infused her every action with sympathetic nuance via her fluid, profoundly human character acting. Through Hilda, this film reaches towards and actually seizes a complexity and intimacy of character drama that rises above the Toei fantasy paradigm, and which can proudly stand alongside the medium’s great character studies. And through the thoughtful framing of Takahata and philosophical cohesion of his team, Horus on the whole presents a ferocious argument for the power of workers united, its astonishing aesthetic form a testament to its thematic aspirations. Horus is truly a wonder.

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