At Castle Kanemachi three young princes are tasked with guarding a tree growing magical apples. Unfortunately the two lazy older brothers fall asleep leaving poor, brave little Hans (voiced by Katsue Miwa) alone. He proves no match when a huge golden bird makes off with the apples, but snags a handful of feathers. Thereafter King Kanemachi (Junpei Takiguchi) orders his sons to retrieve the precious fruit. As Hans, spindly, blue-skinned Prince Croyler (Toshio Furukawa) and chubby Prince Werner (Keiko Yamamoto) bumble through the forest they gain an invaluable ally in a mysterious magical fox named Lulu (Junpei Takiguchi). With Lulu's help Hans forges through the forest of hazards to save a beautiful Princess (Noko Konoha) and battle a newly-revived wicked Witch (Kei Tomiyama) and the evil King Kaiser (Kohei Miyauchi) who are out to conquer the kingdom with their robot army.
In the Eighties American animation was in a sorry state but over in Japan the anime industry was in the midst of a golden age. Such were the abundance of high-quality feature films being produced at the time even something as artful and enchanting as Grimm Douwa: Kin no Tori (The Golden Bird) wound up in obscurity. Completed in 1984 but withheld from release for three years, The Golden Bird was animated by Madhouse: a hugely acclaimed studio better known for slick, atmospheric dystopian science fiction and horror titles like Wicked City (1987). In an era when anime was largely dominated by giant robots and cyberpunk, The Golden Bird harks back to the old Toei Animation style of quasi-European, Disney-influenced fairytales. It shares a lot of their charm and idiosyncratic visual invention.
On its eventual release the film likely dazzled younger viewers with its seemingly boundless candy coloured wonders. Its lovely pastel-hued backdrops evoke vintage fairytale illustrations, Gothic art, Roccoco design and Gustav Klimt combined with the colourful kawaii sensibility of legendary Toei animator Yasuji Mori. In fact director Toshio Hirata started his career under the tutelage of Mori. Hirata, who passed away in 2014, is a comparatively unsung figure. Yet his career reads like a road map through key points in the evolution of Japanese animation. From his apprenticeship at Toei, he moved on to work for anime's greatest pioneer Osamu Tezuka at Mushi Productions, then segued over to the ambitious Sanrio studio before ending up at Madhouse. Along the way Hirata left his fingerprints on such notable works as Jungle Emperor (1965) a.k.a. Kimba the White Lion, Catnapped! (1995), Pet Shop of Horrors (1998) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). His directing credits, including Fables of the Green Forest (1973), Barefoot Gen II (1986) and Rail of the Star (1993), were generally met with scant critical acclaim save his most lauded film Bobby's In Deep (1985).
All of Hirata's varied influences are evident in The Golden Bird. Over the course of just fifty minutes the film manages to hit multiple notes proving funny, creepy, thrilling and moving. While ostensibly adapting a fairytale written by the Brothers Grimm, the story also reflects the even more colourful eccentricities of Asian folklore. These include a giant featherless bird (Joji Yanami) who offers Hans his help in return for a good glug of alcohol (!) and a deceptively dainty little princess who proves far feistier than anyone can imagine. Lulu evokes the alternately helpful and mischievous fox spirits common in Eastern fantasies from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987/2011) and Flying Daggers (1993) to Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox (2007) while the Witch's scene-stealing bat minions recall the lovable cat-ninjas from The Wonderful World of Puss'n Boots (1969). If the film is guilty of stretching out a slight story it still packs in a great deal of action, comedy, imagination and wonder. While a solid cast acquit themselves uniformly well the standout turn comes from celebrated voice actor Kei Tomiyama. Channelling the cross-dressing spectre of Eisei Amamoto from The Lost World of Sinbad (1963) and Message from Space (1978), Tomiyama camps it up with gusto, performing a musical number titled 'Let's Dance' with imagery that could give the Pink Elephants from Dumbo (1941) a run for their money in the psychedelic stakes.