While Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo have become cult heroes, many other great anime auteurs remain unknown in the English speaking world. Arion is a masterwork from Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, a manga artist/writer/director/character designer hugely respected in Japan. His earliest projects were children’s fare (Kum Kum (1975), the adventures of a prehistoric cave boy, became a surprise hit on early eighties’ British TV!), but the artist fondly known as “Yas” came to specialize in vast, sprawling epics. Whether set in a far-flung future or ancient past, his work mixes mythic grandeur with human drama and great poetry.
Essentially a reworking of Greek myths, Arion begins with the titular boy hero kidnapped from his loving mother, Demeter by the vile, hell god Hades. Cast into hell, Arion battles giant flesh-eating worms and legendary monsters Cerebus and the Hydra, training to become the ultimate warrior in a conflict engineered by Hades between his rivals, Poseidon and Zeus. He befriends child thief Seneca and Gido, the three-eyed green ape, and finally rebels against Hades to side with Poseidon, his long-lost father. Arion becomes embroiled in the evil machinations of the psychotic Athena and her brother Apollo, and falls in love with their mute slave-girl, Lesfeena, whom he is horrified to learn might be his sister. Hypnotised into murdering Poseidon, Arion goes on the run until a Yoda-like guru and the great hero, Hercules clue him into his real parents: the titan Prometheus and maiden Pandora. Arion unearths the Thunder Tube, a supernatural energy cannon able to strike at the gods, while elsewhere Lesfeena discovers her own apocalyptic power. Our heroes finally converge on Olympus, where Arion fights to dethrone the almighty gods and free mortals from their tyranny. Cosmic tragedy, hair-raising revelations and psychedelic battles ensue.
Truly epic in scope, Arion pits rationality and human feeling against the terrifying capriciousness of uncaring gods. Like a leaf blown on the wind, Arion is manipulated by a succession of corrupt father figures until love and empathy shakes him from his stupor, forcing him to take a moral stand. Monster fans will find much to savour, from Gido and the Black Lion King, to hordes of wolf men, killer bats, a golden bull that comes to life, and a friendly sea serpent named Typhon; but Yasuhiko’s thoughtful, poetic stance cuts a little deeper than a Ray Harryhausen creature-fest or certainly the videogame fascist tract 300 (2007). He plays fast and loose with Greek mythology (Zeus is a cowardly, senile, old monster; Prometheus is married to Pandora), but much of the political intrigue, sexual manipulation and twisted psychology rings true. Characters adopt distinctly Japanese feudal customs and codes of behaviour, making this akin to a sword and sandal epic as reinterpreted by Akira Kurosawa.
Yasuhiko’s hugely innovative, borderline avant-garde storytelling makes inspired use of sound effects (note the multi-tracked screams that illustrate Lesfeena’s internal terror) and silence (something many anime filmmakers, like Miyazaki, have honed to a fine art). At one point he strips his artwork down to rough pencils, another audacious touch in a beautifully animated movie full of wild, colourful flourishes, with one dazzling set-piece involving our heroes flying through a valley towards Olympus whilst assailed by demon-winds. Incest, patricide, family feuds and bare-breasted maidens all figure in the decidedly mature storyline, although Yasuhiko retains a humanist’s faith in love and friendship (watch out for one character’s sudden gender twist). “I feel as though I’ve been living through a dream”, declares Arion near the end. You will too.