Osamu Tezuka’s extraordinarily complex philosophical manga goes beyond the acclaim enjoyed by graphic novels like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns and is considered an almost quasi-religious text in Japan. While the multivolume manga spans several time zones, this part-live action, part-animated adaptation focuses on the opening chapter. In 180 A.D, ace hunter Yumihiko (Masao Kusakari) is tasked by Prince Susano-O (Toru Emori) to kill the legendary immortal bird the Phoenix, whose blood bestows eternal life and is sought by Queen Himiko of Yamatai (Mieko Takamine), a vain and petulant tyrant who rules by way of her bogus magical powers. What Yumiko does not know is that his home the kingdom of Matsuro has been destroyed by invading warriors of Takamagahara, who have mastered the art of horseback riding which is foreign to other Japanese tribes. Local beauty Uzume (Kaori Yumi) cunningly disguises herself with ugly makeup to avoid being raped while her skilful dancing persuades ruthless Jingi the Conqueror (Tatsuya Nakadai) to spare her life.
Meanwhile in the kingdom of Kumasu, Hinaku (Reiko Ôhara), ailing daughter of the tribal chief, needs blood from the Phoenix to survive. When Hinaku’s husband dies trying to capture the firebird, her little brother Nagi (Toshinori Omi) swears vengeance. A shipwrecked doctor named Guzuri (Ryuzo Hayashi) saves her life with a primitive form of penicillin and is promptly made her new husband, but he turns out to be a spy reluctantly working for the Yamatai. The Yamatai massacre the Kumasu people, but swaggering General Saruta (Tomisaburo Wakayama) spares young Nagi and adopts him as his own son. All these disparate characters, and at least a dozen more, have a part to play in an epic saga as Nagi discovers the Phoenix is no mere magical bird and embodies the eternal spirit that binds all living things together.
Toho, the studio behind the Godzilla movies, mounted this Tezuka adaptation on a truly epic scale employing acclaimed art-house auteur Kon Ichikawa and an all-star cast including superstar Tomisaburo Wakayama, of the Lone Wolf & Cub movies a.k.a. Shogun Assassin, and renowned actor Tatsuya Nakadai who found international fame with Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). The photography by Kiyoshi Hasegawa is often striking, the special effects were handled by Godzilla veteran Teruyoshi Nakano and the lush strings and jazzy brass soundtrack comes courtesy of Michel Legrand of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) fame. Make no mistake, this was a big movie.
Its sprawling subject matter encompasses nothing less than the development of Japanese civilisation, including how society progresses from superstition to science. Ichikawa has an understandably hard time condensing Tezuka’s labyrinthine subplots but the drama often moves, especially the growing father-son bond between Saruta and Nagi. Typical for Tezuka, the story is distinguished by its complex characters: bad men turn good, good men do terrible things with the noblest of motives. Ichikawa’s adopts a post-modernist style (wholly in keeping with the idiosyncratic manga that switches from total seriousness to spoof) that keeps this becoming a dry history lesson. He makes unique use of freeze-frame, split-screen and unexpected bursts of slapstick and Frank Tashlin style sight gags (lookout for the peasant with the Nikon camera!).
Most significantly, Ichikawa employs the stylistic device of intercutting the action with animated sequences directed by Tezuka himself. They range from Nagi’s seriocomic battle with a gang of cartoon wolves, a surprise cameo from Tezuka’s famous robot child hero Astro Boy and a beautifully transcendent epilogue where the cartoon Phoenix travels the galaxy. While the cartoon and fantasy elements may beguile some, the film is too downbeat to appeal to children. Tragedy befalls all the principal characters, even children aren’t spared. However, the film weaves a heartening message about mankind’s resilience against overwhelming odds and concludes on a powerful metaphor: the Phoenix, the spirit of life, encouraging a lone man as he climbs towards the light.