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  Kenya Boy Wild Wild Life
Year: 1984
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Stars: Tomoyo Harada, Makio Inoue, Eiko Masuyama, Ichiro Nagai, Kyouji Nanami, Masao Otsuka, Hidekatsu Shibata, Kaneto Shiozawa, Ryoichi Takayanagi, Kenji Tsutsumi
Genre: Animated, Science Fiction, Weirdo, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Nairobi, 1941. Wataru (voiced by Ryoichi Takayanagi), a young Japanese boy, bids sayonara to his mother to join his father, textile trader Mr. Murakami (Makio Inoue) on safari. Only later that night scouts warn them war has broken out between Japan and the Allied forces. Now hunted by the British, Murakami and his son stumble into the middle of a brutal battle pitting a raging rhinocerous against a vicious hippo. Separated, Murakami winds up in British hands, leaving Wataru to wander the plains alone. He happens across Zega (Masao Otsuka), an aged and ailing Masai chieftain, who still saves the boy's life before Wataru helps him return to his tribe. Three years later, a now rugged and battle-skilled Wataru is joined by mentor Zega as they search for his father. In an odyssey that proves way weirder than either they nor the viewer could possibly imagine.

Cult live-action filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known for his surreal haunted house romp Hausu/House (1977), joined the ranks of notable Japanese auteurs dabbling in anime (including among others: Seijun Suzuki, Kihachi Okamoto, Kazuki Omori, Toshio Masuda) with this typically outlandish children's adventure. Produced by Toei Films in a joint venture with controversial multi-media mogul Haruki Kadokawa (who bankrolled many of Obayashi's hits in the Eighties), Kenya Boy is an adaptation of a popular serialized children's novel called 'The Boy King' written by Soji Yamakawa. In fact the author himself appears on screen in the charming, if curiously Tron (1982) like hybrid live-action/computer animated sequences that bookend the film.

True to form Obayashi suffuses the film in bold experimental techniques. Along with heavy use of rotoscoping to give the animation an extra realistic look Kenya Boy incorporates superimposed early digital effects, shock-cuts to air-brushed freeze-frames (actually a common technique in anime at the time), musical interludes with sing-along lyrics on screen and lush painterly visuals set juxtaposed with black and white penciled sequences. The latter occasionally evoking A-ha's landmark 'Take On Me' music video. All of which coupled with an increasingly outlandish story makes for a decidedly strange viewing experience. After a relatively sober start the plot bolts into fantastical territory. After fighting a giant frog monster, Wataru and Zega team up with Dahna friendly giant mystical purple snake, befriend Kate (Tomoyo Harada, one of Japan's biggest teen idols of the Eighties, star of Obayashi's original live-action The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1982)) a gorgeous blonde jungle goddess in a leopardskin mini-dress (who has flashbacks to her Scottish childhood when Wataru plays 'Comin' Thro' the Rye' on his flute) and take on evil tribesman and a secret undersea cult of crazed lizard-worshippers.

Meanwhile Wataru's father is rescued by white colonial explorer Von Goering (Ichiro Nagai). To no-one's surprise he turns out to be a Nazi who coerces Murakami, along with captive scientist Dr. Stein (Kyoji Nanami), to fashion him an atomic bomb. Which leads to a reunion prior to the bat-shit crazy apocalyptic climax wherein the bomb rips open a rift through time and space unleashing dinosaurs. Obayashi, whose near-legendary script for 'A Space Godzilla' was never filmed, finally gets to make his kaiju epic as the heroic Dahna (seemingly the mystical embodiment of everything positive and nurturing about Africa, despite snacking on the occasional lion) battles an evil atom-enhanced Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Needless to say Kenya Boy tends to provoke wildly diverging responses among anime fans. With most seemingly leaning towards a snarky assessment of its eccentricities. Enjoyment depends partly on one's tolerance for hoary old jungle adventure tropes reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In Japan Yamakawa's vivid, Tarzan-style children's stories popularized notions of Africa as an exciting and untamed continent. Wedded to this are traces fervent Japanese nationalism held over from the Pacific War. Murakami orders Wataru to not "act shamefully" and that "a Japanese boy must never lose heart." There are also uncomfortable traces of historical revisionism as various Kenyan natives extol the virtues of the Japanese as courageous, honest and respectable. Not at all like those awful white folks. Nonetheless for all its questionable moments, the film is distinguished by a sincere and sadly all too rare attempt at portraying Masai culture in a respectful light without resorting to caricature. While not necessarily accurate and frankly romanticized, its heart remains in the right place. The hooting bestial villains might be problematic but also stock types. The other African characters, most notably Zega, emerge as dignified and heroic and are happily not reduced to sidekicks as Obayashi skilfully sidesteps any potential white saviour, or in this instance Japanese savior, traps.

With a boy hero separated from a parent, crossing paths yet always frustratingly out of reach, the story lifts from Hector Malot's Nobody's Boy, an anime staple adapted repeatedly down the decades. Yet also evokes some of the playful eroticism of Walkabout (1970) via a flirtatious underwater ballet between Wataru and Kate along with fascinating mystical undertones. While the story cranks up the melodrama to a fever pitch and occasionally descends into a repetitive cycle of chase-capture-escape it remains consistently compelling. And, in its wild psychedelic closing moments, pure Obayashi.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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