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  Phoenix 2772 Follow that Firebird
Year: 1979
Director: Osamu Tezuka, Taku Sugiyama
Stars: Kaneto Shiozawa, Keiko Takeshita, Hiroshi Otake, Katsue Miwa, Kazue Takahashi, Kazuo Kumakura, Masato Ibu, Osamu Kobayashi, Shuichi Ikeda, Shuichiro Moriyama, Toshiko Fujita
Genre: Animated, Science Fiction, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  10 (from 1 vote)
Review: Osamu Tezuka’s magnum opus, the Phoenix saga had a cultural impact whose magnitude is hard to describe to a non-Japanese audience. Published between 1954 and 1989, this hugely ambitious twelve part epic time jumps from the far-flung future to Japan’s ancient past and back again, with a huge cast of average Joes, historical heroes and heroines, alien life-forms, robots and animals enacting a multilayered meditation on the meaning of life. At its heart lies the Phoenix, an immortal, life-giving super-bird, an observer and occasional protector of life throughout the universe. Tezuka co-directed a 1978 live-action/animation hybrid with Kon Ichikawa, but this fully animated sequel is the one to see.

We open on the rainbow-hued Phoenix flying through space and time. Yasuo Higuchi’s enchanting, violin-led score soars on the soundtrack amidst a trippy, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) styled lightshow. There follows an audacious twelve-minute sequence completely free of dialogue. An amazing 3-D model of a test tube foetus floats onscreen. In the 22nd Century, babies are mass produced and raised inside isolated, computer controlled laboratories.

Our hero, Godo (voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa) is reared by robots, taught by holograms and kept amused by a range of mechanical marvels, especially his beloved playmate Olga the robot girl (Katsue Miwa). Dressed in shiny red fetish outfit, super strong and able to transform into range of fabulous toys and vehicles, Olga nurtures the youngster, offering unconditional love. Like growing up in your own private Disneyland, even at this stage we sense Godo’s childhood idyll is poised for a collision with harsh reality. When grownup Godo sees his first human being on a video screen, he instinctively pulls a funny face - only to be sharply rebuked. Childhood is officially over.

Rudely ejected into a futuristic metropolis, Godo starts life as a space pilot. His destiny shaped by his test tube twin, the ambitious politician Rock (Shuichi Ikeda). Though Godo’s laser skills are second to none, his refusal to massacre a captive family of catlike aliens has him pegged as a coward. Earth hovers on the verge of an ecological catastrophe and Rock wants Godo to track down the elusive, “Space Firebird 2772”, whose blood will grant him immortality.

But Godo falls in love with Lena (Toshiko Fujita), a beautiful upper class girl. Their rebellion against a pre-programmed destiny ends with capture, Lena forced to marry Rock and Godo exiled to a harsh prison planet run by roguish anti-hero Black Jack (Masato Ibu) - a reoccurring character in Tezuka’s universe. Aided by his lovable alien buddies - Pinchu (Kazue Takahashi), a cuddly kangaroo-alike who obsessively tidies everything with her feather duster; Clacks (Hiroshi Otake), a feisty mouse that inhabits a shell shaped like a large dice and is addicted to caustic soda (?!); and Poots, a big green, snuffle-nosed blob with bagpipes sprouting out its body - Goku escapes aboard their supercool spaceship, the Space Shark. Teaming with curmudgeonly scientist Dr. Saruta (Kazuo Kumakura), the friends embark on an epic quest to find the all-powerful, fiery Phoenix and possibly save a dying planet Earth.

Made for a then-whopping $14 million dollars, shot on 70mm and roping in cohorts as diverse as SF novelist Sakyo Komatsu and manga translator Frederick L. Schodt, this was a grandiose experimental venture for Osamu Tezuka. Its tonal shifts, which veer from space opera shootouts a la Star Wars (1977), Looney Tunes sight gags, and apocalyptic scenes of global destruction, can seem jarring to those unaccustomed to Asian cinema’s ten-movies-for-the-price-of-one, yet inventiveness shines from literally every frame. Buddhism, science fiction, fairytale whimsy and musings on artificial intelligence merge into a remarkably dense and magical love story that touches on many of Tezuka’s favourite themes. Class conflict, ecological issues, death, the afterlife, true love versus romantic fantasy, genuine goodness contrasted with false ideals.

Along the way Tezuka and co-director Taku Sugiyama craft set-pieces that pay tribute to past masters of animation: a descent into the hellish red labour camp full of shadowy, hammer-wielding workers is straight of Studio Zagreb; Pinchu, Clack and Poots perform a host of delightful Disneyesque musical numbers; a safari chase across a planet full of zany aliens modelled on Max Fleischer cartoons. Hardly an image flickers by without some nifty techno-wonder, lush flora and fauna sprouting on the peripheries, or another amazing aerial feat from Olga - who ironically, proves the most human character in this story.

Tezuka courted controversy amongst SF writers at the time by refuting Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” in favour of a Buddhist/Shinto-influenced approach. In retrospect his concept that, by virtue of its very being, an artificial intelligence would naturally develop a soul seems equally valid and in keeping with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In many ways, Olga’s subplot is the sci-fi spin on Pinocchio (1940), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) always wanted to be.

Most beautifully animated of all is the titular Phoenix. A true cosmic wonder it is first seen as a shapely female dancer - whom Tezuka and his animators modelled on a famous Russian ballerina (the Phoenix saga was later adapted into a ballet) - then morphs into a host of surreal space horrors. The plot similarly transforms into a mutant hybrid of Alien (1979), Moby Dick (1956) and Solaris (1971) - except, like, y’know, for kids - as the alien entity plays mind games with the crew and attacks them with face-huggers that (in a sly gag) resemble fried eggs.

Following a galactic duel between the Space Shark and the immortal firebird immune to earthly weapons, the Phoenix unveils its true form as Godo and friends discover the maternal, life-giving force that binds all living things together. The remaining plot takes gut-wrenching twists and turns, with a host of trippy experimental visuals modelled on those by Douglas Trumbull in 2001, before the mind-blowing, achingly poignant, reincarnation finale that proves all you need is love. A truly great science fiction film and an essential anime for viewers of all ages.

Click here to watch the opening sequence

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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