WARNING! MANY SPOILERS!
“Now I have nothing to regret, because I fulfilled my promise.”
When it came to the distribution of anime in the U.S., the 1980s were basically the Wild West. A company could do whatever they wanted to try and market to western audiences. Nowadays, nobody would be blasphemous enough to license an anime and dub it with an entirely new storyline; the Internet would rip you a new one. But that is exactly what happened to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, which was edited into such a travesty that it would be a decade before Miyazaki trusted his films with an American company. Just For Kids Home Video never met an anime that they couldn’t mess with until it was nigh-incomprehensible.
When it came to TV shows, there was an issue of length. American cartoons were designed to endlessly run in syndication, leading to shows with very little narrative momentum. However, Japan was moving towards a more truncated storytelling model, with the series getting shorter; 40+ episodes were common in the eighties, with the average run nowadays being 26 episodes. Most series have a clear beginning, middle, and end. To make the shows longer, American producers would combine series with similar animation into something fit for Saturday morning. After the excellent U.S. adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato in the seventies, those poor American fans were subjected to Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years, which butchered both series. Other examples are Macron 1 (GoShugun and Aku Dai Sakusen Srungle), and, most famously, Robotech (Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada). The popularity of Robotech did wonders for the acceptance of anime in the U.S. Macross was the gold standard of the franchise; it is probably because of Robotech that anybody, American or Japanese, remembers Southern Cross and Mospeada. Harmony Gold is still trying desperately to resurrect the franchise, even though unedited Macross is available. I love Robotech just as much as I love anything with giant green aliens and a synth-heavy soundtrack. But some things serve their purpose at the time and should be left in the past, like Robotech and L. Sprague de Camp’s Conan collections.
One reason for Robotech’s popularity is that, in spite of completely rewriting the original shows, Carl Macek kept what made them work: the focus on the suffering of war. This was a series where alien invaders killed most of Earth’s population. Instead of ending the story there, it continues, showing how the characters rebuild their planet after the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. Sympathetic characters die all the time. This was adult storytelling, during a decade where every G.I. Joe pilot safely ejected from every plane that Cobra shot down. I would much rather fight in a Robotech war, where there are casualties, but at least an end in sight. In a G.I. Joe war, the enemy always ejects, or miraculously survives a spear to the heart, and Cobra Commander escapes every time. That sounds hellish.
Robotech retained the darkness of the original work. American distributors like Just For Kids and Harmony Gold tried, with mixed results, to fit the complex storytelling of anime to the sanitized nature of American cartoons. This type of adaptation was unprecedented, as up until that point there were clear distinctions between children’s and adult cartoons. Looney Tunes were adult shorts made to open for Warner Bros. movies. It was only through editing for TV that Bugs and Daffy became for kids. Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat was X-rated and marketed as such. With anime, a fair number of adult/young adult cartoons were introduced to the west as children’s entertainment. I once heard a rumor that anime is the reason why American animation got so awful in the eighties. Parents in the seventies complained about their kids watching darker series like Star Blazers, so what do we get? Care Bears. Rainbow Brite. My Little Pony. The morals nonsensically tacked to the end of every Thundercats episode.
The problem was that anime as a medium has a nihilistic streak. It is not so much about violence as it is about suffering. Japan is the only country to ever get nuked, so apocalypse and post-apocalypse figure strongly. For instance, Akira is gritty cyberpunk. Project A-Ko is a goofy schoolgirl comedy. Both show a city getting annihilated within the first minute. This darkness even colors the art style. How do you make a character instantly sympathetic? Maybe give everybody big eyes, small mouths, small noses, crazy hair, this vaguely baby doll look. Then you put them through hell.
Another theme in anime is sympathy for the enemy. In western stories, victory is achieved by annihilating the other side. With anime, the heroes fight not to win, but to achieve peace. For instance, in the 1996 series Tenkuu no Escaflowne, Van Fanel wants revenge on the Zaibach Empire for all the suffering they have caused. However, our sympathies are supposed to rest with Hitomi Kanzaki, who wants to prevent any further death. The final battle is not about good vs. evil, but mercy vs. bloodlust, and it is Van and Hitomi’s love that saves the world. Compare that to the Hollywood film Independence Day, which came out the same year, where we’re supposed to cheer on Randy Quaid committing extraterrestrial genocide with a crop duster.
Neither worldview is inherently better than the other, but it did create translation issues. Everybody remembers the “live and let live” climax of Nausicaa. But… but… you’re supposed to kill all the giant bugs! Where’s the part where Nausicaa punches Princess Kushana in the face and says a catchphrase? In Warriors of the Wind, the Ohmu are turned into a horde of monsters. The distributors thought American audiences would not embrace a film without a clear enemy. (They also thought audiences wouldn’t like a female protagonist, one of many failures in that adaptation.) I remember being disappointed on my first viewing of Princess Mononoke because Lady Eboshi survived. I credit Miyazaki movies with helping to wean me off the all-or-nothing mindset.
Another cultural difference is the need for a happy ending, which leads to Douwa Meita Senshi Windaria, or Windaria (1986). Many otaku I know remember it as That Movie That Depressed Me as a Kid. It is held up alongside Grave of the Fireflies and When the Wind Blows in the annals of misery-inducing animated films. This is interesting, because an unedited version of Windaria has never been commercially available in the States. What they saw was the Harmony Gold dub, in which an epic tragedy was edited into a children’s film. It even had a happy ending, tacked on with voice-over by the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Yet, somehow, the tragedy came through. The movie still got kids across America weeping into their Snoopy blankets while their parents wondered what was so scary about a cartoon with purple-haired people.
And it is a dark film. Windaria literally ends with the protagonist sprawled out on the ground, crying his eyes out. Plot: the city-states of Paro and Itha have held a peace treaty for many years. Paro has now broken the treaty and they’re going to war. The movie focuses on two couples caught up in the conflict. Jill, prince of Paro, and Princess Ahnas of Itha, are star-crossed lovers bearing the weight of their kingdoms. The other is Izu and Marin, farmers from a neutral village. Izu is wooed by Paro to fight for them. Tragedy ensues. Children cry. Snoopy blankets are thrown in the laundry.
There are a few things that stand out on a rewatch. One is how much epic plot is fit into an hour and forty minutes. Things move at a relentless pace. There’s betrayal, battles, secret messages, Mephistophelean deals, patricide, genocide, tragic falls, one after the next. While this can be disconcerting, it also creates an atmosphere where everything is intentional. That carrier pigeon that Jill and Ahnas use to send messages? He’s going to factor into the plot. So is that knife that Marin gives Izu. The queen of Paro is Lady Macbeth, the prime minister is Mephistopheles. We recognize the character type instantly and keep going. As with all good tragedy, inevitability hangs over everything. There’s something refreshing about an epic that has economy of storytelling.
The world of Windaria is also a cool world. Its mix of science fiction and fantasy feels organic and looks great. When people die, their souls turn into bird-shaped spirits that fly to the Ghost Ship, which is basically a supernatural Star Destroyer. A cybernetic ferry to the afterlife, technology melded to spirituality, is a fascinating concept. To invade Itha, the Paran soldiers have to drive their tanks through the Forest of Doubt, where their fears take demonic form. Itha is a fairy tale kingdom, to the point that they go to war in hot air balloons, as if whimsy is in their DNA. Paro is a cyberpunk dystopia, all sharp angles and dark alleys.
This blending of genre is one of anime’s great successes. Hollywood has never quite gotten how to combine science fiction and fantasy. The exception is, of course, Star Wars. I thought the new Thor movie did a pretty good job, even if it was entirely forgettable. Noteworthy is the 1983 cult classic Krull. Sometimes I pop it in the VCR and the Columbia Pictures logo emerges from the darkness, that James Horner score starts, at first moody, then with chivalric horns, I ready myself for high adventure, and every time … it’s just Krull. A movie with a couple neat ideas, but mostly a bunch of C-list British actors wandering around the woods. But anime like Nausicaa, Escaflowne, and Last Exile strike that perfect balance between science fiction’s wonder for technology and fantasy’s wonder for the mythical.
Windaria is told with the simplicity of the fairy tale. Like any good fable, it exists in no time and place other than that of the story. The unnamed fantasy world of Windaria has no thousand-year history. No expansive worldbuilding. Two kingdoms, two couples, and that’s all you need to know. Complicated magic systems are great, but magic in Windaria is primal, unexplained, environmental. Why is there a Forest of Doubt? Why is there a Ghost Ship? Because the story requires those things. Windaria is a fairy tale in that it tries not to emulate the complexity of the real world, but speaks to real emotions through the fantastic. I know exactly why the character Druid turns into a statue at the end of the movie. It has nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with her feelings, and that’s great.
The film is relentlessly gorgeous. My favorite scene is where Jill and Ahnas meet in the Forest of Doubt to talk about the conflict. The trees are huge and twisted, and everything is cast in dark hues that are lovely and foreboding at the same time. The movie is filled with creative flora, fauna, architecture, and costume designs. Even the billow of the evil minister’s sleeve takes on a gothic grandeur. The beauty serves to make the extreme violence of the second half all the more senseless.
Not only is Windaria pretty, it is cute, and here is where it gets subversive. In the beginning, Marin and Izu visit Itha to do some trading. Marin, like many an anime heroine, has a cute little squirrel-like thing she carries on her shoulder. Itha is a beautiful seaside town where children frolic in the fountains. By the frequency they appear, you would think the kingdom was 70% children. A spy from Paro tries to open the water gate and drown everyone. The gate is guarded only by an old widower with a dog. Adorable, huh? When the water starts to flow, the dog’s eyes pop out of his head, Tex Avery-style. Princess Ahnas is introduced as a bikini-clad Feisty Anime Princess™, whose high diving antics scare her ladies-in-waiting. Izu closes the water gate, and Ahnas ends up dispatching the spy with a wrestling move. Basically, she’s Lum from Urusei Yatsura. The last person you’d expect to blow her own brains out at the climax of the film. The animators pull every anime cliché in the book to make you think this movie will be something it is not.
There is a later scene where the Ithan soldiers prepare for war. They are all young and adorable, practicing crossbows while joyful children run alongside their cannon. Their spy balloon goes in the air with great fanfare. This ultra-happy lead-up to war is perverse, yet also true. This is what we as Japanese, Americans, humans, do whenever we send out soldiers to die and rape and kill, and it is absolutely insane. We’re supposed to side with Ahnas when she asks her ministers: “Since when have you come to like war so much?” The great balloon ends up encountering three Paran pilots. All those cute soldiers die in an inferno.
It should be noted that the Parans are unequivocally evil. They try to drown the Ithans at the very beginning! The king is a bully, the queen is as big a warmonger, the minister is a vampire-looking manipulator, and the soldiers are trigger-happy drunks. In case the murder and betrayal doesn’t convince you, they all wear black. Jill is the only “good” one among them. We should be rooting for them to get wiped off the planet, but this is anime. Peace is the only victory.
The filmmakers subvert both anime and fantasy tropes. Izu is the typical anime hero: A Young Boy with Spiky Hair and Competitive Spirit™. At first, it seems like he will be a hero. But Izu wants reward for saving Itha. He resents that they don’t lavish him with riches. It is revealed that he is a braggart, his delusions of grandeur mocked by the other farmers. Doing the right thing for its own sake really isn’t enough for him. The prime minister ends up wooing him with a fancy hovercraft and he sets off to fight for their side. He promises Marin he will return and she promises to wait. Ultimately, Izu drowns the entire population of Itha, doing the same evil act he prevented in the beginning. Not only does this not bother him, he revels in the riches bestowed on him, throwing parties in his castle in Paro while wearing a floppy hat.
Windaria is one of the few anime to acknowledge that the anime hero is, in many ways, a horrible person. Characters like Ash Ketchem and Naruto are self-obsessed, egotistical jocks. When given a tournament or something to focus their energies, this person can accomplish great things. Left with no other avenue for glory, Naruto might just decide to slaughter a whole kingdom. Izu is the true villain of the piece, because he is not motivated by nationalism, but ambition; his is an inverse Hero’s Journey, where the farmboy’s courage and ambition lead to nothing but death.
The same inversion is applied to Prince Jill. He comes across as the goodhearted bishounen who wants peace. Halfway through the movie, his pacifism puts him in conflict with his father, who he accidentally kills. It’s unclear as to why he subsequently chooses to lead Paro’s army against Itha. Either it is to avoid punishment for regicide or because he feels some responsibility for his nation. The movie offers no explanation due to rushed storytelling (tragedy trumps all characterization). I can only assume Jill chose out of fear for his personal safety, meaning the fairy tale prince is at heart a coward. I was equally disappointed in Ahnas’ decision to shoot herself after killing Jill, rather than try and lead what was left of her people. Again, there’s the subversion. We romanticize star-crossed lovers, forgetting that Romeo and Juliet were a couple of 13-year-old rich kids. If your love affair has a body count, maybe it wasn’t much of a love.
Windaria is certainly not a bad movie, but it is heavy-handed, sometimes at the expense of logic. My favorite piece of ludicrousness is that the Ithan soldiers fight with crossbows. Gunpowder exists in this universe. The Parans have tanks and submachine guns. Ahnas has a pretty gold-plated pistol, yet her soldiers fight with crossbows and Molotov cocktails. This is to emphasize their naiveté and inferiority to the Parans, sure, but it’s over-the-top. An army can have 20th century weaponry and still lose. The Ithans unfortunately come across as those “good guys too stupid to live” who we associate with George R.R. Martin books.
And, well, they don’t. The drowning of the Ithans is one of the most brutal scenes I’ve seen in anime, water consuming the town as the seagulls continue to wheel above. The movie lingers on the moment when the civilians, gathered at the cathedral, realize they’re going to drown. Those cute kids? They suffer the fate of all kids in war.
Another subversion is the realistic violence. Anime is known for blood spray. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t what drew me in as a kid. Windaria lacks exploding arteries. The fight scenes are frightening, messy, awful. When someone takes an arrow to the chest, you feel it. The battles are messy from a tactical standpoint, bullets flying everywhere, arrows clattering on the ground. The soldiers on both sides are young and scared. There are no superheroics, just men getting shot full of holes.
Right before Jill and Ahnas die, they speak in the Forest of Doubt. He tells her to surrender to avoid more bloodshed. On the surface, Jill is an arrogant conqueror. On the other hand, he has clearly demonstrated compassion. Ahnas rightly points out that her nation is the victim. He rightly points out that the Parans would never be content with defeat after the war has started. In the ethos of the movie, surrender is nobler than fighting — both are at fault. Earlier in the film, Jill tells Ahnas, “There’s no profit in sinking Itha into the sea.” Then Paro does just that. Why annihilate the people you wish to rule? Why senseless violence? Where are the easy answers?
A sprawling epic, Windaria is ultimately about the importance of keeping promises. Tragedy arises when people break their promises, ending with the final image of Izu, alone in the wasteland of his own making. He is reunited with Marin, but not in a way that brings him any joy. And who would have thought Marin would turn out to be the strongest character in the movie? All Izu wanted was reward for his talents; the worst atrocities stem from simple desires. Sometimes anime suffers from the same “more is more” delusion as the rest of genre fiction. This is the philosophy that gets us three Hobbit movies, eight Harry Potter movies, and a billion disposable Marvel movies. Windaria, while not a perfect film, is a masterpiece of economic storytelling, the kind of self-contained story you might find in an old Ace paperback. And it epitomizes a key theme in anime: the conflict between beauty and violence. The plot doesn’t always make sense, but does the plot of Oedipus? Tragedy has its own movements that, while unbelievable, work within the genre. The heartbreak is so palpable that Harmony Gold’s scissors could do nothing to lessen it.
I’m going to assume, if you are reading this review, you’ve seen Windaria already. Watch it again. And bring extra tissues. After you’ve cried your eyes out through the movie, the opening notes of “Utsukushii Hoshi” will kick in and you’ll weep through the credits too.