While Toei Doga is not a household name amongst most filmgoers, they were an important part of the history of Japanese animation, most notably a training ground for Studio Ghibli founders and internationally acclaimed filmmakers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Toei produced the first color feature length animated movie in Japan, The Legend of the White Serpent, and from then on, strove to distinguish itself as the Disney of the East with similarly lavish features throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the early 1970s. While Takahata’s revolutionary directorial debut Horus, Prince of the Sun is considered the crowning achievement of Toei’s golden age, my personal favorite is its immediate successor, The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots. Certainly a palate-cleanser after the gritty darkness and hellish three-year production of Horus, Puss ‘n Boots is a light-hearted adventure with a great heaping of slapstick and romance. It would go on to be considered a classic in its home country, a pinnacle of animated comedy.
Swashbuckling feline in boots Pero (Susumu Ishikawa) has been condemned to death by an all-cat council for sparing the life of a rodent, but before the sentence can be carried out, he manages to escape in true Errol Flynn-fashion. Pursued by a trio of feline assassins, Pero comes across Pierre (Toshiko Fujita), a young human boy whose cruel brothers have cast him out of his home. The two outcasts strike up a friendship, traveling to a nearby kingdom where the sovereign is looking to marry off his beautiful daughter, Princess Rose (Rumi Sakakibara). Pierre is smitten at first sight, but his peasant status renders him ineligible for Rose’s hand. Pero, wanting his new friend to be happy, starts to cook up a matchmaking scheme.
Meanwhile, the princess is not happy with her potential suitors, all of whom are rather foppish and foolish. Matters get worse when the last suitor appears in a demonic whirlwind: it’s the devil himself, Lucifer, the lovelorn prince of darkness (Asao Koike). When jewels and power do not sway Rose, Lucifer threatens to level her kingdom should she not agree to be his bride in three days. Luckily for Rose and Pierre, Pero has come up with a plan to make both happy: he passes Pierre off as a duke and swears to the king that not only is Pierre an eligible suitor, but he’s also going to stop Lucifer. Of course, the road to love and victory is not entirely smooth, what with Pierre’s discomfort with the elaborate lie, especially as he and Rose fall harder for each other every passing moment, and the aforementioned assassin trio after Pero at every turn.
There is a great deal of Disney influence in several of the 1950s/1960s Toei films, and Puss n’ Boots is no exception. The watercolor illustration style of the backgrounds, musical numbers, and plethora of animal side characters are quite reminiscent of the early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, one of the cat assassins is more than reminiscent of Dopey with his floppy sleeves and position as the runt of the group, and the first stage of the climax, where Lucifer uses his powers to transform into different animals, brings to mind the celebrated wizards duel in Disney’s Sword in the Stone.
And yet, even though there is a great deal of Disney in this film, Puss n’ Boots, in addition to the other Toei films of the period, exhibit a charm that is all their own. Puss ‘n Boots is at its heart a zany comedy, filled to the brim with chases and slapstick in the vein of Chuck Jones; later Disney comedies such as Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove are a lot like Puss ‘n Boots with their fast paces and goofy moments. The highlight of the picture is its dizzying castle chase climax, an explosion of hilarity and tension with lots of Looney Tunes and even a little Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. A young Hayao Miyazaki was one of the key animators in this sequence; the similarity of this climax to the clock tower chase at the end of Miyazaki’s 1979 feature debut Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro makes one wonder if he had Puss ‘n Boots at the back of his mind ten years later.
As you can expect from the title, Pero is the star of the show. Clever, witty, mischievous, and resourceful, in addition to having an adorable design, he would go on to become the mascot of Toei and feature in two sequels, though from what I have read, neither one was as successful commercially or artistically as the original. Nevertheless, Pero is a fun character, the true hero of the film.
The other highlight of the film is its villain. Lucifer is a great example of comic villainy, very much in the tradition of Pegleg Pete or Bluto: he can be quite funny when he’s mooning after Rose or whining like a petulant child, but the film never makes you forget his innate evil, especially toward the end. And then, there’s Pierre and Rose, the young lovers around whom much of the plot centers, and while they may be the least interesting members of the cast, they could have been much blander. Pierre in particular reminds me a little of Buster Keaton, with his sleepy eyes and the way he bursts into wild action for the sake of the girl he loves. And I would be lying if I claimed I did not enjoy some of the romantic interludes: Rose’s balcony ballad about her lost happiness is the finest song in the picture and Pierre’s confession of his peasant status to Rose in the garden is sweet, but kept from sinking into mawkishness by Pero’s conducting a choir of singing mice, providing a diegetic soundtrack for the lovers.
How I wish the Toei features were more well-known by animation fans in the States! If any of their films were a gateway drug into this period of Japanese animation, then Puss ‘n Boots would be an excellent candidate, along with the more serious Horus. The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots was given a good DVD release courtesy of Discotek Media, complete with the vintage English dub as a bonus. Unfortunately, it has since gone out of print; however, I snagged a used copy for about thirty bucks last summer. A little pricey for a disc with next to no bonus material, but well worth the investment. While you’re at it, pick up the new DVD release of Horus, Prince of the Sun, which does happen to come with a wealth of insightful bonus features—we need to encourage more Toei releases out of Discotek!
Anyways, since there seems to be so few images of this film on the internet, enjoy some screenshots: