Much like silent film, too many people make the mistake of considering animation a genre rather than a medium, yet in the United States, that’s kind of an understandable mistake. For decades, mainstream American animation has been restricted to comedy, “adult” satire, and the family friendly, rarely permitted to wander into any other realm or demographic. In the 1960s, future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was given a chance to direct a feature-length production for Toei, a studio which considered itself the Disney of the East with its lush animated features. They had made the first color animated feature in 1958, The White Serpent, a picture most famous for inspiring a teenaged Hayao Miyazaki to pursue a career in animation.
Takahata’s feature directorial debut was The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, or Horus, Prince of the Sun as it is also called. The plot involves a teenaged boy who, after his father dies, saves a fishing community from a monster fish and helps them to overcome an evil sorcerer named Grunwald. One of the major figures of the story is the more than a little troubled Hilda, a lonely young songstress with connections to Grunwald himself and her own inner demons to battle. The executives expected another safe family film with cute comic relief and musical numbers, but after a troubled three year production, the film which emerged was not what they wanted, something truly revolutionary. Freelance critic Daniel Thomas MacInnes puts the film’s impact down better than I could:
“Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes – addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.”
It’s not a perfect film, certainly: juvenile elements such as the maudlin talking bear Coro and cutesy small child Flip drag the film down at moments, and a few big action scenes are relegated to still frames over which the camera pans, obviously a cost-cutting maneuver. But a film does not need to be perfect to be great or influential. Being that this piece is for the Anti-Damsel blogathon, I will restrict my discussion of the film to the character of Hilda.
Oh, Hilda. When people praise the likes of Frozen for being “revolutionary” in the depiction of female characters in animation, your complexity goes to show just how low we’ve set the bar in the States. When we first encounter Hilda, she seems to be little more than a melancholy variation of Disney’s Snow White: a pretty face flanked by animal sidekicks and equipped with a lovely singing voice. We expect she and Horus will fall in love and be going steady by the time the credits run up. Yet as Horus and the villagers come to know her, we find she is not at all another princess type, but a clever deconstruction of what we might expect from an animated heroine. Hilda’s role in the narrative is not straightforward; she is alternatively heroine and villain, least of all Horus’s love object or a damsel to be rescued. She is a complex figure, tormented by survivor’s guilt, loneliness, and a crippling terror of mortality. The sinister owl and friendly squirrel following her about are not there for kid appeal and merchandizing purposes, but to make concrete the two sides of her character, her misanthropy and desire to belong.
We see this conflict most clearly in Hilda’s relationship with the village. The simplicity of the community’s members grates upon her. Though the people have lost family members to the monstrous fish Horus slays in the first act, Hilda knows none of them can comprehend or understand her own tremendous loss: that of her entire village. As the village gets ready to celebrate a wedding between two sweethearts, Hilda is unable to join in the celebration. When the village women gently tease her for her lack of domestic skills, Hilda flies into a rage and condemns their communal merrymaking. So scarred by loss and death, Hilda can no longer tolerate joy, for how can anyone remain joyful in a world where everything is doomed to end with death, to become nothing but “ashes”?
Hilda’s girlish exterior cannot fully belie this internal torment. We are told her singing is her sole joy in life, but even this is infected with the character’s pain. Her musical numbers do not focus on optimism, romantic longing, or disappointment as a Disney heroine’s would, but despair and alienation. When her squirrel pal says her songs are “a little sad,” it’s an understatement. When she sings, “Perched high upon a narrow branch, a bird is always singing, a bird always alone, a bird always alone,” she may as well be describing her own situation. Here’s one of her darker songs, which features senseless violence, ill-will toward others, and a violent God who seems apathetic to suffering:
In the past, in the past,
the good God rose and said
“Good night to you all,
my kind children”
In the past, in the past,
an otter said
“Pity my God, remove the
claws of the brown bears.”
“Good night my dear otters, the
brown bears do not have any more claws.”
In the past, in the past,
a small animal said
“Pity my God, the otters devour all the fish”
“Good night my dear children,
I threw the otters in the fire”
Once upon a time,
the Lord God stood and said:
“Sleep well, everyone
all of my dear children”
It is fascinating to compare Hilda’s lonely, sad songs with the musical numbers of the villagers. The melodies, lyrics, and movement of the villagers emphasize community, joy, and life. During the wedding feast, we see the community members hand-in-hand, singing and dancing through the streets before the camera pans over to Hilda, standing solitary and utterly separated from the action.
Hilda’s loss and trauma consume her whole being and make bleak her worldview, rendering her unable to fully love others or embrace life. Her bonding with one of the village children and conflicted feelings toward Horus are a few chinks in her armor, brief flashes of humanity in a character who seeks to eradicate all that is human about herself. The villain Grunwald coaxes Hilda into accepting life as his “sister,” thus making her immortal and isolated, as well as automatically making her Horus’s enemy. The trailers for the film pose the question of Hilda’s identity: is she a human being or a demon?
In the end, Hilda’s humanity wins over all. Coming across Coro and Flip dying in the blizzard, she relinquishes her immortality by placing the medallion around Coro’s neck, allowing the duo to be transported back to safety. In the most haunting moment of the movie, standing alone, she allows the snowy winds to pummel her until she finally collapses, surrendering herself to death. However, she awakes in a springtime landscape, astonished. Hilda has undergone what anime historian Mike Toole deems a “transformative moment” after a long period of doubt, can finally embrace her own humanity, and thus finally join with community along with Horus.
The famed Ghibli Heroine finds its earliest incarnation in Hilda, and yet, arguably few of her spiritual successors have matched her in complexity. The closest is Miyazaki’s San from Princess Mononoke, who struggles between her sense of belonging with the forest gods and human identity. Certainly no female figure in mainstream theatrical American animation has yet to do so, at least none that I have encountered (I won’t say anything regarding television animation, as I rarely watch TV). Now just as then, Hilda remains a unique and fascinating figure in animation history.