Most every country that has a history of animated film has tapped into their vein of myth and legend for stories to tell, and Japan has done this countless times. Sometimes the inspiration is indirect: Spirited Away, for instance, doesn’t use any particular story but seems inspired by the whole canon of Japanese fantasy for its ideas. Taro the Dragon Boy is about as directly inspired as you can get — it’s an animated retelling of one of Japan’s most commonly retold fairy tales, and it’s actually quite a charmer if you can get past some of the cultural differences that have nothing to do with language or mythology. There’s more than one time when our hero does a handstand and we can see, well, everything.
Maybe I should talk about this first. Taro isn’t just interesting for its look and feel, but how it embodies major cultural differences between Japan and the West, especially when it comes to a story targeted at children. The facts of life and biology are not automatic sources of embarrassment there, and are not compulsively deleted from entertainments. I mentioned the hero’s lack of underwear, but there’s also a few moments where breasts are plainly visible. The disc isn’t rated, so I wouldn’t want parents to pick this up and automatically assume it’ll be Disney-pure, since it isn’t.
Taro would rather hang out with the animals in the forest than help his grandmother work the land,
but when a pretty young friend falls into the clutches of the local demon, he springs to action.
That said, if you have kids yourself, and if you are stout-hearted and not easily fazed by such things, there’s no reason you can’t let them see something like this without calling undue attention to it. It has been shown that children’s reactions to such things are by and large shaped by parental reactions, and if the parent’s don’t think it’s that big a deal (and really, is it?) then they won’t be uptight. That said, I am quite grateful Taro remembered to wear a loincloth later on. And from the way his friends react in the film, so are they.
Taro is set in Japan’s early history, when the country was little more than a collection of mutually hostile tribes and the peasantry eked out what existence they could in miserable, mountainous plots of land. Rice is rare, and starvation is rampant. The hero, the young Taro, watched over by his grandmother, is more interested in enjoying the company of the animals in the forest than he is helping his fellow villagers work the land. When he defeats a bear in a wrestling match, he attracts the fancy of a passing tengu — a goblin-like creature, referred to oddly as a “sorcerer” in the movie’s press material — who bestows upon him a magic potion. One sip of it and he’s got the strength of a hundred men, but only if he’s working to help someone besides himself.
When he's not defeating demons, Taro's using his newfound muscle
to harvest the rice that his village desperately needs to survive.
Since Taro has a hard time not thinking of himself at first, this gives him a direction to grow in. One of the nice little touches is how being selfless is not all that easy to pull off. When a drum-beating demon comes down from the mountains to kidnap the girl he’s friendly with, Taro goes after him and throws him into a neighboring field…only to have him destroy the crops there. He later finds it’s more to his benefit to learn the demon’s motives: he’s in thrall to an even bigger, meaner demon, and when Taro’s able to free him from that bondage he discovers he’s got a friend for life — one who can call down storms and lightning on command, no less. This comes in handy later when Taro’s stuck working the rice fields for a selfish old woman, and the rains haven’t come through in weeks.
Taro’s biggest motivator is to find his mother, who may still be alive somewhere but transformed by a curse. According to Grandma, she was turned into a dragon for some unspecified crime, and now lives at the bottom of a lake elsewhere in the land. Finding her turns out to be nowhere as easy as he imagined, and there are red herrings and dead ends throughout his journey. At one point he almost freezes to death in a snowstorm, and is hounded by ethereal snow spirits (think of the second segment in Kwaidan) before collapsing. Unless you’ve already had a steady diet of Japanese mythology, the whole feel of the story comes off as a lot fresher and more alien than the conventional Grimm’s / Mother Goose formula. (Even that can be made to seem startling and unique: look at Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, for instance.)
Taro's fanciful imagery and lively animation are worth catching no matter what your age,
but keep in mind this is a Japanese production ... and not always Disney-pure!
The animation and art aren’t quite in the same caliber as Miyazaki or Production I.G (it was, after all, made in 1979), but it’s never less than good and some of the animation, especially the climax involving a lake being drained by smashing a giant boulder, is truly striking. The filmmakers also do a good job of conveying the bleakness of the times through background details and manipulating the color scheme: in many shots the characters themselves are the only bits of color, surrounded by a vast landscape of ominous blues and grays. The director, Kiriro Urayama, was also responsible for the Gate of Youth films, but as far as I can tell this was his only animated production; the English-language adaptation was created by none other than Peter Fernandez, the longtime voice for many Japanese productions brought overseas including Star Blazers and Speed Racer. It’s entirely possible that the main audience for Taro would be people interested in the kitsch or nostalgia factor, but if you ask me that would be a bit of a mistake.