If little Japanese boys were crazy about Gundam robots, then girls were equally wild for Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982), one of the most successful anime shows of all time. Frilly and feminine, but far from a drippy Barbie clone, the pink-haired pop chanteuse and superheroine was as likely to conjure fancy robo-armour or a super-bazooka to blow bad guys away as belt out a bouncy J-pop tune. Minky Momo was also popular with young men, for the somewhat risqué reason she was often naked between magical transformations, and probably sparked off the “Lolita craze” so prevalent in anime. This bright, zany feature length outing (originally known as Minky Momo: La Ronde My Dream, but re-titled for American audiences) is one of the great, anime cult movies - inventive, audacious and oddly profound.
In the charming, crayon-coloured intro we learn Minky Momo (Gigi in the English dub) is a princess from the dreamland of Fenalinasa. Sent to Earth by her parents, the willowy Queen and gnomish King (who heckle the narrator because “he’s to darn slow!”), little Momo poses as the daughter of two kindly vets, but occasionally transforms into a grownup magical heroine for adventures with her magic friends: Sandybell the dog (who, inexplicably, sounds like James Mason), Mocha the monkey, and Pipil the bird. As our story begins, Momo’s human parents are off on holiday to Tahiti. Meanwhile, a space shuttle orbiting the Earth detects a weird, energy source that suddenly zaps their plane down onto a deserted island.
Horrified by a news broadcast, Minky Momo takes off in her space age automobile-helicopter and finds herself surrounded by wild-looking natives, who turn out to be entrepreneurs flogging their tropical island as a timeshare! She falls in with a ragtag group of adventurers, including master thief Arsene Lupin and his boy apprentice, a suave secret agent called Percy Fleming, and three Chicago gangsters (dubbed to sound like Edward G. Robinson) searching for the mysterious, valuable new power source. After a hectic balloon chase across the jungle, they chance upon an amazing, flying island protected by a force field and rainbow dragons who transform Lupin and co. into harmless children.
With a wave of her magic candy cane, Minky Momo transforms into her sexy alter-ego and flies in to investigate. She discovers a wondrous kingdom called Kensington Gardens, ruled by a green-clad, flying boy named Peter. Using a hi-tech power source codenamed the Fountain of Youth, Peter has created a children’s paradise, where there is no violence or war and no-one ever gets sick or grows old. Momo’s parents have become a surrogate mom and dad to thousands of kids who wear fancy dress, scoff giant sundaes in lavish palaces, and play all day with friendly dinosaurs and singing flowers. Peter falls in love with Princess Momo and urges her to stay, not knowing she and the little girl sneaking around his kingdom are one and the same. While Momo tries to convince Peter he’s living in a fool’s paradise, a shadowy group of corrupt politicians, businessmen and arms-dealers denounce Kensington Gardens (“What we have here is an attack of terminal adolescence!”) at the United Nations (!) and launch a full-scale, military strike.
Beautifully animated and utterly mind-boggling, this film is a real treat for fans of oddball cinema. Starting out like a slapstick kiddie comedy, it races through its plot in helter-skelter fashion, throwing wild ideas about with insane energy. We segue into a philosophical sci-fi spin on Peter Pan (with one shot cribbed straight from Walt Disney’s 1953 adaptation), then suddenly a deeply melancholy, anti-war, political thriller. All this in a fluffy, innocuous fairytale aimed at little girls? Only in Japan! The trippy, candy-coloured visuals evoke the golden age of anime with appealing characters designs by Toyoo Ashida - who went on to direct the resolutely non-cute Fist of the North Star (1984).
“Reach for your dreams and help others find theirs”, is Princess Momo’s guiding philosophy. She faces a stark choice: settle into a carefree, but inert existence in a fantasyland or live life to its fullest in the real world, with all its dangers and disappointments; and the film takes the surprisingly mature stance that growing up is absolutely necessary. When missiles rain down on Kensington Gardens (the air-force led by a psychotic cowboy modelled after Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove (1964)), laying waste to children’s homes, the images jarringly evoke war-torn Hiroshima and Saigon. Images that reoccur throughout anime in the 1980s. Of course fantasy escapism is to the fore as Peter fights back with his army of flying robots, dragons duel with jets and tanks, and Minky Momo takes on the whole navy in her kamikaze dive bomber. An amazing aerial tracking shot follows MM as she leads heat-seeking missiles into a hotel, up flights of stairs and right inside the arms-dealers’ room.
Happy endings all around, but our story isn’t over. Momo falls asleep and dreams about her first concert, serenading the audience in a rapid-fire pageant of fetish outfits, flashy lasers and bubblegum pop. If all this weren’t enough to convince you of its cult movie credentials - the executive producer of the English dub was Frank (Farouk) Agrama, director of Dawn of the Mummy (1981) and Queen Kong (1976)!