From the Sixties to the early Eighties, Toei Studios made the best kids’ movies in the world. Why? Because their cartoons had everything! Case in point: their fourth adaptation of a Shotaro Ishinomori story. After a voyage undersea to observe marine farming, young Isamu (voiced by Masako Nozawa) and his loyal cheetah visit a tourist site near a dormant volcano where they meet beautiful sea princess Angel (Kurumi Kobato).
Suddenly, an explosion of lava heralds the rise of a scary, Godzilla-sized dragon, spewing fireballs that fry innocent women and children. While jets scramble to fight the monster menace, Angel and Isamu escape aboard her amazing, snail-shaped sea vehicle “See Through” - a gag reference to the Sea View from Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) - and journey to the idyllic undersea kingdom of Atlas. Here, the youngsters discover that volcano-dwelling supervillain King Atlas has assembled an army of prehistoric dragons and aims to conquer the surface world.
30,000 Miles Under the Sea zips along at a brisk seventy minutes, full of thrills, spills and spectacle. It winningly combines monsters, science fiction, action, sing-along musical numbers (note the male voice choir typical for anime of this period), fairytale romance, child heroes with crazy gadgets and animals that know kung fu, into a potent brew that can’t fail to entertain even the most jaded child. Drawing from Jules Verne, but also 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its attention to detail and solid SF ideas, this is utopian science fiction from an age when Japan believed science would build a brighter future.
It pads the story somewhat with aquatic musical ballets, reminiscent of The Little Mermaid (1990), that at least provide a chance to admire an array of colourful sea monsters and beautifully animated marine life. Ishinomori’s character designs have that delightful retro charm, with the inhabitants of Atlas dressed like sea anemones in pastel frills, Magma’s soldiers in medieval armour yet wielding lethal ray guns, and some seriously creepy creatures. Note the tentacle horror that nearly strangles Isamu during his escape from prison or the vampire bats lurking inside Magma’s underground base.
The plot is low on social commentary compared to other SF anime from the period, but given Ishinomori sometimes lacks the lightness of touch possessed by Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki, this is no bad thing. What 30,000 Miles…excels at is action, offering a host of eccentric set-pieces: Magma’s fireball-spewing monsters erupt from cracks in the earth to spread global terror across Moscow, London, Venice and Honolulu (why them?); cheetah dons scuba-gear (?!) to fight it out with bad guys; soccer-mad Isamu fells villains with his Pele inspired bicycle kick; and a splendid sea battle wherein Magma’s drill-nosed submarines and dragon army prove no match for Atlas’ luminous bubble-shaped UFOs and such weird weapons as anti-missile starfish and electric eel torpedoes.
Collectively these scenes trump rival studio Toho’s dwindling live action output of the early Seventies. All wrapped up in a sublime lounge music score by Takeo Watanabe. Co-director Takeshi Tamiya topped this with Babel II (1973), one of the greatest and most influential “kids save the world” SF extravaganzas of all time.