Rondo (voiced by Kazuko Yanaga), a scantily-clad alien babe from outer space, arrives on planet Earth eager to spread her message of peace. Unfortunately, she stumbles into the midst of an invasion led by Nazi-styled Colonel Karl Presto whose battle robots and hi-tech stormtroopers blitz their way through a defenseless nation. While a youngster named Trio (Masako Sugaya) is in the barn feeding his beloved cat, Coda (Mari Okamoto), soldiers blow up his house, killing his mother. Amidst the chaos and horror of a catastrophic death toll, Coda escapes to the country where she befriends a donkey named Largo (Kei Tomiyama) and a clumsy but kindhearted dog called Allegro (Hiroya Ishimaru), who saves them from the stormtroopers. Inspired by Allegro’s kind act, Coda spares Minuet the chicken (Naoko Kyoda) from becoming dinner. Together the four animal friends discover a shared talent for making music. When the animals stumble upon a dying Rondo, the alien uses her powers to transform them into quasi-human mutant pop stars who use their music to rally humanity and take down Presto’s fascist regime.
Fairytale adaptations don’t get any stranger than this Osamu Tezuka anime, an amibitious, apocalyptic science fiction take on The Musicians of Bremen. While aspects of the concept hark back to Tezuka’s earlier The Amazing Three (1965), wherein aliens disguised as barnyard animals battle to save the Earth, and anticipate the landmark J-pop-saves-the-universe favourite Superdimensional Fortress Macross (1982), the film is distinguished by its strident anti-war message. Having lived through the aftermath of the Second World War, Tezuka was driven to sear the horrors of war upon the minds of a young generation to ensure there would be no repeat of past mistakes. Right from its opening scenes the film segues from anthromorphic whimsy to a succession of shockingly brutal images: children mown down by gunfire, poverty, starvation, political arrests, genocide, even real footage of atomic bomb tests. It is far from subtle but what is there that’s subtle about war?
Other animated films addressed the evils of war but none did so in quite such startling fashion as Tezuka. For some the juxtaposition of Disneyesque sweetness with stark brutality, slapstick silliness, playful eroticism, pop music and sci-fi action, was simply too jarring. But the sheer audacity of its dynamic agenda, to entertain and enlighten, results in a one-of-a-kind experience. The sweeping storyline incorporates film buff nods to everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), to Luchino Visconti’s bonkers biopic Ludwig (1974), vintage science fiction and the wartime thrillers of Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda. True to form, Tezuka peppers the narrative with in-joke cameos from his other manga creations, including Astro Boy, Jungle Emperor Leo, Don Dracula and Unico, along with a substantial role for his scarred surgeon antihero Black Jack.
Its heavily pacifist tone reflects Tezuka’s lifelong crusade against militarism as well as his steadfast belief in art as a vehicle for humanitarian ideals, as the plot sees the Bremen Four rally the oppressed citizens then storm the pop charts. They eventually play sell out concerts at huge stadiums. While Allegro grows to enjoy being surrounded by adoring schoolgirls as he and his bandmates are courted by the rich and famous, Coda remains haunted by the spectre of little Trio, now a traumatised waif living rough on the streets. Torn between pop stardom and their political beliefs, the band spurn Colonel Presto’s offer to serve as his musical mouthpiece and end up imprisoned. In a typical Tezuka twist, Coda’s spirited decency draws out the latent humanity in the cruel dictator. He briefly falls for the cute cat-girl, but reverts to villainy when unmasked as the robot doppelganger of a major Tezuka character. The third act is an out-and-out action film as the animal heroes help resistance fighters storm the castle. There is a thrilling swordfight aboard a steamship pursued by a giant spider-robot plus more gunfire and dead bodies than one would expect from Rambo, let alone a children’s cartoon.