Prince Susano (voiced by Tomohito Sumida), a super-strong Japanese boy god, spends his days defending cute defenseless animals like his friend Red-Nose the rabbit (Chiharu Kuri) from ravenous Taro the tiger. However Susano's kindly mother, the goddess Izanami, convinces him to spare Taro's life, preaching tolerance and forgiveness. When Izanami dies unexpectedly, a grief-stricken Susano defies his father Izanagi's orders and sets forth with Red-Nose on an epic sea voyage to bring his mother back from the Underworld. Along the way Susano tangles with a giant fish, a tyrannical fire god, his brother the Crystal King and causes chaos in the Kingdom of Light. This leads his sister the Sun Goddess to hide in a cave forcing her courtiers to coax her out. Eventually Orochi reaches a mysterious island kingdom. There he falls in love with beautiful Princess Kushinada. Unfortunately the princess is to be offered to Orochi, a terrifying eight-headed dragon that raids the kingdom each year, forcing Susano to take action.
Wanpaku Oji no Orochi Taiji, released in English as Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, was the sixth anime feature produced by Japan's Toei studio and also the most ambitious. Part of an early wave of anime films based on traditional Japanese folk tales, including the likes of Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), Magic Boy (1959), Alakazam the Great (1960) and The Littlest Warrior (1961), the film adapts chapters from the 'Nihon Shoki': an eight century chronicle that links the historical emperors with Japanese gods and demigods. Only a few years earlier rival studio Toho adapted the story as their live action epic The Three Treasures (1959) with Japan's biggest film star: Toshirô Mifune and special effects by Godzilla co-creator Eiji Tsubaraya. Tsubaraya's spectacular 'suitmation' rendition of Orochi was very much a precursor to Ghidorah, one of Godzilla's deadliest foes. Here its animated counterpart makes an awe-inspiring entrance worthy of a live-action kaiju. More than three decades later Toho revisited the tale with Takao Okawara's similarly effects laden fantasy Yamato Takeru (1994). There was also a science fiction anime version, confusingly released with the same title that same year.
Unusually for a theatrically released anime from this period the English dub is respectful and, aside from a flat performance by the actor voicing Susano, quite accomplished. The script does not Anglicize the characters nor rework the Japanese myth into a generic fantasy yarn. One imagines its heady philosophical musings about life, death and the universe might have proved too heady for a kiddie matinee audience in the Sixties though the film has action and spectacle to spare. The central thematic arc deals with learning to accept death as part of the natural cycle of life. Grief drives Susano through a series of increasingly reckless misadventures tempered by regular acts of undoubted bravery. The fiery-tempered child hero is not the most likable protagonist. His brash, violent ways and impulsive actions unnerve almost everyone he meets and he winds up wreaking havoc wherever he goes. However, Susano's heroic feats also transform a hitherto barren string of islands into the fertile and habitable kingdom of Japan.
Much like Ray Harryhausen's celebrated live-action fantasies from this period the plot is episodic and structured around spectacularly animated set-pieces. Yet the script carries poetic undertones, musing how more important it is to live life to its fullest rather than obsess over death. On top of that the film is beautifully designed and animated with lush imagery recreating classical Japanese art and charming characters brought to life by legendary animator Yasuji Mori. Eschewing the soft, rounded look of past Toei features, Mori's chara designs are more stylized and angular as indeed are the eye-catching backgrounds, exhibiting a UPA influence by way of mid-Fifties Disney or Warner Brothers. The production team is a veritable who's who of notable Japanese animators, spearheaded by Yugo Serikawa - who went on to direct harrowing children's yarn Nobody's Boy (1970) - with early credits for Kimio Yabuki (who later directed The Wonderful World of Puss'n'Boots (1969), the quintessential example of Toei's second wave of quasi-European fairytale adaptations) and Isao Takahata: future co-founded of Studio Ghibli. Fifty years Takahata would revisit the realm of Japanese folklore for his swansong The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013). Music by Akira Ifukube whose thunderous brass section is instantly recognizable as that of the man who scored countless Godzilla movies.