Unable to sleep little talking mouse Topo Gigio (voiced by Giuseppe Mazullo) wanders the streets at night. Here he crosses paths with a shadowy sinister man in yellow socks (Koichi Fuse) who inexplicably plays mean-spirited pranks on everyone he meets: stomping feet, splashing people with paint and eventually smashing a store window. When cops finally sling him in jail, along with poor hapless Topo Gigio, the man finally reunites with the rest of his criminal gang in multicoloured socks. Turns out this was all part of an elaborate plan so they can rob the bank next door. Only it isn’t money the gang's wacky but mysterious Boss (Toru Ohira) is after but the launch codes for nuclear missiles. It falls to wee Topo to find a way to save the world from thermonuclear annihilation!
Created by artist Maria Perego (in collaboration with her screenwriter husband Federico Caldura and fellow artist Guido Stagnaro), Topo Gigio the lovable mouse marionette remains a staple of Italian pop culture to this day. After launching his career on Italian kids TV Topo achieved global fame in the early Sixties with a string of appearances on America's highest-rated variety show The Ed Sullivan Show, often topping the bill alongside The Beatles! There followed multiple live action and animated television shows including an anime series that ran from 1988 to 1992 and more recently a popular 2020 Italian cartoon. The little mouse also graced a handful of feature films including The Magic World of Topo Gigio (1965), Topo Gigio No Castelo do Conde Dracula (1989) and, strangest of all, Topo Gigio and the Missile War; a Japanese co-production surprisingly directed by acclaimed art-house auteur Kon Ichikawa. A film that seemingly befuddles and irks everyone from casual viewers to staunch Topo Gigio fans.
Many find it hard to fathom how the man behind harrowing anti-war satires Conflagration (1958), The Burmese Harp (1956, later remade by Ichikawa in 1985) and Fires on the Plain (1959) could also make a wacky children's comedy about a talking mouse. However Ichikawa made his directorial debut with a puppet play (A Girl at Dojo Temple (1946)), routinely dabbled in animation (co-directing an adaptation of visionary manga artist Osamu Tezuka's ambitious epic The Phoenix (1978)) and besides citing Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin among his foremost influences thought of himself as a cartoonist. Here Ichikawa plunges Perego's whimsical carefree creation into a seemingly incongruous, disarmingly dark and stylized Seijun Suzuki-like noir thriller rife with violent shootouts, bullet riddled corpses, near-David Lynchian surrealism, a Cold War nuclear theft plot and a surprisingly downbeat melancholy finale. You know, for kids.
Whether or not viewers warm to this surreal confection depends entirely on their tolerance for the bizarre. Ichikawa shoots the film from a mouse eye-view, importing ingenious staging and lighting tricks from Topo Gigio's original stage performances that make the character and the world he inhabits seem remarkably lifelike and believable. An English narrator only barely makes sense of a strange plot fifty percent of which comprises whimsical non-sequitors, surreal slapstick and Topo Gigio's rambling monologues often disconnected from the story. Nevertheless like its diminutive star the film has an off-kilter charm and personality. While the anti-nuke subtext is less potent than it could have been other elements showcasing the remarkable puppetry prove more engaging. These include Topo Gigio's bonding with a seemingly sentient red balloon (seemingly inspired by cult French film, er, The Red Balloon (1956)) and wreaking climactic Looney Tunes havoc amidst a brutal shootout between crooks and the military. All while sustaining a frankly alarming level of abuse. You know, for kids.