On his birthday, yo-yo wielding youngster Paul (Sumiko Shirakawa) receives a cuddly toy as a gift from his parents. While Pakkun (Yoko Asagami) looks like a fairly ordinary plush toy, in reality he’s the keeper of a portal between Earth and an alternate dimension known as the Land of Wonders. Journeying alongside his lovely girlfriend Nina (Keiko Yokozawa) and her dog Doppe (Isamu Taronaka), who can talk, fly using his ears and sports a funky leisure suit in these new surroundings, Paul explores the fantastical world of living toys. But Nina is kidnapped by outsized evil invader, Bel Satan (Toru Ohira) who plots nothing less than world domination. Armed with his trusty magic yo-yo, Paul and co. fight monsters, win friends and discover an array of delights as they battle to save the world.
Given that fantasy is a genre with limitless possibilities, it’s curious why so much contemporary fare confines itself to the familiarities of Celtic fantasy, long since bled dry by legions of J.R.R. Tolkien imitators. By contrast, this ceaselessly inventive anime serial from the late 1970s, well and truly unshackles the imagination. Paul’s Miraculous Adventures is seriously trippy stuff. Who needs psychedelic drugs when its animators give us characters dancing atop giant ice-cream cones, whole worlds fashioned from candy, a mind-altering journey between universes a la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or crystalline flowers that hold human souls. It conjures a vast and wondrous array of outlandish characters that come across like an attempt to fuse the Jungian whimsies of Windsor McCay, the fairylands of Cicely Mary Barker, and the surreal super-villainy imagined by Steve Ditko in the pages of Doctor Strange.
The animation matches the kooky concepts and pulls off a number of astounding visual coups, including the nightmarish first appearance by Bel Satan as a colossal, photorealistic visage in the sky. Being a children’s story, this marked a change of pace for Tatsunoko Studios, sort of Japan’s answer to Marvel Comics with their roster of angst-ridden superheroes like Hurricane Polymer (1974), Casshan: Robot Hunter (1973) and the enduring Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) which went on to cult fame in its Americanized guise as Battle of the Planets. Manga artist-turned-studio head Tatsuo Yoshida was the brains behind Paul’s Miraculous Adventures, having hatched classics like Speed Racer (1967) and Yattaman (1977), both of which were recently re-imagined as live action movies. Yoshida co-founded the studio with his brothers Kenji and Toyoharu (who adopted the pen-name Ippei Kuri and became the Stan Lee of Tatsunoko), but sadly succumbed to liver cancer in 1977.
Early episodes run the risk of being repetitive, as Paul saves Nina from an elaborate death-trap only for Bel Satan to whisk her away, time and again. But the series soon rights itself into an arresting odyssey and Nina - who became something of a fetish figure for fans - grows into a capable heroine, given a chance to kick butt with her magical makeup case. Woven through the story is a winning streak of humanism which coupled by an offbeat use of Christian iconography might explain why the series became so popular throughout Europe and Italy in particular.