Legend of Fabulous Battle Windaria
Yeah, yeah, I know it's been a week since the last blog, but I've been pretty busy. Catching up. When you've been away from this stuff for fifteen years, there's a LOT of "catching up" to do. In this case, I was going through a plastic bag of old audio tapes, trying to figure out which were physically worth saving and which weren't. Unfortunately, the bulk of my Hokuto no Ken soundtracks were damaged, same with the assorted Matsumoto BGMs, two tapes of anime opening and closing songs (damn), and the tape copies I made of my Catseye and City Hunter sountracks (double damn). I still have the actual LP copies to rerecord from (provided I can find a turntable), but it's probably just less of a hassle to find and download the music from the web nowadays. But among the tapes that still worked was one of my all-time favorite soundtracks and one I never managed to get on LP - The Legend of Fabulous Battle Windaria.
I never really much cared for the "digital" soundtrack phase the industry went through (here as well as Japan) during the '80s. For instance, I was rewatching Firestarter a couple months back and was struck by how the Tangerine Dream music just sucked the life out of the thing rather than enriching the experience. Trevor Jones has made his name with digital music, but I still think his masterpiece so far has been The Last of the Mohicans and he was rumored to have been forced into changing over to an orchestra for that, which is why Randy Edelman was brought in to score half the film. I guess I'm just an orchestra kind of guy through and through, but there have been certain notable exceptions. The Kitaro soundtracks for Queen 1000 and Black Rain. And, of course, the soundtrack to Windaria. I'm not sure if the dual digital/orchestra score was the reason for the multiple composers or not, but just like in the case of LotM above, it certainly didn't hurt this one. It's a perfect match for the film, similarly brilliant and sadly mostly underrated, if in fact, it is ever thought about at all. And, of course, the two songs just soar. The audio copy I have left now is the second of two I had made for me back in the day because I wore out the first. Sigh.
Even though it's been at least twenty years since I last saw the film, I can still match the tracks to it. I can remember driving on the freeway back during the late '80s, listening to the tape, and my eyes suddenly started swelling up. My girlfriend looked at me and asked me what was up.
"Marrin just flew off."
Of course, she gave me a double take.
"Marrin just turned into a bird and flew off towards the ghost ship, and Izu is chasing her."
C'mon, now, I know it's not just me, though maybe in this particular case it might be. But good soundtracks, memorable soundtracks - they do that. And the soundtrack to Windaria is no exception. There are at least four tracks on this tape that I can match to the scenes. In my mind. But it's been a long time. Probably too long.
One of the many things I've lost to the black hole in the middle of my memory is exactly where I got my copy of Legend of Fabulous Battle Windaria from and to whom I owe that debt. But after My Youth in Arcadia, it stands as my favorite anime feature. There are certain films you can remember scene by scene and I'm not quite there (due to the time thing) with Windaria, but I can come close enough. Equal parts fairy tale and traditional tragedy, it's just the kind of film that should appeal to me and does exactly that, but even where anime is concerned it is, if not unique, then in rare company in that.
It's just the kind of anime film you could pop in your VCR back in the day (assuming you could translate enough of it, of course) and show to your snobbish cousin with his or her degree in English Literature and proudly say "Hey, look, they DO know what they're doing here," even if it is a bit by-the-numbers. Izu is your "classic" tragic hero of the western mold, complete with tragic flaw, actions which lead to the ruin of himself and people around him (in this case, an entire city) and, invariably, his realization that his actions have cost him everything, resulting in catharsis for the audience and a bunch of eye-swelling for us hopeless romantics who listen to soundtracks while driving down the freeway. He doesn't exactly die, as he certainly might in most classic western examples, but his fate is certainly less than appealing - a six-month wait for a (possible, IIRC, the ending is unclear) reunion with Marrin when he becomes captain of the ghost ship, living alone with the memories of what he'd done to cause her death and maybe the deaths of many of the people of the city he drowned. But, as with the case with most tragedy, his ultimate fate isn't what's important - it's the effect and lessons passed along to the audience. In this case, don't leave behind paradise and someone who loves you in order to go zipping around on a hovercycle, palling around with perverted Palu people and, whatever you do, don't drown cities just because some rich widow offered you riches and a palace. Those deals just NEVER work out.
But, yeah, it was hard to sell back in the day because most viewers only see "sad ending." They don't "get" tragedy. And to think back in England, Shakespeare filled the Globe with groundlings, who were no different from you or me, really. The worked hard, got sweaty, walked home with shit all over their faces. But they "got" King Lear. Othello wasn't "sad," it was art. Legend of Fabulous Battle Windaria isn't nearly in that class, but what is? Bah, enough of that. It's too late to drink...
I suppose much of the delight that the memories of this film bring to me come from the fact that themes such as the above are actually easily recognizable if you are looking for them, whereas much of what happens in anime is uniquely Japanese (and, yes, there is that aplenty in Windaria too). Even for us slobs who were watching raw with little understanding of the language. In a lot of ways, it's a western film, right down to the fairy-tale romance of the prince and princess of warring kingdoms and the unicorns that are shown grazing in the opening credits. Or at least it tries very hard to be.
As a writer myself, it's just in my blood to take for granted that every quality collaborative film project lives and dies by the script. So, sue me. The writer, Keisuke Fujikawa, cut his teeth on a lot of Matsumoto-inspired anime, including various Yamato and Galaxy Express 999 projects as well as the Queen 1000 film, so I imagine the romance and tragedy angles in Windaria are close to his heart. I understand he also wrote a novel based on the film or the film is based on his novel, but I'm not quite sure of the details here. Back in the day, it was difficult enough trying to translate dialogue, sourcing and crediting issues were another world altogether. I'm not exactly familiar with the director, though I'm sure someone out there will let me know he either went on to be extremely famous and awe-inspiring - or went on to do Pokemon. I kid.
The character designs are by Mutsumi Inomata, whose work I simply adore. I understand she did a lot of the supervising on the animation as well. I suspect this might be a case where she did a lot of the work without getting a lot of the credit. I dunno if the times have changed or not, but women in Japan back then simply did not get major director credits. Somehow, I suspect the situation hasn't changed much. Sadly. In any case, the characters and costuming here are a major strength. Speaking as an example of the male of the species, I just have to say Princess Ahanas just flat out rocks a battle outfit like no princess before or since. Well, assuming you don't consider whatever Xena wore to be a battle outfit. I still get goose bumps thinking of the scene on the bridge where her battle turban from hell unwraps as Jiru falls backwards...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Oh, yeah, on that note, if you haven't seen Windaria and plan on finding a copy "somewhere" in the next week or so, you might want to skip the rest of this until you do. I'm not exactly crazy about spoiler warnings in general, much less on articles about twenty-five year old obscure anime, but I understand some people actually get upset about such things. So, uh, you've been warned. Besides, if you're read this far, you already know Izu screws up in the end and Marrin dies. So there.
The film opens with a ritualistic funeral scene in the fictional countryside land of Saki ("Blossom"), which lies between the constantly warring city-states of Palu and Itha, which are currently under a tentative truce. A man has died and we see that when a peasant of Saki dies, his or her soul takes the form of a red glowing bird-thing that flies off in the general direction of what the natives call the "ghost ship," a blimp-like UFO that hovers through the clouds and emits a haunting siren every once in a while. It's fairly spooky for what it is. It isn't made exactly clear through the film if only the spirits of the peasants of Saki get this special treatment, or if the entire world does because later in the film we see bird spirits from Itha fly towards the ship as well, though the residents of Saki have evacuated by then so some of them may well have died in Itha. But, anyway...
Watching this ceremony are Izu and Marrin, two peasants farmers from Saki. It isn't clear whether or not they are actually married (or even if the people of Saki have such a ceremony), but they are definitely lovers. Together, they tow a vegetable cart of their wares to the seaside city-state of Itha, which is kind of like New Orleans in that it's built mainly below sea level and kept dry by a system of levees, dams and sea gates. The name itself is hard not to associate with the "Ithaca" of Homer's Odyssey, thus hinting that Fujikawa was trying to inject a bit more "western myth" flavor to the film. While Izu and Marrin are closing down shop, a spy from the state of Palu slips into the city and steals the keys to the sea gate from the keeper and attempts to flood the city. While everyone else runs to higher ground, Izu takes it upon himself to be a hero and close the gates. I dunno exactly why the city of Itha has no brave guys of their own who know how to close their sea gates, but there you go. Meanwhile, the Princess of Itha (young and gorgeous, of course), Ahanas, who was out for her morning swim, kung-fu's the spy into unconsciousness.
The Queen of Itha thanks Izu for being such a great guy, but Izu is a bit insulted that she hasn't rewarded him. Uh, oh, that's the first sign that Izu might not have his "hero" head on straight. The queen's advisors warn her that Palu has obviously broken the truce and so she should immediately start preparing for war. Ahanas objects, which clues the queen in that something's up. Turns out that Ahanas is in love with the Prince of Palu, Jiru (I refuse to call him "Jill" just because) and has been sending him love letters via carrier pigeon and the two of them have been going out for dark frolics in the forest (or frolics in the dark forest) that divides the two kingdoms.
For his part, Jiru tries in vain to talk his father, the King of Palu, out of the crazy plan of attacking Itha. He wonders what kind of insanity would drive you to flood a city that you're trying to conquer. Which is, actually, a very good point that never gets addressed, even after Izu manages to do it near the end of the film. The whole war plotline doesn't make a whole lot of sense on its face, unless there's something deeper that isn't really explored. It may be a ritualist thing having to do with honor, a tradition thing, or simply that the King of Palu (and his queen) are crazy insane. There really is no real motive given unless I missed something, which is certainly possible. I'm mainly working from memory here. If anyone's got any ideas on this, please say so in the comments.
Izu and Marrin go back to their house, and the countrymen of Saki call a meeting under the tree Windaria, which is where the film gets its name. Windaria is big. Really, really big. As in the size of a domed stadium, big. The people of Saki pray to it daily for good thoughts and good memories. Either the tree doesn't work or Izu doesn't pray hard enough. Probably the latter. The carrier pigeon that Ahanas and Jiru use to pass their love letters back and forth stops under the tree to avoid the rain. Izu climbs up the tree and reads the love note, laughs, and tells the people of Saki that there won't be a war because the princess of Itha and the prince of Palu are in love. The people of Saki decide to evacuate anyway, just in case. Good move on their part.
Ahanas and Jiru meet in the dark forest and talk about the possibility of an upcoming war. Neither want it, or so they say. Ahanas grabs Jiru's gun and runs away, forcing him to chase after her, though I doubt it's 'cause he wants his gun back. I have to mention the song here. It's just fabulous, one of my favorite anime songs, though you can't hear the entire thing unless you actually have the soundtrack. Jeez, now I'm starting to get the sniffles again. Man, it's tough being such a softie.
Back in Saki, word gets around that both Palu and Itha are recruiting for the coming war. Izu, still smarting from thinking that his good deed in Itha went unrewarded, is contacted by the Minister of Palu, who offers to reward him handsomely for joining the Palu Army. Just for considering the offer, he leaves Izu a hovercycle, which is just the bribe for a poor farmer boy who is used to hauling his own damned vegetable cart five miles to market. In probably the second or third best scene of the film, Izu goes on an extended ride on his new toy. Now, I've heard the complaint that this scene goes on too long and doesn't accomplish a whole lot. Yeah, and that comes mainly from the women. You got your scene between Jiru and Ahanas, this is ours. The men know. They all close their eyes and imagine they're on that damned thing and the ride's too fucking SHORT. No, the producers knew exactly what they were doing with that scene. I didn't even mind the digital music to it. It certainly sticks in your mind when you hear the soundtrack. Note to the women reading this. Don't get between a man and his ride, whether it be a car, plane, motorcycle or hoverbike. Even if you're a orange-haired, doe-eyed knockout like Marrin with your own cute critter on your shoulder, you're likely to lose. Sad, but true.
Worse than the NFL, ladies, I'm tellin' ya
Several nights later, Izu gets up from their bed, puts on his jacket and prepares to leave for Palu. Of course, it isn't that easy. The light comes on from upstairs, Marrin comes down with her lantern in hand and eyes knowing that her lover has made his decision. She gives him a gift - a knife in a sheath (remember this, it's plot important) - and promises him she will wait for him to return to her, whatever happens. He tells her he is only leaving because Palu offered him things that he could not get for her otherwise, and promises to come back to her. They embrace, kiss, and it's only after he leaves that she slowly climbs the ladder and, at their bedside, breaks down into tears.
Sorry, had to get up and get a kleenex.
It was during this scene upon first viewing that I figured that "Izu" must translate to "dumbass" in English. Or if it didn't before this film, it certainly should've afterwards. Seriously, between the animation, the voice acting and the music in that Marrin crying scene...I wanted to strangle the guy myself. But that's just me...
Sometime after Izu leaves, the people of Itha decide to launch a fairly silly-looking balloon ship. I dunno why, exactly, because it's certainly not much of either an attack weapon or a defense vehicle. I've even heard it called a "spy balloon." Seriously. It's like the size of the Goodyear Blimp and unlikely to sneak up on a blind possum. Anyway, several airplanes from the drunken Palu airforce decide to engage this monstrosity and end up either getting shot down or accidently crashing into it, finally bringing it to the ground in a flaming mess not far from Marrin's house in Saki. But the one airplane that manages to escape from the encounter makes it back to Palu and crash-lands, thus giving the hawks in the Palu military reason to believe Itha is going to attack them. As if they needed further incentive. Jiru once again goes to confront insane daddy over the stupid war with no motive and the king actively tries to kill his own son, but ends up dead instead.
Now the next part is pretty confusing and I've never gotten a clear explanation for it, but because Jiru kills his father, somehow he feels he has to carry out the attack on Itha. Maybe there's a rule to this effect somewhere in the Palu governing documents. Or maybe the insanity is just hereditary, I dunno. But there you go. The carrier pigeon from Ahanas gets gunned down by one of the trigger-happy incompetent morons in the Palu Army, thus preventing communication between Jiru and Ahanas. Izu shows up in Palu trying to meet with the prime minister who gave him the cool ride, but no one in Palu cares. Well, okay, at least one of them cares - enough to run over his nice new hoverbike. But, hey, he tells Izu he can have his nifty tank instead because he has a heavy date with a hooker. Sounds like an even trade to me. I think every woman in Palu is either a whore or an assassin. Some are both. No wonder the men are all drunk.
I guess I ought to say something about the relative conditions of the two city-states here. Itha is technology-deprived (you know this because they still use crossbows), but their people are competent, except of course when it comes to finding people to shut off the sea gates. Palu has advanced technology, but the soldiers are an order of fries and a drink short of a happy meal. Things crash and blow up a lot in Palu - the producers of this were undoubtedly big fans of the A-Team when it comes to vehicle explosions. I can still remember at least five examples of tanks or other craft exploding after running into walls or rocks and the last time I saw this was twenty years ago. Maybe that says something about me. Anyway, it's only because of Jiru's leadership that this bunch could get out of bed in the morning. But, somehow, he manages to get an army assembled and leads an assault on the forces of Itha.
Unfortunately, they have to go through Saki to get there.
After some scenes in the forest, where the army of Palu are attacked by figments of either their imaginations or from earlier experiments with LSD, the fight moves into the plains near the tree Windaria. Explosions blanket the countryside and one of them wipes out half of Marrin's house...
With the battle turning against Itha, the Queen of Itha collapses and Ahanas, not knowing that her pigeon has croaked, thinks that Jiru broke his promise and betrayed her. She takes over command of the forces of Itha and leads them out onto the plains of Saki, where she sees Jiru. Motioning to him from across the battlefield, they meet in the forest to discuss their futures. Meeting at the bridge that marks the boundaries of the two countries, she is saddened at the fact that, no matter which side wins, they can never truly be together. In yet another one of those unforgettable musical moments (for me, anyway), she shoots him and he falls back, he clutches her headress in his hands and we see it slowly unravel, much like their love and their world. She puts the gun to her own head. From the distance, we hear the shot and watch the river turn blood red. It's one of the few scenes from anime that's got a permanent parking place in my mind, along with Harlock losing his eye and Emeraldas getting her scar. Or kumo no Juuza's dead body on the ground, clouds oozing from all around it. Or Souther limping over to the body of his dead master, pleading with him to show him love.
Or the climactic scene from later in this very same film...the one mentioned above that got me off my lazy butt and started on this entry.
While the battle is raging, Izu finally gets to see the Palu minister who gave him the cool bike, but by that time the king is already dead, Jiru is leading the Palu forces and the queen is desperate, not knowing which way the battle will go. Still not quite grasping the fact that a flooded kingdom would be kind of pointless to conquer, the minister talks the Queen into allowing Izu to go back to finish the mission of the spy that Izu himself thwarted. She offers Izu all sorts of gold and even a palace, not to mention many more Palu women than he could afford all on his own. Yeah, well, Palu women are evidently pretty expensive to maintain, unlike their war toys. Visions of fame and fortune (not to mention the whores...er...cocubines) are just a bit too much of a bribe for the poor farmer boy, so he quickly agrees, jumps into a motorized river vehicle and zips down the river towards Itha, which has been left virtually unguarded, seeing as most of the citizens are out fighting in the plains of Saki. Conning the old guard out of the keys to the seagate, he proceeds to drown the city. Again, the good citizens of Itha don't seem to have anyone other than Izu and the old man capable enough to turn the two big wheels. In a matter of moments (or so it seems), the city of Itha is flooded and Palu wins...well, a bunch of flooded city. Oh, and I guess you could throw in the dark haunted forest and a bunch of burnt Saki farmland littered with broken and ruined remnants of the war. Whee! What a haul.
So, after the battle, Izu returns to Palu a war hero and, just as she promised, the queen gives him all the gold and fireworks he can handle. But only one Palu woman, it seems. But man, what a woman! She dances, she throws gold around, she does...stuff in bed we don't get to see...and she wields a mean scarf; which she proceeds to try and strangle Izu with. You see, the queen (or more probably that damned minister again) decides that after a couple of months he's outlived his usefullness and orders him killed. The concubine/assassin doesn't turn out to be all that and Izu, realizing a bit too late that it doesn't generally pay to make deals with corrupt royalty, manages to escape Palu with his life - or what's left of it.
In a really, really nicely moody sequence, he uses the knife Marrin gave him to cut away the mooring of a small boat and collapses into it, his unconscious body floating down the same river he took to Ithu in order to ruin it during the war. While he's asleep, the boat drifts underneath the now-broken bridge where, months earlier, Ahanas killed Jiru and then herself. Flying over the bridge that once represented what might have been a permanent relationship between Itha and Palu are two of the red soul-birds, the two lovers chasing each other in death through the dark forest, just as they'd done numerous times in life. It's a little thing and doesn't last for more than a few seconds, but it's there if you're willing to look for it. Just like a lot of other smaller treasures scattered throughout this film. In fact, the entire final fifteen minutes or so of this one is a study in one powerful scene (some subtle, some not so much) after another as Izu - and the audience - comes to recognize exactly how badly he's screwed things up.
The infamous bridge of dead lovers
The boat comes to rest at the bottom of a hill which Izu proceeds to climb - only to find himself looking down at the remains of Itha, an underwater hell of his creation, a watery graveyard sparkling under the powerful moonlight. A clock tower chimes and dozens of the red soul-birds come flying out of the city in Izu's general direction, one of those not-so-subtle scenes I mentioned earlier. Running in fear from them down the hill and across a field, he falls flat on his face and accidently cuts himself with the knife Marrin gave him before he left on his not-so-splendid adventure. Only then does he remember her. Dumbass. Plucking up his courage, he slowly trods across the bloody fields of Saki, littered with the remnants of the war and destroyed or partially destroyed houses of the people who were once his friends, until he makes it to his old house, only half of which is still standing.
Amazingly, Marrin's little critter is there and, very soon after, a light appears from within and Marrin herself walks out. The dumbass apologizes for not remembering to come back and is surprised to see she doesn't seem upset in the slightest. In fact, she just seems overwhelmingly happy that he came back at all, which should be his first clue that something's not quite right. Then the music starts up, we hear the moan of the ghost ship in the background and I start to sniffle up again. Yes, it turns out Marrin was indeed killed during the war, but her love for him was so strong that even death couldn't keep her from fullfilling her promise to wait for him. He reaches out for her, but she says she has to go and quietly fades into a red soul-bird as the music swells and she slowly flies off with Izu close behind, hopelessly chasing her across the fields and hills of Saki to a cliff over the sea, while the ghost ship beckons from afar overhead. Giving her lover one last swoop over his head and just out of his reach, she flies off to the ghost ship and disappears, leaving Izu and the land of Saki behind forever.
After helplessly watching her disappear, Izu falls to his knees and yells to the ghost ship that he'll vollunteer to pilot the ship in exchange for being with Marrin. The way it was explained to me back in the day is that the ghost ship requires human pilots to work ten year shifts. About ten years back, the current captain was the lover of Duruido (I'm guessing that's supposed to actually be "Druid" but I've never actually seen it spelled that way) who took the job to prove his love to her because she was constantly pushing him to strive for a higher status in life. Evidently, there's no higher status in life in the world of Windaria than being the pilot of the ghost ship, I dunno. But the parallels to Izu/Marrin are there. The current pilot sacrificed everything (well, the physical stuff anway) for love, as did Marrin. Since Izu and Duruido indirectly demanded the sacrifice of their lovers without truly understanding it, they were destined to suffer. It just so happens that Duruido is there on the same cliff as Izu and explains to him that he'll have to wait a measure of time (I've heard a year, I've heard half a year) in order for her lover's shift to be over before he can become the pilot.
As to why Duruido turned to stone after telling him all this is something of a mystery to me still. The best explanation I've gotten was that she was always stone but was cursed to suffer with physical form and regret for the loss of her lover until she truly understood and felt his sacrifice and her part in it. It's not a great explanation, but I always put it down to being a "Japanese thing." Maybe it's just an unexplainable thing. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has anything better...
The film ends with Izu walking dejectedly over to the tree Windaria and climbing one of its roots until he finally breaks down in tears. How effective such an ending is probably depends on how much you care about Izu and the whole redemption and penance thing. Being raised Catholic, it registers with me because, well, without the hope of redemption, what's the point? No, most of us haven't drowned cities, but how many of us have done incredibly stupid things and turned our backs on perfectly good lovers? Probably more than we'd like to admit. The producers played a bit ambigously with the sinking of Itha, making a point of showing us the few citizens left in the city made it out before it totally flooded, but you have to figure that there were casualties. And then there were all those soul-birds that flew at Izu upon his return. Maybe they were simply mad at him for sinking their homes? In any case, as I pointed out before the recap of the film, most of that is beside the point. Throughout history, I'm sure audiences have had a hard time feeling empathy for MacBeth too.
And the song over the ending credits? Just awesome. One of the joys of this generation of anime fans is that, due to youtube and downloads, there's an actual chance of getting song translations to some of these older films. Which is why I'm off to youtube as soon as I put this one to bed.
I do understand that Carl Macek and Streamline released a heavily edited and rewritten version sometime during the '90s. As is the case with the Fist of the North Star feature by Streamline, I made it a point of ignoring it on purpose. Still haven't seen it. Have no plans to see it. I'd rather live with the memories...
And that absolutely wonderful soundtrack.
I understand the soundtrack is now a collectable. And quite expensive.
You too could've had an official movie book for two bucks back in the day. Books Nippan was having a sale.