By Justin Graham / May 8th, 2013
Unico in the Island of Magic is a 1983 feature film from Sanrio and Tezuka Productions. Created by Osamu Tezuka, the prolific artist and writer behind works ranging from Astro Boy to Phoenix, Unico is a baby unicorn swept from one place to another by the West Wind, making new friends everywhere he goes. But each time he’s transported, his memories are also taken, forcing him to start over.
The film Unico in the Island of Magic begins quite simply in this fashion, with the West Wind depositing Unico in a green forest, where he is forced to fend for himself. His first encounter in this strange new land is with Yamaneko (literally, “Mountain Cat”), a vicious sourpuss of a feline who hates Unico from the moment he lays eyes on him. Later, a mysterious figure appears in the forest and plays a soothing song that attracts animals from throughout. But he soon goes on the attack, attempting to use magic on those creatures he’s lured into his trap.
Unico barely escapes with his life, and, badly shaken up, finds himself cared for by a young human girl named Cherry and her adoring parents. But when the magician appears again, it’s revealed that he’s actually Cherry’s older brother Toby, who had vanished years ago. He is now an apprentice and servant of Kuruku, a wicked wizard bent on turning humans and other creatures into living dolls. Toby tries to protect his sister, but their parents fall prey to Kuruku’s magic, and Toby subsequently follows orders and transforms the rest of the villagers, as well.
In a previous column, I noted that the film Tenchi Muyo in Love was the film that made me a fan of anime. However, it wasn’t the first animated film from Japan I had ever seen. Long, long before that, when I was still a very young child, HBO aired a dubbed version of Unico in the Island of Magic. Despite the film’s family-friendly nature, as young as I was at the time, I cannot understate how utterly frightening the above sequence was. An entire village transformed into mindless, unnervingly humanoid figures, marched onto a ship to the tune of a flute. And then, when the ship arrives at its destination, they’re marched off to the same tune and stack themselves like the world’s most terrifying Legos, forming the walls of Kuruku’s elaborate castle, a structure already well-built from the forms of countless other victims.
Later in the film, Cherry and Unico confront Kuruku and ask that he change everyone back. Kuruku, of course, intends to do no such thing, but when he tells Toby to turn them both into living dolls, Toby asks that they go easy on them and turn them into toys. And so both Unico and Cherry are transformed into toys to serve as Kuruku’s playthings…at least until Toby is able to smuggle them out and change them back.
Sequences like this and others were burned into my mind. They made a far greater impression on me than most any other movie or television show I had watched at the same age. They also haunted me for many, many years, as the film was impossible to find on VHS. I had longed to watch it again, just to see if it really was that frightening, and to see how well it actually holds up outside of the rose-tinted lenses of half-remembered childhood. It wasn’t until last year, after close to thirty years, that it received a proper North American DVD release.
The film holds up. In every single way imaginable, it holds up, and I couldn’t be happier for that fact. The scenes that terrified me as a child are still effective; the first time I watched it as an adult gave me nervous butterflies during the parts I found so scary. In its lighter moments, it’s adorable, funny, and charming. At other times, it can be downright heartbreaking, such as when Unico and Cherry come across a colony of monsters where all the adults had been turned into living dolls, leaving only the terrified children crying for their parents.
Kuruku is a massive jackass, to be sure, but for everything he’s done, he’s not entirely unsympathetic, either. Unico and Cherry fly to the ends of the earth to learn how they can stop him, and discover that he was once a lifeless marionette. Always the villain, he was abused, and then discarded when his strings became too entangled for the owners to bother with. He eventually gained life and a will of his own, and now plays the only “role” he really knows, having never been shown love a day in his life.
The art is gorgeous, with each character beautifully drawn and animated in Tezuka’s classic style. The use of color is also varied and effective, highlighting differences between the green forest Unico first finds himself in, the creepy, gray castle of Kuruku, and the dust-covered relics found at the ends of the earth. The choreography of the action is equally accomplished, with stand-out sequences like Kuruku being entertained by his toys and the final battle against the evil wizard.
While it ends as all of Unico’s adventures do, with the West Wind arriving to take Unico elsewhere and remove his memories of Cherry and the others, Unico in the Island of Magic is not so easy to forget. Though some scenes may be intense for the very young crowd, it’s a film that can be enjoyed at any age. Imaginative, dramatic, tense, and humorous, it really is a delight.
Unico in the Island of Magic was released on DVD in North America by Eastern Star, a Discotek Media label. The release contains both the original Japanese language track with English subtitles and an English dub. It is not rated and is suitable for all ages, but contains images very young viewers may find scary.
anime of the pastEastern StarSanrioTezuka ProductionsUnico