I can see why the release of this film was unspectacular. Having to work from the (reasonable) premise that American kids in the 50s didn’t really know what ninjutsu was, MGM tried to make everything more universal – ninja arts became generic magic, the idea of ninjas isn’t raised at all and there’s no attempt to convey that Sarutobi Sasuke is a legendary figure in Japan not too far removed from Robin Hood in the English-speaking world, thus already familiar to the audience. What comes over – from what I’ve seen of the dub – is something quite awkward and unwieldy, like a drab Peter Pan vs a witch story.
And the fact is that this is a very, very difficult film to attempt to detach from its Japanese origins, because beyond the opening scenes – which are by far the worst thing about the film – it is very, very Japanese.
It’s the opening that gets the film its reputation as derivative of Disney. This is true, but not to the extent many critics would have you believe, especially as I suspect many of those watched the dub, which introduces more songs. Young Sarutobi Sasuke lives in the forest with his big sister, making friends with all the animals of the forest (who speak in annoying baby-talk) and – appropriately, given that his name means ‘Monkey Jump’ – swinging through trees with monkeys. Amongst these animal friends is Bambi…no wait, Eri, who is very much a Bambi rip-off. When Eri gets in trouble with a hawk and ends up in a lake, he is attacked by a mysterious salamander. Sarutobi and the little deer’s mother save him, but at the cost of the latter’s life, though there thankfully the Bambi derivations end. The salamander just then decides to reveal itself to be a powerful evil spirit, a hideous woman in the oni/yama-uba/hone-onna tradition. To fight her, Sasuke realises he must learn ninjutsu. After a rather confused encounter with some bandits and the demon, Sasuke stumbles across the sennin/hermit Tozawa Hakuun (Presumably a descendant of Tozawa Hakunsai) who can teach him the ways of the ninja. Along with his sister, their animal friends, a little girl the bandits almost didn’t have the heart to kill and historical feudal lord Sanada Yukimura (played by a young Nakamura Katsuo, who would have a distinguished acting career and return to voice acting after several decades for Steamboy), Sasuke returns after three years to put an end to the demon – who hasn’t honestly done very much harm in that time.
The main problems with this film are its mixed animation quality and its pacing. Sometimes there is such fluidity in the animation that it rivals the Disney it aspires to emulate – two scenes in particular are remarkable: one of the demon doing a geisha-style dance that’s very obviously traced from live-action in the Snow White tradition, but another where Sasuke climbs up a mountain that I’m not sure could have been done that way. This latter scene is the only time there’s believable weight behind the boy’s movements, and a lot of reason the animation looks poor near the start is that characters sort of float, and if they fall, they never seem heavy at all. The art is very mixed, the characters constantly going off-model and some jarring filtered photographs used for the backgrounds. But this was a studio in its infancy (including being Rintaro’s second anime job), and the weightlessness becomes acceptable once Sasuke can fly and shoot fireballs and walk on water.
Overall, a piece of animation history well worth seeing, with occasional bursts of charm, style and technical excellence, tempered by a lot of problems. I’d avoid the dub, too: it’s a liberal adaptation that freely changes names and even events – at the end of the film, for example, the dub and my subtitles both had Sasuke agreeing to enter Yukimura’s service, but what he actually says is that he’s just a kid, and goes skipping off. Not Toei’s best, nor genre-defining, but well worth the watch.