Thursday, November 3, 2011

Puss 'N Boots (Japan, 1969)

Life is funny. One moment you’re gently ribbing a friend for his review of DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots, and the next he’s viciously throwing down against you with a review of a sci-fi tinged Brazilian take on the same tale with a guest appearance by Coffin Joe. To not respond in kind is simply not an option. And suddenly a life that was rich and varied, filled with possibility and hope, is narrowed down to just Puss in Boots.

For me, the most startling thing about this whole turn of events is just how ubiquitous representations of Puss in Boots turn out to be throughout world cinema. And this is especially so given my impression that Puss in Boots is one of the less beloved among the beloved fairy tales. Despite the fact that he was brought to us by Charles Perrault -- the man who also gave the world the literary versions of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood -- I always thought that he was something of a B-lister. Am I not right?

Whatever the case, there’s no ignoring that the Puss’s film incarnations are legion, rendered both in live action and every kind of mation (suit, clay and ani-) imaginable. Consider for example 1969’s Puss ‘N Boots, an animated interpretation of the tale from Japan’s Toei Animation studio. Toei was and remains a powerhouse in the world of Japanese animation, with its TV creations including such influential series as Sailor Moon and Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, and among its feature work, Puss ‘N Boots proved significant enough to merit its titular character becoming the company’s official mascot, a trademark that it uses to this very day.

Sadly, that pedigree does little to help me out where Puss ‘N Boots is concerned, as, with a few notable exceptions, I’m not much of a fan of drawn animation. Still, having become something of a reluctant expert on Perrault’s feline antihero in the past few days, I was able to entertain myself while watching it by noting the various ways in which it tweaked the original in order to make it more suitable for feature treatment. As I touched upon in my recent review of the scarifying El Gato Con Botas, the original, as initially committed to text by Perrault, is strikingly -- almost refreshingly -- lacking in the broadly drawn conflicts and heavy-handed moralistic underpinnings we’ve since come to expect from old school children’s stories. (As opposed to new school ones, which just tell kids how special they are… or how to poop.)

For instance, the Ogre in the original is really just another innocent victim of the cat’s con game (Perrault’s version of Puss, you see, is kind of a dick), and the human beneficiary of those games’ ill gotten rewards is a no-account layabout who -- at least, by the punishing standards of the genre -- is not manifestly deserving of them. Puss ‘N Boots makes short work of these inconvenient particulars, first of all by establishing its titular protagonist from the outset as a noble outlaw hero. And in keeping with that -- and, in the process, jettisoning a significant aspect of Perrault’s version -- he is already clad in his dashing little swashbuckler’s outfit when we meet him, boots, cape, feathered cap, sword, and all.

Such meeting takes place as the kind-hearted Puss, here called Pero, is being run out of his kingdom for the capital crime of allowing a mouse to live rather than eating it. In hot pursuit of him are a trio of bumbling cat ninjas, dispatched by the king with orders to kill, who will continue to pop up throughout the film and provide much of its slapstick humor. It’s not long before Pero comes upon our human hero, Pierre, a virtuous young innocent who lives in servitude to his ghastly brothers who, unknown to him, have cheated him out of his share of the inheritance left by his father. In stark contrast to his literary model, Pero decides to help Pierre, not out of any desire for self preservation, but simply out of the spirit of altruism and chivalry. Thus the two are set off along the road leading to the Princess with whom Pierre will become smitten and, ultimately, the villain he will have to vanquish in order to win her.

And it is in the casting of that villain that Puss ‘N Boots really doesn’t pussy foot around (sorry) in presenting its conflict in the starkest moral terms possible. Not content with a mere ogre, its makers instead give us “Lucifer, The Prince of Darkness”, who elsewhere is simply referred to as either “The Devil” or “Satan”, while at the same time being suitably ogre-like to nod in the direction of the traditional version. Yet, despite the potential for leaden allegory that this conflict presents, the tone that the film maintains while presenting it is consistently lighthearted. Immediately prior to working on Puss ‘N Boots, director Kimio Yabuki and animation director Yosuji Mori -- along with much of the film’s creative team -- had worked on the much more serious-minded animated feature The Little Norse Prince, and were determined with this follow-up to pursue a tone that was much more fun and loose. As a result, those potentially dark aspects of the story are here overbalanced by a heavy apportionment of visual comedy, as well as a focus on the type of swashbuckling action that seems to have become an increasing part of the Puss In Boots mythos as the years have gone by.

As with any Japanese treatment of Western source material, it’s tempting to look at Puss ‘N Boots primarily through a cultural lens. But I think that such a view would be warped by the fact that, with the film, Toei was clearly aiming for an international, rather than a strictly Japanese, audience. Previous of the company’s animated features -- Alakazam the Great, Panda and the Magic Serpent, and Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon -- had seen varied success as theatrical releases in the U.S. and abroad, and there is much to indicate that the same game plan was in place here. As such, the Disney influence -- freely acknowledged by Yabuki and Mori -- is strong on many levels, even carrying over into composer Seiichiro Uno’s original songs. These are schmaltzy but innocuous, with lyrics generic enough to convey all of the expected narrative beats in a suitably culture-spanning manner; there’s the rousing “friends to the end” number sung by Pero and Pierre at the outset of their partnership, and, for the young princess, a pretty trifle that, while sounding much like a traditional Enka ballad, gets across most of the same ideas as “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

The technical quality of Puss ‘N Boots, in keeping with the standard of Toei’s feature work at the time, is also top notch, thanks largely to a top-shelf animation team that included a young Hayao Miyazaki. Given that, it pains me all the more to say that there was little within it visually that was either weird of beautiful enough to really draw me in. Then again, it was competing with the unhappy fact that it was the second adaptation in as many weeks that I’d watched of a children’s story that I previously had basically no interest in at all.

The only question that remains, then, is this: Who will ultimately win this Puss-slathered standoff between Tars Tarkas and myself? (SPOILER: It will be Tars Tarkas. Because, while I’m pretty sure he still has another Puss up his sleeve, there is no way I’m going to tackle that Christopher Walken live action version from the 80s.) I’m sure you’ll all be waiting with bated (cat) breath for the outcome.


Danny said...

The shots you've got here definitely look pretty great, and that cat is adorable. I have to admit, my mind does boggle at the image of the European swashbuckling cat being attacked by ninjas, but I suppose that's postmodernism for you.

Todd said...

It's available from Netflix if you're interested. Personally, I think that, in addition to the ninjas, it could have used a couple of giant robots... and maybe a schoolgirl with a machinegun arm.

Sid said...

Hi Todd! Concerning the recent event between you and Tars, I just hope that it gets resolved as soon as possible with the least amount of damage. Oh, and just a suggestion. Maybe just to increase the type of films that you cover in your blog - and maybe to get more viewers - why not review the Yugoslav "partisan films," like "Sutjeska" feat Richard Burton in Serbo-Croatian and "Battle of the Neretva" (though that one was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film)? There may be some elements from it that I think may persuade you to review such movies.

Todd said...

Thanks, Sid. Don't worry about me and Tars Tarkas. No minor tiff is enough to sever the bond forged by our mutual love of crap. Also, thanks for not suggesting a Yugoslavian version of Puss In Boots. I'll look into the movies you mentioned when I get the chance.

LuckyTheBunny said...

Did Hayao Miazaki direct this movie? Someone online somewhere said he did so I looked it up, I am OBSESSED with his movies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :3

Todd said...

Bunny, I am helpless before your army of exclamation marks, and so have no choice but to answer your query: While Miyazaki isn't the credited director of the film (that would be Kimio Yabuki), it is said that he directed several of its sequences. So the answer, I guess, is "sort of".

Unknown said...

I found this film back in 2007 when my Mom had gotten me a DVD from the bargain bin, which featured cover art and screens form an entirely different Puss in Boots cartoon.

Initially, I was skeptical when the movie first loaded, because it was not what was advertised, but I quickly found it adorable and enjoyable, especially upon finding out it was a work of Toei

I'm actually impressed that my Mom got it for less than $3, it's certainly a gem in my DVD collection. :D