Set in a far-distant land in the North many centuries ago, a brave young boy by the name of Hols meets Mogue the rock giant while trying to escape from a pack of wolves. He removes a sharp object from Mogue’s shoulder, which turns out to be the legendary Sword of the Sun. Shortly after, his father makes a dying wish that Hols should return to civilisation so Hols sets out with his friend, a talking bear named Coro, to look for fellow humans and avenge the destruction of his old village at the hands of a devil named Grunwald by forging the Sword and freeing the people of the North from fear once and for all.
It is important to note that this film is very old indeed – it was made by Toei Animation towards the end of the 1960s, and its age is reflected in the character designs and the visuals. They do look pretty dated and there are segments of static frames, but overall it has stood the test of time remarkably well. This is no doubt down to the staff involved: an early collaboration between those who would later found Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki was key animator and Isao Takahata the main director. The music was composed by Michio Mamiya, who would later write the score for Grave of the Fireflies, and planning was carried out by Toru Hara.
Historical significance aside, The Little Norse Prince succeeds in telling a great story. Setting an old Japanese legend in a mythical Scandinavian land, it is a surprisingly well thought-out tale of bravery and adventure: there are pervading themes of the importance of honesty and seeking out acceptance among others, while making a few points about human nature. The people of the village are shown to be brave but flawed souls living in a bleak world, constantly in fear of the terrifying figure of the evil Grunwald; working together, they can make their world a better place but when divided and in conflict, they struggle to survive. Hols must learn how to find his place in their remote community, and make the right decisions for the greater good.
Hilda, the strange and lonely girl who Hols meets on his adventures, has secrets of her own and she too has to search deep in her own heart to decide who she is and where her loyalties lie. For such an old film that was originally aimed at a young audience, the moral dilemmas presented here are surprisingly profound and many of the characters are very well developed.
Despite the above, this edition is probably intended for anime enthusiasts rather than a more general audience: the dialogue is presented in the original Japanese language with subtitles; presumably no English language track was available at the time of its release. Nevertheless, it is good to see a film that is, quite frankly, an important piece of anime history that has so far been very sadly overlooked.
For Miyazaki/Takahata fans and anyone interested in early examples of influential anime in general, The Little Norse Prince is a worthy addition to their collection. Its intelligent storytelling makes up for the dated animation, although the age group that it was made for will no doubt prefer the brighter visuals of the more recent Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.