***This is a user-submitted post by our reader Esther. ***
Years before I knew about Studio Ghibli films and was introduced to Cartoon Network’s anime block, the Disney Channel would air two films about a cute little guy named Unico.
Unico was created by Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) who was renowned for his pioneering work in anime. Besides Unico, other popular works of his included Princess Knight, Astro Boy, Phoenix, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack. Tezuka’s legacy in entertainment earned him the names of “The Godfather of Anime” and “The Walt Disney of Japan”. (The latter title would also go to Hayao Miyazaki.) Ironically, the iconic large eyes of anime characters were inspired by Tezuka from observing Western cartoons, specifically Bambi and Pinocchio by Walt Disney and Betty Boop from the Max Fleisher cartoons.
Like early Disney films such as Pinnochio and Snow White, Unico’s story is about a kind innocent character who is exiled from his home and thrust into a hostile world. But with a bit of magic and a lot of courage to his credit, Unico overcomes obstacles including bullies, monsters, and sorcerers. The two films The Fantastic Adventures of Unico and Unico in the Island of Magic were created in the 1980s and the animation appears limited and dated by today’s standards. But there are some quaint backgrounds and spooky forests sufficient to tell enchanted tales. Older audiences may not sit through the movies, but I think kids will be able to stick with the simplistic yet profound stories.
Why did Tezuka give such an adorable character as a baby unicorn such challenges? Here’s his backstory from The Adventures of Unico:
Unico is one of several babies born to a mother unicorn who is singled out with a gift for bringing joy to others. But the gods consider his work unsuitable (“People should work to be happy! He’s obstructing business!”) and declare that Unico must die. Murder isn’t their style so the gods command the West Wind, a shimmering white spirit, to exile Unico. Instead the spirit chooses to leave Unico on a lonely island where he must fend for himself.
This is the beginning of Unico’s journey and what follows brings out the best of his character as he’s forced to make his way into the world. Some of the people he meets are kind and courageous while others are selfish and ungrateful. Some are monsters that he has to destroy. These are all part of Unico’s duty: to restore harmony to the world one person at a time.
The mission sounds like it should be sappy to the point of annoying but instead the stories flow with grace and gentleness. Maybe because Unico and his fellow animal characters aren’t just slapstick sidekicks or because Tezuka knew what he was doing by setting an adorable creature up against fearsome threats. He was telling us that even a small person can make a big difference if you stick to your guts and trust in your friends. When you’re a kid fretting about the Boogeyman under your best, it’s nice to know someone like Unico will watch your back.
Your name is Unico
That’s all you know
You’re lost and lonesome
No matter where you go
You’re always quick to make friends
And when someone loves you
Look, you can fly in the sky, Unico
With your big wings
You are the messenger of love
You bring happiness with you
-Lyrics from “The Adventures of Unico”
The Fantastic Adventures of Unico (1981)
Unico wakes up confused and dazed on a grim island set in the middle of the ocean. The West Wind has dropped him off in the hopes that he’ll be far away from the gods’ watching eyes and laments that the place is so desolate that there’s no chance Unico could use his powers there.
It turns out the island is inhabited by Beezel (Akuma in Japanese), a grouchy little demon who doesn’t know what to do with Unico except bully and yell at him. But really Beezel is lonely and bored. His one saving grace is his code of honor. After “borrowing” Unico’s horn for the day, Beezel swims into the ocean to give it back to Unico. The deed empowers Unico to transform into a fully grown unicorn and rescue both of them from drowning. As much as Beezel denies ever liking Unico, he discovers that his selfless action manifests in Unico’s ability to “power up”. But before they can become sincere friends, the West Wind removes Unico to the edge of a forest.
Unico then becomes a voice of reason for a cat named Katie who he finds traveling downstream in a basket. He follows her into an old woman’s house where Katie is obsessed with the idea that the old woman is a witch (she isn’t) and wants her to turn Katie into a human being. Unico grants Katie’s wish himself but reminds her, “You’ll have to act like a lady now that you’re human!” Disappointed to find Katie is still idle and self-centered, Unico’s magic eventually wears off. Only after Katie becomes more empathetic does her transformation into a human girl remain permanent.
The third act of the story takes a sudden dark turn when Katie, now a human girl for good, encounters a nobleman on a horse. He introduces himself as the Baron Ghost and invites her to come to his castle. If the shrill cry of ravens in the background didn’t give it away then the Baron’s red eyes warn the audience he isn’t all that he seems. He taints the forest with dark magic, causes animals to attack each other, and plies Katie with a bottle of wine. (Yes, there is underage drinking in this movie!) Unico unmasks the Baron, revealing his true form as an enormous horned monster plotting to destroy the forest. When Unico is gravely wounded in the fight, Beezel and Katie’s devotion cause him to transform again and destroy the beast once and for all.
The story ends on a bittersweet note when Unico is once again taken away by the West Wind. Beezel and Katie are upset to lose him but grateful for having befriended Unico. The old woman has Katie as a companion to help her, Beezel is given a horn of his own by Unico, and the forest has become a safe harmonious place once again. The only one who loses out is Unico, who cannot stay and enjoy the handiwork of his actions. As he is carried away into the sky, the film adds a hopeful reminder that he may yet bring joy to others:
Love is something that your heart gives willingly to others
Like a gentle rain that quenches the wastelands
Your love will eventually bear fruit
People are weak and little
But when they love someone they are reborn beautiful and strong
Themes of Transforming and Learning
Use of the “borrowed form” is a popular motif in anime and Tezuka uses it as well to define the characters. They each take on a mundane identity but reveal their “true form” at the pivotal moment to show the audience who–or what–they really are. The true form can be magnificent, beautiful, awe-inspiring, or downright terrifying. Unico’s ability to morph into a dazzling winged unicorn is a reflection of his strength and courage. Katie’s inner goodness earns her the chance to become pretty young lady with a pink dress, green eyes, and dainty red slippers. The Baron Ghost is a villain right out of a Grimm fairy tale who uses his disguise as a charming nobleman to conceal his true identity as a monster.
Beezel and Katie both want something (a horn to be a genuine demon and a spell to become a human being) but they have to earn it through goodness. Unico doesn’t spell it out for them and I think it’s because of his innocence that he doesn’t criticize them directly. He just knows there’s a right way and wrong way to do things and leaves it to them to decide for themselves. But by the end of the film they have both transformed, physically and maturely, through knowing Unico.
For a children’s film, this one has insightful messages and I’m glad I got to know Unico from early on.
Watch The Fantastic Adventures of Unico: DVD