As part of my mission to tell you wonderful people about great old anime you may not have heard of….. today we’re going back to the sixties to talk about a little-seen gem.
Despite being into anime since the early 90’s I never went to a dedicated convention until the early 2000’s. There weren’t really many of them around here and so I had to travel further afield. Cons were like the wild west back then, full of fansub screenings and a ton of pirate copies in the dealer rooms. One such home-made VHS tape caught my attention standing out against a plethora of DVD-Rs because of its highly unusual cover art. A crudely printed image of a skeleton in a sea captain’s coat and hat caught my attention. The cover and spine had the title in kanji so I didn’t know what the film was called but the image piqued my interest. The back cover showed what looked like a ghost ship and a young boy and girl.
Judging from the art and the creepy looking cover I thought it looked like some really Interesting old horror anime. I instantly wanted to buy it however the guy selling it crushed my dreams with his frankly ridiculous asking price for what was essentially a bootleg on an already out of date format.
So i grumbled to myself and wandered away. Later I wished I’d asked what it was called because I couldn’t find information about it anywhere. Since I didn’t know its name I googled stuff like “horror anime sea captain” or “anime ghost pirate captain” and various other things but nothing came up. In that era it wasn’t always easy to find information about things that had went unreleased in the west and my knowledge of it was rather vague.
Some years later and completely by chance I came across the blog of a great guy called Dave Merill. It was called Let’s anime. Because his blog was a gold mine of information on quite obscure otaku subjects I read it quite religiously. In 2009 he posted an article about an old favourite film of his, one of the images showed the same creepy skeletal captain I’d seen years before!. At that moment I learned the film I had been denied the bootleg of years before had been a little movie by the name of Phantom Flying Ship (Sora tobu yûreisen in its native Japanese).
Merill’s article made it sound incredible. It sounded as if it had almost everything I could ever want from a movie: flying fortresses, a robot, monsters, conspiracies and a cute dog sidekick. It sounded like a sci-fi adventure movie combined with B-movie chills (which was a lot more than it first appeared to be). I also learned it had some real talent behind it. Which made me want to watch it even more.
It was quite a while later that I eventually did track down a copy however it was an AVI file “rip” of a VHS recording. To say the quality wasn’t great was an understatement. That being said it did not matter one bit to me. I felt as if I had found some kind of strange otaku holy grail. I worried that if the film was terrible the near mythical search that had led to it would all feel like a monumental waste of time.
Thankfully I shouldn’t have worried. The first time I watched Phantom Flying Ship I thought it was a gem and I still do. Some may find it a rough gem by today’s standards (it was made in 1969 after all) however not as rough as you might think. Being a theatrical feature it actually looks surprisingly good for its age. In fact for such an old movie some of the detail in the art and the fludity of the action sequences are a sight to behold.
So what’s it about? It all starts with a young boy called Hayato (voiced by the inimitable Masako Nozawa the voice actor behind Goku in every iteration of Dragon Ball) and his parents witnessing a car accident. In order to help the survivors, an old couple; Mr and Mrs Kuroshiro the family take them to a nearby old house in order to call for aid. The news has been filled with reports about a ghostly ship appearing mysteriously and Hayato runs into its owner, a creepy skeletal apparition of a sea captain who tells him a tale of how he and his family were murdered before swearing vengeance on those responsible and gliding eerily back to his ship in the distance.
Soon after the city is attacked by a giant mechanical golem. The phantom ship is believed to be the creator of the mechanical menace and the military fail to stop the creature as it wreaks havoc. In the ensuing chaos Hayato’s house is destroyed. He returns home to find his mother dead and his father at death’s door, his Dad tells him some shocking news; that he is not their real son and was adopted at a young age. He felt he couldn’t go to his death without telling hm the truth. Hayato is now alone except for his loyal pet dog Jack and is soon taken in by the wealthy Mr Kuroshiro, the man whose life he helped save.
However it isn’t long before Hayato discovers all is not what it seems. A chance discovery reveals a secret room in Kuroshiro’s home and when he gains access to it he finds a large hangar that just so happens to house the mechanical golem that killed his parents. The one that supposedly is under the command of the captain of the phantom ship!
Hayato sets off on a mission to uncover the truth about his new guardian. He soon realises that the phantom ship isn’t the bad guy after all and that there is a severely disturbing conspiracy underway with far-reaching implications.
Phantom Flying Ship is a sort of boys own adventure, the likes of which you’ve never seen before. The golem scenes are reminiscent of something out of a kaiju film (the military try to stop the advancing monster with missiles, machine guns and tanks but to no avail) however several revelations later it shifts gears dramatically into a grandiose adventure, albeit with some very unsettling scenes for a film aimed at a younger audience.
While the film isn’t violent per se it does have some disturbing imagery in it. The death and destruction caused by the golem is shown in some detail. Although the death of Hayato’s parents isn’t particularly gruesome it’s still undeniably harsh to see the hero’s parents crushed by rubble and then to see Hayato’s father suffering in hospital before slipping away shortly after (particularly so early in the film). The way Hayato tries to deal with it is surprising for a kids film as well. He gets angry for being left alone, defiantly deciding that he won’t be sad about their passing, promising that he won’t cry (which of course is a promise he cannot keep).
I don’t want to spoil too much so I won’t talk about the further revelations of the film but let’s just say that while Kuroshiro appears to be the main villain he is most certainly not and is being manipulated by a higher power.
A subplot revealed early on is that the kids are all drinking a popular soft drink called “Boa” which is advertised on TV constantly. This turns out to be a central element of the plot and is linked with the conspiracy. Kids are promised a prize of an undersea voyage in a submarine if they collect a certain number of bottle caps however the drink is manufactured to be addictive, worse still in large doses it is lethal and is part of a sinister plan to kill off a large number of the population. As Hayato discovers to his horror when a salaryman at a vending machine melts into a puddle of goop after drinking one, leaving only his clothes behind in a puddle of ooze. Pretty intense stuff for a film aimed at the family.
If the film sounds kind of crazy it’s because it is, morphing from Scooby Doo style mystery adventure to kaiju film to conspiracy thriller to an adventure film with Jules Verne “steampunk” style elements however it never loses you throughout any of it because it’s just so interesting and such a fast paced wild ride.
Key animation on this film was by future Ghibli icons Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and as previously mentioned it looks pretty damn good most of the time for an anime movie that’s pushing fifty years old!
The pedigree doesn’t stop there either. It was based on a manga short from a 1960 issue of Shonen Magazine by none other than Shotaro Ishonomori (Of Cyborg 009 fame). The film was directed by Hiroshi Ikeda another Toei staff member who also directed the really fun 1965 comedy TV anime Hustle Punch.
Despite the production values being pretty good it has a flew flaws that are more to do with it being “of its time” than anything else. For example the mystery of Hayato’s real parents is a question that no-one will have much trouble answering and the young girl who helps him in the latter half of the film feels a bit underdeveloped as a character. In fact looking at the film as a whole there are no particularly strong or standout female characters. Most of my anime fandom is for productions from the 70’s onwards to modern day, I’ve only seen a comparatively small amount from the fifties and sixties so I don’t want to make any real judgements on this subject but certainly most of the films and shows I know of featuring strong female leads came from the seventies, eighties and beyond.
Other reviewers have noted the presence of Hayato’s dog Jack as an annoyance throughout the film, personally I didn’t mind him but that might be cause I’m a dog lover. I actually found him and his attachment to his precious bag of junk quite endearing.
While I might have made it sound like a silly B-movie I think that there’s a lot of imagination, creativity and clever ideas in the film, particularly in the latter half when the ghost ship’s captain (allied with Hayato) takes on the real enemy who’s pulling everyone’s strings. There is subtext to be found as well (if that’s your bag) covering everything from a child’s fear of not being listened to, to the evil of multinational corporations, and the kind of paranoid plot twists that will give the tin foil hat brigade plenty of sleepless nights.
It’s a fun, well paced and exciting film that seems unusually dark for a kid’s movie but its real brilliance is the way it effortlessly mixes a myriad of different genres and ideas into a melting pot that just somehow works.
The film has a certain air of rebellion about it that feels like the folks at Toei were just doing whatever the hell they wanted and raising a middle finger to the values and norms of animated movies of the time. The fact that some of the same crew made the hugely ambitious (and rather grown up) Horus: Prince of The Sun only a year before may have something to do with that.
I will close this article by saying a HUGE thank you to Nanto at the fine blog The Skaro Hunting Society, a fantastic source for all old school fans for posting their recent HD fansub release of Phantom Flying Ship which I used as the basis for my review. Also to Mr Merrill of Let’s Anime who provided the script for this translation. It was a treat to see this film again and in high definition. I can now finally discard the VHS rip I once held so dear.
If you’re looking for something just a little bit different give this vintage anime movie a try. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over the years.