Regarded as something of a high water mark in early Japanese feature animation, The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots (Nagagutsu o haita neko, also "Puss 'n Boots," 1969) was produced by Toei Studios' animation division, which from the late-1950s through the early-1970s was virtually the sole producer of feature animation in Japan, cranking out about one title per year. Their earliest ventures were based on Japanese and Chinese fairy and folk tales, but The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots, a free adaptation of Charles Perrault's classic story, is more overtly crafted in the Disney mold. Needless to say, the film's budget can't compete with the deep pockets of Disney, but the film is quite entertaining on its own terms and though overlong is notably superior to Toei's later Animal Treasure Island (Dobutsu Takarajima, 1971), another Discotek release.
Condemned for having spared the life of a rat, the puss of the title, Pero (voiced in the Japanese version by Susumu Ishikawa), dressed like a kitty-cat musketeer, escapes execution, fleeing into the night. He eventually meets Pierre (Toshiko Fujita), a young lad who lives like Cinderella with two greedy siblings, Daniel and Lemone, who cheat Pierre out of his share of their father's estate. Down but not out, Pero and Pierre decide to seek their fortune together.
Pero encourages Pierre to seek the hand of Princess Rose (Rumi Sakakibara) whose father, the King (Keaton Masuda), is in the process of screening potential suitors. One of these would-be grooms, the appropriately-named Lucifer (Asao Koike) eventually kidnaps the princess, and it's up to Pero and Pierre to rescue her.
The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots borrows liberally not only from Cinderella but especially Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, with the articulate cat in the Cyranno part, and Pierre sitting in for Christian de Neuvillette.
The film's strong suits are its charming songs by Seiichiro Uno, who scored many of Toei's animated features, and the basic appeal of the story and its tale of adventure, friendships, and romance. Discotek's excellent DVD offers both the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles, as well as an English track apparently dating from what appears to have been a direct-to-TV syndication release courtesy AIP-TV. The unusually good dubbing retains all the songs with new English lyrics which are often very different from but always in keeping with the spirit of the story and which remain true to the characters.
The English voice actors, sadly uncredited here (though this reviewer heard what sounded like Corinne Orr and Billie Richards in various roles) give performances worthy of those found in the best Disney or Pixar films, and in at least one respect improves upon the Japanese version. Pierre is presumably an older teenager or young man of about 17-18 years of age, but the Japanese version casts the very feminine Toshiko Fujita in the part; the Japanese tend to like androgynous casting in these young leading man parts, but to American ears it sounds more than a little strange.
(It's interesting to note the subtle differences in the English and Japanese scripts, which include minor name changes. Lucifer is a prince in the Japanese version, but a king in the American; the princess is Rosa in Japan but Rose in America, and Pierre for a time assumes the identity of Duke Caraba in the Japanese dub, but Prince Carabas in the American version.)
The Japanese cast is the usual mix of prolific voice actors familiar to anime fans and a few primarily live-action movie actors like Asao Koike, the longtime Daiei and Toei player seen in myriad yakuza and chanbara movies. (He also narrates Kinji Fukasaku's seminal Battles without Honor and Humanity and was the voice of Long John Silver in Animal Treasure Island). Keaton (or, in direct translation, Kiiton) Masuda, the voice of the King, was an old-time Japanese comic and character actor who took his stage name from the Great Stone Face.
The film breaks no new ground in terms of story or characterizations, but the friendship between Pero and Pierre is pleasant, Pierre's awkwardness around the princess, especially when pretending to be someone he's not, works quite well.
The film rises well above average during the climax. Up to this point the animation had been competent but not much better than that, but the slam-bang finish - a chase around Lucifer's marvelously cavernous, gothic castle - is exciting and imaginatively drawn. Not surprisingly, much of it was the work of young key animator Hayao Miyazaki, then just six years into his career and not yet 30 years old. The character designs aren't his, of course, but in the little bits of business and some of the sight gags one can recognize little flashes of the genius to come.
Video & Audio
The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots is presented in a terrific 16:9 widescreen transfer that preserves the original Toeiscope (2.35:1) theatrical aspect ratio. It's a treat to see this in widescreen (and this DVD marks its American debut in this format); the image is sharp with very little age-related wear other than a general tepidness of color. The 2.0 mono tracks for both the English and Japanese audio are fine, though the Japanese track is much cleaner overall. A separate music and effects track is offered as well, a nice extra. The aforementioned optional subtitles are excellent and kudos once again to Discotek for translating all the main title credits. Viewers also have the option to watch the film with English slates only.
Supplements include a 16:9 and subtitled trailer, "For good boys and girls everywhere!" which includes shots not in the movie. Also included are two very interesting Text Interviews, one with director Kimio Yabuki and the other, much shorter, with animator Yoichi Kutabe. They look to have been transcribed from video interviews, but in any case provide excellent background on the film. Finally, a Photo Gallery provides no behind-the-scenes images, but nevertheless a nice mix of color and black and white stills.
The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots is recommended not just to anime fans interested in the genre's history, but to general audiences who'll likely find this a pleasing if modest respite from the usual Disney fare.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.