Returning to a Classic With Sinbad

One of the posters for Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima.

One of the posters for Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima.

With the popularity of Disney’s The Lion King it’s really hard saying the name Sinbad without saying Simba first, which would lend a whole new meaning to the story, The Seven Voyages of Simba the Sailor. There, I did it again.

One of the fantastic aspects of literature is that it allows us to experience different time periods as well as cultures from around the world. In fact, some of my favorite stories are about the traditional folk hero of the Anishinaabeg—more commonly known as the Ojibwe or Chippewa—tribe of North America. But, this doesn’t mean I have no love for stories from other traditions as well. For example, many of the classical Disney films are lifted from traditional European stories, while their modern library incorporates stories from around the world. While I don’t want to place anime and manga above other forms of media, I can say with certainty that during the infancy of both mediums they adapted many classical stories from the Americas and Europe. Rascal the Raccoon, Anne of Green Gables, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Heidi: Girl of the Alps, and Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures all come to mind when I think of adaptations found in early anime. However, as both mediums have grown, so have our expectations that authors and directors will bring new and captivating stories to audiences. Thus, to a certain degree these classic anime series and by proxy the source material themselves have waned into obscurity again. That’s not to say they’ve disappeared, but rather they’ve taken a backseat to newer ideas.

Yet, on July 4, 2015 Nippon Animation partnered with Shirogumi, Inc. to bring audiences a three-part film retelling Scheherazade’s The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor beginning with Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima (シンドバッド 空とぶ姫と秘密の島). As one of the progenitors of the anime industry, it’s nice to see Nippon Animation unearth an idea created forty years ago in order to present it to a new generation of anime fans. This latest film may have taken a new form as compared to their original effort, but, even their earlier TV series, Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures, was loosely based on the source material. So, even though Nippon Animation may have exercised some artistic license in regards to the source material, the characters and setting for Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima were wonderful for people of all ages, with an animation style reminiscent of legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s older works. Still, the film suffered from a short runtime, making it feel as though it only had two acts rather than three. Granted, this was the first of three films and when all is said and done, taken together they may feel like a complete story. But, as a standalone film, Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima felt incomplete.

When I look back to the anime series I watched as a child, only a small handful have retained their cultural significance, let alone kept a presence in the collective memories of people my age. True, two series, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, have seen a real resurgence in the form of new anime series, and a few others have been turned into feature-length films. But, for the most part if I were to ask people about a series like Tama and Friends, I’m sure people would say they vaguely remember it. I feel I would receive a similar response to many older anime series, particularly those aired in the 1970s. However, some anime production companies have begun to search their libraries for properties that can find a new light in the 21st century. We’ve seen this with Space Battleship Yamato 2199 and Cyborg 009, but very few fantasy series have made the leap into this century. However, this changed when Nippon Animation reimagined their 1975 series Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures for a three-part film series, beginning with Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima.

Three of the primary characters of Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima. Left to right: Sinbad, Sana, and Ali

Three of the primary characters of Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima. Left to right: Sinbad, Sana, and Ali

Though a latecomer in the early years of the anime industry, Nippon Animation has worked on a number of classic series. However, unlike other production companies established during the 1960s and ‘70s, many of their early works were adaptations of foreign stories. In fact, Nippon Animation produced many of the series I listed above. While I’ve seen one or two of these works in passing, like many other adaptations, Nippon Animation took some liberties in presenting them to the Japanese public. Thus, while containing elements of the source material, some of the series approached the material from a new angle. This was most likely the case with Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures. Granted, the series revolved around the character Sinbad, but there were probably times other elements of Scheherazade’s One-Thousand and One Nights were incorporated into the narrative of the series. Honestly, I don’t find this too upsetting, as this was one of the first times the Japanese public was introduced to these stories. Consequently, Nippon Animation kept the spirit of the source material alive, while adding their unique perspective to it.

Seeing as how Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima was released in the year of the fortieth anniversary of Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures, one who is not too familiar with the story would expect the film to recapture the essence of the TV series. Yet, this wasn’t the case. Rather, the film also presented a new perspective on Scheherazade’s stories in that it re-envisioned the narrative. Looking at the source material, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor for a moment, the stories centered on the adventures of Sinbad first and foremost with the mystical elements more or less a backdrop to many of the predicaments he found himself in. Though he gained wealth through these adventures, they almost certainly came at a cost. While I’m not familiar with Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures, as one of the early anime series I highly doubt much of the violence or themes of the source material were included and it focused instead more on the family-friendly whimsical nature of the tale. Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima is most likely similar to the TV series in this regard, but with a sense of adventure present in the narrative as well.

The sense of adventure came from the narrative presented in the film and how it related to Sinbad being young. The narrative isn’t too difficult to understand: Sinbad had aspirations to be a sailor and see the world and his first adventure fell from the sky as a princess and wizards. While not one of Scheherazade’s stories, one can see the influence from her works on the narrative in the film. As with the source material, Sinbad wanted adventure and to see the world and we saw how he was restless when the opportunity came to him. There was the fantastical element of magic and strange creatures as well, but these were more a backdrop to the adventure rather than being the focus of the entire experience. However, the creatures also lacked a ferocity one might see in the source material, yet the film used their whimsical nature to keep the narrative appealing for all ages. Consider, in a few of Scheherazade’s stories there are instances of creatures that meant to harm, maim, and do general violence to Sinbad and his crew. However, in the film we were treated to horses that can fly (mind you, they aren’t winged horses like the legendary Pegasus) and rather well-tempered Rocs, making it feel as though the film may have mirrored the TV series in this regard.

While these aspects of the film certainly helped allure audiences, it was the art direction that was satisfying. For those who are familiar with the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s work, the designs seen in Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima evoked a sense of the style of his early career, particularly Future Boy Conan and The Castle of Cagliostro. What I mean by this is whereas later in his career Hayao Miyazaki perfected his stylized characters, especially the facial expressions and eyes, in Future Boy Conan the designs were far simpler. True, his character designs have always been simple, but his early works lacked the sharpness of films like Spirited Away or The Wind Rises. On top of this, Hayao Miyazaki worked at Nippon Animation prior to establishing Studio Ghibli, so it’s actually no wonder why Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima has such a remarkably similar art style. Keep in mind, though, Studio Ghibli didn’t have a hand in the production of this film. As such, the film series is most likely paying homage to one of the greatest anime directors through this film, which I felt was a very nice touch on the part of the production team.

Sinbad on a flying, albeit falling, carpet.

Sinbad on a flying, albeit falling, carpet.

One thing that may upset some people, though, is the short runtime of the film. At just over fifty minutes the production team squeezed in the maximum amount of material the runtime would allow. This resulted in some scenes feeling rushed, particularly the second action sequence. However, as rushed as these scenes were, we were still able to understand the emotions running through them. So, on the surface while this may have felt like an issue, it surprisingly wasn’t. Many older family films used this technique and for adults it may be tedious, but it created enough suspense to keep anyone engaged. In spite of this, very few family films lack a third act. This was certainly the downfall of Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima as this disrupted the narrative flow. Granted, we were given the semblance of a third act, but it was brushed over so quickly it’s almost nonexistent. I suspect there were two reasons for this. The first is the production team was going to use the three installments of the film series to deliver a complete narrative for the characters, making this film the first act. Yet, even if this were the case, one would think Nippon Animation would understand even the opening of a trilogy still needs to follow some form of three- or four-act structure, whether the given story is from the East or the West.

It’s the second reason I find far more fascinating, though. Consider, through our collective conscience we have become accustomed to narratives following a three-act structure. Thus, when we are not rewarded with a conclusion, we may feel dissatisfied. Yet, if we reflect on how The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and even the other stories in the One-Thousand and One Nights were initially told, it’s understandable there were only two acts. Remember, the legend goes Scheherazade told 1,000 stories to King Shahryar over the course of 1,001 nights. But, to keep the king enthralled and herself alive for one more day, she would finish a night’s story in the middle claiming, “There is no time. The dawn is breaking.” Not only was this an ingenious way for her to stay alive, but in terms of storytelling this was a sure fire way to keep her audience captivated and longing for the conclusion of the story. The production team at Nippon Animation may have kept this in mind when creating the film series and if they did, it’s rather inspired because the end of this film truly made me interested in wanting to see the second installment.

To be completely honest, Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima was underwhelming. This doesn’t mean there weren’t some wonderful moments in the film, though. They mostly came in the first twenty minutes with the introduction of the heroine, Sana, and Sinbad saying his goodbyes. But, I never felt a sense of grandeur to the narrative or the adventure Sinbad was embarking on. It’s true the technical aspects of the film, such as the animation and storytelling styles, were inspired. However, I felt there wasn’t enough to keep all audiences members engaged with the story. Nonetheless, I have to admit the production team was wise in how they ended the film as it peaked my interest in the second installment. Fans of the medium may find a certain amount of pleasure watching the film. But, ultimately because this was a family film, I feel those with children will derive the most enjoyment from this particular installment of the three-part series.

Work Info
Sinbad: Sora Tobu Hime to Himitsu no Shima (シンドバッド 空とぶ姫と秘密の島)
Under: Nippon Animation
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