Taro the Dragon Boy
(Tatsu no ko Taro) (1979)
Directed by Kiriro Urayama

Artistic & Entertainment Value: * * * *

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In an ancient Japanese mountain village, where the land is so rough that the inhabitants cannot grow rice and so must survive on millet, a young boy, Taro, lives with his grandmother, since his own mother has vanished (the boy later learns that she was transformed into a dragon and now lives far away). Though Taro is unusually strong, and rather fat, thanks to his enormous appetite, he is also very lazy and never does any work. Instead, the boy spends his time eating, sleeping, and playing in the forest with the animals there. One day, while wrestling, and invariably defeating, various sorts of beasts, Taro is challenged by a tengu, who is sufficiently impressed with the youth to offer him a drink of a liquid that gives him the strength of a hundred men, though this can only be used to help others. Taro subsequently defeats the Red Demon, who had planned to eat him, as well as the Black Demon, thereby saving a young woman destined to be sacrificed to the fiend. He goes on to release the waters that the demon had been hoarding and keeping from a nearby village, and, having resolved to find his lost mother, sets out on a journey that takes him far from his home, exposes him to many dangers, and forces him to work for a miserly hag to get information about the whereabouts of his mother.

Kiriro Urayama's animated film Taro the Dragon Boy is a real joy. It is alive with a delightful narrative and countless gorgeous images.


In fact, the movie is often stunning visually. The stylized backdrops, which are rendered in sombre, simple, cloudy greys, resemble landscapes from traditional Japanese paintings and are, without exception, gorgeous. They give the movie a distinct timelessness, making the viewer feel as though he is being taken into another age, even another world, in which he cannot help but immerse himself. The character designs are often just as good. Once again, many of them are clearly derived from images and styles that can be found in Japanese painting. The demons, for instance, really look like they could have stepped onto the screen from some centuries old work of art. The director has, admittedly, included a few touches that are not wholly successful, usually for being too modern (such as the Red Demon's drum set, which looks like something from a rock band) or too cute (such as Taro's pink cheeks), but these missteps hardly spoil the film.

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What is more, while the story the director tells is fairly episodic, it derives so many of its themes from folklore and is so nicely related that it is always engaging and always pulls the viewer along with it. Though, to my knowledge, Taro is an invention of the modern age, he has all the traits, and so the aura, of an actual legendary hero. With his mysterious parentage, his lazy beginnings, his supernatural strength, his various contests with animals, monsters, witches, and the like, and his impossible good luck, he does seem to belong to the world of myth not that of fiction. I was thrilled to watch him battling demons, wrestling bears and a half drunken tengu, befriending a mysterious, flute-playing girl, encountering eerie, ghostly female snow spirits, visiting the home of a cackling, hungry old witch, doing an impossible amount of work on a farm by using his supernatural strength and by getting help from a pair of crows, and so on and so on. There is never a moment of the movie during which it is not thrilling or bewitching thanks to such elements.

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The film's only major problems are the dialogue as well as the work of a number of the voice actors in the English language dub. Some of the performances are just painful to listen to. They sound as though they were meant to be inserted in a Saturday morning children's cartoon and simply do not fit the movie. That said, though such things do make watching the film less enjoyable, they hardly ruin it.


Taro the Dragon Boy really is a delightful movie. It is suffused with a poignant magic that is sure to captivate the viewer.

Review by Keith Allen

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