The cute little unicorn Unico first entered my world thanks to a giant poster for the Columbia videocassette release, prominently displayed in the window of the Record Bar at the local mall. VHS, Record Bar, you know we’re talking 1980s here. I was a mopey teen with a jones for Japanimation in any form and the big-eyed anime style was unmistakable, even across the crowded mall.
Upon closer examination I noticed the “Tezuka Productions” logo on the poster, which gave Unico an anime world pedigree of the finest caliber. The next week the poster was gone from the window, but a word with the manager and that same poster was mine to take home and haul around for the next few decades.
Unico, of course, is a magical blue unicorn whose only desire is to make people happy. This leads to trouble with the powers-that-be, who happen to be gods. Their wrath sends Unico on a never-ending journey via the gentle spirit of the West Wind, and wherever Unico winds up there’s somebody needing to be made happy, so it all kind of works out.
First serialized in Sanrio’s magazine “Lyrica”, Osamu Tezuka’s original Unico manga is aimed solidly at children, though not without the occasional touch of a socially relevant or moralistic storyline. A later, even simpler version ran in Shogakkukan’s “First Grader”.
Unico prepares to destroy industrial capitalism
Sanrio, having animation experience with films like The Mouse And His Child and the Nietzschean survival saga Ringing Bell, co-produced a Unico pilot film in 1979 as the springboard for a possible TV series. The television show didn’t pan out, but a few years later Sanrio would team up with anime studio Madhouse to produce a Unico feature. Like their previous Ringing Bell, the Unico film is a well-animated and surprisingly dark fantasy, with cute characters and humor countered by ominous and at times threateningly dangerous situations, all lushly rendered and strikingly designed. The followup feature, 1983’s Unico In The Island Of Magic, features Moribi “Lensman” Murano’s angular character designs and the haunting threat of living puppets.
box art for Unico pilot film
Both Unico features are fully realized motion pictures filled with interesting characters, some of whom are devils and others who turn into teenage girls and are seduced by mysterious barons. When things get scary and/or dangerous, Unico himself turns into a giant adult unicorn, perfectly capable of killing the bad guys. Perhaps Unico is, again, like Ringing Bell, maybe a bit intense for younger children. Regardless, both films received a fairly well-promoted home video release in the United States back in 1984. As a staple of the children's video section, Unico and its Magic sequel did journeyman work as video babysitters for the youngsters who would later grow up, become anime fans, and start to remember this crazy thing they saw when they were kids about a little unicorn.
Sadly, for years the only way to see Unico was to dig out your old VHS copy. Vaporware outfit “New Galaxy Anime” announced a DVD release but failed to generate anything but a website. It took Discotek Media to finally return Unico to American audiences with a fine pair of DVDs that feature the Columbia English dubs and the original Japanese language track (with English subtitles).
Bringing the story of Unico full circle, the original Tezuka manga was recently released in English by Digital Manga, after a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign. Has America now reached full Unico saturation? Nope; another short Unico anime film, “Saving Our Fragile Earth,” was produced for the Kyoto Osamu Tezuka World museum. The film is exclusive to the museum, making Kyoto the perfect vacation destination for Unico fans. See you there!