Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the aptly named noel's fantastic trip

No, I did not pay $39.95 for this.
Most of us get obsessed with Japanese cartoons as children, and it's only later that we start to realize part of what attracted us to the things is that they are, at least to Western eyes, really strange. I mean, seriously; when you're a kid you just accept the fact that people might dress up in bird costumes and fight giant mummy robots, or that a World War Two battleship would naturally make a great intergalactic weapons platform. As adults, however, you take a step back and say, "wait a minute..."

I encountered Noel's Fantastic Trip, (or Noel no Fushigi na Bouken if you prefer) as an adult, so I have no childhood confusion about its narrative coherence-- there is none. This film makes absolutely no freaking sense what-so-ever. Equal parts fairy tale, antipollution message, and multicolored hallucinogenic experience, it's a movie that defies rationality, copyright, and traditional notions of "entertainment" and "common sense".

It's about a little girl named Noel. Sure, the VHS box copy describes Noel as a boy, but Noel is addressed as "miss" in the film, and the character is introduced singing a daydream song about living life as a country girl, making it clear that whoever greenlit this video release at Columbia hadn't bothered to sit through five minutes.

Noel's Holly Hobby obsession brought to life
Anyway, Noel lives on a floating island along with a zoo's worth of friendly animals. One day while relaxing in the sun after singing a song about wanting to be a country girl, Noel decides the Sun might like some ice cream. So, Noel and her little dog pal Pup take off in their airplane to deliver ice cream to the Sun. Now you might think,a movie about a girl living on an island floating in the sky piloting an airplane to the Sun while playing Good Humor Man, that's kind of out there. Well, just wait, this is the NORMAL part.

Once out of Earth's atmosphere, Noel encounters the Space Shuttle, a 2001 style ring space station, and in some sort of fanfic writer dream scenario, is passed by the Space Cruiser Yamato, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

We're off to outer space all right.
There's an extended musical number involving stars and asteroids and comets and outer space in general. Next stop is the Planet Gaudy, a glammed out place where everybody dresses as outlandishly as possible, until Noel convinces the citizens to take all their clothes off. Leaving a planet of nudists in their wake, Noel and pal reach the Sun, whose enjoyment of ice cream is only slightly marred by a bit of smog drifing in from some unknown planet.

set the controls to the heart of the sun's love of ice cream
Can Noel find the source of pollution and convince them to enact pollution controls? Diving underwater to escape the billowing clouds and belt out yet another song, Noel's subsea spotlit rock guitar solo is interrupted by the Beatles, complete with Yellow Submarine.

No, we're not kidding, that's the Beatles

After a couple of songs the journey continues, interrupted only by another song, and a smog attack. I guess the smog is tired of the incessant singing too. Who can save Noel now? Super Zoomer, of course! Super Zoomer, a whale in a Superman suit who's a student at the Superman school and can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands! He answers Noel's SOS and soon his mighty super whale powers have saved the day.

the super school for super students
On the horizon they spot the smog's source, a giant city full of factories spewing out pollution. And songs, also about pollution. Apparently this city, populated by foxes and bunnies and bears, was once nice and sunny, but when the factories came and people started driving smelly cars the air got bad and people got sick all the time. Explained through song, the conflicts of the industrialized world - things we like produced in factories that destroy the land and air - seem very simple, especially when set to music and illustrated with scenes of anthropomorphic animal children playing in aqueducts and junkyards.

Super Zoomer vs Super Smog
Luckily for the cartoon world, the problems of industrial pollution can be solved by hollering for Super Zoomer to come and battle a giant talking pollution cloud. Blue skies return to the animal city after Super Zoomer uses his super lung power to blow the pollution far away, where it becomes somebody else's problem. This allegorical battle between a talking super whale and a talking smog cloud seems downright normal compared to the next sequence, which is a musical production involving legions of tricycle riding babies pedaling in aerial formation from the time of the dinosaurs to the present. 

I repeat, tricycle riding flying babies.

Nothing a choreographed platoon of babies can't solve.
This confusing sequence is in aid of a son all about how the world is better now that cars are running on "good gasoline" and how we've saved the world through "clean energy". Is there a better way to promote catalytic converters and antipollution regulation in general? And... that's the movie. Feeding the sun ice cream, meeting the Beatles, calling a giant whale to fight pollution.

At a mere 70 minutes you'd think the film would zip past, but you'd be wrong. Most of the movie is songs, tedious songs. And while the musical numbers are full of colorful, psychedelic quasi-mod graphics, only children small enough to be transfixed by any colored moving shapes will find it entertaining. Those of us older than 4 will be scratching their heads in confusion at this, seemingly a film intended for babies, immigrants, and guys on mushrooms.

Noel's Fantastic Trip was based on a children's book by Japanese folk singer Iruka, who also voiced Noel and wrote and performed all the music (her son was cast as Noel's animal friend Kisonosuke, or "Pup" in the English version). Iruka has been performing since 1970 entertaining audiences throughout Japan and the world, and in 2004 was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the International Conservation Union for Nature Conservation. 

Iruka on stage
She would combine her storytelling ability with her passion for nature in her first children's picture book, 1977's  "Noel's Blue Umbrella", starring the first appearance of her alter ego Noel. 

In America Turner Production Services got the job of localization, which means more work for Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, and the Grimes, Curtis, Hammond gang. As part of Columbia's mid 1980s catalog of Japanese animated films, it shares the mysterious "can't believe this is for kids" vibe of their Sanrio films Unico In The Island Of Magic and Ringing Bell, but rather than super wizardry or bleak Darwinism Noel's Fantastic Trip gives us the Beatles, super whales versus super smog, and tricycle babies in formation.

The film's not without appeal; the character designs and animation reflect the charm of its children's book origins, and there's an aggressive whimsy in Noel's transforming house/airstrip, the super-school perched on a peak on a lonely asteroid, and the Dick Bruna/Richard Scarry animaltown residents. But when half the movie is taken up with mid-tempo musical numbers about stars or country girls or clean energy, you wind up boring older children, confusing adults, and making Apple's lawyers sit up and take notice.

Perhaps the film is, after all, more mysterious than fantastic, more of a pop-culture curiosity than a must-see cinematic gem. And yet, in spite of the movie's pacing flaws and general lack of focus, we can't help but admit that when Noel's Fantastic Trip decides to give us unforgettable moments, it doesn't let copyright or coherence stand in its way, and that's an attitude you don't see from most films. Maybe Noel and Iruka are right, maybe we do all need a mysterious journey every once in a while. 

-Dave Merrill

edited and revised 2017

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Unknown said...

$39.95? No wonder Tower Records went outta business.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dave. You have done us all a great service. Everyone who reads this will have at least another 70 minutes free to do something meaningful with their lives.

ferricide said...


so according to that link, iruka was a musician/music act who contributed 7 out of 10 tracks to the soundtrack -- which is likely the point of it. now whether the US songs are the japanese songs dubbed or original, i could not tell you. but i bet the credits of the US version can!

it appears that iruka is a folk singer.


guessing this was a vanity project gone awry, and then released in the US for no apparent reason. maybe iruka was popular with kids or something.

Anonymous said...

Pshaw, my copy has an old price tag of 69.95 on it.

Avery said...

The days when VHS prices rivaled Japanese OVA prices.

Unknown said...

$69.95? Who wanted that kind of money?

Then again, now that I think about it, back in the 80s that was the going price for a factory VHS tape.

Chris Sobieniak said...

$39.95? No wonder Tower Records went outta business.

Reminds me of a couple tapes I found of "Run for Life" and "Daddy Longlegs" that Mike Toole showed off in his "Dubs that time forgot" panel that had that price printed right on the covers! I can't imagine any parent paying $39.95 for an cartoon as boring as "Run for Life". :-)

it appears that iruka is a folk singer.

I noticed an "Iruka" was mentioned for providing the songs in the first Unico movie, but that was all I could find out of that.

$69.95? Who wanted that kind of money?

Then again, now that I think about it, back in the 80s that was the going price for a factory VHS tape.

Now you see why it was that DAMN important to make copies of these from the store! My mom learned that lesson WAY too early to buy a second VCR by '83! Buying anything but blanks was just unheard of for my mom at a time when they were pretty pricey.

Area88 said...

I'd love to see 'Run For Life'. It's the dubbed version of the Toei TV Special from 1981 called Run Melos. Any chance you could do a post on it?

Chris Sobieniak said...

Area88 said...
I'd love to see 'Run For Life'. It's the dubbed version of the Toei TV Special from 1981 called Run Melos. Any chance you could do a post on it?

Picked up that tape a while ago, but before that, I had this U-Matic tape I wasn't sure where it came from, but now I know thanks to Mike Toole's "Dubs That Time Forgot" last year!

Nice having a bit of Intersound history in my bedroom! ^_^

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Cory said...

I used to watch this video as a kid... and loved it.

Now of course I realize how trippy and odd it really is, so...

Ebay, here I come!

Chris Sobieniak said...

Ebay, here I come!

Already have mine!

Chris Sobieniak said...

Bothering to update, I see someone uploaded the Japanese version of Noel's Fantastic Trip over at YouTube. Might as well check it out if you want to see what Iruka had in mind!

Chris Sobieniak said...

Someone on Twitter had just posted a .gif of a moment from Noel's Fantastic Trip and I just had to come back here! I'm sad to remind myself of Danno's passing since he posted first here.

And while the redundancy is pushed to 11 now, I just like to mention the film has finally seen a DVD release in Japan last year. If anyone has an extra $30 or so to blow, this might be worth your while (hopefully it's a decent transfer).

And if not, there's always checking out the English dub on YT that's been sitting there for the past 3 years now, not that hard to find.