Revisiting Osamu Tezuka’s emotionally complex, long-lost Unico films
Most children of the 80s and 90s will remember The Last Unicorn, the beloved, albeit dark cult animated film based on Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel of the same name. Fewer, however, will recall the other melancholic Japanese-animated 1980s film about a sad little unicorn: The Fantastic Adventures of Unico.
Based on the charming late 70s manga by Osamu Tezuka — who is largely regarded as the godfather of manga and anime, and is also the creator of the iconic Astro Boy character — The Fantastic Adventures of Unico was originally released by Sanrio (the company behind Hello Kitty) in Japan in 1981. 35 years ago (1983), it was re-released in English, gaining traction overseas throughout the late 80s thanks to airings on the Disney Channel and its availability on VHS.
As a young girl, I remember renting the relatively obscure film and its sequel religiously at Blockbuster in the 90s. Even when presented with fresh options in the New Releases section, I would return diligently to Unico time and time again, entranced by the film’s magical world, memorable characters, and whimsical journey; animation style that was (at the time) wonderfully foreign to me; and, perhaps most curiously for a child, tragic themes that traumatised me.
Sadness has always seeped its way into children’s media — from the harrowing death of Bambi’s mom in Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, to little mouse Fievel’s depressing journey in Don Bluth’s An American Tail — in order to provide critical, if bittersweet messages about the world. Unico, however, exists on its own plane of existential sorrow.
The film follows the misadventures of a wide-eyed baby unicorn who brings happiness wherever he goes. The gods, who are jealous of his magical abilities, send the West Wind to exile Unico on the Hill of Oblivion, where he will be forgotten and alone for all eternity. Unable to bring herself to banish him, she instead takes Unico to the Island of Solitude, where he meets and befriends a small devil named Beezle. Unico’s magic turns the island lush and beautiful, drawing the attention of the gods, and so he is picked up by the West Wind once more and brought to a forest where he meets a cat named Katy, whose wish to become a human girl is granted by the little unicorn.
Amid all the sweetness, Unico must overcome horrifying perils in order to help his friends. In return, the characters learn about selflessness and sacrifice, thereby earning Unico’s magic. Tragically, each time Unico overcomes great danger — whether rescuing Beezle from nearly drowning in a poisonous sea, or battling a nightmarish demon that captures Katy — he is taken away by the West Wind, doomed to wander the world alone as he flees from the wrath of the gods, despite his good deeds.
“Tezuka’s Unico is a requiem for sorrow that shucks the pandering naiveté of other cutesy animated tales for something more complex and existentialist”
Bright, candy-coloured animation and simplistic storytelling aside, there’s a brutal bleakness to the world Unico inhabits and the fate he is subscribed to. While relatively “happy endings” are made available to the other characters the unicorn encounters, many of which are made possible by Unico’s magic, the lonely creature ultimately ends up being taken away from the friends and homes he has made, his memory wiped clean each time. It’s a sombre, jarring cycle, but not so different from the peaks and valleys of real life.
Like many of the works of Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, other beloved Japanese auteurs, the original iterations of Unico — the 1976 manga and its original anime pilot, Black Cloud, White Feather — centre on ecological themes. The Fantastic Adventures of Unico and its surreal 1983 sequel, Unico in the Island of Magic, however, deal with more humanistic, ethereal subject matter: isolation, transformation, duality, self-sacrifice, innocence lost, and inevitability.
The legacy of Unico is a testament to the power of Tezuka, who never shied away from powerful, mature themes in his work: Whether overt or subtle, the artist tackled topics like consciousness and artificial intelligence (Astro Boy), rebirth and karma (Phoenix), morality and corruption (Jungle Emperor Leo), agency, and gender politics (Princess Knight). Tezuka, who is often attributed as being responsible for modern anime’s signature eye design (a style he adapted from Western cartoons like Betty Boop and Walt Disney movies, specifically Bambi), was so prolific that in 1965, Stanley Kubrick invited Tezuka to art direct his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The collaboration didn’t pan out due to scheduling conflicts, though the forward-thinking filmmakers continued to share mutual admiration for one another.
Notwithstanding its kawaii kodomomuke aesthetic, Tezuka’s Unico is a requiem for sorrow that shucks the pandering naiveté of other cutesy animated tales for something more complex and existentialist. Perhaps this is why it’s become such a cult favorite among longtime fans — as well as a sort of lingering fever dream for those who watched it as children, but can only remember it in shadowy, fleeting flashes of emotional déjà vu. This is especially true for Island of Magic, which some claim may be the “most horrifying children’s film ever made”.
Tellingly, the endings of both The Fantastic Adventures of Unico and Unico in the Island of Magic find the titular character being spirited away once more, as the too-pure-for-this-world creature gazes longingly at the things he wants but cannot have, for reasons beyond his control. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not entirely unhappy, either; the scene conjures a bittersweet mixture of understanding, empathy, resignation, and gloom. Ultimately, the films’ nostalgic salience lies within the relatable tragedy of little Unico — a powerful reminder that loneliness and sadness are inevitable, but somehow we get by.