Helen McCarthy follows the yellow brick road to Japan
An American girl, swept up in a whirlwind, is deposited in a magical land. Tiny, strangely-dressed people with a quaint way of speaking send her on a magical journey. She meets wizards, witches and a disparate group of friends who become more than the sum of their individual selves.
Tropes from The Wizard of Oz litter anime as thickly as any other form of fantasy. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first in a 14-volume series, appeared in 1900. Author L. Frank Baum, a political activist in his youth, packed political references into the 1901 Broadway musical based on his book. Their interpretation has generated debate ever since. Elements of Oz can even be read as references to Japan – an expression of the US Government’s interest in the Pacific.
The story was animated in short form as a 15-minute episode of Manga World Fairytales in 1978. The first feature-length anime based on the land of Oz was a 1982 movie from Toho, but it didn’t air in Japan until 1986. Director Fumihiko Takayama’s Oz no Mahotsukai made its debut in the USA as a 78-minute feature from distributor Fred Ladd, with dialogue recorded in English. It was cut to an hour and redubbed for Japanese audiences. It features a blonde Dorothy, but otherwise follows the 1939 American movie in sticking closely to the plot of the first novel. The music was by Joe Hisaishi, who went on to write the scores for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky.
Akira Miyazaki, who wrote the screenplay, is credited with writing the 53-episode Oz no Mahotsukai TV series, in production at the same time. Hiroshi Saito, a stalwart of children’s book adaptation, worked with him on the series. Toho and Panmedia produced the show for NHK, but it was screened in the USA in 1984 before making its Japanese debut in 1986. It was dropped by NHK and then ran on TV Tokyo, the 53 episodes reduced to 52 by cramming the last two into an hour-long “special”. To add to the confusion, the series then went out on video edited into feature-length chunks, although having a brunette rather than a blonde Dorothy helped to differentiate it from the earlier version.
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In 1988, another short version formed part of Mushi Pro’s Video Picture Book series. There have been a number of other Japanese visits to Baum’s universe, including a 1991 puppet animation, the 1992 sci-fi remake Wonderful Galaxy of Oz, and the anime series based on Natsumi Itsuki’s bleak 1988 post-apocalyptic manga Oz, also released in 1992.
Perhaps the most obscure reference comes in alien-invasion series RahXephon, where a character as manipulative as Baum’s wizard is shot while holding a copy of the novel – referring to the line Baum gave to his would-be master of magic: “Pay no attention to what the man behind the curtain is doing.” Over a century later, the great and powerful wizard is still at work.