Children are often frightened by inexplicable things. When I was but a wee goddess, for example, I was sent into paroxysms of terror by the bubbling cauldron sound effect at the beginning of the song “The Monster Mash,” and to this day I still have no idea why. Without fail, whenever the song came on the radio around Halloween, I would bolt from the room, trembling, with my hands clamped over my ears. Similarly, I have very vivid memories of a large, papier-mâché dragon mask made by my uncle sometime in the late 1970s. He kept it in his bedroom at my grandfather’s old house (which was a huge, dark, mysterious pile whose corridors and overgrown gardens still feature in many of my dreams), and I absolutely refused to go upstairs the entire time the mask was there. After all, It might have been watching me with those horribly blank eyeholes, and planning to gobble me up. The mask made such an impression, in fact, that many years later I used it as the basis for a short story called “Heartworms” (which can be found in my 2011 book The Associated Villainies, if you’d care to read it).
On the other hand, a great deal of ostensibly “children’s” entertainment is purposely made to be straight-up nightmare fuel, from the days of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the more modern frights dished out by the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the Harry Potter series. Most kids absolutely love to be scared, or at least I did when I was that age, as I rented age-inappropriate slasher flicks from our local video store and checked out every Alfred Hitchcock horror anthology from the library that I could get my sticky little fingers on. Often, when you see or read your childhood terrors again as an adult, you’re sort of shocked that kids turn out as relatively normal as they do, having processed images like that when their brains were still not fully formed (there’s also that corollary of “Why the hell did my parents let me watch/read that, for fuck’s sake?”). Think of the witch’s transformation scene from Disney’s Snow White, for instance, or the Heffalumps and Woozles from Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day, or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia. Think of Augra and the creepy Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, or the “Wembley and the Terrible Tunnel” episode of “Fraggle Rock.” When you really stop to think about it, a startling amount of children’s entertainment from my era is chock full of horrors, from the poor little cartoon shoe getting slowly lowered into the Dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the nightmare scene in The Brave Little Toaster to the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to pretty much the entirety of Watership Down. I don’t really have any definitive theories as to why writers and filmmakers often go so dark with material that is supposedly meant for children. It may be because, as creative people, they remember all too well how new and real everything feels when you’re a kid; scary things are ten times scarier and tend to stick with you for years in a way they fail to do as you get older. Adult filmmakers know very well that they’re terrifying the pants off the rugrats, but I don’t think they’re doing it out of sadistic glee. Quite the contrary, I feel that it’s a tremendous gesture of respect toward children, a way to say, “I know what I’m putting on the screen in front of you is scary, much scarier than it would be if you were a grown-up. But I also know that you’re strong enough to handle it.”
There were many, many cartoons that left an indelible imprint on my young and fragile psyche, but I’d like to discuss this particular one, simply because for many years I thought I had maybe imagined it. I remember seeing it several times on HBO or Cinemax somewhere around 1978 or 1979, but then not seeing it again for many, many years. Every now and then, a memory of a scene would drift through my consciousness, and I would ask whoever I happened to be with at the time if they knew what cartoon I was talking about. None of them did, and I began to feel as though the whole thing had been a fever dream. But then came the advent of the internet, and at last I was able to confirm that yes, it was a real animated movie, and yes, of course you can now watch the entire thing on YouTube. Big high five to the 21st century.
Jakku to Mame no Ki, better known by its English-language title, Jack and the Beanstalk, was a 1974 Japanese attempt at replicating a more Western, Disney-style musical animated film. It was directed by Gisaburö Sugii, and was of course based on the well-known fairy tale, though because it was Japanese, it seemed like it couldn’t help but go off in some fairly strange directions.
There’s the standard fairy-tale opener of Jack buying some magic beans and climbing up the subsequent stalk, and there is a giant involved, but here’s where things get sort of weird. The first person Jack meets when he gets to the castle in the clouds at the top of the beanstalk is Princess Margaret, a big-eyed, pointy-haired beauty who seems ever-so-slightly out of it. She’s very wispy and serene, floating around on little cloud puffs and humming contentedly to herself. She takes Jack into the seemingly deserted castle and shows him a glowering portrait of a giant, hulking brute named Tulip, who she is going to be marrying the next day. She is clearly blissfully happy about this development, swirling around the empty castle rooms like a super mellow hippie chick on a massive dose of E, but Jack just seems wigged out by the whole situation. His unease only grows when he is introduced to the giant’s mother, an Evil Queen/Maleficent/Cruella DeVil simulacrum named Madame Hecuba, who has a scrawny, terrifying face, huge evil eyes, and a creepy-as-fuck old-hag voice. She can also move things around just by waving her hands, so you know she’s no one to trifle with, although at first she seems rather hospitable, if a tad menacing. Madame Hecuba sends Margaret to her room to “fix her makeup” (we find out later that the witch is using a drug that comes out of a powder compact to control Margaret and get her to marry Tulip so that Madame Hecuba can be queen and run the Land of the Clouds after she offs the princess) and then takes Jack up to the dining hall. They walk through the darkened, cavernous hallways with the weirdly patterned floors, and then they get into an elevator that takes them up to the long, eerie dining room. There, the witch feeds Jack a soup that knocks him out, and then she greedily stashes him in a pot for later eating, gloating the whole time that it’s been twenty long years since she was last able to feast on human flesh.
The scene I’d like to focus on is the wedding scene between Tulip and Margaret, because it’s sort of trippily disturbing in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate when I was seeing it as a child. We see the stupid, apelike Tulip getting spiffy in his wedding clothes, and then we see Madame Hecuba industriously cutting something or other out of sheets of white paper. There’s a shot of Margaret in her wedding dress, sitting in front of the mirror in her room, totally spaced out and not moving. In the next shot, we see that Madame Hecuba has actually been cutting out life-sized and square-headed paper people, with only slits for eyes and no other facial features, and now she’s draping them lovingly over the pews in the wedding chapel. Did I mention that Hecuba is singing a totally weird song while all this is going on, complete with witchy cackling and lyrics about how she can’t stop laughing because she knows her terrible scheme is coming to fruition? Yeah. Japan. Anyway, Tulip lumbers in in his ridiculous suit, and then Hecuba raises her arms, and all the paper people stand up like reverse dominoes. She spreads her arms again and all the paper people dutifully sit down.
The witch then goes to Margaret’s quarters. Margaret stands up when she enters, as if on cue, but doesn’t look at her or speak. Hecuba tells Margaret that her bridegroom is waiting, and that all the guests are assembled in the chapel, and that Margaret mustn’t keep everyone waiting. The drugged Margaret follows the witch out of the open-air room without saying a word. Then, there is the sound of wedding bells from the tower, and a slow pan down the exterior walls of the castle. Meanwhile, Jack and his dog have found the treasure room, where there are a group of mice in fancy dress crying about the impending wedding (these are the people who rightfully lived in the castle until Hecuba turned them into rodents, you see). Jack threatens a talking harp with an axe to get info about how to break the spell that Margaret is under so he can save her. The harp finally caves and gives the standard answer that the spell can be broken by a kiss from a “brave” man.
Next, we hear those dissonant wedding bells, sounding more like grim funeral tolls, and there’s a green-tinted shot of Tulip walking down the aisle with a very tiny and clearly benumbed Margaret sitting on his arm (the implications of which weirded me out even as a child). Then the priest, who is also a paper person but actually has a freaky-looking mouth that looks like a pulsating butthole in addition to the triangular slit-eyes, begins singing a really unsettling wedding song (that has some bizarre Klaus Nomi moments) as the bride and groom approach. Madame Hecuba is standing at the back of the chapel, her hands clenched in front of her in gleeful anticipation, an evil grin on her face. Margaret slides off the giant’s arm and stands in front of him, only coming up to his enormous crotch (ewwwww). Everything is still colored a sickly looking green, and the paper priest is still singing. The paper people in the pews stand up, and there’s a panning shot of their empty, triangular eyeholes. There’s Tulip again, looking adoringly down at his bride, and there’s Margaret, looking totally slack and unreactive, and then there’s Madame Hecuba’s hungry visage. The screen goes red, and we see Hecuba’s fantasy, where she is dressed in queenly raiment and uses her wand to turn Tulip into a rat. A moment later, the screen goes yellow and we see what is presumably Tulip’s fantasy, he and Margaret swinging on an enormous wedding bell. Then everything’s green again. “He loves her,” Hecuba hisses over a shot of Tulip gazing lovingly down at Margaret. “She loves him,” Hecuba says over another shot of Margaret looking like a zombie. “The perfect match!” she cackles, and then the paper priest, still singing, starts kinda rising in the air, with his little paper bible held in one paper-strip hand. Then all the paper people in the pews are waving around in time with the music, and then everything in the chapel starts lurching and waving, and everything’s green and sort of seasick-looking, and Hecuba keeps insisting in her horrible voice, speaking telepathically to Margaret, “Say that you love him! Say that you love him!” And it’s all very psychedelic and unsettling, and it was kinda freaking me out again as I watched it for this recap, but then the whole wedding comes to a screeching halt when Jack comes crashing in through a stained-glass window to kiss the bride and break the spell. After a harrowing chase around the castle during which Tulip causes easily one hundred million dollars worth of damage, the day is saved.
Oh, and did I also mention that suddenly Hecuba has fangs, Tulip can Hulk out to like ten times his size and wears boxer shorts with hearts on them, and that when Tulip finally gets sick of Hecuba’s shit and steps on her, it turns out that she’s mechanical? Yeah. Japan.
I have to say that even as an adult, I still adore this cartoon. The animation is somewhat shoddy, even for the time, and some of the dubbing work (particularly the voice of Jack) is a bit goofball, as happens with a lot of Japanese imports. But there’s just something about the whole eerie atmosphere of it that still gives me a pleasant little shiver. When I originally saw it, I had no idea that it was a dubbed Japanese film, so perhaps that contributed to the otherworldly vibe it gave off that kid-me found so off-putting and appealing at the same time. The music is also weirdly great, and there’s just such an early-70s acid-trip patina coating the whole experience that I can’t help but be captivated all over again anytime I watch it.
Until next time, Goddess out.