Ya know, Crunchyroll is a pretty good website. In addition to that simulcast business we all take for granted, they pepper us with shotgun blasts of catalog content on an increasingly regular basis. The last couple of months have seen them unveil some particularly good and noteworthy shows. In late April, CR’s batch of releases included the 1981 film Unico, which absolutely jumped off the page at me. I hadn’t ever seen Sanrio’s beloved classic—released in English as The Fantastic Adventures of Unico—and since it was now available to stream freely, I was all out of excuses.
Watching this movie turned out to be a great decision. I was absolutely delighted by Unico, specifically its simplicity. I don’t at all mean this as a pejorative; simplicity should not be equated here with insignificance. Often, the clarity and singular focus of simpler stories make them far more emotionally effective (and, at times, more intellectually satisfying) than grander, multifaceted yarns, and this is certainly the case with Unico. The raw power present within the imagery of the film would be blunted if your brain wasn’t completely in the moment. Each scene is able to speak for itself and, thus, clearly articulate itself, producing within the viewer emotional responses more deep or complex than the actual story itself. This is the mark of simple and effective visual storytelling.
For the purposes of elaboration, I’d like to unpack Unico’s opening scenes. Our hero, the titular character Unico, is a young unicorn granted a special power from birth: he can make people happy. Anyone who interacts with Unico will find happiness, either through his granting a simple wish of theirs or through the joy that the unicorn brings into their life. The gods are none too pleased that such a power exists in the human world, for human beings are meant to attain happiness only by striving for it. Just giving it to people misses the whole point, so they say.
Thus, Unicio’s divine punishment is exile to someplace ominously called The Hill of Oblivion, a place so out of human reach that no one would ever be made happy by Unico again. The gods delegate the task of the exile to The West Wind, but, she feels pity for Unico and cannot bring herself to whisk him all the way to The Hill of Oblivion. Instead, she places him on a desolate, craggy beach at the ends of the Earth. Her sorrowful parting words to a sleeping Unico are, “The gods will never find you so long as you don’t use your power to make others happy.”
As I watched the story’s introductory act, I thought to myself, “Why are you so mad, gods?” What’s the big deal here? Even if your job is to allocate happiness, isn’t little Unico just making it easier for you? It turns out that, when it comes to happiness, ease of distribution matters far less than method of obtainment, at least as far as us mortals are concerned. According to the gods of Unico, happiness is something to be earned, not merely received. Moreover, it ought to be earned through them. If Unico is all it takes to make people happy, what are people going to need the gods for?
We aren’t informed as to what criteria one has to meet in order to merit happiness, but you’d think that if any creature is deserving of the gods’ blessing, it’s Unico. He’s a being whose natural tendency is to bring joy and goodness into the lives of those around him. Yet, because this tendency subverts the system/laws the gods have in place, Unico, and those he whose lives he might potentially enrich, must suffer.
Think, for a moment, on what the gods have done here. The exile is bad enough, but Unico has been left with a truly horrific choice: live out the rest of your days refusing to be what you naturally are or receive further divine punishment. As the film progresses, we see that Unico isn’t a neutral or indifferent being wielding a special power. On the contrary, it is often Unico’s love, kindness and caring nature which prompt people to change their lives for the better. The joy in which the young unicorn takes in communing with others spawns new joy in their hearts. All of this emanates quite naturally from Unico; it’s very much who he is. Describing Unico as “having a special power,” as the film does, might be a little misleading. A fuller, more accurate description might be that Unico’s character, his being, is of a supernatural quality.
And, he’s being told to just stop being that. Cease being yourself. All the things you find pleasure in doing, things which flow from who you are, cannot be things you participate in any longer. Sever your living experience from your self (in the way that German philosophers talk about the self). Do this, or face the wrath of heaven. “The gods will never find you so long as you don’t use your power to make others happy.” As The West Wind drops off the sleeping unicorn, the camera pans around the bleak, empty scenery. This mirrors Unico’s soul when he wakes to find he can no longer be what it’s natural and good for him to be. This absolutely breaks my heart.
Of course, this divine injustice is only the beginning of Unico’s story. And, thankfully, it is a story whose tone does not remain sorrowful; Unico is full of humor, wonder, joy, and, alright, a few more bittersweet moments. What’s great about the film is that you feel these emotions so strongly because of the simple, unbroken line from its heart to yours.