The biggest claim to fame of The Flying Ghost Ship is that Hayao Miyazaki served as one of the key animators and designed the giant, city-trampling robot.
Its opening sequence reminds me a lot of the original Scooby Doo: Where Are You?: it starts with Hayato and his family out for a cruise in their power boat when he sees a car crash. He and his father go to assist the injured couple but the weather is so miserable they take shelter in a supposedly haunted house nearby.
There, they are confronted by the ghostly Captain of the mysterious phantom ship they’ve heard so many stories about — only to have him vanish into the night sky.
But then the story changes completely, as a giant robot attacks the city and Hayato’s parents are killed.
And then the phantom ship bursts out of the sea and cripples the robot…
As I think about this film, I keep thinking about Scooby Doo: not only do we have the hero run into a mystery while he is out on a pleasure trip, not only does it involve an apparently supernatural menace (which we know will turn out to be the least likely person wearing a mask), but he even has a big, cowardly, mostly realistic, comic relief Great Dane as a sidekick.
Except that this film debuted about three months before Scooby first appeared on the small screen.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the makers of The Flying Ghost Ship, so it suddenly turns into something more grandiose, which, despite being made by Toei, reminds me of so many Toho films I can hardly keep track of them all: King Kong Escapes; Monster Zero; Latitude Zero; The Human Vapor; The Mysterians; and who knows what else. Before long it offers us robot crabs, a secret lair hidden beneath the city, undersea battles, the most outrageous case of product tampering ever, and even a few, very personal revelations about the main characters.
All this in a film barely over an hour long.
I have to confess that for a film which is clearly aimed at a young audience, I am really surprised that it is so dark, with both of the hero’s parents killed off in the first twenty minutes of the film. Nor do we find many children’s films where the hero is motivated by revenge. There are also quite a few characters getting killed and some moderately scary moments in the haunted house. It would be hard to imagine Hollywood making this one, no matter how much it might remind you of one of those old Saturday morning cartoons.
There are better anime films out there. But we are talking about one which is bright and colorful, with a lot of impressive design work, a fast moving plot, a surprisingly dark set of plot twists at the end of the first act, a bit of lighthearted comedy (even if it may not be as funny for those of us born outside Japan!), and enough high-tech weaponry to take down Godzilla.
And, best of all, you can watch it for free on Youtube.