After eight months of negotiations, Japanese producer and director Yugo Sako thought he had achieved the near-mythic--a contract with a major Hollywood studio to release his animated, feature-length version of the Ramayana to U.S. audiences. Sako's movie, "Prince of Light: The Legend of Ramayana," had already received acclaim abroad as "The Warrior Prince." Now moviegoers would see the action-packed, award-winning film in multiplexes across America.

Imagine, if you will, the merchandising possibilities alone: the shelves of Toys 'R' Us stocked with plastic Prince Ram figurines; an endless array of stuffed and cuddly Hanuman dolls; and of course, souvenir Coke cups emblazoned with the very svelte Princess Sita or the very wicked Ravana, available at your local McDonald's. What Star Wars had been to earlier generations of American kids, Ramayana hoped to become--a timeless tale of good and evil, a dazzling adventure movie with a moral epicenter. Then came the sticky part: The studio wanted to change the story, sending Ram and Sita into the forest for their honeymoon and doing away with the whole story of vanwas or Sita's banishment. Recalls Krishna Shah, the co-producer of the film, "I said if I was to do that there would be a fatwa on my head! They wanted to do it as a straight adventure story. I told them it was a very sacred epic--you don't mess with it. How could we change Valmiki's text?" he asked, in deference to the original scribe. "Yugo would not agree nor could I. It was against our sensitivities."
And so the filmmakers and studio parted ways, the latest development in a process that has itself been epic. The director has traveled to India 60 times and devoted a decade of his life and over $13 million in bringing this immortal story to the big screen. This version of the Ramayana evokes the fantasy and action-adventure genres, making a spiritual epic accessible to today's moviegoers. It skillfully combines the techniques of Manga, the Japanese school of animation, with Indian classical painting as represented by Ram Mohan, the leading animator in India. As the filmmakers note, they've lifted the story right out of its historic setting and delivered it slap-bang into today's world. Religion and spirituality impacted director Sako since he was a child. Born in 1928 in central Japan, he was orphaned at the age of 3. Monks in a Zen Buddhist temple raised him to become a future priest. He has strong memories of religion classes for local children and was passionate about collecting cards about the life of Buddha that were used in the classes. "This was my initial contact with Buddha and India." In college, he majored in Buddhist Studies. He then practiced asceticism at the Heirinji Zen Temple but soon realized that the priesthood was not for him. He returned to secular life and eventually set up his own company, Tokyo Cine Vision Ltd, which made music albums and TV documentaries. He first visited India in 1985 to film a documentary, "The Ramayan Relics," about an archeological excavation near Ayodhya. He was smitten by the story of Prince Ram's triumph over the forces of darkness, and as his research into the epic deepened, he realized it was much more than just a myth: It encompassed a whole philosophy of living and had historical underpinnings.
He read Valmiki's Ramayana in Japanese and went on to study 10 different versions, all in Japanese. Although he was a documentary filmmaker, he felt only an animated format could capture the true magic and power of Ramayana. He says, "Because Ram is God, I felt it was best to depict him in animation, rather than by an actor." Meeting with academics, archaeologists and historians, Sako painstakingly researched the story of Ram, and spent months checking out costumes and architectural details. As a foreigner, he wanted to be extra vigilant in staying true to the epic. All the futuristic gizmos, flying vehicles, and even weapons of mass destruction depicted in the film are mentioned in the Ramayana. Sako collaborated with Ram Mohan, an eminent animator in India, to design the key art. In 1990, he started work in Japan on the principal animation, using over 450 artists. Krishna Shah, an old Hollywood hand, got involved in 1993 at a time when the film had been a work in progress for several years. Shah, a graduate of Yale and UCLA film schools, had written or directed shows such as "The Man From UNCLE" and "The Six Million Dollar Man." Shah points out some interesting similarities between "Star Wars" and the Ramayana, both morally centered tales. If Luke Skywalker is inspired by Rama, he says, Darth Vader has shades of Ravana, and the lovable Chewbacca is a dead ringer for Hanuman. Ask Sako about this, and he says: "In general, Indian mythology is like a treasure box for movie makers. So if George Lucas knows India, I am sure he was influenced." When Sako first proposed this film, the Indian government had been reluctant to hand over an Indian epic to a foreigner. Now, he's won over the skeptics with his integrity and devotion to details. Says Shah, "He has established his credentials--he knows Valmiki's Ramayana backwards and forwards."

Although the film has been well received at film festivals and has been briefly exhibited in several countries, the insistence of the filmmakers to maintain the storyline has prevented it from gaining wide release.

Indeed, Sako's film remains close to the original epic, while gaining a contemporary appeal. Fast moving, humorous, and colorful, the film makes Ram a 'cool' figure and a part of pop culture--without losing the direction set by the moral compass of the Ramayana. Hindu parents will be able to show it with pride to their second-generation children. As Shah observes, "Anyone can tell a story, because Ramayana is a plot-oriented tale, but the key to Sako is that he finds humanity in his characters. Indeed, this is not a cardboard Ramayana, and the characters from Ram to Hanuman to Kumbkharna are three-dimensional ones. Sometimes, you forget these are merely animated figures, for the film almost has a lush, David Lean kind of ambiance." What Sako particularly likes about the Ramayana and feels is a message for today's generation is the loving co-existence between the humans and the animal world that it depicts. Although Sako is not a Hindu, he is attracted to many of Hinduism's beliefs. He explains, "I trained to be a priest and am a Zen Buddhist formally. But after all these years, Hinduism is very familiar to me. However, to be Hindu, you have to be born in a Hindu family, so I don't know whether Hindus would accept me as Hindu or not. So I am Buddhist, but in my mind I feel I am Hindu." Next on the agenda for Sako is the story of Lord Krishna, the Celestial Cowherd. In this animated film, the magic will be recreated by bringing the Blue-Skinned God's story to life through Rajasthani miniature paintings. Sako is in the process of raising funds and is looking for partners, for the financial aspect is always daunting when he takes on a labor of love.

What gets him through tough times? Sako believes his exposure to India has taught him to see the larger picture rather than worry about short-term goals. "If I pass away, then this work can be done by others," he says and adds with a laugh, "and if I die, I can be reborn and continue the work."

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