Review of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976)

Moving picture, 22 hours

Takahata Isao (director), Miyazaki Hayao (scene designer, layout artist).

It is the middle of the late-19th-century Long Depression in Genoa, Italy. The head of a household has tried to start up his own medical clinic, failing and going into debt because he was unqualified, or so they say. He wants to help the poor, making his own family poor. His older son is getting an education to be a train engineer. To support the family, his wife needs to emigrate to Argentina, where there is work. When letters from her stop coming after a year, it is up to the younger son (9? 10?) to raise money for a journey across the Atlantic and the wide pampas, quite alone, to get his mother back.

The Calpis Children’s Theater era. The first section, up until the departure from Genoa and reaching its climax with Fiolina’s solo performance, feels slow but is good compared to the meandering middle section, episodes 16 through 41 or so. The series doesn’t hit its stride until Marco meets Paolo and Juana. That’s when Takahata really flexes the muscles of social consciousness. Marco’s journey becomes harrowing enough, leading up to a rewarding finale. As in Heidi, one nightmare sequence is very Wild Strawberries (1957). The kind of pacing exhibited in between would be unthinkable today, and not without reason.

It’s not all a great social-realist slice-of-life view from below with a keen eye for how children are exposed to the whims of adults, but enough of it is to maintain interest when I saw it 35 years after its creation. Amedio, Marco’s pet monkey, is unrealistic, but not to the extent of a typical cartoon animal companion. Based on a fragment of the patriotic children’s book Cuore (Heart, about a number of child role models), and greatly expanded.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, Porco Rosso (1992), Boy and the World (2013), Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (2014).

moving picture World Masterpiece Theater animation Japanese production fiction series