Reviews of World Masterpiece Theater (1969) and related work

World Masterpiece Theater (1969Moving picture)

Each year (1969–1997 and 2007–2009), a new children’s book adapted to TV animation.

This is a programming slot rather than a true series. The title “World Masterpiece Theater” is associated with the entire tradition but was only used in the years 1979–1985 and 1994–1997, in the absence of title sponsorships. Production moved from Mushi via Zuiyo Eizo to Nippon Animation—the production arm of a partitioned Zuiyo—in 1975, and has remained at Nippon ever since.

References here: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).

animation fiction moving picture series

Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974Moving picture, 12 hours)

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

Seen in 2015.

In what appears to be the 1870s or so, an orphan of five is left in the care of her gruff paternal grandfather, nearly a hermit in the Swiss Alps. Rumour has it the old man killed somebody in his youth, and it’s probably true. Even under the snows of winter, he does not come down from his cabin to the village. Over the course of the next three years, the little girl prospers greatly, learning to herd goats with a poor local boy and make cheese with her grandfather, who is invigorated by the girl’s love of nature on his altitude. It won’t last.

Heidi is probably the most iconic iteration of the annually refilled programming slot, the first to become a huge hit with girls and the last iteration under the banner of Calpis Manga Theater.

The backbone of the show is an adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s novel(s), but the Christian message has been cut out, replaced by child psychology. The first arc (episodes 1-16) is dominated by romantic notions of the Alps as implausibly craggy and Disneyesque, but the arc is amply supported by Heidi and her grandfather’s personal growth. The Frankfurt arc (17-33) is compelling viewing, where the biophilic theme is deepened by unromantic contrasts. The ultimate psychological culmination is delayed until episode 35, wherein Heidi almost panics thinking back on the experience.

In the last arc, the alpine environment is a little more realistic on the whole, with more focus on bugs and flowers than on curiously uneroded rock. The romanticism persists, now in the form of the grandfather’s wisdom extending to the intuition that a handicap is psychosomatic and curable by play and unnamed herbs. The last handful of episodes are too sugary for my taste. I would rather have done without the animals collectively jumping in place when the humans are happy (e.g. episode 35).

I went into this series thinking the old man, or Joseph, or Peter’s grandmother would die along the way, but despite Takahata’s occasionally Bergman-esque dream sequences, such as the abandoned cabin imagined from Frankfurt, it’s all pretty tame in the final analysis. Fortunately the faint indication, in episode 36, that Heidi and Peter will end up a couple is left dangling.

Takahata’s patience is wonderful, demonstrated by the use of clothing and silence—from Heidi—in the first episode. The hand-crafted visuals and sound are solid for their time. According to a Mike Toole retrospective, this is partly because Miyazaki invented an intermediate form between traditional storyboards and key animation for this show, refining the former as a basis for the latter. They were called layouts, and because it was a new concept, Miyazaki did thousands of them. The result is a world-class gem of the analogue TV animation era.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, Castle in the Sky (1986), “On the Periphery of the Work” (1987), “The World of Anime and the Scenario” (1995), “What Is Important for Children” (1996), “I’ve Always Wanted to Create a Film About Which I Could Say, ‘I’m Just Glad I Was Born, so I Could Make This’” (2005), Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (2014), March Comes in Like a Lion (2016), Wild Austria: Created by Water (2018), NiNoKuni (2019).

animation entry fiction Japanese production moving picture series

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976Moving 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).

animation entry fiction Japanese production moving picture series

Anne of Green Gables (1979Moving picture, 22 hours)

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

An eleven-year-old orphan arrives on rural Prince Edward Island in Victorian Canada. Fifty episodes later, the same girl is well on her way to adulthood.

A classic coming-of-age narrative. Miyazaki did scenes and layout for the first 15 episodes. It’s slow, sometimes uneventful or predictable, and a bit weird at times (How quickly did her hair grow back? Why does the tombstone say “Thomas”?), but very solidly crafted, charming, subtle and superbly credible. By the time something tragic happens, as opposed to the young Anne’s endearingly overblown normal concerns, it has become very engaging. Beautiful nature scenes and good use of animation’s capacity to make characters age as appropriate. Slightly annoying vocal theme music. The series is also notable for containing a deliberately ugly bishōnen, albeit merely imagined. Based on the first volume of five in a series of novels, and very faithful to it. In many ways a more grounded and developmentally far-reaching Heidi.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), World: Journey of My Memory (1998).

animation entry fiction Japanese production moving picture series

‣‣ Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (2008Moving picture, 144 minutes)

Middle-aged Anne recalls what her life was like long before the Cuthberts, and meets her biological family.

Set before and after the canon. Live action. Uncalled for.

fiction moving picture same source material