Animated Versions of Literary Classics, Pt. 1: “Swiss Family Robinson”

17 Nov

In Japan, there was a long-running series called “World Masterpiece Theater,” which adapted western literary classics into animated TV series, usually one a year. “Anne of Green Gables” and “Little Women” were among their most popular series. I’ve had occasion to pick up several editions of this series, usually in the form of edited 90-minute condensations of entire series. These versions, invariably in Japanese with no subtitles, give me some idea of what the series looked and sounded like and what its tone was, but nothing beats actually watching original episodes in their entirety, even in Japanese. What makes this series so significant was the way it explored the actual living situations of the characters. It wasn’t so tied to plot and narrative development that it couldn’t take time to examine the experiences of the characters, especially when it came to their interactions with nature. I’ve seen episodes of “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” and “Dog of Flanders” that were remarkable in the detail accorded the way the characters explored the natural world, with the sensual qualities of this interaction conveyed so vividly by the animation and the characterizations: what they see, smell, feel, hear and taste.

I have one 90-minute compilation entitled “Flone of the Marvelous Island” which is actually “Swiss Family Robinson,” based on the book by Johann David Wyss published in 1812, 200 years ago. (The anime series was done in 1981 and its full original Japanese title is Kazoku Robinson Hyōryūki Fushigi na Shima no Furōne or “The Swiss Family Robinson: Flone of the Mysterious Island”). The title refers to Flone, a young girl who has been added to the family for this adaptation, with the Wikipedia entry explaining that, “It is likely that Flone was introduced by Nippon Animation as a new character for the anime version in order to attract more girls as viewers.” She replaces two of the brothers from the original book, so the family in the anime has only three children instead of four. Instead of trying to summarize the entire 50-episode series in 90 minutes, what this compilation does is isolate individual representative sequences and give them to us, one at a time, in an episodic structure. We see the labor involved in settling on the island and the harrowing encounters with a pack of jackals that lead to the family’s construction of a treehouse to place them high up out of harm’s way. We see the effort to catch the attention of a passing ship by setting off a smoke signal and firing rifle shots and the inevitable disappointment when it doesn’t succeed.

In the second half of the compilation, we see the encounter with a shipwrecked captain and his native sidekick, something I’m not sure is in the book, and the disruption from an earthquake caused by a nearby volcano. We then follow the group’s effort to build a seaworthy craft capable of taking the entire group off the island and then their long voyage out to sea in search of land or another ship, again, something I’m not sure was in the book.

It’s all beautifully animated and designed and focused on specific experiences. Even though my copy has no English translation, it was all fairly easy to follow, given the visual nature of the story. It certainly makes me want to see the whole series. I understand that the series was, in fact, dubbed into English and shown once upon a time on the Family Channel. Had I known, I would have eagerly recorded all the episodes when I had the chance. The series is currently running on the “Smile of a Child” TV network, which is not carried by my cable company (Cablevision), although it can be viewed on-line. I will endeavor to catch these episodes when I can. Some episodes were released on VHS, but I never saw them in any stores and they’re all out of print by now. As far as I know there’s been no DVD release of the series in its English dub.

These productions from Japan also sparked my interest in exploring any attempts in the west to make serious animation, particularly adaptations of literary classics. I remember lots of one-hour animated specials based on famous novels appearing as syndicated specials on local TV back in the 1970s and ’80s and I may even have watched a few. But I remember finding the animation cheaply done and not taking them very seriously. Since getting into anime, I’ve made more of an effort to seek these specials out. I found a couple on VHS back in 2005, both of them adaptations of Dickens, “Great Expectations” (1983, 69 min.) and “A Tale of Two Cities” (1984, 72 min.), both of which were flawed but offered some unexpected pleasures. I wound up reviewing both on IMDB:

A Tale of Two Cities

Great Expectations

They were produced by an Australian company, Burbank Films, which did lots of similar productions, including quite a few others based on Dickens. More recently, I picked up a DVD set called “Classic Adventures: 10 Story Set,” which offers ten such adaptations, all of about 47 min. in length, and mostly produced in the 1970s.

It includes a version of “Swiss Family Robinson,” so I watched it to compare with the anime version. It was made in 1973 and produced by Air Programs International, another company based in Australia. It offers more of a condensation, like a Cliff’s Notes version, or a Classics Illustrated comic of 50 or so years ago.

As a one-hour made-for-TV piece of children’s animation, its drama isn’t bad at all and focuses on some key scenes not covered in the anime compilation, including the long, near-fatal illness of the mother, extended trips by the sons to explore and map the island, and a suspenseful encounter with stampeding water buffaloes. One vignette follows the oldest son as he sails to a nearby volcanic isle and discovers another passenger from the shipwreck, a girl who had been traveling with them, who’s been struggling to survive alone. This, apparently, is in the book. There are four sons in this version and two of them, Ernst and Jack, quarrel quite frequently. This version ends, not with the family crafting a boat and sailing off the island, but with the landing of an English ship and the rescue of all but the parents, who decide to stay and live out their last years on the island. Is this how it happens in the book? I may have to get the Cliff’s Notes to find out. Or, better yet, actually read the original book!

The animation and design aren’t bad at all  for something with such a low budget, but the piece does have a much simpler, more two-dimensional look than the anime, almost like a comic book. The backgrounds are flat, with no attempt to create a sense of depth, as opposed to the background work in the anime.

Australian verison:

Anime:

Australian treehouse:

Anime treehouse:

In the anime version, the two younger children don’t age at all during the course of the series, which seems odd to me, given that their stay must last several years.

In the Australian version, the boys do age, but only after a ten-year gap, described by the narrator, which comes late in the program. Both versions are heavily narrated.

Still, I have to conclude that on the basis of the examples I’ve seen, Japanese animators tend to put way more effort into adapting western literary classics to animation than their counterparts in the west. I look forward to exploring more of these World Masterpiece Theater productions. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I have “Tom Sawyer,” “Peter Pan,” “Lassie,” “Pollyanna,” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” as well as other, lesser-known works.

When I do Part 2 of “Animated Versions of Literary Classics,” I will compare a 1981 anime version of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” from a different producer than the World Masterpiece Theater series, with a Canadian/Irish animated version of the story done in the 1990s.

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One Response to “Animated Versions of Literary Classics, Pt. 1: “Swiss Family Robinson””

  1. Robert Regan November 20, 2012 at 2:41 PM #

    Brian, you’re really on a roll here. One excellent column after another. Sometimes material that is unfamiliar to most of us, sometimes, like Siegel, better known but covered in a different way by your vision. I particularly like the way you frequently include the act of going to the movies in your analyses. This is and aspect of cinema that does not get enough attention and, let’s face it, it’s now or never! Thanks, Brian, for a fascinating blog.

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