23 December 2012 | BrianDanaCamp
Beautifully visualized Japanese animated rendition of the famous book
"Swiss Family Robinson" (1981) is a Japanese animated series based on the novel by Johann David Wyss about a shipwrecked Swiss family struggling to survive on an uninhabited tropical island. The series lasted 50 episodes and aired in Japan as part of Fuji TV's "World Masterpiece Theater," which ran new series every year based on literary classics from the West. "Heidi," "Dog of Flanders," "Anne of Green Gables," "Tom Sawyer" and "Peter Pan" were among the other books adapted for WMT. This series took some liberties in adapting Wyss's book and changed the family makeup to two sons, rather than four, and one daughter, rather than none. (There is a girl in the book, another shipwreck victim discovered and rescued much later on, but she isn't in this series.) The series also introduces a pair of newly created characters in a stranded Australian seaman named Morton, who comes with considerable boat-building skills, and his aboriginal boy sidekick, Thomas. It's quite possible that some inspiration was provided by Disney's 1960 live-action film that was adapted, quite loosely, from the book, since there are elements in that film that pop up in this series, such as the ostrich that one character rides and the elaborate treehouse that the family builds and makes into a home.
The emphasis in this series is on the details of day-to-day living on the island and the process of acquiring food and establishing shelter and protection for the members of the family and their domesticated animals. Each episode focuses on a specific need that has to be met, a crisis that the family faces, or an incident that has some effect on them. For instance, one whole episode is devoted to the spotting, via binoculars, of a passing ship, and the futile efforts to send a smoke column and fire off gunshots to attract its attention. The animators are less interested in a grand narrative or a succession of exciting adventures (as the Disney movie was) than in the small triumphs that came from successfully building something needed for their survival, such as the treehouse and a boat to get off the island, or discovering something new on the island, such as the sighting, capturing and taming of an ostrich. Even so, there are some highly dramatic segments, such as an attack on the family's compound by a pack of wild jackals and the family's attempt to withstand an earthquake caused by a volcano on the island, but these events arise logically from the circumstances surrounding the family and are not some screenwriter's imaginative flight of fancy.
While the character design is simple, in the manner favored by WMT, the backgrounds are quite detailed and some beautiful compositions are created using the mountains, jungles and seascapes of the island. The treehouse itself is quite a magnificent piece of artwork. The animals depicted in the series are sometimes given more detail and more fluid animation than the human characters. There is a little mammal that attaches itself to the family and is called a "marsupial" in the English dub and given the name "Mercedes," although it looks to me like a non-carnivorous Tasmanian Devil (the real thing, not the Warner Bros. cartoon character). The jackals who attack the stockade where Anna (the mother) and the two younger children are sheltered while Father and the older son, Fritz, are out exploring are quite a vicious pack of predators and the sequence is incredibly suspenseful as Anna slowly snaps out of her panic state and picks up a rifle and a succession of torches to ward off the creatures as they start clawing their way through openings in the stockade's sturdy posts. Curiously, Anna is quite often depicted as high-strung in the series and I'm wondering if she was like that in the book. If not, it may be another case of Disney-supplied inspiration since the character in the Disney movie is described, in Leonard Maltin's words, as "the mother who worries every step of the way."
The character of the daughter, named Flone in the Japanese series and Becca in the English dub, is a typically spunky pre-adolescent anime heroine and has quite a bit in common with other heroines in the WMT universe, including Heidi, Pollyanna, and Anne of Green Gables. She has boundless spirit, a wealth of enthusiasm and a frequently reckless sense of adventure; she also never shuts up. (There are times when I prefer the more demure WMT protagonists, such as Sara Crewe, of "Little Princess" fame.)
I have a 90-minute compilation of this series on DVD, in Japanese with no translation, that concentrates on a handful of key incidents and the efforts in the final arc of the series to build a boat and leave the island (another key departure from the book). I've also so far seen eight complete episodes of the series dubbed in English, two on VHS tape and six shown on-line on the Smile of a Child TV network. The series was apparently dubbed into English back in 1989 and released on home video in the U.S. Until this year, I'd never seen it and never come across it in any video store or library where I'd sought Japanese animated series. The two tapes I recently purchased via Amazon each contain only one 22-minute episode. It would seem to me that a DVD release of the whole 50-episode series would make a lot of sense. I would prefer it in Japanese with English subtitles, chiefly because the English dub voices chosen for the two youngest children (Becca and Jack) get on my nerves pretty consistently in a way that the Japanese voices don't. I'd welcome a set of the entire series in Japanese only, if it was reasonably priced, since the stories are told largely through actions rather than dialogue. Still, it's a great series and I'll take it any way I can get it.