30 January 2005 | BrianDanaCamp
Popular Japanese animated version of "Little Women"
This 26-episode Japanese animated 1981 TV series based on Louisa May Alcott's 1869 novel, "Little Women," came in the wake of a 68-minute TV special in 1980, which greatly condensed the first half of the novel. The series was able to adapt more of the novel and pay close attention to the details of the March family life in the closing months of the Civil War and the interactions among the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy), other family members and townsfolk. The original TV special had nicer design and animation, while the TV series suffered from the simple design and stiff movement that was something of a standard for Japanese animated TV series at the time. However, the series has a stark, dramatic quality, both in the background art and character design, that gives it the anime equivalent of a 19th century look, helping us feel the hardships of these characters a little more vividly than would a fuller, more fluid animated style. There's a scene in the first episode where Marmee, the girls' mother, uses candlelight to check on her sleeping daughters on Christmas Eve and then stands in the dark hallway thanking God for such wonderful daughters while a tear flecks her cheek. It's a poignant moment and I can't imagine an American cartoon version of the story taking the time to craft it.
The episodes seen for this review (dubbed in English for home video in the U.S. and released as single-episode tapes) cover the Christmas incidents spelled out in the novel's opening chapters, including the girls' receipt of Christmas money and their decision to forego gifts for themselves in favor of rewarding their mother; the sharing of their Christmas breakfast with a nearby family of poor children whose mother has just given birth; and the Christmas night performance of a play by the March sisters. In addition, we see Jo's pleasant first encounter with the neighbor boy, Laurie, and his grandfather Mr. Laurence. The performance of the play, "Woods of Terror," in a barn owned by Mr. Laurence, is particularly memorable and captures the bemused reactions of the townsfolk and the girls' local classmates in a way that gives us a real feel for the community and its people. The attention to character interaction and conversation allows the relationships to develop and deepen over the course of the series and enables us to get to know and care about the characters. The episodes are not structured around manufactured crises or contrived comic situations the way an episodic series on American television would be. They capture the inherent drama in everyday life and community relationships in a way that doesn't cheapen or demean the characters.
A later anime TV version of "Little Women" was done in 1987, with brighter colors, cheerier-looking characters and less austere settings. As sampled on a single tape dubbed into English as "Little Women's Christmas Story," it is charming and nice to look at, but much less compelling dramatically, even though it covers some of the same incidents seen on these earlier tapes. Another interesting comparison can be made to the 1949 Hollywood film version done at MGM, which boasts incidents not found in the book or the earlier film version (1933). Interestingly, these incidents found their way into the 1981 anime series.
The Japanese title is translated as "Young Grass Story: Four Sisters of Young Grass."
ADDENDUM (1/11/11): I have since seen more episodes from the 1987 anime series cited above and have now reviewed that one on IMDb as well.