I’m about halfway through Anne of Green Gables, one of the famed classic World Masterpiece Theater shows by the people who would eventually go on to lead Studio Ghibli, and what a wonderful series it is. It’s not quite the unblemished masterpiece Heidi: Girl of the Alps was, but it’s very, very close.
The biggest strength is the character animation—it has a sublime sense of realism, from tiny, everyday actions to Anne’s exaggerated gesticulation. I’d expect no less from director Isao Takahata—his later Ghibli works are built on the same naturalistic foundation. I’ve caught myself laughing out loud on several occasions based entirely on the way someone is moving onscreen—Diana’s drunken list, for example (her hiccuping was also unexpectedly hilarious). Just as entertaining are the smallest things—the thoroughly realistic way Anne carefully hobbles down the stairs with a broken foot caught my eye, for example.
Crucially, if not surprisingly, Anne’s antics are every bit as entertaining when she’s not saying anything as when she’s talking up a storm.
Speaking of which, as I expected, it didn’t take long to adjust to her voice actress, although once in a while a tone not nearly girlish enough will creep in. Her acting, however, is dead-on for the role and all kinds of fun—the entire story is built around Anne’s penchant for florid language and overdramatizing nearly everything, good or bad, and that comes through crystal clear. Of particular note are a few bits where she’s supplying sound effects for a story, which are marvelously entertaining.
After careful pondering, I don’t think I ever read the original book as a child, but I was curious enough to start in. From this, I learned two things: One, that the original is quite entertaining on its own, in particular the colorful language of the period. And two, the anime series is a meticulously accurate adaptation in both details and spirit. Many scenes are taken verbatim, and those that aren’t are usually expansions on things that were mentioned in passing in the book but are of enough interest to fill much more screen time. The book is told as much from the perspective of someone hearing Anne talk about things as someone watching them happen, and while the anime tends (as you’d want) to be more immediate, that embellished second-hand viewpoint comes through very well.
The music is the one oddity. Much of the background stuff is pleasant, fitting instrumentals, with the exception of a bagpipe band playing the pipe classic Scotland the Brave, which is used once in a while to illustrate some of Anne’s most strident proclamations with a fittingly military (and Canadian) flair. The odd bit is a few little insert songs that, while the lyrics fit the story, seem out of place in the otherwise straight-faced presentation of things.
On that note, the series’ one weakness in my opinion is how it handles Anne’s fantasies: There are periodic little Fantasia-esque bits full of flowers, tiny pixies, and similar bits of imagination. It’s a difficult call; on one hand, Anne’s character is defined by her unstoppable imagination, so I can see how a director would feel it entirely appropriate—necessary even—to illustrate these fantasies. On the other, however, the realism in the series is so wonderful to behold that the fantastic side-tracks seem out of place and unnecessary—we can already feel Anne’s imagination, so seeing it seems unnecessary embellishment. It brought to mind the one brief flight of fancy in Only Yesterday (Omoide Poroporo), also directed by Takahata, when the young protagonist literally dances up into the sky; I have to think that that was a nod to his work in Anne of Green Gables, but in that movie as well I felt it was unnecessarily distracting when the character’s face and actions were more than sufficient to get the emotion across.
No small part of the reason for my feeling that the fantasy is unnecessary is that the simple, ordinary animation is so beautiful that it ends up upstaging the fantastic stuff. Perhaps with a higher budget and more modern sense of pure fantasy—or, say, if Miyazaki had directed the fantastic bits—the interludes would have been visually gripping enough not to bother me, but as-is they honestly don’t look as good as static paintings of trees or watching Anne do household chores.
From a story standpoint, the most memorable feature is the way in which the series plays with things that are very serious, but don’t feel such, and things that are wildly overdramatized but not at all serious, both of which were prominent in the book as well. In the case of the former, Anne will occasionally mention in passing, or tell a brief story, about her past that is deeply tragic—how her only friends were those she invented for herself. Yet in most cases the series doesn’t aim for pathos or blunt heartstring-tugging—it passes by as casual conversation with, in some cases, a bit of illustration. The book is even more offhanded with these things, which I found a clever way to approach tragedy—it’s sad, yet Anne is in essence so full of life and energetic that she won’t let you get drug down by it, and the book leaves you to extract the emotional response yourself when you think about what it is she’s really saying.
On the flip side are the much more common places in which she blows some relatively minor happening wildly out of proportion, wailing in lamentation and describing the heart-rending pain of it all in exquisite detail. Most of these are almost entirely amusing, since we can see quite clearly that it is, indeed, just a trifle, which I think the anime captures quite well, not having Marilla’s thoughts on the matter available as narration to make it clear.
Speaking of which, Marilla is an appealing character; stern and mostly humorless, she occasionally breaks out laughing when Anne does something particularly over-tragified. That is directly from the book, which through narration makes it clear that Marilla finds quite a few of the things Anne does funny, but resists showing it. Being that we only see her exterior in the anime, she comes across as a little more unsympathetic, but the bits where she can’t help but laugh get the point across.
Oh, and speaking of narration, I could have done without the small narrated bits in the anime. The book rarely has narration, but when it does it’s quite colorful, while the Japanese narrator is entirely dry, and usually telling us something that we don’t need to be told on top of it. I’ll just assume it was in deference to young children watching the show who they figured needed some extra help following it.
Anne, on the other hand, is translated perfectly in her ability to talk at great length without break. The book has some funny sections where there’ll be a fat paragraph entirely of Anne’s dialogue, followed by a one-sentence comment by who she’s talking to, followed by another fat block of text from Anne. It even looks funny on the page. And, indeed, she will rail at length in colorful terms at her adoptive family, which is plenty entertaining. It helps, also, that she’s not just a talking head—she’s almost always doing something else—chores, gesturing, or the like—while talking, giving you something to watch while she chatters away.
A final thought: It’s interesting that I experienced a bit of culture shock when it comes to the way children are treated. Interesting in that the culture shock has nothing to do with its being Japanese—the uncomfortable bits come straight from the original source, and are entirely due to the differences in how children were treated a century or more ago in what is, more or less, my own culture.
In all, I can see why Anne of Green Gables is considered one of the seminal classics of the medium, not to mention one of, if not the, most thorough and faithful adaptations of the book—I’m looking forward to the remaining episodes as much as any of the modern shows I’m watching.