Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Little Women (1987)

In the '80s, Japanese studio Nippon Animation adapted Little Women into a four-season TV series. Nippon made their name adapting classic English literature for Japanese audiences, also producing versions of Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, so Little Women was right up their alley.

I'm not naturally drawn to all anime, but I have a nostalgic spot for its vibe thanks to shows like Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion that I watched as a kid, as well as US companies like Rankin Bass' occasionally outsourcing to Japanese studios. Whenever I'm watching anime, especially from this time period, those childhood memories kick in and help me through any speed bumps in the translation for English audiences. But with Little Women, those speed bumps are pretty minor anyway.

The English dub was created by Japanese actors who are all extremely talented with American English. That helps a lot. But even with that level of skill, there are some inherent things about transitioning from Japanese to English that are impossible to get around. The Japanese language has a different cadence from English and calls for different body language to help communicate it. So dubbing it well is harder than just having someone read a translation. The words audiences hear have to match the movements of the characters' mouths, which means that characters sometimes interrupt each other at odd times, or their cadence can sound a little unnatural, or they can be smiling sweetly while saying something very sad, or the dialogue can sound overly formal. That seems like a petty criticism though for an adaptation as thoughtful and well made as this one.

One of my favorite things about the series is that it has so much room to fill in details that Alcott wasn't concerned with. In fact, the entire first season takes place before the novel even begins, setting up the March family's life in another town before the Confederate Army invades. Alcott tells us that the Marches were well off before the Civil War and other misfortunes took their wealth. In this series, we get to see them in their big home before Father goes to war. Meg and Jo are both looking forward to new dresses for fancy balls. Well, maybe Meg more so than Jo. But then Father has to march south and isn't there when the town is occupied. Things are peaceful enough at first until a battle breaks out, setting fire to much of the town, including the Marches' home and Father's business. The now-homeless family goes to another town to live with Father's aunt until they can get back on their feet. Meg gets a job as governess to a couple of rich kids, Jo becomes Aunt March's paid companion, and Marmee helps distribute aid to the families of Union soldiers. By the end of the season, the family has saved enough to buy their own house and move in.

Seasons two through four adapt the first half of Alcott's novel, so there's a lot of room for embellishment there, too. Alcott's novel was originally published in two volumes with the first volume concluding with Meg's agreeing to marry Mr Brooke, Laurie's going off to college, and Father's returning home from the war. That's all that this TV series covers, so there's none of the second-volume stuff about Meg's married life, Jo's in New York, Beth's second illness, or Amy and Laurie's engagement. 

Instead, Season Two opens with the girls meeting Laurie and ends with Beth's being invited to play Mr Laurence's piano at his house. Season Three covers Beth's making slippers for Mr Laurence to Jo's getting her first story published. Season Four begins with Marmee's leaving home to go be with Father, who's very sick in Washington DC; it wraps up of course with Father's coming home and Meg's agreeing to marry Brooke. Each episode is a half-hour, giving them plenty of time to flesh out vignettes from the novel, so there's a whole episode about Laurie and Brooke's inviting Jo and Meg to a play, but Amy can't go, so she burns Jo's novel in revenge. The next episode then deals with the fallout of that, with Jo's being angry with Amy for most of the episode until Amy falls through the ice at the end while skating.

There's so much room for the characters to breathe that I couldn't help but get invested in them. They're well designed too and well acted. Even though Meg isn't the only sister who remembers being wealthy in this version, her job as a governess puts her in contact with a wealthy group of peers and she still has to struggle with her reduced finances. Jo is impulsive and has a temper, but she's also aware of these faults and tries to correct them. 

Beth is drawn to look small and pale and of course her personality is very quiet. Instead of a host of dolls and kittens for her to play with though, the series gives her one kitten named Milky Ann who's almost as fully developed a character as anyone else in the family.

A huge advantage of animation is that Amy can be drawn to look as young as she acts. She's as selfish and attention-seeking as she is in the book, but she's also kind of adorable and impossible to dislike. It's easy to see why people spoil her, but just as easy to see why they're constantly losing patience and correcting her. One really weird change in this version though is that it's all narrated by Amy, rather than Jo. I'm not sure why that is, except that maybe Amy's youth makes her more open about how she feels about the events we're seeing.

Another big change, but a welcome one, is that Hannah is Black in this version. When I read the novel last year, I noticed that Alcott gives Hannah a distinct dialect that sounds rural and possibly Southern. I wondered if Hannah could be a former slave, but Alcott eventually reveals enough about Hannah's Irish background to contradict that idea. I enjoy that the series not only goes there, but also includes storylines about slavery and what the Union army (including father Frederic March) are fighting for. In one particularly powerful episode in the first season, a slave deserts from the Confederate Army that's forced him to fight for them. He hides out in the Marches' shed until Beth accidentally discovers him. Terrified, he takes her hostage, but Marmee is able to not only talk him into releasing Beth, but immediately forgives him and offers him a place to hide in the house. It's a beautiful example of the kindness that Marmee not only teaches, but exemplifies in her own actions. That's a huge part of the book and it permeates the series as well.

Even Aunt March is kinder here than she is in the book. She's still old and cranky, but when she offers Jo a job as her companion, it's out of genuine affection for Jo. Aunt March is generous whenever the Marches need financial help, though of course they're careful never to exploit her. The kinder Aunt March makes it a bit weird when she initially dislikes Mr Brookes, as demanded by the book's plot. But she has enough of a stubborn streak all throughout the series that it also doesn't seem completely out of character.

The series adds a couple of new characters, one of whom is another nephew of Aunt March to rival Frederic March and his family. The new guy's name is David and he's a lazy sponge who's constantly borrowing money from Aunt March. She sees right through him, but has more or less given him what he wants since he's been her only relative in town. With Marmee and the girls' arrival though - and their genuine kindness toward Aunt March - David feels threatened and constantly looks for ways to undermine the newcomers' relationship with their great aunt.

Laurie and his grandfather are pretty much like Alcott wrote them. They butt heads over Laurie's future, but it's also clear that they love each other. One weird thing about Laurie though is that the series leaves open the possibility of Jo's eventually marrying him. His feelings for her begin to heat up toward the end of the series, especially as things are getting more serious between Meg and Brooke. But Jo also makes a comment to the effect that she could see herself one day being romantically involved with Laurie. That's a big change from the book.

Related to that is a final big change in the form of another new character. Since we'll never got to New York or meet Professor Bhaer, the series gives Jo someone else to criticize her work and encourage her creative growth. Sadly, the character is pretty annoying. 

His name is Anthony and he works as a reporter at the local newspaper in town. When Jo approaches the paper's editor about publishing some of her writing, Anthony has an immediate, negative reaction about her work, either because she's young or a woman or both. Whatever his reasons, he's super rude about it and he continues to be abrasive and blunt for the rest of the series. He occasionally helps Jo out, to be fair. He's the one who finds the house that the Marches buy and move into, for example. And he eventually seems to come around to really liking Jo and wanting good things for her. By the end of the series, he's moving to New York and encouraging Jo to do the same. But he's such a surly know-it-all about everything that I bristle whenever he's in a scene.

I don't want to leave this on a bad note though. It took me a long time to finish the series, but I enjoyed spending all that time with it. The attention paid to the history of the Civil War as a backdrop for the story is excellent. And the four sisters, especially Jo and Amy, are among the best versions of the characters that I've seen so far. 

Four out of five Milky Anns.

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