Monday, June 6, 2022

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Ultraman Taro

 

Hey, guys. It's been a while. It seems that having a frequently malfunctioning computer can get in the way of posting.

Anyway, today I want to talk to you guys about tokusatsu. We've talked about this before, but to recap, tokusatsu roughly translates to “special filming” or “special effects”. It denotes a specific kind of filmmaking native to Japan that makes use of rubber monster suits, highly detailed scale models and numerous other handmade tricks to depict larger than life happenings. Now, on TV, one of the granddaddies of tokusatsu is the Ultra Series. While the Ultra Series started with a show called Ultra Q, which was kind of like the Twilight Zone of Japan, most of them have been family and child-oriented superhero/sci-fi shows featuring a variation of the alien hero Ultraman. The original Ultraman was an alien policeman from the M78 Nebula who was in an accident with SSSP (Science Special Search Party) officer Shin Hayata and merged with him. Shin and Ultraman would then face off any number of alien invaders or daikaiju (giant monsters). Usually at giant size. And that's usually the basic set-up, but with different aliens, officers and organizations. I mean, there are otherf detail changes, but they're more case-by-case. And the thing is, it worked so well that the series has lasted for fifty years in different forms, even building up a universe of lore similar to shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Ultraman

What we're going to specifically talking about though, is the sixth Ultra series, Ultraman Taro. Why? Because according to a number of sources, Taro was the “fairy tale Ultraman series”.

Ultraman Taro

You see, in 1973, Tsuburaya Productions who makes the Ultra Series, were looking to make a new show that was different from their previous show Ultraman Ace. Ultraman Ace had dealt with some big, difficult concepts. Some of those concepts not even panning out all that well. And the series didn't go over as well as they had wanted with kids. So, the idea with Ultraman Taro (the name being taken from the suffix of the names of many Japanese folk tale heroes like Momotaro and Urashima-Taro) was to be brighter, lighter, more fantastical and to focus on simpler concepts and larger-than-life figures. Thus making it the “fairy tale” of the Ultra series.

I can hear people clenching up as I type this. “How dare they act like fairy tales are 'lighter' material.” Well, for one thing, it was 1973 and fairy tales were still considered light material for children. And for another, they're not exactly wrong. Fairy tales are full of simple, archetypal conflicts and over-the-top, outlandish happenings. The one thing that makes most people say fairy tales are for adults is the level of violence. And Japan doesn't have the same standards as to what kind level of violence can be shown to kids (some of the fights in Ultraman Ace show that).

So, let's talk about some of the main elements of the show and see if they're fairy tale-ish or not.

The Hero

Our hero is Ultraman Taro, the son of two high-ranking commanders in major organizations in the Land of Light (the Ultras' homeworld), the Inter Galactic Defense Force and the Silver Cross Aid. He's the sixth member of the Ultra Brothers, a group that is more a group of brothers-in-arms than actual brothers. Our hero is also the human he was merged with: Kotaro Higashi. An amateur boxer with, like many Ultraman protagonists, a stout heart and fiery sense of justice who joins a global defense team to keep the Earth and its people safe.

So, How fairy tale-ish is our combined male lead. Well, we could argue that Taro himself is a sort of prince. He's a hero who has serious legacy clout, being the son of two important people. He's also the youngest prince in a way, with five who've gone before him. This kind of loses some impact though, when you consider that his parents are not actually royalty and that there is an Ultraman King (he shows up in a later series, though). And Taro as youngest brother doesn't necessarily hold up because usually the youngest prince wins out by being pure of heart while his older brothers are corrupt and selfish. That's not something we can say about the Ultra Brothers and really shouldn't want to. As for Kotaro, he does have some Jack-like qualities (note, there is another character named Ultraman Jack who I am not referring to here. By “Jack”, I mean the English folk tale hero archetype). He does display some earnest foolishness, like in the first episode when he jumps off a ship and swims to the shore of Japan because he's decided that he wants to train to be a boxer in Japan. He also tries to take on a giant monster single handed. He's also shown to have a deep regard for his mother or women who remind him of her, which is reminiscent of the Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk”. Though, this is a point we'll have to get back to later. The thing is that Kotaro doesn't have the trickster-ish quality that Jack commonly has. That's not necessarily a minus, though. It might just make him more fit for the Japanese tradition. You see, a lot of fairy tale heroes in Japan are kind of like Jack in that they're stout-hearted young boys without much money or standing who go off to seek their fortune. This applies to characters like Momotaro, Issun-Boshi, Kintaro and a lot of others. But they're not usually tricksters. That role usually goes to yokai like kitsune and tanuki. So, Kotaro Higashi, who's a stout-hearted fighter who loves his mother, is probably as close to an everyman fairy tale hero as the Ultra Series could get in 1973.

Supporting Cast

The primary supporting cast members were the members of the latest Earth defense team, ZAT (short for Zariba of All Territories. A zariba is a protective enclosure of thorn bushes or stakes used in northeastern Africa. Honestly, it feels like an extreme way to go to define something as a “protector). These include the captain Yutaro Asahina, deputy captain Shuhei Aragaki and communications officer Izumi Moriyama, as well as what seemed like about a dozen others. The truth is, characters were kind of in and out of the group a lot. And none of them really embodied any fairy tale archetypes or tropes from Europe or Japan.

Zariba of All Territories

But one other supporting character is kind of a loaded thing: The Mother of Ultra. Yeah, remember when I said that Taro is the son of an important member of the Silver Cross Aid and that Kotaro was very respectful to women who reminded him of his mother? This is who all that leads back to. When we first meet her she's in human form as someone who is identified just as The Woman in Green. She tends to some of Kotaro's wounds and gives him the badge that would be his transformation device. Then later she appears in her Ultra form when she merges Kotaro with her son Taro and she looks, like this . . .

Mother of Ultra in silhouette

Yeah, on a side note, I don't get what the deal with this is either. I know that her costume wasn't done yet so they had to improvise. But I still don't know why they gave her costume a chest piece that big. Were they trying to use breasts as a metaphor for maternal love or something. Wouldn't be the first time I saw Japanese media going down that avenue. Anyway, later they have her look like this . . .


Mother of Ultra

Which is better.

Anyway, the first thought would be to compare her to Jack's mother from “Jack and the Beanstalk”. But the thing is that Jack's mother is usually depicted as impoverished, depressed and at her wits' end. The Mother of Ultra is too powerful to be any of those things. Given her power and her status as a Giant of Light from Nebula M78, she's more like a combination of the Fairy Godmother, Gaea and . . . the Virgin Mary (I should note that Eiji Tsubaraya who created the Ultra Series is one of those rarest of things, a Japanese Catholic. So, parallels to Christian ideas appear a fair bit). If the Mother of Ultra, later known as Ultrawoman Marie, is anyone from “Jack and the Beanstalk” it's the fairy who tells him about his father in the Andrew Lang version. So, I lean more toward her as being like the Virgin Mary acting in the role of a Fairy Godmother, which is probably more common in folklore than many people think.

The Monsters/Aliens

Looking at the various aliens and monsters, very few of them seem to have any roots in fairy tales or folklore. At least, not to my knowledge. There are some exceptions, though.

There was one monster that seemed to take inspiration from the giant centipede in the Japanese story “My Lord Bag of Rice.”


Mukadender

There's another that corresponds with the celebration of Setsubun, where oni are cast out by throwing beans.

Kisaragi

There's another that's based on the tradition of making mochi for New Years'.


Mochiron

And there's even one that looks like Pinocchio!


Piccolo

Though, his story doesn't seem to have much of anything to do with Pinocchio.

To be honest, it's probably not easy to base kaiju on fairy tales. On mythology? Sure. I've seen it happen in other shows. But other than some giants (redundant here), ogres, trolls, fairies, wolves and witches who serve as obstacles or metaphors, the primary villains in fairy tales are often spiteful step mothers, cruel older brothers and greedy kings. And the giants, trolls and ogres would likely just seem like the same sort of brutish beast once translated into kaiju form. There are generally less dragons and monsters in fairy tales than people think.

The Stories

I'm going to be honest, it's been a while since I watched the series. So, some of the details are coming in a little fuzzy. I do remember that the tone was lighter than a lot of other Ultra series. Again, I know that's going to rankle some folks. But remember, this was before the “fairy tales aren't for kids” movement. The thing is, some fairy tale tropes and fairy tale logic came with it. For example, I remember one episode where someone got swallowed by a monster and managed to get out. That's a very Grimms' “Little Red Cap” thing here, but it's also very “Issun Boshi” over in Japan. I also remember some stories that drew on folklore related to holidays and festivals in Japan. And I remember there was a whole string of episodes that were inspired by Japanese nursery songs (the first ep seems to be based on this one). I don't know if that translates to “Like a fairy tale” though. The one most explicit reference was probably in a Christmas episode in which they riff on Andersen's “The Little Match Girl” by having characters look into the flames of matches. But they kind of miss the mark because they're not seeing Heaven so much as seeing what they wish for.

The Vehicles

Because every Ultraman show with a defense team has weapons and vehicles, and . . .

Sky Whale

Dragon

Rabbit Panda

Yeah, I'm going to be honest, these things remind me more of the circus than fairy tales (full disclosure: I included this category so you could all see how silly these look).

So, how fairy tale is it? Well, a little bit. Their embracing of the outlandish definitely does fit the bill. Because, when you get right down to it, fairy tales are outlandish. And there are a couple of other good bits. I just wish they had invoked some more major archetypes or made some more direct references.

I know they can do it, too. Why?

Well, the next year Tsubaraya released another Ultra show that was often a much more serious show: Ultraman Leo. But in the middle of all this seriousness, was a string of episodes called the “Japanese Folk Stories Series” which drew on the following tales: “Issun Boshi”, “Momotaro”, “Urashima-Taro”, “The Fox Kid”, “The Crane's Return of a Favor”, “Withered Trees Made to Blossom” and “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.

Ultraman Leo as Issun Boshi

Why do this for Leo and not Taro? I don't know. Maybe a more serious show like Leo was a better fit, considering many Japanese tales have bittersweet endings. While European stories often end with someone (but not everyone) living happily ever after, Japanese stories often end with a reminder that the good and beautiful things in life don't last.

Anyway, whether it's a fairy tale or not, I do recommend folks check out the Ultra series. Though, I very much know it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Luckily, a lot of them stream for free with ads on Tubi.

Until next time.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Bambi

 


Hooray! It's Public Domain Day! Or at least close enough to it! Lately, every New Year's Day has been a big deal for not just college football fans but also English majors, art lovers, movie buffs and people who just like intellectual property law to be used fairly. Because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (which was largely concocted to protect the rights of Disney's cartoon “Steamboat Willie”), nothing had entered the public domain in the United States in years. But since January 1, 2021, things had started to once again become free to use and inspire further creativity without the need to pay pricey licensing fees.

So, today we're going to welcome a classic to the public domain: Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten!

The cover of my current version of the book.

Uh . . . what's that? You thought I was going to say Winnie-the-Pooh? Well, Milne's first Pooh book is entering the public domain and the media and people online are making a bigger deal out of it. But the thing is, I already did a Pooh spotlight.

Anyway . . .

Uh, yes . . . you thought Bambi already came into the public domain last year (or was it the year before? ). Well, the thing is that due to English language version of the book being copyrighted later in the United States than the German version was in Europe, it actually has a later public domain debut over here in the U.S.

Guys, I really can't keep stopping to answer questions.

Anyway, first a little about the author. Felix Salten was born in Pest, Austria-Hungary on September 6, 1869 as Siegmund Salzmann. He was the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. About a month after he was born, his family relocated to Vienna, Austria as many Jewish families did at the time after the Imperial government granted full citizenship rights to Jews in 1867. Salten went to work at 16 after his father went bankrupt, but also started submitting poems and book reviews to journals and became part of the Young Vienna movement. He then went on to be a full-time art and theater critic and started Vienna's first, short-lived literary cabaret. At the height of his productivity he averaged about one book a year and wrote for pretty much all the major newspapers in Vienna, as well as writing film scripts and librettos. His books were briefly banned in Austria, but for the most simple and obvious reasons (he was Jewish and Austria had been taken over by Nazis). Salten ended up moving to Zurich, Switzerland and spent his final years there, dying in 1945.

The most popular of his works, though, is Bambi (or Bambi: A Life in the Woods if you're in a mood for lengthy titles). It was a big hit when it came out. The English translation that came out in 1928 by Siegel and Shuster ended up being a Book-of-the-Month club success. It was also novel because it was one of the first “environmental novels”, which looked at nature and was critical of humanity's impact on it. The irony is actually that most of the criticism and the antagonistic role in general is laid on a human hunter and Salten himself was an avid hunter.

First edition cover of Bambi

The story follows the life of Bambi, a young roe deer, from his birth to when he comes of age. The story deals with the changing of the seasons and the hardships and joys of his life, like his meeting with his childhood friends Faline and Gobo, his interactions with other forest animals like the hare and the owl, his brief but meaningful interactions with his father the great “Prince” who watches over everything, the struggles to find food in the winter, his reunion with Faline as a young adult and his rivalry with other male deer named Karus and Ronno. This book is actually a bit hard to describe because it's meant to be a life story. The plot is basically just “Bambi grows up”. But there is one driving antagonist that does hang over the entire thing: HIM! Or, as you probably know him from the Disney adaptation: MAN. The animals of the forest do not seem to have a word for Humanity. Humanity is always referred to as “He” or “Him” (note, I will be completely capitalizing these words going forward when referencing humanity's actions in the book for clarity's sake. Also, for dramatic effect). This is actually a very effective way of advertising what a strange and ominous force humanity is in the forest. Humankind is spoken of as if it's some mysterious, confounding and ultimate dangerous force. Some strange mix of god, demon, otherworldly invader and all-around boogeyman. And the things he does are strange and insidious. We all know that HE killed Bambi's mother. In the course of the book he also nearly gets Bambi killed by using a deer call that Bambi thinks sounds like Faline. Probably the biggest, most impactful thing (other than the death of Bambi's mother) is what HE did to Gobo. Gobo was Faline's twin brother. He was also kind of weak and frail for the majority of his fawnhood and had trouble keeping up with the other deer. Now, during the hunt that killed Bambi's mother, Gobo is injured and then disappears for probably months and maybe even years. But then suddenly Gobo shows back up again but he acts strange for a deer of his age. He's cocky and childish and seems to have no sense of caution. He regularly brags about how he is special to HIM and how close they are. Here's what happened: the humans took Gobo home and made him a pet. As a result he got too close to humans and too comfortable with them. He also missed out on learning a lot of what a young deer needs to know. And I'm going to tell you that the first time I read this book I thought there was something creepy about Gobo. The way he talked about his closeness to HIM sounded to my ears like someone who had been inducted into a cult. Anyway, you can probably guess what happened to Gobo the next time a hunt was on. He went to greet HIM, convinced of his own specialness and “BANG”!

Sobering stuff, right? Well, the book is pretty sober and serious. It was originally intended for an adult audience and it's mostly honest about what life is like for deer in the forest. Like the threat of mankind, the hardships of winter, the realities of predation and the food chain and the fierceness of rivalries over mating. Though, right there is where the book pulls its punches a little. When Bambi is young there are some mentions of there being times when his mother can't be around. It's never explicitly stated, but it's highly suggested that that's because it's the rutting season and she has to run from all the aroused males. But other than that, it's pretty honest. The ultimate message the book tries to send is about the basic similarities between all the creatures here on Earth. HE may act like he's superior to other animals but in the end, human beings live, eat, mate and die just like every other creature. The only being that may be superior is one above us all.

Roe deer, like Bambi

While Bambi may not be that popular now in book form as it was, it's legacy does still go a bit deeper and further. Felix Salten did write other animal stories. Some of them touched on characters related to Bambi. Most did not. He also wrote a sequel Bambi's Children which was published in 1939. It follows the life and coming-of-age of Bambi's twin children Gurri and Geno. A new wrinkle is added to this because Salten adds a new kind of HIM to Bambi's world, a game warden who is trying to preserve and protect the animals of the forest. Though his actions still confound Bambi and his family.

And then there's all the Disney stuff.

Look, I'm not going to sit here and pick on the Disney Bambi movies. I'd seem like a colossal hypocrite. I own the original on DVD and it's not bad. It's not exactly like the book, but it's not bad. Most of the thematic underpinnings are still there, even if they added in movie-only stuff like the characters of Thumper and Flower. I do kind of think they could have kept all the European wildlife the same rather than swapping them with North American ones, including changing Bambi and his family from roe deer to white-tailed deer. Even the straight-to-video sequel Bambi II isn't particularly bad all things considered. Interestingly enough, the first movie wasn't really a hit when it came out. It was criticized for being too serious and too dark. Critics and moviegoers weren't really comfortable with how far Disney seemed to be going from the familiarity of Snow White and Mickey Mouse. It's kind of funny because compared to the book, the movie can be kind of lightweight. I mean, Walt Disney practically went out of his way to avoid acknowledging the fact that animals eat other animals in that movie. Oh, well. For the record, Disney also made two other Salten books into movies. He adapted Salten's book Perri about a squirrel into one of his True Life Adventure nature documentaries also named Perri (which I take to mean, Disney made a nature documentary about a squirrel and then gave it the same name as the book and then said “See, it's an adaptation). And he also very loosely adapted (think “inspired by” rather than “based on) Salten's dramatic novel The Hound of Florence into, of all things, the comedy The Shaggy Dog. Disney also bought the rights to Bambi's Children but never intended on making it into a movie. He just didn't want anyone else to.

Bambi movie poster (1942)

It's still continuing on, though. In January of 2020 (you know, around the time Bambi went public domain everywhere but the U.S.) Disney revealed that it would be using its process to use high quality CGI to mimic animal life, last seen in movies like their remakes of The Lion King and The Jungle Book, to make a photorealistic Bambi remake. No release date was given. Neither was a start date. Plus, we had a pandemic in the middle there which is still ongoing. So, who knows where this project stands. I'm not sure about this movie, honestly. One frequent complaint about the Lion King remake is how inexpressive the characters are. And if lions aren't very able to convey human-like expressions, deer certainly aren't. Plus, as good as the original movie is, it has a reputation of traumatizing young viewers. Seeing Bambi's mother die in realistic CGI might be a little much. Never mind the fact that Saturday Night Live already made a joke out of the very concept.  But here's hoping. After all, no one wants to make a bad movie.

But even if Disney's new take doesn't do well, it's not a problem. Because the book is in the public domain and anyone can adapt it. Not to mention share it, reimagine it and remix it. So, welcome to the public domain, Bambi! May you have many creative years ahead of you!



Thursday, November 11, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Ronia, The Robber's Daughter.

Okay, so this took a little while, didn't it? The arrival of the last of my posts about the books (or at least some of them) adapted by Japanese anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli. But the way this book was adapted was a unique case. The fact that it was a unique case was also to some extent what made this episode take so long. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First thing's first: you must meet the book we're talking about.

Ronia, The Robber's Daughter is a 1981 children's novel by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. This being the same Astrid Lindgren who created the character of Pippi Longstocking, among others. The book has been adapted into a prize-winning film, Danish and German musicals and has been translated into at least 39 languages.

An early edition of the book.

The book is about Ronia, the daughter of a short-tempered robber chieftain names Matt. Ronia was born the same night as a great storm that caused a lightning bolt to split Matt's fortress in two. Ronia grows up among the robbers, but after a certain age feels more at home in the forest where live wild beasts like bears and foxes but also fantastical creatures like wild harpies, grey dwarves and the unearthly ones. Things begin to change for Ronia when the clan of Matt's rival Borka sneak into the other side of Matt's fortress and set up house, including Borka's son Birk. Then they change even more as Ronia and Birk bond in the forest after Birk stops Ronia from being led astray by the unearthly ones. With Matt and Borka's rivalry rapidly threatening to boil over into violence, Ronia soon finds herself called upon to make some difficult choices.

My edition of the book.

It's an interesting book. One thing that struck me is how low-key the fantastical elements are. They're there and they play an important part in certain scenes, but the book isn't given over to them. One imagines that if given another rewrite, this whole book might have changed from fantasy fiction to a vaguely historical novel. The “robber” part also serves to mainly add an additional source of conflict. Ronia herself isn't a robber. Neither is Birk. Just their fathers and the people around them are. Ronia actually makes a big deal about not wanting to be a robber. A large chunk of the book is actually given over to Ronia and later Ronia and Birk hanging out in the forest doing things and figuring out life as they go. Not to say there isn't any tension or big events. It's just hard to talk about them without spoiling them. I will say that there's one sequence of events that leads to both Ronia and Birk having falling outs with their fathers that gets really intense and is a huge turning point midway through the book.

A live action adaptation of Ronja, The Robber's Daughter.

The anime series from Studio Ghibli, strangely enough, both a whole other thing and not all that different at all.

Ronja, The Robber's Daughter (notice the J instead of I in Ronia's name. Not sure if that's a major difference, but it is important when searching for this stuff online) was a 2014-2015 cel-shaded, computer-animated anime series co-produced by Polygon Pictures, Studio Ghibli, NHK Enterprises and Dwango.

It's the first animated TV series from Studio Ghibli. I should point out that Ghibli making a TV series is kind of a big deal. Not just because it's Ghibli and they're super popular. But because it's generally a big deal for animation studios that deal largely with theatrical animation to move into the world of television animation with its tighter time constraints and budgets. Doing TV is a risk for a studio that's used to putting out a product with a certain benchmark of quality. It's what kept Disney out of the TV animation game until the '80s when CEO Michael Eisner and company managed to make it work, which led to shows like Gummi Bears, Duck Tales, etc.

Some of the magical creatures from Ronja's woods.

So, this show is something completely new and different for Studio Ghibli. They've never made an animated television show before. However, it is also amazingly faithful to the book. More faithful than many of their movie adaptations of books. Unlike some of the Miyazaki films, this show does not seem to have anyone bending it toward certain themes they want to tackle. It follows the sequence of events from the book pretty closely but adds in a few things to take better advantage of the visual nature of the show. For example, in the book we're told that Matt and Borka and their respective bands are robbers, but we never actually see a robbery take place. The TV series opens with one. And as an artistic flourish, it appears Matt and his gang all wear ornate monster masks when robbing someone.

Studio Ghibli's first animated series.

Really, it is a remarkably faithful series. There are some places I could nitpick or which made me scratch my head. For example, Matt's name became Mattis in the show. I'm not sure if that's a deliberate change or the result of translation. Also, though Ronja is supposed to grow from a baby to a young girl of 12 in the series, she doesn't seem to physically grow all that much. I mean, she starts as a baby and then is maybe supposed to be 6 when she first goes into the forest, and then 12 at the end. But 6-year old Ronja and 12 year old Ronja look a little too similar. I wish they could have varied their designs of the main character a little more over the course of the series. Also, there's the character of Noddle Pete. Noddle Pete is an old man and the oldest member of Matt/Mattis's band. The show seems to suggest more at the very end that Noddle Pete is Ronja's actual grandfather rather than just a grandfatherly figure. This is mainly because there's a flashback to Noddle Pete rushing home when Mattis was born the same way Mattis ran home when Ronja was born. I'm not sure if that's what the animation writers intended or not.

Overall, it's just a rather well done series. It kind of reminds me of some of the “gentler” animated fantasy series for kids that used to air on cable back in the day. Stuff like David the Gnome or my beloved Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics. (Note: Yes, I know it's odd to describe shows with fairy tale elements as “gentler” but the point I'm trying to make is that they're not action shows or epic fantasy shows).

The book is available from a number of book purveyors (though, not the Kindle Store the last time I checked) and the show is on Amazon Instant Video and has been released on blu-ray by Gkids and Shout! Factory. Check 'em out if you're interested.

Ronja blu-ray.

And that wraps up Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Ghibli Sequence. Stay tuned, though. There are more good things to come.



Sunday, September 19, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: When Marnie Was There.

 

To start off with, I want to say that it's hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers. So, if you care about that sort of thing, I suggest that you stop now and go read the book or at least watch the movie (which I will also be talking about).

Good. Okay, so let's go.

When Marnie Was There book, vintage cover

When Marnie Was There is a young adult novel by British author Joan G. Robinson and published in 1967. It focuses on a 12-year old girl named Anna. Anna is a foster child and frequently feels lonely and unloved and as if she is separate from everyone else. Due to health concerns, Anna's foster mother whom Anna calls “Auntie” sends her to stay in Norfolk for a while. While in Norfolk, Anna meets a mysterious young girl named Marnie who lives in the large and equally mysterious Marsh House. The two develop a very deep, intimate friendship. Anna's feelings of loneliness and isolation mirror Marnie's life in which she feels neglected due to the frequent absences of her parents and her mistreatment at the hands of the servants. Anna and Marnie bond over a number of things and tell each other a number of secrets (for example: Anna reveals how her foster mother receives a stipend for Anna's care and how much that bothers her). They also engage in a couple of misadventures, such as when Marnie brought Anna into one of her parents' fancy parties in the guise of a beggar girl. This goes on until a climax that happens at a dilapidated windmill that Marnie is afraid to enter. After that, things kind of wind down to an ending in which Marnie's mysterious nature and her real connection to Anna is revealed.

And what's revealed is . . . (and here come the big SPOILERS folks)

Marnie was actually Anna's grandmother who had taken care of her for a short time when Anna was very young. Anna's family history and the circumstances by which she became a foster child come to light. Thus, Anna was able to connect with one of the family members she felt abandoned by as a human being and ultimately learn to forgive them. Whether Marnie was actually a ghost of the now-deceased grandmother or if Anna was actually somehow moving back and forth through time is unclear. Though it's also likely unimportant as the magical elements are here to serve Anna's character arc first and foremost.

When Marnie Was There book, modern cover

Now, I don't know quite how other people feel about this book. I've never met anyone else who's read it. Personally, I rather liked it. I like that it had the wherewithal to not explain its primary magical plot device. Because, let's be honest it wasn't really about that (time travel story rule #1: Time travel stories aren't really about time travel. They're about characters, the situations they get in and the experiences they have that change them due to time travel. Even though When Marnie Was There might not actually be time travel). Also, as someone who's read a lot of fairy tales, children's fiction and superhero origin stories, I'm interested in stories that actually care about the psychology and feelings of orphans and kid characters in other tough situations that don't treat them as standard tropes on a checklist. I echoed a similar sentiment regarding the Cinderella character in the Ashley Poston book Geekerella. I suppose that if anyone was able to make that happen, it would be Joan G. Robinson. Robinson made a career of writing about children who don't feel loved, basing much of it on experiences and feelings she herself had as a child. So, I really don't have much else to say. It's a book of big friendships and big feelings that cares about the rich internal lives of children. I do suggest reading it if you can.

But then there's the adaptation. And that's where things get really interesting. At least in the details.

When Marnie Was There film poster

The animated film When Marnie Was There (in Japanese Omoide no Mani or directly translated as Marnie of Memories), was released in 2014. The film was written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Overall, most of the relevant story and emotional beats are the same. Anna is still a lonely foster child who feels unloved. Marnie is still a mysterious rich girl who is neglected despite seemingly having everything in the world. The friendship is still profound. Secrets are still revealed. The party still happens. The windmill part still happens (though it's not a windmill now, but I'll get to that). Marnie is still really who she was in the book.

The difference is that now, it all happens in Japan. And that can make a big difference.

Now, normally I would warn against one culture co-opting and rewriting the story of another culture. But like I said, very little has been rewritten and what has became a bit more interesting. Also, this is a case where it's the story of one imperial power (Great Britain) being co-opted by another once imperialist country (Japan). Certainly this would be a different situation if Studio Ghibli had taken a story that was Korean, Ainu or Okinawan.

In the movie, Anna is still Anna and Marnie is still Marnie. Everything else is changed or rewritten to be more Japanese. Instead of being Norfolk, the town she's sent to is in Hokkaido. The couple she stays with changes from the Peggs to the Oiwa. The taciturn fisherman who helps Anna out a couple of times changes from Wuntermenny (the name is a joke that I can't explain here. It's explained in the book) to Toichi. A friend Anna meets later changes from Priscilla to Sayaka. And for some reason the windmill changes to a grain silo (are there no windmills in Japan?).

So, what this means is that Marnie wasn't just a rich girl, she was a foreign rich girl spending holidays in Japan. The Marsh House isn't just a big house, it's a big Western style house on the edge of a tiny Japanese coastal town. And Anna isn't just a foster child. She's a foster child of mixed race living in Japan.

Now, I've never been to Japan but I've heard other folks talk about their experience about being a foreigner or gaijin in Japan, so I'm going from that. So, the thing is that the Japanese in general do not in general hate gaijin, which may be what you were expecting. However, gaijin do frequently make Japanese folks feel uneasy. The thing is that Japan is a very risk-averse country and one of the things their culture emphasizes greatly is preserving harmony. Essentially keeping things running smoothly and not causing any unnecessary strain or burden on anyone. So, the assumption is that dealing with gaijin will more likely lead to that disharmony. For example, there are restaurants that put up signs that say things like “we don't serve foreigners” largely because they don't want to put pressure on their largely Japanese staff to serve someone who might not completely understand the language. And restaurants that actively welcome foreigners often do it because they have people on staff who know English and they'll just jump right to taking your order in that language rather than letting you even try to order in Japanese.

And while it may not be done maliciously, it is still othering.

So, with this undercurrent in mind, think of how it impacts a story about a young girl who feels thoroughly othered. And think about how it affects someone like Marnie who not only doesn't see her parents as much as she needs to, but is also in that situation in a strange country. Or think about how the Marsh House must have stuck out like a sore thumb being a Western style mansion on the edge of a more traditionally Japanese rural village.

There's one specific scene that really underscores this. A scene that happened a fair bit differently in the book. In the book, Anna has a conflict with a local girl in which the local girl says Anna is “just what she is” and Anna returns by calling the girl a “fat pig” (honestly, Anna probably could have handled that better). In the book, I believe the conflict happens at the local post office. It does underscore that Anna doesn't like herself because she treats “just what you are” like the worst insult ever. But the movie does more with it.

This time, the scene is set during the Tanabata festival. So, Anna is with the girl and her friends, wearing a borrowed yukata and still feeling out of place but trying to do her best. She's about to engage in one of the festival's traditions of tying a slip of paper with a wish written on it to a tree. Then, the local girl snatches it away and reveals that it says “I wish I could live a normal life”. She then notices and points out that Anna's eyes are “kind of blue”, which to the audience is a marker that she is not 100% Japanese. Then the blow up between the two happens. In that moment, when Anna is trying her best to fit in, this girl managed to blow it all up and reveal not only that Anna feels like she doesn't belong but also points out one of the things that makes her an outsider. It's a scene that really works better due to the setting change.

Anna and Marnie share a dance

There's not much else to talk about here but I do want to touch on one other thing. And that's the potential LGBTQ reading of the story which is essentially clear at the beginning and then denied in both the book and movie by the time it ends. You see, the beginning of Marnie and Anna's story can easily be read as the story of two girls falling in love. There's a lot of physical closeness between the two. There's a lot of emotional intimacy. They straight up tell each other “I love you” a few times. It's to the point where I've seen one internet poster who was absolutely put out by the fact that they had supposedly teased a queer romance and then supposedly changed it at the last minute. Which, really, isn't what they did but I don't blame them for interpreting it as such. Really, I think this is a case where the real culprit is the change in how close friendships are written in literature. Particularly among children. I mean, it's not just among children. One classic example is how the men in the Lord of the Rings treat their comrades with much more emotional openness in those books. They'll often weep and embrace and things like that. But especially between children, there was a tendency of showing friendships as being much more touchy-feely and open and physically expressive. The root of this being that Western fiction, childhood was generally regarded as innocent and downright asexual. Two young girls kissing or holding hands or telling each other they love each other was just them being emotionally straight-forward and innocent. And it's probably an even bigger thing when, like for Anna and Marnie, the friendship is supposed to be this life-changing thing. For another example, I remember in Baum's Oz books, Ozma would often welcome Dorothy to her throne room with a kiss on the cheek. The book didn't change, but the coding did. And it's kind of too bad because this likely gave a bit of false hope to a group of people who've felt starved for media representation.

Well, that's it for now. Next time: our last book and Studio Ghibli's first TV series.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Howl's Moving Castle.

 

Howl's Moving Castle is a 1986 young adult fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones.  Though, fans of movies, animation and especially anime may know it better as the title of a 2004 animated film from Studio Ghibli.
 

While I had seen the movie before, I've just read the book for the first time and am glad I did.
My first impression upon reading the book is that Diana Wynne Jones sure knows her way around fairy tales, seeing as she built the beginning of the book around a fairy tale trope that's not all that well-known to the public.  My second impression is that this is one of the most surprising, hard to predict fantasy novels I've read in a long time.

Howl's Moving Castle, first edition
 

The story is about a young woman named Sophie Hatter who lives in a fantasy world.  Sophie is the oldest of three sisters and curses herself for that, seemingly because of an old adage that the oldest child will always be a failure or at least succeed far less than younger siblings.  This, of course, stems from an old fairy tale trope in which the youngest sibling succeeds far in excess of their older siblings.  Usually coming down to the younger sibling being kinder and more innocent than their elders (there are a number of stories like this, but the first one that comes to my mind is "The Water of Life" from the Grimms' collection).  There are also a couple of inversions and reversions of the "wicked stepmother" trope regarding Sophie's stepmother Fannie.  Anyway, while Sophie's working at the hat shop, she receives a visit from The Witch of the Wastes who curses her, turning her into a 90-year-old woman in an instant.  Now, really being "elder" beyond her normal anxieties and unable to explain her ordeal because of conditions of the curse, she decides she has nothing to lose and goes off to seek her fortune.  She ends up at infamous Moving Castle of Wizard Howl.  Howl himself is an infamous figure, known for sweeping into towns and stealing girls' hearts.  What follows is a rather twisty, turny fantasy adventure that involves a turnip-headed scarecrow, a dog that used to be a human but can now only magically turn into other dogs, a couple of fire demons, a missing prince, some minor cases of mistaken identity, some poetry acting as a curse and a trip to Wales (yes, the country Wales from within the kingdom of Great Britain.  And yes, this is still an alternate world fantasy novel).

Howl's Moving Castle, recent edition

While I've praised the twistiness of the plot, probably one of the better qualities of the book is the main character of Sophie.  She's a wonderfully believably flawed protagonist.  Her story seems simple upon first blush.  She's a girl who accepts her fate and has to learn to be bolder and make her own destiny.  And that's fine to start with.  But from there, despite Sophie being a good person and bearing people no ill will, she's stubborn and nosy and often jumps to the wrong conclusions.  And while she seems to be working on these flaws, they don't just go away.  After all, change is rarely easy.  Sophie actually provides a good companion to the equally flawed Howl, who despite being a good man at heart is capricious, dramatic and rarely tells people the whole truth even when keeping things secret has few advantages.
 

The book, I think, was great.  The movie . . . well, it's okay.

Howl's Moving Castle, movie poster

This is actually a strange case.  Seeing as how most people agree that Studio Ghibli films are of the highest quality, and that those directed by Hayao Miyazaki are doubly so.  Folks who've seen the movie and haven't read the book for Howl's Moving Castle will likely agree with that sentiment.  And yet, the book just outpaces the movie in so many ways.  So much of it is pared down and simplified.  The characters have been changed, the story's been changed.  Even who the villain is has been changed.  Overall, it just feels like the book which was this unique gem of a thing was turned into . . . well, a Miyazaki-directed Studio Ghibli film.  It might seem a little hard to explain, but there are some tendencies among Ghibli film adaptations that have begun to stand out to me.  For one thing, they tend to amplify certain story elements that cause those elements to change the tone in very big ways.  Let's use another book and movie for an example.  In the book The Borrowers (which I've talked about here before) a young boy is staying with his aunt in the countryside while he recovers from some undefined illness.  There he makes friends with the borrower Arrietty Clock who helps him with his reading.  The Studio Ghibli adaptation The Secret World of Arrietty, has the boy staying in the countryside while he's awaiting a life-saving surgical procedure.  You see how that changes the tone of things (they also make the boy talk more like a 25-year-old than a child, but that's a discussion for another day).  They do the same thing here.  In the book and the movie there's a running plot thread about Howl constantly trying to avoid the king and some task he has for Howl.  In the book, the king is looking for Howl to go find his missing brother who went missing in the Wastes.  Howl doesn't want to do it because the Witch of the Wastes already has it out for him.  In the movie, the king wants Howl to join in fighting the giant steampunk war that he's waging against another kingdom.  And Howl doesn't want to for various reasons, including the fact that he sees the war as a mistake.  But yes, a STEAMPUNK WAR!  For this version of the fantasy realm has trains and airships and steam ships and stuff, which are seemingly not present in the book.  And the only reasons I can see that they added in a whole steam-powered war are to raise the stakes and maybe to play into Miyazaki's favorite theme of how modern, consumerist, mechanized lives are killing us and how we  need to turn back to spirituality and nature.  Only this time he's focused on mechanized warfare.  And granted, he's not necessarily wrong.  It's just that it's not what the book is about in any way, shape or form.
 

So, yes, the movie's good.  But the book is SO much better.  And the two are practically two entirely different experiences.  If you've only watched the movie and have never read the book, definitely give it a chance.  If you've read the book but never seen the movie . . . well, the movie ain't going to hurt you and it's still pretty good for what it is, but you might be disappointed that it isn't more like the book.  Diana Wynne-Jones has written two books that, while not really sequels to Howl's Moving Castle are set in the same fantasy world: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.  I might consider reading them if my existing to-be-read pile wasn't at the point of threatening to become an avalanche.  Anyway, next week we have a book adapted into a non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli animated film.  So, stay tuned.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Kiki's Delivery Service.

 


You know, maybe I’ve been picking on Disney a bit too much lately. I mean, it’s kind of the easy route. They’ve adapted a lot of fairy tales and books. A LOT. But they’re not the only adapters out there. Not by a long shot. So, for a little while, I think I’ll focus on the book adaptations of an animation studio that doesn’t fall under quite so much scrutiny. At least, not on this side of the Pacific.

So, that’s why I present to you a special sub-series titled: Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Ghibli Sequence. (Don’t read too much into the title, folks. I just thought it sounded cool). That’s right, folks! We’ll be focusing on the books adapted by that beloved icon of the anime film industry: Studio Ghibli. I’ve mentioned them before. They came up in my spotlight on The Borrowers and I reviewed their film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

But right now, we’ll be shining the spotlight on the inspiration for the Ghibli film that introduced a lot of global fans to Ghibli: Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Kiki’s Delivery Service the movie is adapted from Majo no Takkyubin (translated as Witch’s Express Home Delivery), a 1985 children’s book written by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A book that has only been translated into English for the first time very recently. The concept was supposedly inspired by a picture the author’s daughter drew of a witch flying on a broomstick while listening to a radio. This inspired her to write a book about a twelve-year-old witch (Kadono’s daughter was twelve at the time) whose only magic power was flying. That way, the character would have to use her brain to sort out problems.


The book focuses on a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her old hometown where she lives with her witch mother and folklorist father (yes, really) to go to a town of her own to set herself up as the “resident witch”. They’re she’ll be expected to make her way using whatever magical skills she has. Kiki, though, doesn’t have many magical skills. She never took any interest in her mother’s business of making potions, and a lot of other types of magic have been lost to obscurity over the centuries. But what Kiki can do is fly. So, she packs up her black dresses and her cat Jiji and her radio and hops on her mother’s old broom and heads out to find a town near the ocean to settle down in.


The book is a largely episodic affair, covering how Kiki and Jiji moved to her new town and different adventures she has as she goes on her different deliveries. In one, she has to deliver a toy cat as a gift and loses it along the way (this one is in the movie). In another, she’s asked to retrieve or rather, steal, a part from a clock tower in another town (she doesn’t do it and finds another way). Another adventure has her delivering a love letter for a girl around her own age (she also loses that and has to compose a new love poem on the spot). One of my favorites is when she gets contracted by some musicians to retrieve their musical instruments from a moving train. Not everything happens while she’s working though. One chapter has her going to the beach only for her broom to get stolen by her future friend and possible love interest Tombo.


The episodic format kind of reminds me of the Mary Poppins books. Not a knock, mind you. Just like the Mary Poppins books, there are a lot of details that I really dig. Stuff like how a lot of witchy arts were lost over time. Or how Kiki’s father is a folklorist. Or the whole thing about why witches are accompanied by black cats. According to the book, when a witch has a baby girl they search for a black kitten born at about the same time. Then they are raised at the same time. As they grow, the girl and the cat learn to speak to each other in their own language. By the time the girl comes of age, the cat would become a trusted companion. But eventually, the witch would find a new companion to take that place. The cat would also find a new partner and then the two would part ways. As far as “losing magic equals adulthood/sexual awakening/falling in love” metaphors, which are a dime a dozen in children’s fantasy literature, it’s not bad. Most of those seem downright depressing when read in a certain mindset. This is one of the few that comes close to suggesting that finding a romantic partner is about as good as being able to talk to an animal.


The 1989 animated adaptation by Studio Ghibli is a good, charming, entertaining movie. A pretty good movie but maybe not a pretty good adaptation. But that’s to be expected from a movie that tries to adapt a book with an episodic story structure. While some elements definitely remain, most of the book is not included in order to give Kiki more of an A-to-B coming of age arc. The part that kind of sticks out to me in the movie is the part near the end where Kiki develops something akin to burnout and loses her ability to fly. Now, this part might have been in one of the sequels. I don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. But it feels like it might have been an addition by the director. The director Hayao Miyazaki was a big name in anime movies before his retirement. To the point where the name “Miyazaki” often superceded the name “Studio Ghibli”. But another thing about him is that he loved themes about the dangers of the consumerist world and how it could damage nature and people’s spiritual health (note: in Japan where Shinto has influenced things for centuries, nature and spiritual health are pretty closely intertwined). Now, in a lot of his movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, the themes tend to manifest more as bigger ecological themes. But in a smaller, more intimate movie like Kiki’s Delivery Service it makes more sense that it’s not the larger natural world that’s damaged by Kiki’s flying delivery business but her spirit. Which, in the movie, leads her to go on a retreat of sorts to her artist friend’s cottage in the forest (note: my reading of this part of the plot was partly inspired by this video). The movie’s still good. Most people won’t argue with that. The animation and background scenery is downright dazzling. Personally, I prefer the version of the dub with songs by Sydney Forest, but that may be nostalgia talking.


And you know, this blog post might have ended there if I hadn’t found out that in 2014 that there was a live action adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Yes, in 2014 Toei released a live action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service based on the first two books in the series. I have not seen this movie but everything I’ve read about it suggests that it draws from the books more. I even spotted some bits I recognized from the trailer. And while, like I said, I have not seen this movie, boy do I hate the way it’s been criticized. I read the comments under the trailers and I watched one video review and almost all the criticisms could be boiled down to “It wasn’t like the Miyazaki movie, so they shouldn’t have even tried”. Granted, there could have been problems and I could see where they could have cropped up. The girl does look a little too old to be playing Kiki. If they stuck too close to the episodic nature of the book, then it could easily have felt tedious. But the main criticism shouldn’t be “it’s not the anime”. The only fairly forgiving review I read was this one from Kotaku. And the biggest strength that had is that it emphasized the different journeys that Kiki went on. The animated one being more about Kiki learning about herself, while the live action one being about Kiki learning about the outside world.

All that said, now I want to watch the live action adaptation. Just so I can form my own opinions about it. But I also want to see other adaptations of Kiki made (beyond both movies and this Cup Noodles ad, which is just an homage to the Miyazaki movie but with more of a romance anime vibe). Heck, with the episodic structure, a Kiki TV series would probably be an even better fit for her. You see, I’m cool with books remaining books. And I’m cool with books being adapted and reinterpreted by different artists and filmmakers. But what I’m really not cool with is a book getting adapted into one film or show and then having that form the basis of people’s view of it for all time. If a book is going to get adapted at least a few times so it can be seen from a number of different angles (hmm, I wonder how long copyright is in Japan). And I suppose I’d like to see the other Kiki books translated into English while I’m at it.


Anyway, next time, another book that was adapted by Miyazaki-sensei. At least, that’s the plan. Until then.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.

 


Well, this was unexpected!  Great, but unexpected!

Through what was probably no small amount of effort, boutique DVD publisher Discotek Media has released the first season of the anime Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics on Standard Definition blu-ray.
A quick history lesson: this series is a an anime fairy tale anthology series that started as Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired in its home country from Fall 1987 to Spring 1988 for 24 episodes.  It was then followed by Shin Gurimu Meisaku Gekijo or New Grimm Masterpiece Theater and aired between Fall 1988 and March 1989 for 23 episodes.  This series was then picked up by Saban Entertainment (Haim Saban being the guy responsible for turning Super Sentai into Power Rangers and someone who was always looking to create cheap content for kids' TV) brought both versions of the show over to the U.S., dubbed it into English, where it aired on Nickelodeon's preschool block Nick Jr. as Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.
 

Which is where I would eventually find it.


You know, it's actually kind of hard for me to be objective about this show.  In some ways Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics provided an awakening of sorts.  If not to fairy tales in general then to just how deep the well of them actually went.  If you live in the United States like I do, you're probably aware of the three different levels of fairy tale knowledge.  First, there's all the ones that were made into Disney films.  I know Disney can be a sore subject for some, but they have a big influence that needs to be accounted for.  Then, there's the ones Disney adapted plus the other household name tales like "Rumpelstiltskin", "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Three Bears".  Then there's all that and everything else.  Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics with its episodes based on stories like "The Water of Life", "Mother Holle" and "Jorinda and Joringel" among others gave me a glimpse of that "everything else".  Heck, it even introduced me to one of my favorite protagonist archetypes in fairy tales: The Wandering Soldier.  You know, like in "How Six Men Got Far in the World", "Bearskin" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces".  A decommisioned, possibly injured soldier with no purpose or direction shows up and gets involved in some kind of adventure, whether it's solving a mystery, cheating the devil or getting even with those who've mistreated him.  This archetype doesn't get used much in fairy tale media today.  (Hmm, considering how modern media often leans on fairy tales as a source of nostalgia or way of showing children what they want them to see, you don't suppose stories of wandering, directionless veterans might occasionally strilke a bad chord with people in post-Vietnam USA?).
 

And yet, very few of my online fairy tale colleagues seem to have heard of this show.  It probably didn't help that Nickelodeon buried it in its preschool block.  I was older than that when I found the show and it's probably not a very good choice of demographic anyway.  Many of the stories had scary scenes that could have upset the children ages 3-5 that Nick Jr. was aiming for.  And yet, Nickelodeon never seemed to doubt that a series of fairy tales must be a series for pre-schoolers.
 

Well, luckily, it did manage to build a cult following of anime and vintage Nickelodeon fans, which is probably what drove this series to get an official release in the first place.


The blu-ray itself is pretty good.  It's standard definition, so the picture quality isn't super great.  However, making an SD blu-ray apparently means there's enough room to put both the English dubbed versions and the Japanese version with English subtitles on it.  There are no special features but that's still a lot.  Since no masters of the English dubbed versions exist, the English dubbed episodes had to essentially be recreated from available sources (this isn't the first time something like that has happened.  The Voltron DVDs were created in much the same way).  I very much liked watching the Japanese version of this show.  It allows you to not only hear the original music and voices, but also see scenes that were cut for the English-language airing.  Also, just the way the show was done was different.  One thing with the English version of Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics is that the show had an ever-present narrator played by Theodore Lehmann.  The Japanese version only uses a narrator, played by Mitsuko Horie, when it really needs one to convey additional information to the audience.  Once, in the "Puss in Boots" episode, they even mix things up by having the narrator speak directly to the Miller's third son.  

One of the unusual side effects of this show coming out on blu-ray is that through the prompting of an online colleague, it made me think about my own biases as to how these lesser-known tales are told.  For example, the climax to the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version of "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces" ends with a chase scene.  And it never struck me that it would seem odd until someone pointed it out.  For the uninitiated, this story is commonly called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (an unfitting name for this show's version, which only has three princesses).  In the story as it's written down, twelve princesses disappear down a mysterious passageway wear they dance and dance with mysterious princes until a soldier with a cloak of invisibility disovers where they've been going and reveals it to their father the king.  In the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version, it's revealed that not only are the princesses entranced to dance with the princes, the princes themselves are monsters.  When this is revealed, the monsters chase the princesses and the soldier and they escape before almost getting sealed in the underground kingdom forever.  And that always felt like the most natural way to end things, and I always thought the way the fairy tale ended in the book was kind of abrupt.  I always felt that way because I first encountered the tale on this show, though.  It makes me wonder what other biases I've picked up from it.  I guess maybe I should cut the people whose fairy tale biases were formed by Disney movies just a tiny bit more slack.
 

Well, anyway, I think folks should check it out.  However, I'm hardly the most impartial judge with this one.  If you can look past things like picture quality to things like storytelling, maybe check out one of the numerous bootleg episodes uploaded on YouTube to see if you like it.  If you do, the blu-ray is available from various online purveyors, including Amazon and www.rightstufanime.com.  The English-dubbed episodes can be watched for free on Retro Crush or free with Amazon Prime on Amazon Instant Video.  The blu-ray for the second season comes out at the end of August.