Monday, October 9, 2023

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Once Upon a Crime.



What's this? An actual Fairy Tale Fandom post?

Yes, I thought I'd still show up and post every once in a while when some fairy tale thing still managed to catch my interest even though my interest in fairy tales and storytelling proved to be less of an ongoing interest and more of a years long, but still temporary hyperfixation.

Anyway, what caught my interest is a Japanese Netflix movie titled Once Upon a Crime. See trailer video below:

The movie is based on a Japanese book titled Akazukin, Tabi no Tochu de Shitai to Deau, which roughly translates to Little Red Riding Hood Encounters a Corpse Upon Her Journey, by Aito Aoyagi. I won't be commenting on fidelity to the book because, as near as I can tell, it has never been published in English and thus I have never read it.

Japanese book cover from 'Little Red Riding Hood Encounters a Corpse on Her Journey'

The movie follows Little Red Riding Hood, who is apparently on a journey to see the world and improve herself. As she goes along on this journey she runs into Cinderella who is, as is generally the case with Cinderella, abused by her stepfamily. However, with the help of two witches, one who can transform clothes and other things and one who can create glass footwear, Cinderella gets the chance to go to the ball and Red Riding Hood gets to go with her. But along the way things take a turn for the sinister when their coach runs into the corspe of Mister Hans, the King's royal hairdresser who has apparently been murdered. As things unfold, it falls to Red Riding Hood to solve the mystery and bring the killer to justice.

Netflix image for Once Upon a Crime.

Definitely a different take, huh? You don't see a lot of fairy tale murder mysteries out there. It also seems to play awfully fast and loose with the tonal push and pull that fairy tales and their adaptations are frequently subject to. It's a murder mystery and thus is dark enough to have a murder in it. Yet, the plot itself is a tongue-in-cheek thing about the killing of an overzealous and over-the-top hairdresser. Plus, visually, the movie is a big, bright, candy-colored confection. Some of the credit for this might go to the fact that it's a Japanese movie, and they have a very different cultural understanding of tone and what might be appropriate for different types of material. Personally, I rather like the variable tone. After years of seeing the back and forth of whether fairy tale adaptations should be dark like many of their written variations or lighter to appeal to a wider audience, it's nice to see fairy tale projects searching for a middle ground or finding some third path.

But now the question comes up of how it stacks up as a murder mystery, and the truth is that . . . I don't know. I mean, I'm not completely unfamiliar with the mystery genre. I've read some Sherlock Holmes books as well as a not-insignificant chunk of the manga Case Closed (also known as Detective Conan). And I've become rather fond of the recent Kenneth Branagh Hercule Poirot movies (and before some fans tell me, I have already been told that they're supposedly not as good as the books or the David Suchet series. But I'm more interested in having something interesting to go to the movies for than having the “Optimal Poirot Experience”). However, there are significant gaps in my mystery experience. For example, I've only ever read one Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None back in high school). And I've never really sat and thought about what makes for a good mystery. One thing I could call foul on is how Red Riding Hood's deductions are depicted. It seems she's supposed to have some kind of total recall, but it's depicted as images flashing before her like she's got some kind of psychic power. I'm not sure that's what they were intending. On the more positive side, I did not see the solution to this mystery coming. So, there's that.

Red Riding Hood looking at a glass slipper.  Could it be a clue?

Personally, I'm going to say Once Upon a Crime is not necessarily a must-watch, but it is definitely something to check out if you want to see something different done with fairy tale characters and settings.

As for me, I'm thinking maybe I should dip my toe more into the worlds of mystery and crime fiction. After all, if I'm not going to be obsessing over fairy tales, there's no reason I can't expand my horizons a bit.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Taishou Otome Fairy Tale


Okay, so long time no see.

I'm sorry for not updating in a while. I'm afraid I've lost just a little bit of interest in all this fairy tale/folk tale stuff. Well, not so much lost interest as my interest settled down to a reasonable level. This seems to be a thing that happens a lot with me. I'll develop an interest that will be at the forefront of my mind for a while. Sometimes to the point of preoccupation. Then, after indulging in it for a few years, that preoccupation will stop and just become a regular general interest while something else takes its place. (Honestly, this might be an ADD thing. But I haven't really thought about that particular diagnosis since elementary school).

Anyway, I'm trying to not let this blog die completely, so let's take as look at some media property that calls itself a “fairy tale” and see how much of a fairy tale it is. Because sometimes they use the term “fairy tale” just to call attention to the fact that it's a fantasy or to indicate that it's a love story, when those things aren't necessarily the same as being a fairy tale.

Today's media is: Taishou Otome Fairy Tale.

The promo image for the anime.

I might want to clarify that, because that title (which is how it's labeled on Crunchyroll) is kind of a mix of English and Japanese. In Japanese, it would be “Taishou Otome Otogibanashi”. In English, it would be “Taishou Maiden Fairy Tale”. “Taishou” remains the same because it's a proper noun. The Taishou era was a period of Japanese history ranging from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926, coinciding with the reign of Emperor Taishou. (Note: I had not realized how short this time period was before writing this. Only 14 years).

Taishou Otome Fairy Tale is a 12 episode anime series based on a five volume manga series by artist Sana Kirioka and originally published in Jump Comics SQ.

The story is set in the early 1920s. Tamahiko Shima, second son of the wealthy Shima family, lives alone and hermit-like in a large house in the countryside of Chiba. Having been in an auto accident that claimed his mother's life and the use of his right hand, the rich and imposing young man (Tamahiko is unusually tall, as are much of his family. Possibly over six feet, which is fairly rare for Japanese men) has resigned himself to a life of pessimism, self-loathing and isolation. Until one day, a young girl of 14 named Yuzuki Tachibana shows up on his doorstep. By way of explanation, she tells Tamahiko that she was essentially purchased by Tamahiko's father to pay off her own father's debt with the intention of her being Tamahiko's companion and future wife. Yuzu, unusually cheerful for someone in her position, sets to work cleaning, cooking, sewing, and doing everything she can to make the gloomy Tamahiko's house into a home. As things continue on, romance blooms between them as Tamahiko is slowly brought out of his shell and starts to interact with the surrounding community as well as deal with his abusive family.

So, it seems that we're dealing with a “fairy tale in name only”. The title probably comes from the fact that it's a romance story. I mean, the 1920s hardly seems like a time period conducive to fairy tales. There's no magical elements in any of the story. Very few particularly overt fairy tale motifs.

I mean, what else could we take from a story about a young girl who's traded away because of the actions of her father and made to live in a secluded home with a depressed, disfigured and imposing man . . .

And . . . this is just “Beauty and the Beast” isn't it?

Japanese cover for the first manga digest

[SIGH] It was right there in front of my face.

This one's kind of a new one on me, actually. In some ways, Tamahiko and Yuzu actually resemble their more literary counterparts more than some of the popular versions of Belle and the Beast do. The early French literary versions of the Beast often seem gloomy and depressed like Tamahiko does, as opposed to the angry Beast we see in the Disney film. Literary versions of Belle are also much more willing to make do with the situation they're in than the Disney Belle is, much like Yuzu. (I know I'm only comparing to the Disney version, but is there any other version that's reached the same heights of popularity?). You could even say that Yuzu's trip to see her friend in Tokyo could be the equivalent of when Belle goes home to see her ailing father. Though, that ends up playing out very differently (it involves an actual historical event: The Great Kanto Earthquake).

However, it kind of stops there. Even the most complex early version written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve doesn't account for some of the places Taishou Otome Fairy Tale goes. Like, I'm pretty sure the Beast never ended up becoming a tutor for the village's children. I'm also pretty sure Belle never inspire the Beast's younger sister to study medicine. I doubt that Belle and the Beast ever befriended a popular musician of the time either.

It's like the fairy tale was a writing prompt. Like someone gave Sana Kirioka the prompt “Beauty and the Beast in 1920s Japan, no magic” and this is what spun out from it.

I guess at this point, the question becomes whether or not Taishou Otome Fairy Tale is a worthwhile watch on its own merits.

Well, I will say that I like it. It's a charming romantic comedy set in a historic era. The settings are interesting (if you have a sense of Japanese culture and Japan's post-Meiji Era development, you'll probably have more fun with it). The characters are likable enough. There is a little bit of, pardon the term, “anime bullshit”. But not too much. Most of the stakes are lower, and more daily life related. But when the really heavy stakes hit, they hit hard.

I am going to say though that it's probably not for everyone. Especially the series' heroine if you're used to the more feisty, bookish Belles or just feistier heroines in general. Yuzu might not be up your alley.

This anime is, obviously, a product of Japan. And I sometimes have trouble explaining to people here in the Western world just how old-fashioned Japan can be. In many cases this is because they grew up hearing about Japan during the 1980s when they were killing it in the economic spheres of electronics and cars, or have seen YouTube videos about bullet trains or something. They don't know that it's still a country where businesses continue to rely heavily on outdated tech like fax machines and paper business cards. Or where homes don't have central heating or air conditioning no matter how cold or hot it gets. Or where media still depicts “housewife” as one of the most common and acceptable careers for grown women. Now, imagine how true this might be for an anime actually set in the past.

Yuzu hard at work.

The thing with Yuzuki Tachibana is not only that she seems way too accepting of a potentially bad situation she's been placed in by a number of different men with very little say over what's happening to her. It's also that she's SUPER domestic. She's always cooking, cleaning, sewing, buying groceries and doing other housekeeping tasks with no annoyance or frustration. Yuzu throws herself into the job of taking care of a house and other people as if it's what she's wanted to do all her life. And at one point, when questioned about whether she wants children someday by a close friend, she responds that she wants “lots and lots of them”. The one saving grace here is that it seems that it's not being communicated as a trait of girls in general but just Yuzu in particular. In a flashback scene to her time at a girls' school, we find out that even her school friends acknowledge how domestic she is by comparison, even going to her when they need tears in their clothes patched or things like that. And there are other girls in the cast who have devoted themselves to studying medicine or performing music. So, it's what Yuzu likes and what she wants to do. But if it's not something you get, this character might not connect with you.

So, fairy tale or not, if this show sounds interesting to you then give it a shot. I don't know about other countries, but here in the United States it's currently on the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. There's also the manga. In addition to the original manga, there's also a sequel titled Showa Otome Fairy Tale that takes place a few years later with new characters and seems to borrow some of its set-up from Cinderella. However, neither of those have gotten any kind of official release in the United States, so you'd have to resort to other means to read them.

It may be a little while, but until next time.

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.


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.”


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


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


And there's even one that looks like Pinocchio!


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


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.