When one of my son’s godparents was a child, she visited the Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island. It was full of Japanese tourists, apparently because of the success of the Anne of Green Gables anime. Which I have not yet seen. Nor have I seen the Emily of New Moon adaptation. Or Little House on the Prairie. Or Pollyanna. Or any number of other works, both classic and obscure, of Western children’s literature. I even discovered that there are two different anime versions of Daddy-Long-Legs, a series and a movie, when I was researching my column about that.
On the one hand, why not? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature does provide a wealth of plots. I’m not, I’ll admit, terribly familiar with Japanese children’s literature, but I would suspect that some plots, especially from perhaps 1920 to 1940, do not adapt well to modern sensibilities. It’s hard to research this in English, honestly, though I’ve given it a try. Mostly what you can find is books about Japan, which is not entirely the same.
But isn’t that kind of a problem? After all, why aren’t we in the US adapting Night on the Galactic Railroad? Was Kiki’s Delivery Service the only Japanese children’s book Hayao Miyazaki felt was worth adapting, leaving him to go instead for Howl’s Moving Castle and “The Little Mermaid”? It’s broadly true that children’s literature is a fairly modern concept, really only strongly becoming its own thing in about the last century and a half and mostly starting in the US and UK, but even if you’re limiting yourself to solely post-World War II, that’s enough time to build up a wide array of options from within Japan.
Not, you understand, that I am preaching any sort of Japanese animated isolationism. If animators want to adapt Lottie and Lisa, surely a Japanese twist on it won’t be any stranger than the various Parent Trap movies. And I doubt any of the Japanese versions of The Wizard of Oz are less faithful to the story than the 1939 American one. It just strikes me as strange exactly how many stories do have their Japanese animated equivalent—including ones most Americans have never read or heard of.
In fact, several of these turn out to have been part of the longer series World Masterpiece Theater, an anime series with the express purpose of bringing world literature to Japanese children. The adaptations averaged forty episodes. And perhaps that’s the secret; there was actual effort to bring world literature to Japanese children. There were shows I saw as a child that were similar but considerably shorter; there was a PBS series called Wonderworks that we watched every chance we got. It ran for eight years and honestly adapted a fair amount of the same stuff . . . but mostly in movies. The Megan Follows Anne of Green Gables was one of the longest.
And probably that’s another secret; imagine a US production company taking the time to make a forty-episode adaptation of literally anything with the purpose of introducing kids to world literature. Oh, I’m not sure most works really need twenty hours to tell, though it also seems like not enough time for some of them. Some books, I think, you could literally tell everything that happens in them in far less time, and I don’t mean just picture books. But it’s interesting to picture a faithful Wizard of Oz given enough time to develop the weirdness and subtle menace of the books—especially some of the later books.
I’d really like to see Western companies put in the effort. I’ve never seen most of these anime, though the ones I have are of varying quality. (You can’t expect them all to be the quality of Howl’s Moving Castle, now, can you?) But even if they’re all bad, they all exist. I don’t believe that most adaptations bring people to the source material, or at least bring most viewers to the source material. Still, I read A Little Princess after it was on Wonderworks—in the most faithful adaptation I think the story’s ever had. Maybe these adaptations have the same result for some people.