Anime has a long history of successful adaptations of European and diaspora children’s books, showcasing stunning artistry, touching realism, and an uncommon degree of fidelity to the original works. Rarely, however, have these gained wide renown among anime fans in the Western world itself—and in one big exception, Howl’s Moving Castle, the movie is so much more famous than the Diana Wynne Jones novel, I expect many aren’t even aware the plot isn’t original to the anime. Still, among some otaku, the name World Masterpiece Theater is gold. Looking for a wholesome and family appropriate series based on a literary classic? Look no further than this label, which includes two series I consider contenders for the greatest anime of all time, Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess Sara.
However, I cannot count 1981’s The Swiss Family Robinson: Flone of the Mysterious Island among those masterpieces. It was a major disappointment next to those counterparts, and also next to the basis work, the 1812 novel by Johann Davis Wyss. Partly with a mind to watching the anime later, I read the translation by William G. H. Kingston shortly before starting the show. Normally, it is a commended practice to read the book before seeing movie (or anime), but since this is an openly loose adaptation, I may have gotten too irritated by how widely the two diverged, so consider watching first, reading the source later for maximum enjoyment.
To be sure, the anime still arguably changes things less than the 1960 Disney movie (solely by leaving out the pirates), but given World Masterpiece Theater tradition and audience expectations it was probably impossible not to adulter Wyss’s very old, very atypical children’s novel. The original castaway family had four boys, no girls, the mother, and the father—from whose perspective the story was told. Though stranded, they are almost impossibly fortunate, retaining almost the entire cargo of a ship meant for a new settlement, and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. Theirs is a sunny progress from state of nature to genuine civilization, with little in the way of “incident” that makes up many children’s books, the drama chiefly consisting of struggles with wild animals, with the boys scarcely seeing an animal they don’t shoot, with their almost unlimited ammunition, or harness to carry burdens or augment the growing plantation of “New Switzerland”.
Here, as per the subtitle, one Flone Robinson is the center of action (as you may have guessed, in the original “Robinson” isn’t the family surname; it’s a reference to Robinson Crusoe, to whose plight in the Daniel Defoe novel the family often likens their circumstances). Given that the ending theme is all about her, it seems she’s supposed to be a strong heroine for girls to identify with, the sort of girl whose every encounter is like grace in the lives of those who meet her. Somehow, I don’t think Nippon Animation succeeded; Flone is quite ordinary, hardly standing out even in her family, nay, almost smaller than life. She’s rather homely, too; this is her in her best light, so no fare for fans of pretty girls either.
The story opens not on the ship tossed on the stormy seas, but before the Robinson family’s departure from their old home, in Bern. The father, Dr. Ernst Robinson, receives a letter from an old friend noting the dearth of medical doctors in Australia, with an invitation to relocate thence in the service of medicine; after some resistance from the musically interested older son Franz, who fears there will be few opportunities to study music in the colony, they say goodbye to their Alpine homeland. (By the way, this totally inverts the book, in two ways. One of the few necessities the family lacked in the original was medical expertise, a need met simply by enjoying exemplary health year after year. And the original family, no doubt influenced by Reformed Christianity, had little interest in music outside of Sunday hymns).
The European chapter, totally invented, allows for some simple but lovely scenery of a European city, and then my favorite part, a journey to their eventual seaport along the Rhine. Sightings of landmarks leads to some nicely told historical reminiscences. You may be sure the history-based scenes with Marie Antoinette (nude!) on the Île aux Épis, and of her earlier meeting with Mozart, weren’t in the book, but they are gorgeous and charming.
It is no spoiler to say the Robinsons end up stranded on an island in the East Indies, but Nippon nixes the can-do adventurousness of the original without substituting anything better. Perhaps it seemed too easy to have the family so well provided for, but Wyss’s original, for all its unlikely elements, teaches the rewards of cooperation and hard work, messages as fit for young viewers in Japan as for young Western readers. When the Robinsons make landfall, circumstances are straitened, and remain so. The upbeat English dubbed opening, boasting of “living in the sun”, where “every day is fun, fun, fun”, is false advertising. However divergent, another thing all Swiss Family Robinson adaptations have in common is the building of a treehouse. Missing here, however, are the neat contraptions that make the tale charming and interesting. Their existence is not idyllic or enviable, but like an overlong camping trip, and all eager to return home (and the viewer, perhaps, for the episode to end).
Lacking benighted humans for sympathetic Flone to aid, the studio often attempts build her character through compassion for animals, including their dog John, a pair of goats, and their cuscus Mercre (replacing the chimp Knips in the book; the voice actors have a hard time pronouncing cuscus in Japanese). Maybe this is paradise for pet lovers, but as someone who mainly cares about humans I was rolling my eyes constantly. Flone gets aggrieved, feels sad when she goes hunting, and even briefly resolves to eat no more meat, though she later seems to go back on this. This was bound to happen in our sensitive today, even the today of 1981, but unlikely in the early 19th century setting, particularly in a survival situation where, unlike in the book where the family religiously rests every Sunday, there is so much to be done the biblical injunction long goes unobserved. But, I guess the trigger happy source work was doomed to be changed. The spirit of the original is best represented during expeditions Dr. Robinson makes with Franz in exploring the island, and there are several demonstrated survival skills, such as making salt and candles, but far fewer than could have been adapted from the book into the span of 50 episodes.
Later, a few new characters are introduced, including an Australian aborigine, the first I can recall in anime. While no indigenous peoples show up in the book, their accumulated wisdom and uses of plants were often credited; here, a few at least are demonstrated, but the comfort afforded proves insufficient to render the mysterious island a proud permanent settlement, or coax the Swiss Robinson family away from attempting their leave.