The Swiss Family Robinson: Flone of the Mysterious Island

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.