Twelve Months

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Beginning this anime movie blind, I was a little jarred greeted by an in memoriam photo of someone, name given in Cyrillic, who lived 1887-1964. After a few introductory scenes, the music credit to the Leningrad Philharmonic clued me in that I was viewing something really extraordinary. A quick check revealed that Twelve Months, a film of hardly over an hour, is a Japanese-Soviet (Toei-Soyuzmultifilm) collaboration from 1980, and is based on the eponymous fairy tale by Russian Jewish writer Samuil Marshak, with a tribute to whom the film opens. The animation is purely Japanese in style, completely of a piece with Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theater, with the Soviet input seemingly limited to inspiration and orchestra. It is a successful combination: Twelve Months is a classically stirring tale dripping with beauty, warmth, and supernatural wonder.

Fully titled Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Mori wa Ikiteiru (World Children’s Classics: The Forest That Lives), Twelve Months is one of a World Children’s Classics series Toei made in the late 1970s to early 1980s. I was not previously familiar with Marshak. For any like me: in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, Twelve Months is a newly composed conventional fairy tale. But from the first, comparisons with Cinderalla are inevitable. Anna (Anya) is a girl with a heart of gold, who counts the animals of the forest as her friends, and feeds them. However, she is an orphan, treated as a drudge or “layabout” by her wicked stepmother and stepsister (who of course tosses a snowball to scatter the cute animals). Tasked with gathering firewood one snowy night, she runs into an aged soldier sent by the Queen to fetch the comeliest fir to be the Christmas tree at the palace. He kindly helps her gather firewood, and tells Anna a little about the monarch, who is about Anna’s age. Here we see one of the most important themes, compassion. Anna lives a hard life, but takes pity on hearing that the Queen, too, is an orphan, and while spoiled by those around her has no one to give her direction. Neither does she resent the Queen’s life of ease, still playing with dolls, and not even knowing what work is—she takes it as befitting her station. So in return for the soldier’s help, she points him to the finest tree in the forest.

A few days later, we see the Queen eating candy from the same tree, now nicely decorated. Royally bored, yet already exercising power at an age when a regent usually rules, she makes games of choosing whether to write “Pardon” or “Hang” on a document, and disinterested in her lessons, simply orders her astounded tutor to mark her answers right. No one contradicts her for fear of punishment. But when she sees a picture of snowdrops in a book, she becomes enamored with the forest flower, ordering that snowdrops decorate the tables at the next day’s New Year’s ball. Unwilling to hear that she cannot change the laws of nature, she makes a decree that from now on, snowdrops will bloom on New Year’s Day, and whoever presents her with a basket of snowdrops on the morrow, will receive a basket of gold coins in recompense.

The stepmother and stepsister, in town shopping for New Year’s gifts, hear the proclamation, greedily hasten back to their cottage, and the stepmother drives Anna out of doors in a blizzard, enjoining her not to return without a basket of snowdrops. Of course, both mother and daughter know there are no snowdrops to be found in January, but would welcome one less mouth to feed. Anna trudges deep into the woods, breaking down in despair, and on seeing some mysterious figures pass nearby, collapses with weakness.

She awakens. The winds have died down, the snow slowed to a flurry, and in the night, a strange light is shining through the trees. Anna nears, and espies, around a billowing fire, a circle of occult figures, and asks entry into their company, to warm herself.

It is a magical encounter that defies all experience. The figures gathered around the fire have already watched Anna for years, and know of her kindness to nature. In ritual that looks like something from Rodnovery, or perhaps Wagner, they grant her an hour of spring in January.

For a few wonderful minutes, it is April, and in a radiant field, she gathers the snowdrops. This moment of spring is one of the most stunning parts of this anime.

Anna must return to the winter world, for outside of a small clearing, the blizzard continues. In parting, she is made to promise never to reveal what she’s seen that night, and keep those she saw in the circle a secret. In turn, she is given a ring as a token of friendship, with which she may summon them by reciting a few verses if she is ever in trouble. Our heroine will face a trial for her resolve to keep their secret.

Twelve Months is an inspiring tale of friendship, and like many fairy tales, emphasizes the importance of character. None of the characters undergo a fundamental transformation, though they do grow in accordance with their natures. Anna’s goodness is whole throughout, and wants only vindication in a cruel world. The Queen, while imperious, is affected by the sufferings of others, and has only to meet someone in whom she recognizes one like herself to become more considerate. The stepmother and stepsister, however, are both of the basest character, and will have much to do to redeem themselves, and rise above the level of beasts to be worthy of their humanity. Unlike what one might expect from an anime brought to you by the Soviet Union, there’s no undue stress on class, and in the end, even no animus against royalty and privilege. Rather like the original live-action masterpiece Metropolis, there is the lovely message that ”the heart” is all that’s needed to make the world a better place, where, whatever one’s status, all respect one another as fellow humans, and so however different, in some ways so much alike and easy to feel for.