Thoughts on Anne of Green Gables (2005 Review)
March 5, 2005
I was in Junior High School when the Canadian television production of Anne of Green Gables was made. It was shown during 8th Grade English one week. Predictably, all the girls loved it, and all the boys were bored by it. I absolutely hated it. I was so put off by its hokeyness on one hand, its harshness of Marilla Cuthbert on the other, that I never so much as touched the book.
That remained the case until last year, when I finally broke down and watched Isao Takahata's 1979 animated version. After the second episode, I was running down to the nearest bookstore for a copy of that book.
Now, perhaps my sensibilities have just changed a lot since 1986. I'd like to hope so. Perhaps I'm more receptive as an adult. But as much as I love reading Maud Montgomery's classic girls' novel - and it's a personal favorite now - I still don't enjoy the Canadian production. You just cannot cram a novel like this into a three-hour TV movie and make it work, not without ripping out the heart and soul.
Takahata's version, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. It ranks among his greatest achievements: Horus, Prince of the Sun, Heidi, Girl of the Alps, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Goshu the Cellist, Grave of the Fireflies, Omohide Poro Poro. Black and white. Night and day.
It's all about time. This Anne was the 1979 season of World Masterpiece Theatre, the acclaimed Japanese animation showcase that Takahata (with the help of Hayao Miyazaki pioneered. Its debut in 1974 heralded a revolution in animation, bringing a religious devotion to naturalism and neo-realism previously unheard of. The films of Studio Ghibli are only the final fruition of the trails blazed in the 1970s.
World Masterpiece Theatre devoted an entire television season to a classic work of children's literature, beginning with Heidi and continuing into the early '90s. Takahata's series' would always be the gold standard by which everything would be judged, and his three productions - Heidi in 1974, 3000 Leagues in 1976, and Anne of Green Gables in 1979 - have never been surpassed in television animation. Well, Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan gives 'em a run for the money, but that's always been the case.
How do you even begin to tell the story of Anne in a measely three hours? It can't be done. This version is 25 hours long; 50 half-hour episodes, and it damn near needs every minute. Well, there is one clip chow right in the middle of the run. You can skip that one and not miss a beat, but that's it.
This is without question the definitive Anne. I think this is the case, not only because the long running time allows for the entire novel to be dramatized, but because Takahata and his writers know the material. They deeply know this story and feel it in their bones. They keenly understand the subtleties of the various characters, their unique traits and quirks.
It's a bit of a challenge, because the novel always revolves around Anne and never leaves her orbit. A lot of time is devoted to all the other characters around Green Gables, and they are given a weight and dimension that is always consistent with what Montgomery originally imagined.
For example, what kind of a girl is Diane Berry? She's Anne's best friend, of course, but who is she, really? How does she behave? What does it mean for her to be a friend to a wildly chatty, imaginitive girl like Anne Shirley? At some point she must realize that she's not going to get in a lot of conversations, and this chatterbox is going to say some pretty odd things. If they're going to be best friends, she'll have to be the listener and just go along.
As another example, Marilla Cuthbert is given all her original dialog, but she isn't portrayed as cold or mean. Her strict discipline comes not out of cruelty, but a hard life of an unmarried woman in the 19th Century. Her stern attitude towards Anne is just a shell, a front. She is entranced by her almost from the start, but at her age, how else can she behave? She keeps the giggles to herself until time and devotion have worn her walls down. By the end of the story, Marilla's openly crying and sharing her feelings.
Do you understand? This is why people like Takahata and Miyazaki create art out of animation. Not because they can draw impressive movements or conceive imaginitive worlds, but because of this obsessive attention to detail, and honesty for its characters. This is why Disney's dubs for Nausicaa and Porco Rosso are below-par. The Disney people never bothered to put anywhere near this level of thought into the American dubs, and, frankly, it shows. They just don't get it.
The greatest example of all? Yoshifumi Kondo. I honestly don't believe Anne of Green Gables could be half as good without him. Kondo served as the animation director as well as the character designer, and his naturalistic drawing style was a godsend for Takahata. Kondo would bring his brilliant skills to Studio Ghibli for many great films, from Grave of the Fireflies to Princess Mononoke to his own Whisper of the Heart. His tragic death in 1998 shook Takahata deeply, and perhaps this is a major reason for his semi-retirement after My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999.
Other animators would draw Anne Shirley as a cute cartoon girl, but Kondo does something ingenious. He draws her as thin and boney, almost anorexic. She is not one of the pretty girls and she, of course, knows it (and truly loves to tell everyone in sight). Isn't this to be expected after a life of hardship, after being shuffled through the asylum system?
Kondo's portrayal of Anne's growth into womanhood is so natural, so subtle, that it is widely regarded as his greatest achievement as a character artist. His Anne Shirley has a plainspoken beauty that willingly takes a back seat to her personality. After all, it's her spirit that illuminates everyone around her; once again, the Americans would never have a clue.
Isao Takahata had mastered his realist style by now, but Anne of Green Gables takes great advantage of another of his greatest talents: the flights of fancy. This is a story that largely dwells on the power of imagination, and his version fully immerses in it. We see this right from the beginning, and it's this that made me want to discover the novel.
In the first episode, after Matthew Cuthbert has picked up Anne and they're riding home, they pass along the Apple Orchards - the White Way of Delight. It's a short passage in the book, but when we see Anne's stunned silent by the sight of the trees, we are carried away with her. Her imagination just soars among flowers and fairies, sweeping gowns and galloping horses. This sequence runs for almost two minutes, and it's astonishing. Then the next minute or two is given over to complete silence.
There's a very strong Yazojiru Ozu and Jean Renior influence in Anne's visual style, with its static shots loaded with little details. The third episode starts with Anne waking up after her first traumatic night at Green Gables. She forgets her worries and gets lost in the scenery, and so do we. For the next several moments, we are treated to a series of Ozu's "pillow shots" set to the show's achingly perfect music. We return to Anne, kneeling at the window, and then the walls just fade away, leaving her alone with her thoughts and the trees. It's the signature moment of the entire series, and beautifully reprised at the very end; the entire series is loaded with moments such as these.
There are so many countless moments, funny, tragic, and touching, that naming them all would require a small book. I know this is getting long. I will say that the final five or six episodes, which confront with Matthew's illness and Anne's decisions about her future, are emotionally devestating. In the end, it's that emotional intensity that resonates, and lingers on for days. You are left alone, alone with that terrible dull ache.