Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theatre shows seem to be popular just about everywhere in the world except the United States. Only three series from the classic WMT run (1975-1996) have ever been released in the U.S. - "Tom Sawyer" (1980), "Swiss Family Robinson" (1981), and this series, known as "Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari" ("Tale of Love's Young Grass") in Japan. The English dub version, by Saban, first aired on U.S. TV around 1988 or so on HBO (yes, the entire series run made it here), and is now showing again on TBN's Christian kids' channel, "Smile of a Child." Through the airings on Smile of a Child I became acquainted with this classic series once again. This review will focus on the English dub as it is the only version I have seen at length (although I have seen a few clips of the Japanese and know it was wonderfully acted as well, and frankly the Japanese theme songs are incredibly catchy and far superior to the English one, and I find myself humming them without understanding a word of the lyrics).
Most already know the basic premise of the show and the novel on which it is based so I won't go into that, except to say that the first twenty or so episodes, as the earlier reviewer indicated, were original works of scriptwriter Akira Miyazaki intended to set the stage and educate Japanese viewers about the American Civil War. Once the series starts to follow Alcott's book, it does so pretty closely, despite a few name changes that same unnecessary (i.e. Concord becoming "Newcord"; and also, Meg's love interest, John Brooke, was for some reason renamed "Carl" in the Japanese, but in English his name is again John).
Having seen parts of the earlier anime adaptations of Little Women by Toei in 1980 and 1981, I will agree this is by far the best. The series fleshes out the stories better than the 1981 series did (for example, the fight between Jo and Amy after Amy ***SPOILER*** burns up Jo's book in a hissy fit*** takes up three episodes in this series, while the 1981 series only needed one), so I guess it could be said that the 1981 series has better dramatic power because it moves faster; this 1987 series definitely takes its time, but the slow pace definitely works for me, although those accustomed to more action may become bored by it. The music is beautiful, and I was pleased to note upon watching the English version on Smile of a Child that although Saban replaced the Japanese theme songs and opening/closing, they did NOT do what they did with virtually every other anime they got a hold of, which is replace the Japanese score with kiddie-crap rinky-dink music by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy. All of Kazuo Otani's score is here for English viewers to enjoy.
This show may be 25 years old as of this year, but it doesn't look it... the character designs by Yoshifumi Kondo (which lend more than a little bit of Studio Ghibli vibe, something that is even more evident in the 1993 sequel, "Little Women II: Jo's Boys") are attractive, and the animation quality stays consistently good through the series, keeping the timeless quality found in all of Nippon Animation's WMT series from Anne of Green Gables onward. There is incredible attention to detail in just about every facet of the animation and art. The only fault I have with the series in its English dub version is the voices, which vary in quality. Most of the characters are well acted, except for Laurie, whose voice actor has a tendency to deadpan his lines. Jo also sounds a bit deadpan at times, which is unfortunate as the series really revolves around her for the most part. However, I love Rebecca Forstadt (aka Lynn Minmay from Robotech and Mihoshi from Tenchi Muyo!, doing the role here under her stage name Reba West) as Amy, who also provides the role of narrator. The biggest problem with the dub is the dialogue which tends to be extremely stilted, awkward, and formal, especially in the later episodes. From what I have seen of the Japanese version, the Japanese voice actors sound more sincere and seem like they put more feeling in their roles. Overall, it's still a competent dub, better than those of some other Saban-distributed series. The flawed performance of some of the dub voices, though, as well as the ridiculously formal dialogue, is why I knocked this title down a star. Most likely the original Japanese would be a solid 10 stars.
Overall, a good series for fans of classic American literature, old school anime, and/or good, clean family-friendly entertainment. It's meant to be a kids' show but adults will find much to like as well.
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