Akage no Anne doesn’t seem to be a particularly grand story if one was to simply read the blurb – there are no dramatic plot twists, no tyrants to defeat, no epic quest spanning galaxies – it is just a very simple tale of a young orphaned girl coming to terms with herself and others.
Akage no Anne takes place in the late nineteenth century, in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edwards Island, Canada. Here siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, both reaching into their 50’s and 60’s, are looking to adopt a boy of around 10 to help them with the farm work. The story begins with the very shy and soft-spoken Matthew heading towards the train station to pick up their new adopted boy, averting his eyes from every women he passes along the way. However, when Matthew arrives at the train station there is no boy to be found. Instead there is a freckled 11 year old girl with red hair, named Anne Shirley.
It is through this deceptively simple premise that Akage no Anne explores the many complex issues that arise during everyday life, with remarkable results. The broad scope in which it paints these complex themes is rather unassuming at first, but through the slow, naturalistic building of its large cast of characters and nuanced examination of the whys and wherefores of everyday life, Akage no Anne manages to achieve a magic that absolutely deserves to be experienced.
Anne, like many 11 year-olds, is a very flawed individual. She is obstinate, talks incessantly, and is very easily distracted. Her mood swings wildly from one moment to the next and she frequently prioritizes her latest whim over what really needs to be done. For years she carries an obdurate hatred of a certain character simply because he teased her once. Yet these are hardly the deplorable characteristics they may seem at first; rather, they are what makes her such a human character and, in turn, such a relatable one as well. Humans are naturally flawed beings and Anne is no exception. Nevertheless, these imperfections are hardly the unidimensional character traits one may have become accustomed to in anime. Her wild mood swings denotes her uniquely passionate temperament for the dramatic and the romantic. Distractions are often for the sake of more creative endeavors. Her whimsy is a large part of what makes her such an endearing character, both to those around her and the audience. Whenever Anne is given the chance to learn or experience something new, she always takes to the task with a great sense of purpose. All of these points considered, Anne is an incredibly realistic and human character, and you can’t help but relate to her because of that.
And true to real life, Anne’s depth of characterization, and rationalization of this characterization, takes root in the detailings of her past. Both of her parents died of typhoid fever when she was only three months of age. She was then placed into the care of the very poor Thomas family, only to be sent to live with the Hammond family and subsequently sent to an orphanage at an even later date. Throughout these early years of her life, she was often unfairly berated and forced to toil away at household chores day in and day out, never permitted to attend school or make any friends. It is through these harsh formative years that Anne’s personality had already begun taking shape. She sought refuge from her unfavorable living conditions by escaping into stories, poems, books and her characteristic vivid imagination. The books and poems she had read established her penchant for theatrics and her lyrical soliloquies early on. She was never given the chance to experience many of the things the world has to offer, so she had to fill in the blanks of life with her imagination. Her imagination could also be seen as her only tool of contending with these tribulations by way of envisioning her standings in life as a much more extravagant, romantic one.
Most of this, however, isn’t disclosed quite this explicitly in the actual show. Yes, Anne does go into her history briefly, but not in such great detail, and she certainly doesn’t dissect her past crucibles and their innate effect on her psyche; all of that is merely implicit. The writing at play here omits any superfluous details or things that can be easily ascertained by the attentive viewer/reader in favor of a more realistic approach of characterization. Things aren’t learned by means of awkward expository dialogue, nor are they dictated via haphazard, unwieldy info-dumps – everything is simply conveyed to the audience in a very candid and natural manner, as if we were only peeking in on a small slice of their lives never intended for such a large audience. For instance, Anne’s compendious and slightly hesitant admission that her former caretakers “meant to be good to her” effortlessly says so much more about Anne than a more typical and unnaturally overt explanation of the same thing could ever accomplish. This graceful method of storytelling feels refreshingly alien in today’s modern anime landscape; the narrative is there for our exploring and Akage no Anne’s narrative is a very, very gratifying place to explore, start to finish.
Furthermore, the show wastes little time in establishing some of its interesting character dynamics. Matthew is almost instantly charmed by Anne upon meeting her and doesn’t have the heart to tell her that they had asked for a boy. He’d rather leave that for Marilla to sort out. On the way to Green Gables, Anne recites these sprawling, melodramatic, nearly poetic speeches while Matthew just listens, enraptured. Anne’s fanciful monologues serve as a perfect introduction to her unique world view: She details how much she hates her red hair, her love of romanticism, and how lovely it is to finally have a place she can call home, all the while frequently and impulsively changing the topic to whatever else catches her fancy at that exact fleeting moment. Although Matthew doesn’t speak much during this carriage ride, his expressive face says more than words could ever say. It’s an absolute delight to see how rapt he hangs on Anne’s every word and how quickly he becomes attached to this unusual little girl during their relatively short carriage ride home together when only moments earlier he was averting his eyes in fear in the passing of a few harmless women alongside the road. The effect is very understated but pulled off remarkably well. Thankfully, one can expect many more moments like this throughout the show.
On the other hand, Marilla, a much more pragmatic person than Matthew, isn’t as keen on the idea of keeping Anne, initially. After all, the reason they wanted to adopt a kid in the first place was for help tending the farm, and the skinny Anne hardly seems fit for the job. Furthermore, Anne’s loud, dramatic, fanciful character is the polar opposite of the more subdued and sensible Marilla, so her idiosyncrasies are met with reproach at first. Still, after some careful deliberation following Anne and Marilla having shared a few bonding opportunities, it is decided that Marilla and Matthew will allow Anne to stay at Green Gables and Marilla would raise Anne as her daughter. Akage no Anne remains very much about Anne’s coming of age, but the way the story accomplishes this is through a series of vignettes portraying the ups and downs of her everyday life. For the first time in her life, she is allowed to truly experience life and all that entails: going to school, making friends, and experiencing all the exciting little things in life that we might have come to consider mundane, making all the mistakes that children tend to make along the way. The way Anne grows from these experiences, though, is so natural, gradual, and nuanced that it can be easy to miss entirely until its climax creeps up on the viewer. The final moments of this series are so rewarding, so moving, so poignant in its magnificently understated beauty; all of these seemingly disparate and insignificant moments in Anne’s life coalesce and culminate in ways that make each and every one of said vignettes at once meaningful, evoking a palpable warmth that could only have been achieved in this slow, naturalistic method of storytelling that Akage no Anne pulls off so well.
Still, this wealth of narrative excellence would all be for naught if just one of the nuts and bolts working behind the scenes were to fall out of place. A story can and will go to pieces if the pacing is just slightly off, so good storyboarding is vital. Scenes that were emotionally gripping or heartrending in the novel can be met with blasé dispassion if it that particular scene isn’t interpreted properly by the screenwriter and director. Skillful voice acting is absolutely integral in conveying the vast breadth of emotion present in this character driven story. Even the smallest oversight in the consistency in the setting can completely take a viewer out of the immersive quality. Storyboarding, screenwriting, direction, voice acting, music, art direction, and, especially in the case of Akage no Anne, a well researched setting are all integral apportioned components of a larger whole. If just one of those cogs isn’t working in perfect accordance with the rest, then the narrative, no matter how excellent, can falter irreparably into an inefficacious mess. It is fortunate, then, that Akage no Anne is every bit as exemplary technically as it is narratively.
As I see it, the reason that the novel upon which Akage no Anne is based on, ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by Lucy Maud Montgomery, has resonated with so many people around the world for over a hundred years now is in no small part due to its decidedly realistic approach of depicting the magic of everyday life. Isao Takahata, the director of Akage no Anne, is able to capture this magic brilliantly. The direction on display here is nothing short of awe-inspiring. While it would have been incredibly easy for Takahata to indulge in schmaltz or cheap melodramatics, the anime in adaptation never falls into emotional trickery or manipulation of the audience, despite Anne’s habitually melodramatic disposition. Emotional moments are felt because they are genuinely emotional. Through the show’s slow and realistic pacing, we, the audience, grow to love the characters, cherish their bonds, and partake vicariously through their hardships and triumphs just as Anne and her new family do, very naturally. The way Takahata brings Anne’s tribulations to life are easy to relate to precisely by the virtue of how inherently human every single aspect of them is and how informally they all play out. It doesn’t matter where you are from, nor which era you are a part of, because everyone has felt the things Anne feels, and, in one way or another, experienced the same things Anne has. That kind of timeless, all-encompassing humanity has to be admired, and to that effect, so does Isao Takahata for capturing it.
It is, however, when the predominantly realistic tone gives way to the expressionistic reverie of Anne’s imagination that Takahata’s artistry undoubtedly shines brightest. A brief carriage ride through a wooded path seamlessly metamorphosizes into a magical scene in which Anne is in an instant wearing a long, white dress, being lifted up into the sky by a geyser of flowers while this wondrous, fanciful orchestral tune plays; it’s an absolutely stunning way of putting us directly into Anne’s otherworldly fantasies. Anne’s imagination is so fundamental to who she is that it only makes sense for Takahata to bring her thoughts to life existentially just as Anne envisions them. This extraordinary contrast between realism and expressionism is something that Takahata really excels at, and this motif of his has never had more suitable home to lay its proverbial hat than the in world of Akage no Anne.
The accuracy with which Montgomery’s text is transformed into this dazzling piece of animation is without comparison. Takahata’s flourishes aside, Akage no Anne is an almost word for word, gesture for gesture, scene for scene adaptation. The setting is well researched and just as described in the novel, with its scenic background art done in a lovely picturesque painterly effect. Hayao Miyazaki handles the scene setting and layout. Yoshifumi Kondo, who would later go on to direct the classic Whisper of the Heart, handles the simple yet serviceable character design that, as with just about everything else, is very accurate to the source material. Animation direction is handled by Kondo and if there is any weak link in Akage no Anne, animation is probably it. The show was made in 1979 and it shows, especially in some of the later episodes. It’s largely to be expected and never becomes too distracting, but it bore mentioning. Music is another area where it would have been incredibly easy for it to succumb to the pitfalls of cloying melodrama, but it’s fairly restrained, yet coolly affecting and melancholy when need be. Anne is a near inimitable character so Eiko Yamada’s spectacular interpretation of her is especially praiseworthy.
Still, there are several minor dis-similarities between the novel and anime, but outside of a few conspicuous omissions, I’m pleased to report that most of the changes were for the better. Akage no Anne makes incredible use of all fifty of its episodes, so some important character relationships are better fleshed out and a key part of Anne’s life is given more care and attention than in the novel thanks to the anime’s lengthy run time. It’s such a rarity for an adaptation to even come close to equaling the quality of it’s source material, so the fact that Akage no Anne manages to by and large improve upon it’s source without losing an ounce of its magic merits special praise indeed, especially considering the prestigious stature of the Anne of Green Gables novel.
And everything comes together splendidly; each one of the aforementioned formal cogs amalgamate flawlessly with each other and with Montgomery’s already outstanding writing to form something truly timeless and deserving of being called a masterpiece. I’ve stressed humanity so much in this review because, ultimately, I think that’s what has made Akage no Anne resonate with such a large number of people around the world for so many years now. Its lasting popularity in modern day Japan – a place and time that couldn’t be further from nineteenth century Prince Edward Island, Canada – is a testament to this. Just as Anne had a profound effect upon the lives of those around her, she has truly had a similarly profound effect upon the lives of people around the world for generations upon generations now, and I imagine she will continue to do so for many more; and just that is Anne’s greatest magic.