Even these tapes cost something

  Les Miserables
1983 | Ziv International Inc.
les miserables anime

How middle class do you have to be to buy your kids a cartoon of Les Miserables? In one house Dave gets home from school and puts in his favourite Thunder Cats tape whereas, next door, little Cuthbert arrives home from Grammar School and watches Les Miserables with Nanny.

I can guarantee no kid on earth wants to watch a cartoon of Les Miserables! Not one!

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Written in 1862 by the French writer Victor Hugo. Les Miserables follows central protagonist Jean Valjean's struggle through life starting in 1795 where he is a poor wood cutter, forced to steal bread for his starving family. He is arrested for this crime and thrown into prison. Released after nineteen years, and numerous escape attempts, he is forced to live on the streets, no one willing to take in an ex convict. No one except Bishop Myriel who takes pity on the man and gives him shelter. That night though, Valjean is so desperate to start a new life far from that of a penniless beggar that he feels forced to steal the Bishops silverware and runs away. He is soon caught but the bishop refuses to admit a crime has taken place, instead insisting the silver plate was a gift. He gives Jean a silver candlestick holder and urges him to become a good man and to help others.

Six years later and Jean Valjean has been appointed Mayor of a small town, thanks to his creation of a local factory and with it jobs for the townsfolk. He has however broken the terms of his parole and is living by the assumed name of Monsieur Madeleine. Police inspector Javert suspects he knows the mayor's true identity and follows his every move closely in hopes of catching him out. Valjean befriends an ill woman called Fontine, forced to become a prostitute to pay for her young daughter, Cossette, who is being kept by a pair of cruel, money grubbing, inn keepers: The Thénardiers. When Fontine dies Valjean vows to help this child and begins a new chapter of his life but Javert is never far away...

Les Miserables was adapted by the famous Japanese film and animation studio Toei in 1979 as a 75 minute TV special for Fuji TV. Retitled Jean Valjean Monogatari (The Story of Jean Valjean) it was written by Masaki Tsuji a well known scenarist at the time who had worked as a writer on many popular shows since the 1960's including Gegege No Kitaro and Urusei Yatsura. Animation and character design was by Masami Suda who would later design the characters for both the TV series and movie versions of Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the North Star) and the Salaryman Kitaro TV show. The remainder of the crew where made up of the usual Toei staffers.

In order to fit into a TV friendly running time the epic novel was quite heavily abridged. Valjean's theft, incarceration, escape attempts and eventual release are shown in the opening moments with the details filled in by a narrator. Most of the wide cast of incidental characters are dropped along with the Thénardiers' daughter Eponine which means the later love triangle between her, Cossette and her eventual husband Marius is removed completely. And, most notably of all, there is a happy ending in which Jean Valjean does not die alone, shunned by those he loves, but instead joins his adopted daughter in the church on her wedding day.

The English language version was created in 1983 by the American company Ziv International.

Ziv Entertainment was founded in 1948 by Radio Program specialist Frederick Ziv and by the 1950s it was producing many of the popular syndicated TV shows of the time. By the mid 1970s Ziv had grown into a worldwide distributor, advertising itself as "The World's Largest Independent Licensing Organisation". It held the distribution rights for classic home grown entertainment such as the Terrytoons stable (Mighty Mouse etc) and 60's animation Beany & Cecil as well as foreign properties including Bruce Lee's movies.

[All this turned out to be incorrect. Ziv International is actually a completely unrelated company founded by Mark Mercury. See Tales of La Mancha for the full story]

By the early 80s the company had amassed a large collection of Japanese animation, much of it from the prolific Toei studio, which it intended to sell as children's TV fodder. The shows where diverse in nature from boy's own tales such as Captain Harlock, The Adventures of King Arthur and Captain Future to titles more suited to the female market like Fables of the Green Forest, Flower Angel and Lily Cat.

While the initial intention for these shows was TV syndication many weren't popular with the stations and wound up being released to the newly emerging home video market in the U.S. and abroad as short series. This fate befell Jean Valjean Monogatari which had been retitled after it's source material and, with a newly shot title sequence, was available in the UK and Canada (re-dubbed into French).

The English language version was cut by six minutes bringing it's running time down to barely more than an hour. Even though the original was fairly tame and family friendly, the cuts were necessary to not cause upset in the West. Removed scenes include Javert's suicide and elsewhere dialog was re-written including reference to Fontine simply a beggar rather than a prostitute.

Released in the UK by Parkfield Playtime in 1987 and in the USA in 1985 by Celebrity Home Entertainment's Just for Kids.


The LP Soundtrack
A Publicity still

Before we begin let us first examine the cover illustration. Probably the first thing you will notice is that it is drawn to Parkfield Playtime's usual high standards but let's look a little closer than this. From looking at the elements that the artist felt best represented the story we can see that he/she was not only a skilled artist but also a very keen observer.

A. Here we have the French flag. This tells us it's set in France.
B. In the background we see prison bars. It's a good bet that jail plays a key role in this tale. But what role? See, you're already intrigued. That's what a great artist does!
C. These simple looking souls are clearly the story's main protagonists. Their intentionally plain appearance cleverly belies the depth of their inner torment and struggles! Again, clearly an artist at the height of their profession!
D. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, a French Loaf.

Just by taking in each element of this deceptively simplistic cover we can now fully appreciate the rich depth, nuance and texture of the story within...

One final note before we get on to the review, this tape had been left part viewed when I bought it! Proof, if it were needed, that the cover's insistence of an age range of "3-10 years" was more than a little optimistic!

On with the show... A cheesy live action book, shot specially for the U.S. version, replaces the original Japanese title as the instrumental version of the equally cheesy closing credits pop song, also made for the USA, plays in the background. A window shatters in the foreground and behind it two men struggle over a loaf of bread. The thief's sister and her children look on in stunned silence as the Police rush over to break up the scene. The narrator solemnly states; "On a cold winter day in 1795 Jean Valjean,an unemployed wood cutter, is arrested for stealing bread to feed his sister and her starving children. They are his only family... and he is never to see them again." That's enough to put off any kid watching! Over a montage of shackled feet and marching he continues to tell the audience of how Valjean suffers in prison and how his many escape attempts end in failure. Finally he is set free after nineteen years (cue symbolic hammer shattering his chains). The narrator leaves us with these final, foreboding words as Valjean looms out of the shadows: "A life-time of cruel suffering has made him desperate and dangerous. Jean Valjean's soul has grown black with hate!" Much like that of any child who got this video instead of He-man!

The mood lightens now as the scene changes to that of a beautiful, hand painted, background of the French countryside. Valjean isn't having such a nice time however. Classical music plays as he is turned away by every Hotel, and Inn in town. Women close their shutters and hurry to avoid him on the street. Even a dog barks at him! That night Valjean finds himself on the street. He is so desperate for some human kindness that he is even talking to himself. But it seems his luck is on the turn as the local Bishop looks kindly on this destitute man and allows him to stay, much to his house keepers displeasure. Jean Valjean is stunned at his kindness as he is welcomed in unequivocally.

That night the ex-con is wracked with guilt. He has nightmares of the street scenes from several minutes ago but seeing that growling dog again is too much and he wakes with a start. Longing for a new start he concedes to steal the Bishop's silver plates but stops short of clubbing him to death in his sleep. The next day the Bishop is reflective. He doesn't begrudge Valjean's theft as he muses that the Silver Plates were not really his to keep- they belong to unfortunate souls such as this ex-convict. Valjean walks for miles in the rain. He comes to rest at the side of the path, just a short way from a small town. A young boy passes, accidentally dropping a gold coin which the ragged man is quick to conceal under his foot. The boy begs for him to return his money (mostly without moving his lips) but the man rudely demands to be left alone. The boy runs away in tears, leaving Valjean remorseful. He searches for the child in vain and finally vows to become a decent man.

Five years pass. The narrator returns to tell of how a stranger has taken up home in a small town. He "invents a process" whatever that means as well as building a factory which brings prosperity to the town. For these great acts the man, Monsieur Madeleine, is made Mayor and is much loved by the towns folk. But lurking in the shadows is Police Inspector Javert and he has a sneaking suspicion that he has met this man before...

There is an incident in town. Somehow the rider of a horse and cart becomes trapped under his vehicle and is badly hurt. No-one in town is strong enough to lift it. In a scene reminiscent of an episode of the Incredible Hulk TV show, the wily Javert informs the mayor that the only person who could possibly lift this wagon is an ex convict with tremendous strength known as Valjean. The mayor is unperturbed by this insinuation and rushes to the old man's aid, lifting the cart of him with his might. The man is saved and Javert's suspicions are proven...

In the snow a young woman struggles against a brutish man while a crowd of male onlookers cheer and shout. Before the man can "give it to her" as the crowd suggests the fight is broken up by Javert who arrests the woman for vagrancy. At the police station she complains that the man threw snow down her dress and that she has been unfairly dismissed from her job at the factory. She blames it's owner, Mayor Madeleine, for putting her in this situation. Her anger soon subsides when the mayor arrives and has the charges against her dropped. Unfortunately the woman, Fontine, is very sick and Madeleine takes it upon himself to make her well, for the sake of her daughter Cossette who is in the charge of a pair of cruel inn keepers. The following scene shows how evil they are, dragging the small girl by her hair and giving paying customers water instead of wine!

The next day Javert pays Madeleine a visit and melodramatically demands that the Mayor puts him in prison for secretly reporting to the police that he were in fact Valjean, a criminal wanted for the heinous and unpardonable crime of stealing a child's coin! But the Mayor can't be this criminal as Valjean has already been caught and is on trial. After dismissing Javert Madeleine does much soul searching. He is of course Valjean which means an innocent man is going to prison in his place. Can he let this happen? After lighting the candlesticks which he stole from the Bishop he sees a vision, or experiences a hallucination- drugs were much easier to get hold of back then, of the priest who tells him to do the right thing.

The next day Valjean bursts into the court and confesses so that the innocent man, who sounds a lot like Fraiser's brother Niles, can go free. With all the drama of a Perry Mason episode the mayor reveals facts that only Valjean could know of his cell mates/witnesses. One wore red braces in prison! The other has a tattoo on his shoulder! The judge accepts Valjean's explanation and demands that he be sent to prison for this terrible crime. Jean Valjean is allowed to return home to put his affairs in order before doing hard time for the stolen coin. However upon returning to his town Javert informs him that when he told Fontine that her beloved Mayor was a common criminal the shock finished her off! Through slightly psychedelic symbolism, it is shown that Valjean falls overboard from a prison ship and drowns. Or does he...?

No. Of course he didn't. He has escaped and Javert knows it! Jean heads to the Inn where Cossette is being kept. He befriends the child and offers to buy her from her cruel masters the Thénardiers. The greedy pair keep increasing the price until they settle at 1000 Fronks. That's right Fronks! That's how it's pronounced apparently. The next morning the Inn Keeper's lust for money get's too much and they demand 3000 Fronk instead. Their wicked materialism gets them a broken door and Valjean leaves them smarting, taking Cossette with him. Mr Thénardier vows revenge!

10 years pass. For anyone keeping score that means it's been roughly thirty five years since the start of the story and it's time for a little history. A history lesson in a classic novel which is set in a foreign country? This is every child's dream! The people's army has risen up against the French government and fight the police over oppression and "unpopular laws" (The French Revolution™). The narrator informs us that even war cannot stop the yearning for diplomacy. I think every 3-10 year old can relate to those words!

A year after this montage (36 years) and in the park a young man, Marius the son of a rich land owner, spots Cossette and falls instantly in love (she's in her twenties now, remember- there's no funny business going on!) That night, no doubt spurred on by the Wukka Wukka 70's tune in the background, Marius goes to Cossette's home to tell her of his feelings. The girl is excited by this news but Jean Valjean is not. The next day he tells his adopted daughter that they must leave for London and that they won't be returning for a long time. Cossette is understandably upset by this news but Valjean knows it must be done- or their cover could be blown. That night she brakes the news to Marius who is so upset that he decides to run away and join the People's Army. Jean realises he's messed up and tries to make things better. His great plan is to also join the People's Army to protect the lad. That's fool proof! There's no way that could back fire!

Some time later and the People's Army is caught in a desperate situation. Outnumbered, out gunned and with limited ammunition they are surrounded by the French Army. While the rebels take up positions Valjean volunteers to stay behind to execute their prisoner who is none other than Inspector Javert! But rather than kill his nemesis he sets him free. The inspector is unrepentant and vows to capture the fugitive once the battle is over.

The battle commences to the strains of 'Ride of the Valkyries'. As the cannons blast and the muskets fire the people's flag is hit. Marius rushes to reset their symbol and, fearing that he will be killed, Valjean follows. Marius is heavily shelled by cannon fire and is hurt badly. Valjean carries him in his arms and heads for the sewers to avoid the fighting.

Struggling through the sewer waters, his trousers stained an odd gray colour, Valjean searches for an exit. He finally chances upon a locked gate that not even his "tremendous strength" can break open. A voice from behind startles him. It's not one of the Ninja Turtles but Thénardier himself! Mistakenly believing that Valjean has murdered Marius the evil man, greedy as ever, offers him the keys to the gate in exchange for half of the money the wounded man is carrying. Instead Valjean gives him his last 30 Fronk and the keys are handed over. However it's a case of 'out of the frying pan into the fire' for our courageous French man as just beyond the gates Javert is waiting for him.

Valjean appeals to the inspector to allow him to return the wounded young man to safety before he takes him in. The unrelenting Police man is confused by his conflicting emotions and is uncertain of what he should do. Against his judgment he allows the boy to be delivered to his grateful family and Valjean returns home to collect his things. Consigning himself to his fate Jean Valjean returns to the street only to find that Inspector Javert has gone! On a bridge over the river Seine Javert contemplates what he has done. He now realises there is more to the world than just ones duty but cannot forgive himself for what he has allowed. Off camera there is a small 'plop' like that of water dripping from the ceiling into a bucket and we see the inspector's top hat floating down the river. I assume his idea of repentance was tossing his precious hat into the water, or maybe I'm missing something...

Months later and all is well, Marius has recovered and is living happily with Cossette but he can't help wonder who the mysterious stranger was who saved him. Things are made worse when his father refuses to allow Valjean into his house on the grounds that he is an escaped convict, a fact the man himself admitted to him. Marius is understandably confused by this news and decides to clear all this up before the wedding. Valjean confirms the story and insists he needn't be at the wedding so Marius and Cossette travel to his father's house alone. Just when you think you've seen the last of him Thénardier is lurking around outside Marius' fathers home and witnesses the couples arrival. Inside Marius and his father break the news of Valjean's terrible past to Cossette who is confused and upset unable to believe that the man should thought of as her father could possibly have murdered a Police Inspector that day at the barricade.

Back at his home Jean Valjean collects together a few of his things and sets off, leaving his life with his beloved Cossette behind. Meanwhile Marius has a guest. The evil Thénardier was come to make a little money from the information he has about Cossette's 'Father' but unfortunately for him not only is this old news but he also accidentally clears Valjean's name for the murder of Javert. Thinking quickly the weasely Inn Keeper tells of how he saw Jean Valjean carrying the body of a young man he had murdered through the sewer and he has proof: a piece of the dead man's jacket. Suddenly it becomes clear to Marius exactly what he has done. He has turned away the man who saved his life! Thénardier is thrown out into the street as Marius and his fiancee search desperately in the storm to find Valjean.

But don't worry there are no unhappy endings in classic literature as eventually the couple find Jean Valjean alive and well. The three are reunited just in time for the wedding! The sappy pop song plays over a montage of the ceremony and everyone lives happily ever after! The End.


Valjean Vs A Door
Thenardier jacks up the price. Jean retaliates with wanton wood destruction.

The Wedding
Enjoy Bullets while you're shown how the book should have ended...

Nice and short!
The iffy pop song is good for a laugh
  A reasonable adaptation
  Kept my attention!
Not the best dubbing
Average animation
  Weak happy ending

The animation is a little hit and miss. The hand painted backgrounds are full of colour and wonderfully detailed yet the character designs are fairly simplistic and, at times, even ugly. The style almost looks western which is probably intentional owing to the story's European setting.

The voice acting and dubbing is equally inconsistent with a reasonable effort from the main cast but the incidental characters can be awful while it's not uncommon for speech to be met with still lips and vice versa. The story shifts along at a fair pace; managing to cram most of the important stuff into just over an hour is pretty impressive! If you were looking for a way to pass a literature exam this video could be some help! The cheesy pop song adds an air of tackiness to it which is welcome.

All in all not bad but I doubt any of you are gonna rush out to find this one.