Even these tapes cost something

  Little Women
1983 | Toei Animation Co. Ltd.
Little Women Channel 5 anime

The third of the Bargain Bin 'Classics of Literature' reviews. I know ,even as I write, that this review will be the least read of all of the Bargain Bin. No one's gonna want to read about an adaptation of an almost all female classic.

You're not reading this right now are you? No, you'd much rather read about Macron 1 or Space Cruiser Yamato wouldn't you?! Well I'm gonna write it any way.

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Continuing their success with animated TV Specials based on classic literature Toei produced this 1980 special for Fuji TV based on the 1868 novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Retitled Four Sisters of Young Grass (Wakakusa no Yon Shinmai) it was directed by Yugo Serikawa, a veteran of the acclaimed World Masterpiece Theatre series, who also directed an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the same studio a year later.

The novel tells of the lives of four young sisters Beth, Meg, Jo and Amy who are growing up in the small north American town of Concord during the Civil War. Their father has left to fight for the North so they help their mother and maid Hannah run the family home while also taking care of their neighbours and community.

This 68 minute Special was created as a pilot for a proposed on going TV series which aired the following year and was created, written and animated by much the same crew. All though the character designs remained the same the quality of animation dropped significantly due to the smaller budget afforded to TV series. The series ran for 26 episodes, each 25 minutes long.

The western release of the Toei adaptation has become somewhat confusing to chart due to the later arrival of another anime TV adaptation of the Little Women story which uses the same Japanese title. This unrelated 1987 version was written by Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki and released in 1987 as part of the World Masterpiece Theatre series. Better looking and longer running than it's unrelated Toei predecessor it became somewhat of a TV hit in the early 1990's on the U.S. HBO network.

The Toei version had previously been shown on U.S. TV in 1986 and was released a year later on video by Vestron. It has since been re-released under the new title of Little Women's Christmas Story most likely in an attempt to capitalise on the success of the HBO series which premiered in '88. This production has been re-released in 1997 and 2001 and is one of the few of the videos on this site which are still in circulation in some form.

The English dub and distribution was handled by Anime Bargain Bin regulars
Harmony Gold.

The subsequent Four Sisters of Young Grass TV series never made it to TV in English although it was shown in Italy on the Italian Canale 5 TV station in 1982 under the title Piccole Donne (lit Small Women).

Hashire Melos Book Little Women Vestron
A promo still
Japanese VHS release
The Vestron VHS

Our tale begins with narrator Roy Fokker delivering important historical detail about the Civil War and introducing the four girls of the March household.

First is the "Beautiful and responsible" Meg, oldest of the sisters.

Next is the real star of the show: Jo. Creative, independent thinker ruined by her tom boyishness and quick temper!

Beth. Sweet. Loves music.

Amy. Youngest.

Following a brief opening, which contains only two credits and, oddly, two title cards, we get into the story. Jo is walking home in the snow carry the ice skates we saw her wearing in the intro. Dr Burn rides past in a carriage and wishes her a Merry Christmas adding that she should hurry home so as not to catch a cold. Jo frowns, looking annoyed at this advice for some reason. Maybe only poor people caught colds back then so it was some kind of class slight, I don't know. Reaching home she attempts to vault the fence but catches her foot and falls in the snow, her sisters watching and laughing at the window. Her quick temper which Roy mentioned earlier spikes again as she flings a snowball at the window to silence them. Apparently, according to the Anime Encyclopedia, this scene was taken from the 1949 Elizabeth Taylor movie version, but I wouldn't know- I steer clear of classic literature unless it's in Japanese cartoon form!

Inside, in the warmth, the March sisters lament the family's current financial situation. Thanks to the war they don't have many Christmas decorations or presents. Life is hard for everyone. Jo reveals her wish to be a boy so she could fight alongside her "Papa", then sensing the mood dropping, she decides to perform her new play. Beth plays "Something weird and scary" at Jo's request while she takes the role of "The Evil Hugo" with Amy his captive and Meg taking part as "Lodrigo". Jo's costume scares the cat, a flat note from the piano causes Evil Hugo to loose his footing and Amy's acting impresses everyone.

Hannah the maid interrupts their family fun time to bring a fresh pot of tea and catches sight of the next-door boy spying on them. Jo is the first to the window to return his stare. She has an idea to invite this handsome stranger over but her plan is halted by the arrival of their miserable Aunt March accompanied by her mimicking parrot. The stern land-pirate lectures Jo for being clumsy and unladylike, she did manage to fall over a dining table, before handing out the Christmas presents. Each girl receives a dollar in an envelope along with a word of advice. Amy shouldn't be too concerned by her appearance, Beth is too shy and Jo should stop being "a wild tomboy"- Aunt March demands she visit her the following week for instruction. Meg, however, is perfect and her mother should be proud.

Excited by their Christmas money the girls head to Mr Grace's store to buy something nice with it. Meg looks at Hats, Jo buys a book and Amy a dollars worth of pastille colours. Since they are so short of money Mr Grace informs Jo that the barber would pay handsomely for hair as lovely as hers to make wigs from but she is horrified at the thought of loosing her prized golden lockes.

That evening the girl's mother returns home with a letter from their father which the sisters insist she read out immediately. He writes of the horrors of war and of his determination that their side must win so that slavery is abolished. He closes by writing "My love to Meg, to Jo, also Beth and Amy." It seems like the last two were after thoughts. What's that supposed to mean? Favouritism? Finally he asks that the girls help their mother around the house and they all have a little cry. (I get the feeling there's not going to be any violence or nudity in this one).

The sisters take Papa's words to heart and when their mother leaves to visit the Hanmill's, a poor family suffering particularly during this tough time, they work together to give her a special Christmas treat. Jo decides they should all return their gifts to Mr Grace's store and, having kept the receipts, exchange them for a new pair of slippers to replace her old pair which are tatty and worn through. The others agree and they rush to catch Mr Grace before he closes for the night. On their mother's return, the girls rush to their beds and pretend to be asleep. She opens their present and is delighted and proud of her daughters.

Next morning and Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy sit down to an impressive breakfast laid out by Hannah. She gives the news that Mrs Hanmill has just given birth to yet another child and that Mrs March has taken her breakfast to them to help out. Their mothers generosity forces the girls to reconsider the fantastic spread and Beth suggests they do the same. They all go over for a spot of poor-tourism, Beth takes a particular interest in the new born baby while Jo struggles to light the stove.

Time passes, though how much isn't clear. Jo is out in the front yard shoveling snow. She must have an inner ear problem as she falls down for about the fourth time since the story started. Realising she could use some help she throws a snowball at the neighbours window. The mysterious and handsome boy comes to see what the fuss is about and Jo calls "Hi. I live next door to you. Would you like to come and help me dig snow?" A tempting proposition indeed but he is suffering from a cold and invites the girl over to his house instead. She is straight over with a plum pudding from Meg and the cat that Beth insisted she offer as company. The butler escorts her and the two begin chatting. His name is Laurie and he lives in the large house with his Grandfather and Mr Brookes his teacher who, he reveals, has a bit of a thing for Jo's oldest sister Meg! Sounds a bit iffy to me and Jo is equally displeased by the news.

They don't let this possible neighbourhood pervert worry them too much though as they discuss the portraits on the wall. Two particularly catch the girl's attention. The first is of Laurie's dead sister Katherine who looks a lot like Beth. Apparently she used to play the piano often which her Grandfather really enjoyed. The other is of a stern and fearsome looking old man, which turns out to be Laurie's Grandfather. The old man walks in on them as they are discussing him and much awkwardness arises although Jo and Mr Laurence seem to get on well. That night Mr Laurence gazes at the painting of Katherine and longs to hear her play the piano again.

The next day he visits the March household to speak to Mrs March and to offer the use of his piano to Beth. The girl is passing the door and overhears his proposal. As the old man leaves she thanks him and accepts his kind offer but Mr Laurence stares at her in shock, eventually pointing and ranting "It's Katherine! But Katherine's dead!" Understandably scared by his crazed ravings Beth bolts leaving the old man to apologise to her mother for his senile outburst. Jo walks him home and Roy Fokker solemnly states "He waited many days hoping Beth would come but she never did appear..."

Beth sews a pair of men's slippers and goes over to the Laurence's house. Amy bursts into Jo's room disregarding the slightly illiterate sign on the door reading "On reading. Keep aaOut! Jo." (maybe the home schooling isn't working out). Fortunately Jo is only eating cookies but she is annoyed at the news that Beth is moving in on her new friends. Next-door Beth doesn't find anyone home so she instinctively snoops around the piano finding a sheet of music that once belonged to Katherine. She begins to play. In a nearby room Mr Laurence hears her playing and mistakes it for Laurie. He storms in to stop him but finding it is Beth his mood is calmed. The music reminds him of the times he spent with his Grand Daughter while Roy let's us know that Beth returned often to play his piano throughout the winter.

Spring comes around. Some odd looking women in town, seeing that the March sisters are using Mr Laurence's coach, bad mouth their mother believing her to be taking advantage of the rich old man. At bed time Jo asks if that is the case and her mother assures her it is not, stating that she doesn't mind if the girls befriend or marry rich or poor men so long as they are happy and get to pursue their chosen careers. Roy tells us "On that night Jo began her writing career."

On another day Laurie tells Jo of how he has built a special mail box to be used between the two families. A short montage follows of the girls and Laurie exchanging items through this new system and 'growing closer' as the narrator mentions. Other exciting developments happen. Mr Laurence delivers his piano next door so that Beth can play it whenever she likes. She is overwhelmed by his generosity and goes next door to thank him immediately. Don't you see? Beth is overcoming her flaws, being too shy, like Jo did the scene earlier. Who will be the next to mature?

The scene changes to a picnic. The girls are playing around while Laurie, who appears to be wearing Bell Bottoms, catches their lunch. While waiting for the kettle to boil Jo watches her sister Beth who is sitting with Mr Brookes, the two of them laughing. She frowns. "He seems a lot older than she is" Jo muses. "No, not really" replies Laurie "It just seems that way." While Jo frets over this possible predator something unexpected happens. An escaping black slave boy floats past on a raft heading for dangerous currents. His wooden raft is shattered by a large rock tossing him into the water. Mr Brookes dives in and rescues the boy from drowning, endearing him to Jo and the others. It could have all been a set up! He is taken back to the Laurence house where Mr Laurence informs the boy that President Lincoln has emancipated the slaves and he is now free. He goes on to offer him a home a schooling which the orphan accepts but in the very next scene he is shown running away. The girls discuss this unexpected situation with their mother and everyone learns a valuable life lesson.

The story jumps further into the future now as the narrator informs us that Jo is becoming a successful writer. She finishes her latest novel and heads off to show it to the local newspaper at the expense of seeing Laurie. Her neighbour follows her to town where Jo explains what she has been doing. In the park they meet Meg who is all dressed up for reasons that are unexplained. Jo becomes jealous of her older sister's maturity and beauty.

Autumn now. The March family receive a letter but it's not good news. Father has been injured in the war the news of which upsets everyone in the household. Mrs March is desperate to travel to his side in Washington but she doesn't have the money. Jo volunteers to go visit mean their mean old Aunt and ask to borrow the money from her. The miserable old woman refuses, displeased with Jo's continued lack of manners and her own brother's decision to leave his family to fight. Angered by her attitude Jo storms out, she has another plan to get the money her mother needs but it'll be a difficult decision. At home Mrs March is all packed and ready to leave. The Laurence's carriage will take her to the train station, Mr Brookes will accompany her to Washington and Beth has volunteered to look after the Hanmill's. As she is about to leave Aunt March barges in angry at Jo's behaviour. She gives Mrs March all the money she should need on her trip and offers her help if it is needed. Aunt March feels remorseful for her selfish ways and wants to make up for how she has been acting.

Outside the coach is preparing to leave as Jo rushes up. She hands her mother twenty five dollars that she assures her she earned legitimately. Before you get any funny ideas it is revealed that Jo has sold have lovely, blonde, hair to the barber just as Mr Grace had mentioned. Everyone is touched by the girl's sacrifice for her parents even her stubborn Aunt.

With Mrs March and Mr Brookes on their way to Washington Jo shuts herself away in her room and cries for her lost hair. The girls receive a letter from their father thanking Jo for her generosity and Meg reads it to her through the door and they all get upset and break down in tears...

A while later and things get worse. While Jo is working on her writing in the attic her sister Beth returns home terribly sick. The sisters rush to her aid but she tells them to keep their distance- the Hanmill's baby, despite her best efforts, just died of Scarlet Fever and now she has the illness too. Doctor Burns is called and his diagnosis isn't positive- things don't look too good for Beth. Jo refuses to have her mother called home to look after the girl and insists on doing it herself. After days of sitting by her bedside the Doctor finally has good news- the fever has broken and Beth will be fine in a few weeks time.

Christmas is again fast approaching and Beth is well enough to leave her bed. Mrs March has been home for a while when Laurie brings a surprise for her and the girls- their father's return! Everyone is pleased to see him home in time for the festivities. As the snow falls outside the tale comes to an end. Roy Fokker reads the last of his narration ending predictably with "Life went on, turning little girls into Little Women!"

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Good dubbing
  A nice score
Plain character designs
  Not much actually happens

A nice, gentle, re-telling of the classic aimed, at least in this version, at young girls. Unfortunately the original novel is so heavily abridged to make it fit into the running time that virtually everything gets left out and nothing happens. Character development is hinted at but not expanded on and Jo's sisters are mostly relegated to the sidelines. As with most things the romance between Mr Brookes and Meg is only given the slightest mention- crossed off a list of important points rather than given the screen time a longer adaptation could afford.

Little Women is exactly what it set out to be- a good starting point to introduce the characters for a much longer series. Worth a look for fans of the book or anyone interested in it.

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