What Happened To World Masterpiece Theater And Shows Like It?
by Justin Sevakis,
I'm a big fan of the World Masterpiece Theater, a collection of anime series by Nippon Animation that adapted a classic book every year from 1974 to 1997 and then from 2007 to 2009. These series focused mainly on realistic situations: the characters were shown doing earthly and trivial actions, like daily routines, and faced many adversities which were very relatable, since they were stuff we had lived in our lives or saw as something that really could happen. They were not a form of escapism, as most animation are (at least that's what I think). I would like to know: why you think anime like these barely exist anymore?
The sad fact is, very few people want series like World Masterpiece Theater. That's definitely true in the West, and these days it's also true in Japan.
World Masterpiece Theater was a huge, huge run of shows produced by Nippon Animation that ran (mostly) on Fuji TV from 1969 through 1997, when it was cancelled. During its decades on the air, WMT adapted classic children's literature from Western countries, such as Peter Pan, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Pollyanna and Swiss Family Robinson. The block actually had a few names over the years -- "World Masterpiece Theater" (世界名作劇場 Sekai Meisaku Gekijō) is a catch-all name that's become common parlance, although some people don't consider shows made prior to Nippon Animation to be part of it, and therefore starting in 1974.
It's hard to overstate the significance of World Masterpiece Theater on anime in Japan. It was practically mandatory viewing for kids who grew up in the late 70s and 80s. Shows like A Dog of Flanders, Marco: 3000 Leagues In Search of Mother and Heidi: Girl of the Alps are a giant collective memory for the country, and have been re-run for decades. Various WMT productions were early animation stomping grounds for Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Yoshiyuki Tomino, Toyoo Ashida, and many other noteworthy names in anime history.
Appreciation for these shows outside of Japan was, however, somewhat spotty. Fuji TV actively tried to sell them to broadcast markets overseas. Some shows became very popular in European countries and in South America, but most of the "good" installments were extremely sad, and often involved children suffering from starvation and extreme poverty. Additionally, the stories were all very serialized, and fairly slow moving. The visuals weren't exactly flashy, either -- they were workman-like TV-budget anime from the 70s, after all.
For English speaking territories, only three series have been dubbed, two of them by Saban Entertainment, decades ago: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women and Swiss Family Robinson. These dubs can still occasionally be seen on deep cable, occupying filler time slots of Christian-owned channels. A few of the other series have been dubbed into English for Southeast Asia by Animax. However, they've simply never gotten much love from the fan community. None have ever been released on home video, save for a couple of 4-episodes-cut-into-a-feature VHS tapes released for the kids' market in the 80s. Most efforts to fansub these shows over the years have ended in the projects being abandoned due to lack of interest.
By the 1990s the franchise was on the wane in Japan as well. Its final few shows, Tico of the Seven Seas, Romeo's Blue Skies and Famous Dog Lassie weren't exactly the huge hits their predecessors had been. Remi, Nobody's Girl, a gender-swapped rework of Hector Malot's Sans Famille (previously animated at TMS by Osamu Dezaki in 1978), was such a huge bomb that the franchise was finally cancelled. By that time, Japanese kids were far, far more interested in Shonen Jump and magical girl fare than in European kids suffering slowly over 52 episodes.
The truth of the matter is that World Masterpiece Theater was a product of Japanese sentiments at a very specific time in its history. A generation after the destruction of WWII, the poverty and suffering brought by Japan's defeat were, for the first time, something that only parents remembered. The kids of the era were growing up relatively care-free, and parents wanted stories for them that reminded them of how good they have it. Stories of toughness, of surviving due to friends and family bonds, and grit. Those are the values instilled by growing up during wartime, and it's what adults hoped to pass onto their kids. At the same time, this was still an era of rapid modernization in Japan, and for a long time the country developed a huge sense of wonder (some might even say an inferiority complex) about the Western world. The WMT stories were a perfect combination of these things: wholesome old world stories of overcoming obstacles, with the wonder of being set in far-off Western lands.
World Masterpiece Theater was revived for a few years in 2007 through 2009, but only as a cable/satellite run, and two of its best loved stories, A Dog of Flanders and Marco: 3000 Leagues In Search of Mother, were remade into feature films in the late 90s. But by this point anime, and indeed Japan in general, had moved on. No longer seeking the lessons in humility and grit that fueled the post-war generation, an increasingly adult fanbase wanted high fantasy and escapism. The industry also began relying more on foreign markets to make their budgets back, and these shows draw in neither otaku nor Westerners. There's simply nobody left to watch shows like these.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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