Pile of Shame
MARCO: 3,000 Leagues in Search of Mother

by Justin Sevakis,

MARCO: 3,000 Leagues in Search of Mother

We need to declare a new genre of anime, right here and now. There needs to be a separate category for the metric ton of overwrought family fare Japan makes, that aims to be Studio Ghibli in quality, but ends up succumbing to its maudlin sentimentality and ends up a soppy, joyless, somber and bland exercise in boring young children to tears. Japan has made dozens of these films over the years. They usually feature a drippy ballad performed by a washed up English-speaking pop singer like Julian Lennon or Susan Boyle.

But I get ahead of myself. Back in 1996, Nippon Animation was faced with the cancellation of the time slot they'd enjoyed for over 20 years after the failure of Nobody's Girl Remi (a gender-switched remake of Ie Naki Ko, or Nobody's Boy Remi, the original series of which is often mistaken for a WMT show, but wasn't). As triage, they got funding from movie studio Shochiku and Mitsui Corporation to produce new movie adaptations of two of its best loved classic series. Since the heyday of WMT was in the 1970s, the shows' animation hadn't aged all that well, to say nothing of their glacial pacing, and new feature film versions of these well-loved stories would potentially inject new life into the brand. The first of these, Dog of Flanders, was a decent success, and even got a hacked-apart release in the US via Pioneer Animation's short-lived family film division.

MARCO was the second of these. It's based on Isao Takahata's 1975 52-episode TV series "3,000 Leagues In Search Of Mother," which was itself loosely based on one of the stories from late 19th century Italian novel Cuore (Heart) by children's author Edmondo De Amicis: the book is written as journal entries from an upper-class 9-year-old, as his schooling and his teacher expose him to stories of the harsh working class realities of the world. The TV adaptation added a lot of new twists and turns to stretch it out to 52 episodes. It was a huge hit both in Japan and in non-English speaking countries worldwide, and a feature length digest film was released a few years later.

In a time of economic hardship, young Italian boy Marco's mother leaves him to go find work in Argentina as a maid. Marco doesn't have much company -- his father runs the nearby hospital and frequently works himself into the ground to care for the poor townspeople, and his older brother is off doing older brother things. Marco looks forward to the letters his mother sends frequently. But the letters stop coming, and Marco is worried. After meeting a neighboring family of street performers, Marco learns that a ship will soon be leaving town en route to Argentina, and Marco is obsessed with going there himself to try and find his mother. And, in a feat of stunningly poor parenting, Marco's father lets him.

Marco departs with great fanfare, accompanied by his brother's adorable pet monkey. From there, Marco's quest can probably be guessed by most fans familiar with the sort of child-suffering novels that made for popular anime back in the 70s. The ship hits a storm. Marco gets all of his money pick-pocketed, leaving him penniless on the streets of an unfamiliar country. He meets new friends and does good deeds along the way. There's exposure and starvation. He goes to the house where his mother is supposedly working, only to be told, "the princess is in another castle!" You get the idea.

The 1999 feature, which is directed by 90s WMT regular Kōzō Kusuba, knows that its audience consists mostly of families whose parents grew up on the original TV series, and doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. Most of the additions to the story are kept. While this was doubtlessly the most crowd-pleasing solution, it leaves the film without a strong narrative arc. All of Marco's segmented adventures are clearly structured for several arcs of a long-running TV show, but in a single movie, it comes off as disjointed and poorly dramatized. More problematically, each genuine crisis now seems horribly rushed, and to wit, it doesn't feel like there's anything at stake. Marco always seems to have a sense of direction and a way out of every situation. We're never left to sit there and worry about him, which was the whole reason the TV series worked so well.

But what makes the film truly maudlin isn't the story, which is more or less the same as it was in 1975, it's the music. Taro Iwashiro (Gargantia, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos) doesn't really quite grasp the orchestral workings of a Western style musical score, and frequently the composer overplays the emotions of a scene. The whole thing just feels extremely overwrought.

Ultimately, despite serviceable animation and what is still clearly a classic story, MARCO never rises above mediocrity. From the moment the drippy English ballad starts playing (this time by Scottish songstress Sheena Easton), you know this is going to be one of those doleful mainstream melodramas of the sort Japanese live action is notorious for. In that regard, it doesn't disappoint.

World Masterpiece Theater stories are a hard sell to current otaku. There's nothing cool or sexy about the blobby, workmanlike designs, and stories about European kids suffering (or ANY kids suffering, really) generally don't tickle the escapist fantasy tastes of most fans. Maybe that's why so few attempts to fansub them have borne fruit, and only one series has ever been licensed for sale in North America. (Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, CPM). Most of them are absolutely worth checking out, particularly if you're a patient viewer. But this remake is probably not the place to start.

Japanese Name: MARCO ~母をたずねて三千里~ (Marco - Haha o Tazunete Sanzen Ri)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 98 min.

Vintage: 1999

Genres: Family, drama, child suffering

Availability (Japan): The initial DVD release in 1999 didn't look so hot, so Bandai Visual reissued the film with a new widescreen transfer in 2010. That disc is just recently out of print and is still in stock at many retailers, and being a "mainstream" family film, sells in Japan at cheap US prices. No English, though.

Availability (English): As Greboruri pointed out in the forum, there were legal English subtitled DVDs released in both Hong Kong (by Universe) and Korea (by Dawoori Entertainment), although both are now out of print. The subtitles were likely from a film festival translation.

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