The Mike Toole Show
Dark Side of the Moomin

by Mike Toole,

I'm jetting off to Japan in a couple of weeks, the better to cover Anime Japan for this here website. This isn't purely a work trip, though—my wife is joining me, and we're building a vacation around the days I'm going to be working my butt off snapping photos and talking to people over at Tokyo Big Sight. Consequently, we've been eyeballing fun activities for slow days. We probably won't bother with the big Gundam statue, because that thing's been photographed to high heck, but we've already snagged tickets to see some good old-fashioned all-Japanese yakyu, featuring my Yakult Swallows squaring off against her Hanshin Tigers. It'll be a race to see if her team can score more “Wasshoi!”s than mine can do umbrella dances. You know, culture!

One thing I've been looking into is theme parks. Japan is pretty good at theme park attractions. Its Disney parks have the reputation as being the best-run in the chain. There's an onsen theme park that we might be checking out near Anime Japan itself, not to mention other attractions, like the Mt. Fuji-adjacent roller-coaster paradise Fuji Q Highland, and Kyoto's impressive Edo-era town replica, Toei Uzumasa Eigamura. There's also one park that doesn't open soon enough for us to visit this year, and that's Moominland. Moomin, Tove Jansson's sprawling and whimsical array of books, comics, and other stories about a family of friendly trolls and their pals, is extremely popular in Japan—popular enough to secure several anime adaptations, popular enough to drive untold thousands of Japanese tourists to Jansson's homeland of Finland each year, and so popular that they're opening a theme park in Hanno next year, to try and capture some of that Moomin tourist money and keep it at home.

Despite the characters' rugged and lasting popularity, the first two Moomin anime series aren't even available on DVD. That's not altogether surprising—plenty of older shows haven't yet made the jump to digital, due to a variety of factors like unclear ownership, poor condition of materials, and simple lack of interest. But Jansson's Moomin books are popular around the world, and the original anime series was a forerunner of the celebrated World Masterpiece Theater run of shows that included multiple opera like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. Certain exacting fans will argue that fare like Moomin, Dororo, and Fables of the Green Forest aren't “true” World Masterpiece Theater titles, because they came before the sponsor, Calpis, permanently moved production to Nippon Animation and established a formula of adapting popular global children's literature. In any case, you'd think there would be interest in these old shows. There's just one problem: the Jansson estate isn't too fond of them.

Here's the thing: probably the biggest part of Moomin's sheer appeal is the way Jansson mixes up the familiar with delightfully bizarre characters and ideas. We can see so much of ourselves in the characters of Moomintroll and his family; the title character is friendly and good-natured, if a bit mild-mannered. He's flanked by the patient and resourceful Moominmamma, and Moominpappa, who's characterized by his easygoing charm and his fondness for brown liquor. It's a perfect little family, only they're these odd-looking white hippo people, surrounded on all sides by eccentrics like Sniff (some sort of rodent; enthusiastically greedy), Snufkin (a worldly hobo), and Little My (an endlessly mischievous and irascible little girl). This synergy of odd-looking characters having fun and familiar adventures seems like it'd be a good bet to adapt to anime, and with Calpis' funds, TMS got underway in 1969.

The thing is, they made some changes. Yasuo Otsuka's character designs are notably different from Jansson's artwork, replacing the characters' signature button eyes with more human-looking ones. The Moomin family, designed very subtly with mouths that are rarely visible, have ones that flap incessantly in TMS's version. The Snorkmaiden, Moomintroll's pal and occasional girlfriend, is both renamed to the simpler Nonon (weirdly, her older brother is still called the Snork!) and given a big bow in her hair (blonde in the books, but pink in the cartoon, obviously), so we all know for sure that she's a girl. Moomintroll himself is notably more pugnacious than the character in the storybooks, even a little bratty at times. These differences alone were enough to alarm Jansson, but the show was too far along into production to make major changes right away. The tipping point was episode 7, a segment that was actually selected to run as part of a children's film festival in Japan. Reacting to the stuff depicted in the episode, Jansson wrote a strongly-worded letter to writer Tadaaki Yamazaki, informing the studio that what they were making was simply too much of a departure; “My Moomin doesn't drive, fight, or use money,” she said.

You'd think that the studio would heed the wishes of the original creator and relent, but that's not exactly how it went down. This is one of those legendary backroom stories of the anime business—a combination of Jansson's pointed objections and TMS having a new project, Lupin the 3rd, coming up and distracting some senior staff, actually resulted in their Moomin contract being cancelled after 26 episodes and production getting moved over to Mushi Productions, who'd done Dororo for Calpis the previous season. TMS elder statesman Yutaka Fujioka, who was the studio's production manager at that point, was away on a business trip when the shit hit the fan. By the time he got wind of the situation and hurried back to Tokyo, it was too late.

As a result, the back half of 1969's Moomin is a little kinder and gentler, putting aside scenes of Stinky getting arrested by the cops (another bit that had reportedly enraged Jansson) in favor of closer adaptations of the original stories and comics. Perplexingly, the Snorkmaiden was again renamed, this time to “Fraulein.” The eventual end product performed well enough and was good enough to Jansson to approve a new series, 1972's creatively titled New Moomin, which added more of Jansson's characters, like the clever and personable Too-Ticky, to the cast. The character designs and colors change subtly— Moomintroll's parents aren't quite the same pale shade of blue-white he is, and the big-eyed and sharp-tongued Snufkin looks weirdly friendly. But overall, the 1972 series retails the same somewhat off-model look of the earlier show, so Jansson's objections, pointed as they were, were mainly focused on content.

A combination of Jansson's objections and murky publishing rights ultimately kept these old shows from DVD—in fact, I'm pretty sure neither even got broadcast outside of Japan-- but not from being rebroadcast (and, in the case of the original TMS series, a laserdisc release – hilarious, as it was the most contentious part of the adaptation!). This is a good thing, for two reasons: first of all, the rebroadcast helped spark interest in a new 1990 Moomin anime, which I'll touch on shortly. Second, these rebroadcasts were hoarded by weirdo tape traders, and a handful of episodes ended up on YouTube, so I got to watch them.

As a fan of Moomin (I read some of the books as a child, and have delighted in Drawn & Quarterly's reprints of the more thoughtful, complex comic strips), I honestly thought, at first, that there was nothing wrong with this dusty old Moomin. The color and animation were both alright, and while the alterations to the character designs, settings, and behavior struck me as off-kilter, I found myself appreciating the musical score and songs, courtesy of future Group TAC head Atsumi Tashiro. After a few episodes, I was starting to wonder just why Jansson had been so upset about the adaptation, and then suddenly, during an argument, Moomintroll lost his temper and struck the Snorkmaiden on her shoulder. And just like that, I was right there with Jansson; as diligently as they'd worked, the gang at TMS were still creating scenes that never would have happened in the original stories. Of course, for all of its bizarre artistic license, the original series still has moments when it nails the characters perfectly.

Moominpappa's the best. The next Moomin adaptation would be a stop-motion affair produced in Poland (actually, the first Moomin TV series wasn't the 1969 anime, either—it was an earlier West German puppet show!). Eventually, a TV producer named Dennis Livson approached the Janssons (Tove's brother, Lars, actually handed most of the writing and artwork for the comic strips) with the notion of going back to Japan for a new animated adaptation. To assuage their doubts, Livson presented them with his previous project, a highly successful anime co-production based on Herman van Veen's play Alfred J. Kwak. Tove and her brother still needed some assurances, and they got them—Lars was permitted to plan and outline the series structure with Livson, and both of the Janssons had approval of the scripts. The resulting series, a co-production of Telecable Benelux and Japan's Visual 80, is a bright, attractive, and accessible TV cartoon that proved easy to export all over the world. While there are a few differences (just like in the earlier adaptations, the mischievous Little My shows up way earlier than she does in the comics), this series adapts huge chunks of both the storybooks and the comics, and does a darn good job of it.

In fact, it was 1990's Delightful Moomin Family that really sparked “Moomin Mania” in Japan, with the series getting big ratings and pushing thousands and thousands of dolls, books, and other merchandise into viewers' homes. Animation nuts might remember the older Moomin shows fondly, but the 90s Moomin was a bigger crossover hit. The show would ultimately run for over a hundred episodes, and even spark a feature-film adaptation of A Comet in Moominland. I'll tell you, if you're charmed not just by Tove Jansson's story and characters, but by her colorful and weird illustrations, you'll want to see Comet in Moominland - of all of the Moomin animation I've seen, it does the best job of replicating her illustrations, as seen below. I was excited by the news of the new Moomin theme park, because it was scheduled to open in 2015. I'd get to visit it! Unfortunately, real life has a way of pushing deadlines back, so I'll have to return after 2017 if I want to experience Moomin Land Japan myself.

After digesting a whole bunch of both old and new Moomin animation (I still haven't gotten to the newest Moomin cartoon, the 2014 Moomins on the Riviera), I'm left pondering just how important it is to stick to the wishes of the original author. Even with talented directors on board, like Rintaro and Noboru Ishiguro, TMS couldn't turn out a version of the show that satisfied its creator. This hasn't been the only clash of creator and studio, either; Kare Kano manga artist Masami Tsuda didn't like director Hideaki Anno injecting so much broad, kinetic comedy into her gentle shoujo romance, and managed to pressure him to leave the project. Polar Bear Café creator Aloha Higa halted production of her manga and complained to the public when she noticed that the studio creating the anime version, even while doing a good job, weren't doing their duty of keeping her in the loop.

My favorite example of an anime production team bucking the creator with unfortunate results has to be SF Shinseki Lensman, a feature film adaptation of E.E. “Doc” Smith's books that, while beautiful and innovative for its time, bore almost no resemblance to Smith's original works. Upon seeing the film, Smith's daughter Vera complained directly to the distributor, TOHO. The movie made the rounds in the 80s and 90s, but it's never come out on DVD, likely for the same reasons that Moomin 1969 didn't make it to DVD. I like the Lensman movie a lot—enough that I really just wish the Smith estate would let a new DVD version be released, as the current pirated versions on YouTube come from unexceptional laserdisc rips. The film deserves better. But after seeing Moomin's abrupt, halting departures, I can better understand where the Smith family's objections come from. That doesn't make me not want Moomin on DVD, too, though!

I'm also left wondering if we'll get more Moomin anime down the road. The guy who got Moomin 1990 off the ground, Dennis Livson, ended up being pretty critical of the last run of episodes, because they'd run out of material to adapt and had to write some inferior stories as filler. That's another thorny thing about the wishes of the creator—with Jansson gone and her stories standing the test of time, should someone be commissioned to make new ones? Probably not, I think—I'm glad we've got the Moomin anime we have, even if the DVD version you can order from Amazon, while licensed from Telescreen, is quite inferior.

One last thought: I've actually been petitioned by some of my readers to write more about World Masterpiece Theater shows, but there's one big problem with that—I haven't seen most of them! It's easy to get the 1990 Moomin in English (and seeing that version drove me to seek out loose episodes of the earlier one, despite their being untranslated), but the majority of World Masterpiece Theatre series haven't been dubbed or released in English. More's the pity. But hope springs eternal – last week, a few clips of an Anne of Green Gables dub produced for Asia briefly surfaced before being yanked offline. I hope the rest is out there somewhere, and I'll keep searching. In the meantime, let me know which WMT series you wish was dubbed in English, which Moomin character is your favorite, and what souvenirs I oughta bring back from Japan.

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