The Modern Old-Fashion – Anime Critique: Sanzoku no Musume Ronya

Ronia_the_Robber's_Daughter_anime,_promo_imageTitle: Sanzoku no Musume Ronya (Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, Ronja Rövardotter)
Format: TV series
Genre: historical, comedy, drama, family life, light fantasy
Series Creator:  Astrid Lindgren
Series Director: Goro Miyazaki
Studio: Polygon Pictures with assistance from Studio Ghibli
Series length: 26 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 11, 2014 – March 28, 2015
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Ronja, the only child of a bandit chief, grows up among a clan of robbers living in a castle in the woodlands of early-Medieval Scandinavia. When Ronja grows old enough she ventures into the forest, exploring and discovering its wonders and dangers like the mystical creatures that dwell there. She learns to live in the forest through her own strength, with the occasional rescue by her parents. Ronja’s life begins to change, however, when she happens upon a boy her own age named Birk, who turns out to be the son of the rival clan chief.


Critique:

I am pretty much in two minds over this series but one thing that I am utterly certain about is that is has the worst opening theme I have heard in simply forever. It basically sounds like the themes from the late 70’s anime that I saw as dubbed repeats when I was a kid (in the 80’s). The entire series seems to be harkening back to those early colour anime in terms of it’s art & themes yet doing in such a modernist fashion.

The mish-mash of art styles is what really bothered me about the series.

With the characters being modern cell-shaded CGI & the backgrounds being lovingly hand drawn.

Note the contrast of art styles in Ronja & the background
Note the contrast of art styles in Ronja & the background

It seems that the CGI has bothered a lot of the audience, because people came to the series through the idea that it was entirely a Studio Ghibli production & it would stick to Miyazaki Hayao’s hand drawn styles. I too thought that but knowing it was directed by Miyzaki’s son, Goro (of Tales From Earthsea infamy) I had figured that it Ghibli didn’t have their hand completely within the production once I saw the CGI -which was confirmed by some basic research.

I’ve honestly never cared much for the sort of cell-shaded CGI that they use in anime these days. It really didn’t work in Knights of Sidonia & it only works a little bit better here.

What I think really bothers me is that it can never capture the subtle motions of the mouth & eyes, rendering some expressions way too close to the Uncanny Valley for my liking. Other broader expressions it can do well, but when they try to do delicate or joyous smiles, the faces really look fake & freaky.

In contrast to CGI characters, you have these amazingly details background. The forest is exceptionally beautiful with how they’ve drawn the littlest bit of moss or gotten the mushrooms just right for the season. It must’ve taken so much work to get it looking so good & it truly speaks to the craftmanship that Studio Ghibli is famous for. Part of me really wishes that the entire series was drawn in such detail but then it probably would’ve pushed the production time & cost way out of reach of any return profit.

Ronja & the bandits nightly revels.
Ronja & the bandits nightly revels.

Despite my gripes with the graphics & the opening theme, the series itself is very solid. It’s a tried & true forum, based on a classic Swedish children’s fantasy novel –Ronja Rövardotter by Astrid Lindgren, who is most famous for creating Pippi Longstocking (which she refused to allow Miyazaki Hayao & Takahata Isao to adapt in the 1970’s, possibly because she was xenophobic). The story is genuinely like the European story adaptations that I grew up watching on ABC in the 80’s, but that’s mainly because it is adapting an old story in a very similar way.

The basic themes of it are about over coming preconceived prejudices, maturing & learning that your parents are fallible as well as dealing with the dangers of live al whilst having an adventure. These are the most fundamental staples of any classic children’s story, ones that have been seen in anime from the 1960’s & 70’s hundreds of times but still used to great effect in Sanzoku no Musume Ronya.

The central protagonist of Ronja (also spelt Ronya & Ronia) is smart, fearly & a touch precocious. Utterly spoilt by her father Mattis & his band of robbers for being the only child born to their clan (which I genuinely find strange, since it’s never mentioned why Mattis & his wife Lovis never had or tried to have other children). One the night that she is born, a bolt of lightning strikes Mattis’ fortress, splitting it in two -causing the bandits to abandon the other half. As Ronja grows, she is influenced by her Lovis’ wisdom, Old Pelle’s cunning & Mattis’ hatred of the rival band of robbers led by his former childhood friend, Borka.

In fact, the two rival bands often clash over robbery targets in the forest but whilst Mattis is completely gaga over baby Ronja, Borka also begins to disappear back to his hideout at odd times before robberies -confusing the few in Mattis’ band with wits enough to notice.

As Ronja grows, she’s allowed to explore the forest under certain conditions -such as returning before nightfall- but she’s granted utter freedom whilst she’s outside of the fortress. This often means that she has to deal with the mystical creatures of the forests -such as the beautiful yet evil harpies (face of women, bodies of birds)- relying on nothing but her wits. This all changes when she encounters a boy on the abandoned side of the fortress, who turns out to be Birk Borkason -Borka’s only son, born moments after Ronja was, when the lightning bolt split the fortress in twain. Because she has only learnt about the world from her father & the other robbers, she’s first hateful of Birk, challenging him to contests, but the boy is far more open minded then her yet goes along with her challenges because he’s still pretty smug about things.

The harpies cause many viewers to have the weirdest boners.
The harpies cause many viewers to have the weirdest boners.

From that point on, the relationship between Ronja & Birk becomes the crux of the series. As it goes from hatred to curiousity to kinship & eventually a form of love. The catalysts for how it begins to change is routed in Europe folklore, mixed with some Japanese ideas of what that is. Primarily it’s Ronja almost falling victim to the Other Folk (pretty much elves or fae), who try to spirit her away (a common theme in almost all folklore across the world, probably connected with murderous paedophiles kidnapping children) but Birk holds her back until their spell wares off. Her also helps her against the Harpies of the forest -large eagles with the face of beautiful women but are spitefully & violently jealous of anything prettier or more interesting then them -which is namely Ronja & Birk.

Hey, gurl, I've come to charm your pants off.
Hey, gurl, I’ve come to charm your pants off.

Keeping the traditional folktale elements in the story does really enrich the narrative, because they represent forces beyond the children that they must confront & overcome (or at least watch in wonder). For example there are the owl-like Grey Dwarves, who love to terrorise humans but will run away as soon as they see that the human is not afraid of them. Ronja’s encounter with them & subsequent rescue by her father shows her that no matter how scared she may be, she can’t show it less she begins to panic. They are basic moral lessons that don’t beat the audience over the head but they are still well done for the most part.

The folktale morality also plays into the familial relationships but not in the way that a Christian morality tale would -with the parents always being right & a child suffering until they learn this. In the story, Mattis is a super-strong man child whose emotional reactions are always out of proportion with the situation & his physical reactions always too extreme. He wants Ronja to remain his ever loving little girl but his behaviour means that Ronja sees him as fallible & not a source of childhood pride. Lovis is strong & stoic dealing with this side of her husband, letting Ronja grow at her own pace & make her own mistakes, even if it causes Mattis to have a temper tantrum. Similar, the other bandits are all pretty much over grown men-children, with the exception of Pelle, who is a cunning old trickster who wants a better life for Ronja outside of being forced to become a bandit.

In the end, this a very old fashioned story that is so in the vein of Miyazaki Hayao’s work. In that it has strong female characters, is about maturation & moving away from being the person your parents are combined with accepting those who are different from you or supposed to be your enemies, so you can approach them with friends &, eventually, love. It is not as though Goro is trying to ape his father’s narrative style but rather he is demonstrating the inherent power of this classic, non-agendarised moral style of storytelling. Ronja is empowered but vulnerable, only able to grow but realising that she can rely on other people. It’s also about the fallibility of parents, in that they are not an absolute authority who must be followed unquestioningly (maybe Goro is working out his own paternal issues with that). Rather they make mistakes & can do great harm -even if unintentionally- because they are human & prone to misjudgement & overbourne emotion.

Whilst the series does drag at points & the CGI animation does detract, it’s still the perfect series for a family to watch. It’s great entry level anime & am I’m surprised that the English dub hasn’t been rushed forward. For every misstep the show makes, it amends in other ways. If you are craving an anime that isn’t about sexy superpowered ninja cyborg magical girls fighting angelic demons who transform into foxes (all the anime cliches!), then I highly recommend this series.

the moe factor in CGI
the moe factor in CGI
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