A Studio Ghibli tv series on Amazon?! Yes please, says I! Most people who love the silver screen are familiar with the masterful Japanese animation house, behind such beloved international classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
Film School Rejects say “The studio is respected the world over for its lush animation, attention to detail, and the way its movies can soak its audiences in a mood without any effort at all”. So it’s easy to see that expectations were set high for their first ever tv series, which debuted in Japan in 2014. I won’t drag out the suspense – Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is a huge disappointment.
Ronja is a cute little girl, born to a robber king and his wife. They lead a band of ne’er-do-wells who patrol the forest paths robbing from the rich who travel through in their horse-drawn carriages. The merry band live in a secluded castle surrounded by a forest full of enormous creepy birds with women’s faces.
They seem like a totally useless bunch of thieves right from the off who are so delighted that they have a new charge to look after they’d rather be baby sitters than out working supporting the group. Her Dad Matthias, the notorious robber king himself, calls off a hit and hurries home because he wants to feed his baby daughter. How did this pathetic bunch even survive until Ronja was 10 years old? It’s a mystery.
This is a very old fashioned style show. The pace is so slow it stutters. My heart sank when realised the one series is a huge 26 episodes long. On Amazon it’s badly dubbed and very much reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons we suffered through as kids in the 1970s and 80s. The ones we aren’t nostalgic for. A lot of strange silences punctuated by grunting noises, with a healthy doses of random anime tears that might make sense to shinnichis (aka Japanophiles) but is still lost on me. Similarly even stoic characters suffer strange outbursts of emotion that make no sense in the context of the character. Are these guys all badly written or is it Robin Hood and his band of bipolar robbers? The only person who seems to make any sense at all is Ronja’s mother Lovis, who of course, is relegated to the role of little wifey at home nagging her menfolk to do a better job and stop being so useless. She’s got quite a task ahead of her.
Another problem is the rather confused location. Ronja is based on stories written by Astrid Lindgren (who also wrote Pippi Longstocking) so their forest home is supposed to be early-medieval Scandinavia. But it could be Japan, or anywhere in feudal Europe. And the storyline is very much Sherwood Forest. So it’s sort of made-up medieval history with fantasy elements – the freaky faced cackling harpies being the first really strange characters we meet. I’m sure other traditional Japanese mythical monsters (or Scandinavian, let’s be honest we’ll have to work in out for ourselves) will turn up later too.
The characters are drawn in a very strange way – they all have unruly spiky hair which makes sense in a land without salons, but is so uniform it makes them all look like they’re related. And the masks that the robbers wear look very traditional but aren’t explained at any point. I know it’s difficult for a tv show to be authentic and also work for a foreign market but a bit more explanation would have really helped international audiences drawn by the famous Studio Ghibli name. The backgrounds are the most stylish element of the animation – the forest, the castle and the stormy skies on the night of Ronja’s birth are very beautiful, it’s a shame the characters aren’t.
I could forgive how it looks if it was as witty or sparky as the films. But it’s not and it’s nowhere near as funny. There was one nice visual gag in the first episode – the camera carries on up the spiral stairs as Matthis runs, falls, picks himself up and struggles to catch up. It was probably the only laugh out loud moment and thinking about it, it’s a good metaphor for the whole show.
One episode was enough for me, I won’t be checking out the other 25. I’ll put on Spirited Away instead and enjoy a magical story, beautifully told.