Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Little Princess Sara (1985)

Little Princess Sara (1985) is a World Masterpiece Theater Japanese anime based on the popular English classic children's novel, A Little Princess (1904), by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It contains 52 episodes.

Sara Crewe, the daughter of a rich miner from India, is an intelligent, polite, and creative young girl. She is brought all the way to London in Victorian-era England for a formal education. The teachers and students learn she is quite advanced for her age. For instance, she speaks French perfectly and immediately becomes the top student. She helps everybody and loves everybody, from little Lottie who is too young for school and desperately needs a mother, to the child servants, Becky and Peter, who are often ignored and mistreated. But the most important thing is Sara's wealth, which make her Miss Minchin's student representative, evoking the mortal jealousy of Lavinia, the ex-favorite.

When word spreads about her father's death and bankruptcy on her birthday, Sara becomes a penniless orphan. Miss Minchin, scared that throwing the girl out will ruin her school's reputation, lets Sara stay, but makes her life impossible. Sara humbly accepts her new fate and is subjected to servitude of the worst kind. At the upscale boarding school, Sara is forced to tolerate the haughty, disdainful headmistress, Miss Minchin. She has to do the hardest work in the kitchen, sleep in a dilapidated attic, and goes to bed mostly hungry, with all of Lavinia's hatred and Miss Minchin's despisal now released at her. Despite her misfortune, Sara's spirit is not broken and proves that anyone can be a "little princess." She remains proud and imaginative as ever as she masters her new life, and her true friends never let her down.

This is one time I will say that the Victorian era (both American and British) produced many classic novels that are still enjoyed by readers a century later. A Little Princess is one of them. Originally a novella, Burnett was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's unfinished novella, Emma, which features a rich heiress with a mysterious past who is apparently abandoned at a boarding school. Fortunately, Burnett expanded the novella to a full-length novel after much success as a Broadway play. When I first heard of this story, I saw the abridged film version, A Little Princess (1995), which takes place in late nineteenth-century New York City. Although I enjoyed it, I felt the story had to cut many memorable parts of the novel to fit a small two-hour window. Thus, I was so delighted to see how the Japanese brought this story to life which no other film company has been able to accomplish.

Since this novel was written during the Progressive Era, Burnett inserted many social protest moments that would make viewers question societal norms, particularly child labor (servitude). Although we have rules and regulations for minors in the workforce, such laws did not exist in the 19th Century. It is hard to fathom that it was once legal for poor children as young as eight years old to work 12-hour shifts. Poor families were dependent on their children for income, and the working conditions were often unbearable. It would take years of progressive social reforms, both direct and indirect like this novel, to expose the magnitude of the social problems to governments. By the 1930s, most Western nations passed labor protection laws for children.

I love this anime because Nippon Animation did an excellent job highlighting both Sara's tenacity and the child labor practices of the time. Although it is underrated, I recommend anime fans with a taste for historical fiction to watch this show. I will hint that good fortune does come her way in the end. It is definitely worth the entire 52 episodes.

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