First Impressions – Sanzoku no Musume Ronja

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What a muddle of emotions Sanzoku no Musume Ronja conjures up for me.

While there’s nothing wrong with Sanzoku no Musume Ronja apart from one very obvious exception, honestly compels me to say that I hope this isn’t the last project we ever see from Studio Ghibli.  It’s not that Ronja is terrible by any means – it’s not – but to have the most successful anime studio in history close the book on its creative output with a full CGI TV series after having diligently stuck to hand-drawn in Japan animation for many decades would be, well – a travesty.  It simply wouldn’t be right.  I’d much rather have the sublime Kaguyahime no Monogatari be the studio’s farewell (though Omoide no Marnie was perfectly decent) if we must have one – though of course I’d rather not have to say farewell at all.

You can’t talk about Sanzoku no Musume Ronja without talking about the elephant in the room, and that’s named Polygon.  That’s the 3D Animation studio that did 100% of the animation for Ronja, just as it did for Sidonia no Kishi.  And as with Sidonia, the backgrounds are lovely, the big set pieces look fine, and the character animation is abysmal.  It may be a shade better here than in Sidonia, though I suspect that’s more to do with far better character designs (by Ghibli stalwart Kondo Katsuya) than anything else.

There’s a surreal quality in watching these familiar and lovely Ghibli faces moving through familiar and lovely Ghibli backgrounds, but looking thoroughly wrong in doing so.  It can be something you learn to live with (as I did with Sidonia) but in my case it’s never something I can completely block out.  And of course, the story in Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is totally unlike the cerebral and aloof hard sci-fi of Sidonia – this is a classic children’s book by the legendary Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.  The material would have been right at-home in a big-screen Ghibli project, even in Miyazaki Hayao’s hands, and for two episodes at least it works well from a narrative standpoint.  But two cours is a bit of a stretch for the source material to begin with, and that’s not even considering whether older viewers might be content to stay with the series for that long.

The director here is Miyazaki Goro, who proved in the vastly underrated From Up On Poppy Hill that he’s a formidable directorial talent in his own right.  He keeps things moving along pretty briskly in the first double-episode, which focuses on the time of Ronja’s birth and in which the unquestioned star is her father Mattis (Seki Takaki).  The leader of a gang of brigands who has his own family castle, Mattis is the latest (and hopefully not last) in a succession of great Ghibli dads.  We get an introduction to the various members of Mattis’ gang as well as his wife Lovis (Nozawa Yukari).  We also get a peek at a rival gang of robbers (they’ll be important later) and at the harpies of the magical woods, who make some of the creepiest screams you’ll hear anywhere.  Ghibli is great with creepy screams.

Eventually Ronja is born, on a stormy night (that’s important for both practical and symbolic reasons) and she’ll eventually be played by Shiraishi Haruka.  Mattis is a doting father and Ronja soon grows into a rambunctious and free-spirited girl who’s the apple of the entire gang’s eye.  I do think something is lost in terms of authenticity by abandoning Ghibli’s usual practice of casting kids as kids (the other main child character, a boy, will also be played by an adult woman) but as with the animation I suppose that’s a concession to cost.

In sum, this plays like solid, mainstream Ghibli – except that the character animation is like the stuff of bad dreams.  If you like material such as Uehashi Nahoko’s Kemono no Souja Erin I would imagine Ronja will be right up your alley, if you can learn to live with the CGI.  Ghibli is still Ghibli and Miyazaki is a skilled director, and Lindgren’s original work is widely admired for a reason.  It’s a fascinating thing, seeing Ghibli tackle a 26-episode TV anime, and it would be interesting to consider whether there might be more of them in the studio’s future – if it has a future.  I just wish that in addition to creative stewardship we were seeing it animated by Ghibli too, but that probably isn’t realistic in today’s economic reality.  Here’s hoping we see the hand-drawn genius of Ghibli return to our screens one day, be they big or small.

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  1. t

    yeah, CGI animation is..tough (but hey!the background is good). but I am not gonna miss Ronja adventures and story just because of it. after all..Sidonia turned out good even with CGI as we progressed in the series. and I survived Kingdom S1+2 despite its CGI animation even when it really decrease my enjoyment in the battles.
    I pretty much enjoyed the first two eps that serve as some sort of intro and outline for the series. it is not gonna be something we see every season or something in anime. there is a rare scent here of beautiful innocent world where child seeks the world around him.

  2. The thing about Kingdom, though, is that the CGI came and went. There were really bad patches, but some long decent ones too, where the character animation was all hand-drawn. With a series like this that's 100% CGI, you're never going to catch a break from it.

  3. P

    I tried it but I can't… I can usualy deal with CG but knowing that this is Ghibli, I expect a higher level of quality and here, the CG hurts too much.

  4. H

    Squint your eyes and you'll be fine! My main gripe so far is that the story moves very slowly, so I'm having doubts that this really needed 26 episodes. And the parenting is pretty dim in the Rövardotter family. Meanwhile harpies are creepy good.

  5. a

    I wasn't too bothered by the CGI, simply because I knew if I started comparing it to handdrawn, I'd just end up upset. It would be defeatist to do.

    Enjoyed the first episode (haven't seen the second one yet) because it showed one crucial thing: they understood the source material and the source characters. I felt they were spot on with their interpretation – I watched it raw but it reminded of all the reasons why I loved Ronja as a child.

  6. m

    You're the first blogger to mention the author. I'll give you a cookie for that.

    I happen to be a huge fan of this story, and all the other ones written by Lindgren. She is one of my all-time favourite authors and I've visited her theme park so many times that I've lost count. I've even cried at her grave. To me, it's only positive to see her work being acknowledged outside Sweden, especially something that isn't Pippi Långstrump (even though that one was initially going to get a Hayao-directed film). So I thought that despite the CGI, despite it being a TV-series, it is still the same old Ronja I grew up to love.

    I think they've done very well in recreating a classic Swedish tale and I hope this isn't the end of Ghibli. But I agree, it would be sad if this was their final work. But I guess for someone who is a huge fan of the source material, it's easy to see beyond everything for the sake of having a precious tale come to life again.

  7. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could talk about this show without mentioning Lindgren, and if you're right I find that incredibly depressing (if for no other reason than it makes me feel really old). Is Pippi Longstocking that totally forgotten now?

  8. a

    I mentioned Lindgren too, in every post I've written on Ronja (pre-release & first episode), but then I'm a film blogger, not really an anime blogger, and just someone into literature/adaptations (I went and read When Marnie Was There when they announced the film, my book review still appears in the top ~20 Google results).

    Sadly I think most people just don't read the source materials, it's probably those of us who read it as children that are mentioning Lindgren. Ronja, Pippi, the Brothers Lionheart and all the rest of her characters definitely aren't dead for me (I read most of Lindgren's books 🙂 ).

    I agree with you madmou, I think they mentioned to bring a precious tale to life again, CGI or not CGI. I refuse to believe this will be Ghibli's last work.

  9. m

    Well, I don't read that many anime blogs these days, but from what I've seen, she hasn't been mentioned. ;_;

    Hmm, Pippi has not died, I wouldn't say that. But I don't think today's generation knows much about her. Hardly anyone reads these days, let alone classics. As far as I'm aware, the Ghibli adaptation was never made because it wasn't approved of.

  10. z

    It's been known since the beginning that this would be CG, so it's not really fair to hold that against the show. The backgrounds weren't CG, so it's not really 100% anyway. It was a bit jarring the first few minutes, and the banana-hair never got better, but you have to look past that for the whole package.

    I read the story as a child, but I honestly don't remember much of it. It didn't stick with me like the Brothers Lionheart did. But I thought this extended opening episode was really well done. The characters felt fresh, and the interactions were great. The harpy scene had enough details, with the claws on the railing, the spinning arrow, the stare-down, that I forgot about the CG. The father, Mattis, especially, was really compelling. Every time his eyes would gloss over with love was hilarious. Ronja herself is the least interesting, and I'm thinking the show would be better sticking with the adults! 😉

  11. So if a show is true to what it advertises itself to be, you can't hold that aspect of the show up to criticism? Honestly, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

  12. M

    I don't believe so, but in this case "abysmal" sounds irrevocably scathing and pretty indignant since it also sounds like you are heaping your expectations of Ghibli onto Polygon. Some details were rough, like the hair for example, but I think on the whole Ghibli-to-Polygon transitions fairly comfortably. The characters' emotions are still affecting, and the creatures of the forest are still effective. Just because it's something I'm not used to doesn't mean it's blasphemously ugly. 🙂

    I do have some issues with the show, but more so than just one single aspect. Let me however echo the sentiment that Sanzoku no Musume Ronja being Ghibli's Swan Song would be terribly unfortunate. Somehow, in one way or another, I don't think it will be. Hayao Miyazaki will see to that…

  13. You can infer whatever you like, but my observation was based on the content, period. I thought the character animation was awful, on par with Sidonia. You didn't. End of story.

  14. z

    CG is used to save money. Ghibi has an uncertain future ahead of it, so what kind of budget can they really bring to a 2-cour TV series? The CG part was well advertised, so no, it's not fair to hold them to a standard beyond what they can accomplish. That's like expecting movie quality from a TV show, or looking down on someone who makes less and can't maintain the same standard of living as you can.

    On top of that, I don't yet trust Goro as a director. So, I went in to Ronja with pretty low expectations, and it turned out better than I expected. But it's only the first episode(s), so my final judgement is still open!

    If you want to debate whether the use of CG is an affront to Miyazaki-senior's values and Ghibli's history, that's a different topic. The show should be judged on it's own merits.

    I'm surprised that Goro got the rights to do the show given that Hayao couldn't do Pipi. But his character concepts are still pretty cool

  15. M

    The character animation is smooth and competently done. It rings false to outright say it's awful. Given the context for you it may be (which you eloquently expressed in your condemnation of Polygon), but on its own it's absolutely fine from an animation standpoint.

    This is clearly a closed matter for you though so I will respectfully infer that you don't want to know.

  16. Well, at least you weren't arrogant and condescending in stating your opinion…

  17. Z

    On the whole it is not too bad. Ghibli's artstyle has transitioned more comfortably to 3D than Sidonia ever did.Would is be better in full 2D? Probably, but it is what it is.

    Some of the character design, like the harpies, is quite inspired.

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