Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Long Road to Happiness: The Story of Perrine

This post was co-written by Joan Turmelle. The use of "I" in this post refers to myself (Albertonykus), whereas "we" refers to both co-authors. A version of this post has been cross-posted to my Tumblr blog.

What's this? More than seven months without a new post, and I come back with one that's not about dinosaurs? And it's not even April 1st?! Well, I already had a different subject in mind for April 1st of next year, and I think that this post could be of potential interest to some people who might be looking for TV series to binge over the holidays, especially in these pandemic times. I also just completed a draft of an entire PhD thesis on dinosaur evolution, so I hope that even I can be forgiven for spending a little time not thinking about dinosaurs (and, believe me, it's not often that I do so). Besides, I'll be back soon enough in January with the usual reviews of the past year in maniraptoran discoveries; you won't have to wait long for more dinosaur content on this blog.

Over the last few months, I have not had much time to devote to anything other than my thesis, but taking breaks is supposed to be healthy, even for—uh, especially for final-year PhD students. And so it happened that on some of these breaks I was inspired to revisit a series I hadn't watched since my childhood, The Story of Perrine. I remember enjoying it as a child (which in hindsight is surprising in some ways), but having rewatched it recently, I'd go as far as to say that it may now be one of my favorite shows of all time.

The Story of Perrine originally aired in 1978 and was based on the 1893 French novel En Famille by Hector Malot (which has been translated into English as Nobody's Girl or The Story of Perrine). It is one of the entries in World Masterpiece Theater, a series of animated Japanese adaptations of classic children's literature. The story follows a 13-year-old girl, Perrine, as she travels across Europe with her mother Marie (who for some reason is almost always left out of promotional posters for the show), their dog Baron, and their donkey Palikare to see Perrine's paternal grandfather in France, who none of them have met before.

This anime was never dubbed into English and accordingly appears to be pretty obscure in the English-speaking world. The version that I knew as a child was the DVD release of the Mandarin dub that had aired in Taiwan (where my parents grew up). Fortunately, as of the time of writing, the original Japanese dub is available on YouTube with fan-made English subtitles, and it was through this version that I revisited the show earlier in the year.

One of the reasons I'm surprised that I sat through this series when I was little is that it's slow paced and has a very tranquil atmosphere. It's certainly not a show with constant action or epic magical quests. At the same time, it's telling a continuous narrative with strong continuity and consistent character development. The stakes in the show are rooted in the magic of reality: the way one can find joy or laughter or sorrow or great lessons even in everyday life, and how that appreciation for the mundane can be its own magic. It's a type of storytelling that I haven't seen in many other fiction shows. 

Cover art for the series soundtrack. As you can see, Marie has been left out of this one as well.

The closest comparison that comes to mind may be the Netflix animated series Hilda, which we also adore. Both shows are wholesome, down-to-earth, and sometimes very emotional series that feature precocious young girl protagonists being raised by single mothers. Other good comparisons might be the Studio Ghibli films Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. Unlike Hilda and the aforementioned Ghibli films, however, The Story of Perrine has essentially no fantasy elements at all. It really is more or less realistic fiction, such that one could probably re-enact almost everything that occurs in the series if circumstances were right. It also arguably gets a bit darker than Hilda, with permanent character deaths that are taken dead seriously. There are parts of the series that get pretty sad and bleak, though the story does ultimately have a happy ending.

The Story of Perrine was produced not long after the characteristic anime art style was popularized in the 1960s, and in some ways its character design actually deviates a bit from the "standard" anime style that is familiar nowadays. Its age shows from a technical perspective; though it evidently had the appropriate budget to portray the story as intended, there are definitely noticeable inconsistencies in the animation here and there. Even so, they are more fun things to point out instead of strong criticisms, and most certainly do not make the show any less compelling. Also amusing from a modern standpoint are the previews that play at the end of each episode, which tend to give away most of the plot of the subsequent episode—presumably symptomatic of a time without on-demand streaming services, meaning that missing entire episodes was a real possibility for viewers.

What follows are some of our thoughts on specific storylines and themes from the show. If you are at all interested in seeing The Story of Perrine for yourself, we strongly recommend that you stop reading at this point and just start watching. We would even advise against looking up anything else about the show, because nearly all the English summaries we've seen give away major events in the series. Additionally, if you'd prefer to get our thoughts in podcast form instead (along with a more detailed plot recap of the series), you can check out the review we did for our YouTube channel Through Time and Clades (embedded below).