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).


The characters in The Story of Perrine are a big part of what makes the show so compelling. Perrine stands out among fictional child characters in that her circumstances force her to grow up early and take on more adult responsibilities, but she does so with such willingness and care that it's very admirable. At the beginning of the story, Perrine and Marie are grieving over the recent passing of Perrine's father, Edmond, and there's an interesting reversal of the expected roles in this situation in that though Perrine is clearly saddened by her father's death, her mother ends up relying more on her for emotional support than the other way around. In general, Perrine and Marie's relationship is a very emotionally open and honest one, and that is quite refreshing to see among fictional characters.

The series takes place in the late 19th Century, and though for most part there are no explicit mentions of major historical events, the historical context is evident throughout the show. Perrine's parents are said to have gotten married in India (with Marie being of Anglo-Indian heritage), presumably at a time when India would have been a British colony and later fallen under crown rule. Indeed, Marie is established as knowing English and having been raised Catholic. On their journey, Perrine and Marie make a living by continuing Edmond's traveling photography business, and the rural European communities that the protagonists pass through are often unfamiliar with cameras or with the sari that Marie wears while working.

Most of the people that the protagonists encounter during their travels only appear for one or two episodes. However, there is one character who accompanies them for a good stretch of their journey, and that is the little boy Marcel. When he first appears, Marcel has run away from his aunt's home to try and reunite with his parents, who operate a traveling circus, so Marie offers to help him catch up with them. I remembered Marcel from my childhood memories of watching the show, but I don't think I appreciated his character as much as I do now. He could have easily been written as an ungrateful brat who did little more besides getting into mischief, but he instead expresses genuine gratitude towards Perrine and her family, and the friendship he develops with them feels very organic. There are a couple times when Perrine meets up with Marcel again after they initially part ways, and these are among the happiest moments in the series.

Another memorable arc from the early part of the series comes when Perrine and Marie are antagonized by another pair of traveling photographers, who view them as business rivals. Perrine is quick to respond to them in kind, but Marie admonishes her and tries to get her to empathize with the other photographers' perspectives. When the rival photographers are caught trying to steal Marie's camera, Marie defuses the situation by passing it off as a misunderstanding, and her show of compassion is enough to inspire a change of heart in the other photographers. Of course, real life conflicts cannot always be resolved in this manner, but sometimes they can, and the lesson that one should give kindness before they receive it is certainly one that has a lasting presence in the rest of the story.

I remembered this subplot pretty well from my childhood, but I'd forgotten just how sassy Perrine could be. Damn.

Subsequently, Perrine and Marie reach Paris, and here the story delivers its biggest emotional punch up to this point. Marie is shown early on in the series to be in poor health, and over the course of their travels her condition deteriorates until she is no longer able to continue working, such that the family is forced to sell nearly all of their belongings (including Palikare). Ultimately, Marie passes away from her illness, though not before dispensing a few final words of wisdom and reassurance to a devastated Perrine. (Knowing that this was coming, there were more than a few moments in the preceding episodes that came across to me as ominous foreshadowing.)

Apparently, the original novel that the show was based on began around this point, with Perrine and Marie's arrival in Paris, and I've seen commenters suggest skipping to this part of the show as to better follow the source material. I'm admittedly biased due to having grown up watching the series, but that is not a recommendation I can get behind. I doubt that Marie's death scene would have been nearly as impactful without the previous 20 or so episodes of getting to know her character and her relationship with Perrine.

The Paris storyline at least ends on a bittersweet note, as Marcel (whose parents' circus is performing in the city at the time) and Perrine's neighbors all sympathize with Perrine and share in her grief. Several of them, even the innkeeper (who'd originally seemed greedy and standoffish), go as far as to offer to take Perrine in if her life with her grandfather does not work out. The way that Perrine finds an emotional support network and a found family of sorts in these people is very sweet.

This guy had wanted to charge her for almost everything when they first met.

However, I found that the next stretch of the show was probably one of the hardest parts for me to watch. As Perrine continues her journey on foot with only Baron for company, she gets swindled out of her money by a dishonest baker. I remember this scene being upsetting even as a child, given that this is perhaps the only time in the series that Perrine encounters someone who is actively malicious and probably sees her as nothing more than a victim to be taken advantage of.

Perrine does get her money back with the help of some local farmers, but over the course of the next few episodes, her cash and supplies gradually run out, she is forced to travel in the summer heat, and she sleeps exposed to the elements at night, which leads to her coming down with a sickness that nearly kills her. It's a lot for anyone to go through, let alone a 13-year-old child. The scenes where Baron runs off desperately trying to find help are anxiety-inducing, and the moment that Perrine finally gets rescued comes as a big relief.

Perrine's arrival in her grandfather Vulfran's hometown of Maraucourt (which, in real life, apparently no longer exists under that name) kicks off the remainder of the series. Having been warned by her mother that Vulfran had opposed Marie and Edmond's marriage and may not welcome her with open arms, Perrine introduces herself to locals under a fake name, Aurelie, and starts work as a manual laborer at Vulfran's gigantic textile factory.

Finding that the dirty, cramped workers' dormitories are not to her liking, Perrine ends up living in a hunters' hut in the woods (which is otherwise unused at this time of year). This is another particularly interesting and memorable story arc, and it's one in which Perrine's ingenuity comes to the fore, as she saves money by making her own shoes, clothing, and tools from resources she gathers in the woods and cheap supplies she buys from shops. She also prepares her own meals from the fish she catches and the edible plants she collects, even inviting her friends over for lunch in one episode.

Perrine discovering the hunters' hut (center), making her own shoes (top left), showing off a homemade fork (bottom left), catching a fish (top right), and hosting her friends (bottom right).

Much of the story at this point focuses on Perrine trying to connect with her grandfather without revealing her identity to him. Her big break comes when the factory is in need of an interpreter for some visiting English businessmen, and Perrine is the only English-speaking employee who happens to be available. (There's an interesting sequence here in which Perrine and the English visitors actually hold a conversation in English, while still being voiced by Japanese voice actors.)

Vulfran is very impressed by Perrine's work as an interpreter, so he also has her translate English letters and articles for him, and the two of them get the opportunity to know each other better. Despite Vulfran's reputation as a strict, cold man, he consistently treats Perrine with respect and sympathizes with her plight when he learns of her background and living conditions (while still remaining unaware that she is his granddaughter). Over time, he grows to rely on Perrine more and more, eventually appointing her as his personal secretary and even bringing her to live with him at his mansion.

This part of the series is a real emotional rollercoaster though. Not knowing of Edmond's death, Vulfran has been corresponding with contacts in India to try and determine his son's whereabouts, and when a letter from India brings up Edmond and Marie's marriage, Vulfran expresses disdain for Marie and indifference towards his grandchild. This of course hurts Perrine deeply, and she remains upset over it for most of the following episode. At the same time, she faces workplace bullying from the factory's head manager and from Vulfran's nephew, both of whom seek to inherit the factory for themselves and are very interested in the confidential documents that she has been handling for Vulfran. Watching the poor girl go through these experiences is pretty unpleasant.

The subtitles are relaying exposition from the narrator; Vulfran doesn't know Perrine's real name or the fact that she is his granddaughter yet. This moment is no less heartbreaking though. Also, Vulfran is blind, so he cannot see Perrine crying. Guess we should have mentioned that somewhere.

One of the most difficult and surprising subplots in the series occurs even later, however. When Vulfran eventually does learn of Edmond's passing, he gives his employees a day off to attend the funeral, but few of them show up. Fabry, the factory's engineer, explains to Perrine that the workers do not have much reason to care about their employer's loss, as Vulfran has done little to improve their working and living conditions. 

The poor conditions result in tragedy when a fire starts in a local daycare and kills some of the workers' children. The grief expressed by the parents and caretakers in this scene is quite possibly some of the rawest emotion ever shown in a children's series like this. Perrine convinces Vulfran to speak to the grieving workers, who are quick to give him an earful and pin the blame on him. Although Vulfran initially seems dismissive of the workers' accusations, he is clearly affected by the experience, and with further encouragement from Perrine (who recalls Marie's lessons on giving and receiving kindness), he ends up ordering the construction of new facilities to improve the welfare of his employees. It's a moving conclusion to a brilliant story arc.

The real emotional climax of the show though comes when Vulfran finally discovers that Perrine is his granddaughter. We'll say no more about it except that it is very, very satisfying. This is a series for which, even if we were given the opportunity to, we would probably change essentially nothing about. Although we've highlighted many moments in the show that are rough to watch, none of them are overly traumatic, and they really serve to make the emotional payoff to the story even more spectacular. If there were officially designated poster children for the "Earn Your Happy Ending" trope, Perrine should be one of them.

The balance struck in Perrine's characterization throughout the series is interesting, because she is established early on as being very wise and mature for her age while still coming across believably as a child. The period of time that she lives in the hunters' hut is a great show of her resourcefulness, but it could also be viewed as an expression of child-like creativity. An adult in Perrine's place might not have been so quick to see the hut as a potential home, whereas having a secret hideout in the woods would probably be a dream come true for many children. 

These different facets of Perrine's character are also seen in her role as Vulfran's secretary. She ends up being offered this important position by proving to be mature and dependable, yet at the same time her motivations for helping Vulfran come from a very innocent and child-like desire to be loved and accepted by her grandfather. Some of my favorite scenes in the show occur near the end of the series, when Perrine is shown playing with Baron in the courtyard of Vulfran's mansion. By then, she has become the trusted assistant and closest confidant to the owner of this huge factory, but she still takes the opportunity to play with her friends when she can. After everything she had gone through up to that point, she certainly deserved to goof around a bit and embrace being a child again.

Whether giving a pep-talk to her mother or frolicking in Vulfran's courtyard, Perrine is Perrine.

In the end, Perrine earns her happy ending by being clever and resourceful, yes, but also by being kind and by receiving help from others. Ironically, that makes this 13-year-old child a good character to look up to. After all, if she can strive to be a good person and help improve her community, what's to stop just about anyone else from doing so?

One occasionally encounters the perception that realism in fiction equates to gritty cynicism, but The Story of Perrine is one example where that is emphatically not the case. Although the narrative, setting, and characters are portrayed realistically, it also maintains a very humanistic and optimistic outlook throughout. It's a story where bad things can and do happen to good people, but it's also one where people can help each other overcome those bad things and furthermore, one where people can change themselves for the better.

One of the final shots in the show and the closing words from the narrator.

So I'm very happy to have rediscovered The Story of Perrine, and I think it deserves to be better known. That's certainly one of the reasons we wrote this long post and recorded a 4.5 hour podcast about it. Shortly after I finished rewatching the show, I also decided to draw some fan art of it as tribute. If you are at all familiar with my approach to fan art, well, you know how this works by now.

And if you've read all the way to this point without having watched The Story of Perrine, it probably goes without saying that we'd still highly encourage you to see it for yourself. It's a wonderful story and a truly positive light in the world.

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