Once upon a time, there was a Danish princess who was only a few blushing years away from coming of age. She had everything a young princess could possibly want… A loving family, the respect of the community, and the most beautiful singing voice in the entire kingdom… A voice that could put even the ancient sirens to shame. But as is normally the case in stories such as these, the princess was not satisfied with the luxurious life that’s been afforded to her… She wanted more, and only the very boundaries she’d been forbidden from crossing could grant it to her. Disobeying her father’s orders, she snuck past them. After a chance encounter with a dying prince, she made up her mind that the one thing she needed in life above all things was to live happily ever after by his side. But there was one problem… The prince was a human boy, like you or I. And the princess was a mermaid.
Now, before you start telling me that you’ve heard this story before, let me assure you that this is NOT the same classic tale that you grew up with… The one that showed you what it knew you wanted to see. Nay, this is a much darker version of the story… A version that’s based on the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. This is not a story of star crossed lovers overcoming the odds to find that elusive ever after that tempts our oldest heroes. Even the princess herself is two years younger than the scarlet-haired maiden you remember. This is a story of infatuation, of sacrifice, and of consequences. Should the princess fail to marry her prince before he winds up in the arms of another, she will not be shrunken down into a weed, but killed, and turned into the very sea foam that reflects the sunlight off of the waves. Will Marina obtain the same happy ending as Ariel, or will she find an outcome that’s more tragic and bittersweet?
Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid… Which I’ll be referring to by it’s Japanese title “Ningyo Hime” from now on, for the sake of my fingers… Was produced by legendary animation department of the legendary Japanese production studio, Toei. While I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, Ningyo Hime is by far the oldest anime of theirs that I’ve seen, since they didn’t put out the original Dragonball until 11 years later. Because I’m not entirely familiar with the animation of the time, and because dating must be taken into account, the over-all look of this particular anime is going to be very difficult to describe, but I can probably start by saying that in it’s time, compared to it’s contemporaries, Ningyo Hime was probably seen as being exceptionally good looking.
I can’t really say whether the animation quality at the time was a result of low budgets or just limited technology. I’d like to say it was a matter of budget, because of two factors: First, Ningyo Hime doesn’t look as good as Cyborg 009, which came out seven years prior(Looks a hell of a lot better than Speed Racer, though). Second, there’s a lot of restraint in the visual direction, as though the people producing it knew they couldn’t let their ambitions supersede their resources. I understand that the anime spectrum was a very different place back then, in a time when you had maybe twenty to thirty new titles coming out each year, as opposed to the several hundreds we get each year now, and people had to take their animation with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ningyo Hime has aged very poorly.
As I said before, this film showed a lot of restraint in it’s visual direction. This is probably it’s main saving grace in terms of aesthetic. On screen movement is kept to a minimum, with most motion relegated to repetitive cycles, and close-ups during any of the rarer scenes that require more fast, precise movement. That’s not to say these techniques aren’t noticeable, but they do help a great deal. What helps even more is that a lot of the backgrounds that the characters move across are shockingly beautiful. When Marina and her dolphin friend Fritz are swimming across the screen, it’s like they’re gliding across a watercolor canvas. When they breach the surface, the sense of depth and distance is stunning. The sparkling reflections of the sun and moon off of the waves convey a very lonely, yet serene feeling.
The color palette is a bit on the dull side, but if you’re watching the newer releases, everything still looks crisp and clear. The use of lighting is also very impressive, although you don’t really get the full effect outside of scenes taking place out on the ocean, above the surface. Of course, water is one of the most notoriously difficult things to animate, and I’ll have to reluctantly admit that the waves here look more like blue-green claymation than anything else. The character designs are firmly a product of their time, a sort of early shoujo aesthetic, where the only body parts that don’t look anatomically accurate are the character’s anime eyes, which are still only half as big as what most otaku are used to.
The music is also dated, but I actually quite enjoy listening to it. It’s made up of slow, pleasant tunes, played through with harps, pianos, and various wind instruments, and the original singer of the few song tracks has a perfect amount of wonder and whimsy in her voice. One thing I kind of have to knock it on is the way this music translated through to the dub. The opening credits song had all of it’s lyrics removed, leaving only the baseline and a few accompanying instruments of what used to be a really pretty song. They actually managed to rewrite the song from Marina’s graduation into English, but the dub singer just kind of mumbles her way through it, rendering it an incomprehensible mess.
And speaking of the dub… I am at a loss for words, which is exactly what I wish they had been. The title role of Marina was played by Canadian voice actress Kirsten Bishopric, who was about 20 or 21 when that movie was dubbed and released stateside, and she could not act her way out of an uncut-plastic soda ring. I know dubbing back in 1987 wasn’t on the same playing field that it is today, but since it was released on VHS in response to the popularity of the Disney version, you’d think they’d hire a main actress who doesn’t sound like a monotone Scarlet O’Hara. And her little Dolphin friend is played by, no joke, the same actresses little brother, Thor, who sounds like the only directions he was being given were “Speak really loudly into the microphone” and “Sound sad for this scene.”They both did go on to have long acting careers, fortunately, but Kirsten tragically passed in 2014 at the age of 55. The rest of the cast is more or less okay, considering the lack of screen time they got, but the dude playing the Prince Fjord, Ian Finlay, somehow has less personality than the guy who played Prince Eric, if you can believe it.
So, I don’t normally review anime movies. The last one I looked at was Oblivion Island, but I did that mostly in blow-by-blow format, and in retrospect, that review kinda sucked. I was able to talk about that movie’s ending without actually spoiling it, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that with Ningyo Hime. Of course, the movie is 40 years old, and the original story it’s based on is over 100 years old, so spoiling it would be a bit like telling someone how Romeo and Juliet ends… They probably already know, and if you heard about Ningyo Hime from someone before reading this review, then they probably already told you way too much… They probably told you that it features the original tragic ending that Andersen himself conceived so many years ago. That still doesn’t mean the story’s as well known as everything else in the public domain, so before I go any further, this is my warning: I am going to address the elephant in the room.
Marina dies at the end. I won’t tell you how it happens, or what circumstances led up to it, but she does not wind up with the prince, and she does not live happily ever after. Yes, Japan was killing mermaids long before Hayden Panettiere was around to try and save them. The little mermaid dies, which stands in stark contrast to the ending of the Disney version. I’ve seen plenty of reviewers talk about this, but both movies star an entitled teenage girl who doesn’t know how good she has it, and wants more out of life. There are arguments against the Disney version stating that Ariel learns nothing, but still gets exactly what she wants in the end, while the conclusion of the anime is a lot more honest and offers a better life lesson.
Ningyo Hime teaches impressionable young children that when you obsess over somebody based on infatuation, which you’ve basically mistaken for love at first sight, and are willing to give up on everything you have just to be with them, you are most likely heading down the road to disappointment. This is a very good point, and it underlines a very important life lesson that kids need to hear. I actually have two problems with it, though. The first is that if you look at the central conflict of both movies through a modern lens, you can draw the metaphor a little further. Ariel and Marina’s conflict is very similar to the issue of gender identity.
Notice, both of these characters were obsessed with the human world before meeting their princes, so it’s not hard to surmise that they both feel, deep down, that they were born in a way that they weren’t meant to be… Mermaids who were meant to be human, just like men who were meant to be women. When you shine that light on it, the plight of both girls begins to feel less selfish and more sympathetic. Sure, their lives may be perfect from an outsider’s perspective, but are they supposed to just bottle up who they truly are and just live a lie for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t the movie where the heroine gets to be who she was born to be and love who she wants to love feel so much more powerful, now?
And my other problem is, of course, going to lead to some bigger issues. Yes, Marina experienced a tragic end that takes the literal interpretation of Ariel’s conflict to it’s more logical conclusion, but a tragedy doesn’t feel deserved unless it was inevitable. It doesn’t feel right unless there was one damning flaw the hero possessed that ultimately led to them deserving to lose it all. And I hate to say it, but Marina’s happy future was brought down by a talking cat.
I suppose in some way we’re supposed to believe that the cat is the sea witch in disguise, but that doesn’t make any sense. First of all, the witch has nothing to gain by sabotaging her client. She already has her voice, and she doesn’t seem to hate Marina at all. There is no indication that she stands to gain anything, tangible or otherwise, from the devastation of the royal family. Secondly, She’s not portrayed as being evil in this version. She’s shrewd, and she controls storms, but she seems like more of a force of nature than a villain. No, the true villain of this story is a talking cat who hates Marina, wants to see her suffer, and is able to talk to Fjord’s parents without either of them saying “Holy shit, that cat just spoke to us!”
And I’m sorry, but that’s just an example of how badly written this movie is. People complain that the Disney version brought a happy ending into the mix, but they also brought quaint little things like pacing, intricate plot points and actual characterizations. Much like the cat, most of Ningyo Hime’s meager cast of characters barely get any screen-time, being introduced to perform a role and than disappearing for the rest of the film. The perfect examples of this would be Fritz’s whale uncle(Not blood related, I’m guessing? He’s more of an uncle in a ‘family friend’ sort of way?), and the guy with the weird nose that probably died after Fjord’s ship went under. Even Marina’s Dad and her romantic rival are given bit parts, and the Disney version had much more expansive roles for them! Marina’s sisters fare a little better, but there’s eight of them, and the perform a role that would have been satisfactory had ONE side character performed it.
In a well written story, people and events that occur to further the plot aren’t just thrown away after they’ve served their purpose. Everything comes back in some way, even if it’s just in reference, or a punch-line that reveals what happened earlier as being a set-up. You can’t just resolve an issue by creating a character who can solve it and then dropping them afterwards. Take, for example, School Rumble… There are several sight gags that you think are just going to be forgotten afterwards, like Harima accidentally confessing his love to the wrong girl or turning into a monk with an entourage of zoo animals, that wound up becoming running gags and important plot points later on. Ningyo Hime is terrible about this, and it’s just as bad about weaving the characters it does have into an intricate plot. There are so many things that happened in Ningyo Hime… The wolf attack scene, in particular… That, if you didn’t see them, you wouldn’t notice anything was missing. I’m not going to say it was a bad movie, but the execution was terrible, and it desperately needed to be updated for new audiences. The Disney version did exactly that, which is why I really don’t mind the very real possibility that it ripped off the anime. Honestly, stealing from an existing source isn’t such a bad thing if you do something new with it and fix a lot of it’s problems.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is available in several different formats. It was originally released in VHS form, and to address another elephant in the room, yes, the mermaids were all topless in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for a stateside release, it did make the G rating a little misleading. A DVD release was eventually put out by UAV Corporation, but it’s so heavily and sloppily edited that it can hardly be considered the same movie. Seriously, they just took every appearance of bare breasts or blood and chopped them out of the film, regardless of whatever snippet of music or dialogue they were losing. Finally, last year, Discotek Media released the full film, uncut and beautifully restored, with a much more appropriate note of “Not rated” on the back. A twenty-six episode TV anime was released in the early nineties, but I haven’t seen it, so I have nothing to say. The Disney version is also available… Well, pretty much everywhere.
In it’s time, Ningyo Hime was deservedly a big deal, and I won’t take that away from it. It’s a significant entry in the history of the medium, and it’s probably the most accurate portrayal of Andersen’s original story that we’re ever going to see. It’s worth checking out at least once, but it’s not worth holding up on a pedestal. Whether you’re looking at its story from a literal or metaphorical perspective will determine whether it’s message is important one about discretion and self-control or a severely outdated one about ignoring your true self for the greater good. If all you want is to see the original dark ending to a story that inspired the Disney classic, or even if you just want to see a 14 year old anime girl’s bare breasts, then this movie is for you. As for the rest of us, it’s a significant film that should be experienced, but not celebrated. I give Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid a 5/10.