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Maeterlinck's Blue Bird (Office Academy, 1980)
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Added 6/1/2011
Updated 1/11/2013
This Office Academy production ran in 26 episodes in 1980. Titled in full Maeterlinck's Blue Bird: Tyltyl and Mytyl's Adventurous Journey (メーテルリンクの青い鳥 チルチルミチルの冒険旅行, Maeterlinck no Aoi Tori: Tyltyl Mytyl no Bōken Ryokō), it is a free adaptation and expansion on Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic children’s play. Its central characters, seen in the image above and in the link below, are the siblings Tyltyl and Mytyl, plus their half-humanized pets, the dog Tylô and the cat Tylette.

Character design was provided by Leiji Matsumoto, already famous for his Space Battleship Yamato sagas (1974+), which were likewise produced by Office Academy. (Most of the voice actors for this series were members of the Yamato cast.) Matsumoto also was the creator of the Space Pirate Captain Harlock manga series (1977-79), which had become a successful anime and was continuing to inspire its own series of spin-off movies and OVAs. The overall animation director for Blue Birdwas Toyoo Ashida, who had served in the same capacity for the Space Battleship Yamato movie (1977) and later was overall animation director for Fist of the North Star (1984+) and the Vampire Hunter D OVA (1985).

The Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck won literary fame in the 1890s with dark, heavily symbolic dramas emphasizing man’s helplessness in the hands of impersonal forces. After a period of mental depression, however, he worked his way back to health through a more optimistic series of works that reaffirmed the value of simple joys and family ties. Of these The Blue Bird (1908) was the most successful. It was crucial in winning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.

The gist of the original plot is that a pair of poor children, envious of their rich neighbors, is visited by a fairy on Christmas Eve. She uses magic to let them travel through a series of allegorical tableaux in search of an otherworldly "blue bird of happiness," which they never find. However, what they learn in their travels makes them realize that the love their parents give them and their own willingness to share what they have are the true sources of happiness. Returning home, they find that the pet dove they keep in a cage has turned blue, and they give it to a sick child who lives nearby. This restores the child’s will to live, but the bird accidentally gets away, which ends the drama on a bittersweet note for the children, though of course it is a very happy ending for the poor caged bird.

The narrative remains a respected and popular children’s story in Europe, but for English-speaking audiences it is less familiar. Paradoxically, the anime is the only really successful modern adaptation of Maeterlinck’s fantasy, outside of the original play, which is still staged from time to time. A Japanese audience would find the non-Christian rethinking of the spiritual realm engaging. (Maeterlinck, a freethinking socialist, denounced Catholic dogma so vocally that the Vatican placed his entire works, including The Blue Bird, on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum.) And the way in which the four elements, plus homely objects like milk, bread, and sugar, are given "spirits" and become "The Fire," "The Water," "The Sugar," etc., would also make sense to Asian viewers. (Mmmmm ... I sense the Presence of Clow Reed!)

Taking the rather static "tableaux" of the original and expanding them to a more event-filled adventurous journey also seems a change for the better. The Night, a rather timorous curator of ineffective boogies in the original play, becomes in the anime "The Queen of the Night," a major series villain. Tyltyl in fact gets to fight a duel with her (with a sword! just like Peter Pan and Captain Hook!) in order to fulfill a quest for the remedy that will restore his dangerously ill mother to health.

Here I’m sensing the Presence of Hayao Miyazaki, who in 1980 had just finished work on Anne of Green Gables and The Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki surely must have followed the "adventurous journey" of Tyltyl and Mytyl to heal their sick mother. My Neighbor Totoro, still eight years in the future, contains a similar story arc, and Spirited Away, even farther in the future, is another adventurous journey by the plucky Chihiro on behalf of her parents that climaxes in an intellectual duel with a powerful witch antagonist. It’s intriguing that the flamboyant Japanese drag queen Akihiro Miwa was tapped in 1980 as the voice actor for the evil Queen of the Night in Blue Bird AND (nearly a quarter of a century later) also voiced the Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle. (Miwa also did Moro in Princess Mononoke.)

A second paradox is that Italy, the home of Catholicism, has become the Western culture that has taken the anime version most to its heart. First dubbed and broadcast in 1983 as L’Uccellino Azzurro, the series was successfully revived in 2007 on cable TV for a new generation. A huge hit, the Italian dub was rebroadcast by popular demand, then issued on DVD. According to Anime News Network, it is still in syndication on kids’ TV in Italy and other regions of Europe. (I gather there is even a Polish dub.) The Italian Wikipedia entry is the most complete and accessible online source of information on this series. And T.H.E.M Anime Reviews has an interesting review based on a raw Japanese VHS tape. Clips of the OP and ED sequences, in both Japanese and Italian versions, pop up often on YouTube, and with a little hacking you can sometimes locate a site that will allow you to watch streaming video of complete episodes in dubbed Italian.

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Gallery Created: 8/3/2002
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