Wait, Isao Takahata’s Anne of Green Gables anime series was dubbed into English?
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is probably one of, if not the best, known Canadian novels of all time. With over 50 million copies sold since its initial 1908 publication, and countless adaptations, it’s not too difficult to stumble upon some version of the stern Marilla and meek Matthew Cuthbert being charmed by the antics of a spirited redheaded orphan. In fact, Canadian television is currently in the midst of a battle of the Annes, with two separate live action adaptations running. First is a trilogy of movies, which began last summer, produced for YTV by Breakthrough in co-operation with Montgomery’s estate. The second is CBC’s attempt to rekindle the monumental success of their earlier Anne adaptations by Sullivan Entertainment, with a new series produced by Northwood Entertainment with some assistance from Netflix, that started airing last month.
Anne of Green Gables isn’t a story that only found an audience at home. Japanese tourists have regularly flocked to Prince Edward Island to visit Anne’s “home,” and in 2014, an NHK drama based on the life of Anne’s Japanese translator helped boost the province’s tourism. The original novel became a part of the Japanese education curriculum in 1952, but really took off in 1979 when it inspired the Akage no An/Red-Haired Anne anime series. Produced by Nippon Animation as part of their classic literature based World Masterpiece Theatre block, and the first aired under that exact branding, the 50-episode show was directed and written by Isao Takahata. If the name isn’t immediately familiar, Takahata would later start Studio Ghibli with Anne layout artist Hayao Miyazaki, where they’d create the likes of Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. With talent like that, it’s no surprise that this adaptation became one of the most beloved entries in the World Masterpiece Theatre lineup. Currently, the final series in the WMT is Konnichiwa Anne: Before Green Gables, a 2008-2009 39-episode adaptation of the Anne prequel novel. The Japanese fascination with Anne is being monitored by the Anne of Japan documentary.
It’s always surprised me that neither anime series made it to English Canada. They seem like the kind of thing that would’ve been perfectly suited to a CBC or TVO children’s block. In fact, the latter aired Sullivan’s animated series and other World Masterpiece Theatre adaptations. Even the French CBC, Radio-Canada, aired a version by the Montreal-based Cinelume in the 1980s. No reason for anime Anne’s absence in English Canada has ever been given, but I can’t help but think there might have been some legal shenanigans. The novels only went into public domain in the early 90s (Montgomery’s estate is trying to hide that), which might have something to do with it. Perhaps Sullivan was granted exclusive adaptation rights in English Canada? I’m not sure we’ll ever find out!
A little over a year ago, I found myself watching an episode of Takahata’s Anne … in English. Wait, what? The entire series – dubbed into English under its Anne of Green Gables name – was uploaded without broadcaster watermarks and immense tape damage to some unassuming retro children’s Youtube channel. The credits didn’t offer much help, with no actors listed and the attached recording studio receiving very few hits on Google. I remember searching the theme song’s composer and finding out he was Austrian. Shortly after, the channel that uploaded the episodes got taken down by copyright strikes. I guess that’s the end of that. Since there’s no record of an English version ever happening, maybe it was just a fan production pulling in footage from some foreign release?
The promo campaign for CBC’s new Anne series rekindled my interest in this curiosity. Turns out, it wasn’t that difficult to find. With a string of words, Google image search presented me a Youtube title card that looked remarkably similar to the one on that deleted video. Maybe it was just some lingering data? Then I clicked the link and got a message that this video wasn’t taken down, it’s just not available in my region (don’t worry, Canada isn’t alone). Oh. After easily evading Youtube’s geoblock, I was able to see it. Sure enough, that’s the same dub. All 50 episodes of it have been up since April 2016. Well, not exactly. For reasons unknown, episode 17 is missing.
Where did the uploader get it from? The first thing that caught my eye was that the channel it was on, Kids TV English (rolls right off the tongue), had a verified checkmark. Turns out the video didn’t look completely terrible (there is some damage apparent) or have any broadcast bugs on it was because this is an official upload. Also turns out that Youtube’s copyright bots will still go after those that own the rights to things. Anyway, the channel is managed by Kontor New Media on behalf of the German office of the Belgian company Studio 100 – perhaps best known for their recent CG adaptations of Heidi, Vic the Viking, Nils Holgersson and Maya the Bee. In 2008, the company bought the children’s business of Germany’s EM Entertainment, which granted them access to a host of 1970s Nippon Animation anime, including Heidi, Vicky the Viking, Nils Holgersson, Maya the Bee, and of course, Anne of Green Gables. However, as many of these shows have broadcasting histories in Germany dating back the 80s and EM was only founded in the 90s, they clearly weren’t involved from day-1. EM acquired a catalog of content from KirchGroup in 1996. They were a German business that once provided programming to ZDF, one of the country’s public broadcasters, which ran most of the aforementioned Nippon Animation productions. I suspect Kirch were the ones distributing these shows initially, but it’s difficult to verify something so insignificant that happened 30 years ago in a language you don’t understand.
So, that’s the nitty gritty on how I found it and who owns it, but what about the dub itself? Would it surprise you to know it was produced in South Africa? During the period between the late 1970s and the fall of the Apartheid in the 1990s, the country’s national broadcaster, SABC, was ferociously dubbing foreign content into local languages to feed its three channels. Regulations strictly prohibited programming featuring British actors, which also encouraged local voice over work. One of the shows SABC had dubbed was Anne of Green Gables. Speaking to some of the translators and dubbing directors on the series, Anne was an oddity. The team, and the broadcaster in general, mostly translated shows into Afrikaans, yet here was Anne, seemingly only available in English (SABC would often offer alternate language tracks via radio broadcasts, so it’s difficult to say they only produced one version). This dub, which was recorded at the Johannesburg-based Leephy Studios, was derived from the German version (I suspect that’s the case with most dubs of Takahata’s Anne, as many use the German theme song’s background track rather than the Japanese one), which narrows production to the late 1980s to early 1990s. Interestingly, the dub wasn’t limited to South Africa either, as it also aired on JET TV in Asia in 1998. It may have even wound up elsewhere before its online unearthing.
The actors? Well, it was SABC policy to not credit actors in their dubbing productions. However, I have learned that Anne was played by Belinda Richardson Fraser. Ron Smerczak was Matthew Cuthbert, while Diane Appleby held the role of his sister Marilla. The narrator was played by the late James White.
A Canadian novel adapted into a Japanese animated series licensed by the German branch of a Belgian company was brought into English by a crew in South Africa. Sometimes the world sure feels small. Then you’re hit with a region restricted online video.
A tremendous thank you to Richard van der Westhuizen, Tom Learmont, Kobus Geldenhuys and Amor Tredoux for taking the time to make this post possible.
While the World Masterpiece Theatre block ended with Before Green Gables, Nippon Animation has continued to animate literary icons. For their 40th Anniversary, the studio produced a trio of Sinbad animated films released between 2015 and 2016. Why is that at all relevant? Well, coincidentally, the movies were released on Amazon Prime (unfortunately, just on the US site) last Thursday with both an English subtitle track and a dub. The films were dubbed into English by Ocean Media using their Vancouver and Calgary studios.
Did you know that Ocean dubbed the only World Masterpiece Theatre entry that wasn’t an adaptation? I haven’t been able to find out where Tico of the Seven Seas/Tico and Friends aired in the west, but the entire English dub is available on the Canadian bilingual kids streaming service Oznoz. Based on the credits citing the usage of the WordFit system, I’m guessing it was produced in the mid-late 90s. Ocean even consulted the Vancouver aquarium for help!
How about I end off this lengthy post with a challenge to readers? Do you know of any World Masterpiece Theatre series that aired in Canada? Quebec has seen at least Anne of Green Gables, Nils Holgersson, Jacky and Jill: The Big Bear of Tallac, and Fables of the Green Forest. The latter made an appearance on TVO (and allegedly, YTV with a separate dub), as did The Bush Baby, an adaptation of a 1965 novel by Canadian writer William Stevenson. The English dub, which was supposedly produced by Cinelume and also aired on Access Alberta, became a hot topic on the /r/anime subreddit with over 5000 upvotes after one of Stevenson’s grandchildren asked about it (the English version has no home video release and zero clips online) last October. Seeing that their French equivalent was streaming some WMT shows (linked above), I asked TVO if there was any chance they could do the same. They told me they never aired The Bush Baby, which led me to dig up a TV schedule from 1994. Wait a minute, Heidi on TVO in a 30-minute slot in 1994? The only thing I can find that would fit that description is Isao Takahata’s Heidi WMT series …