This is the beginning of NerdSpan’s coverage of Amazon’s acquisition of Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, the Studio Ghibli TV show that has already received an International Emmy and an Asian Television Award. Spoilers follow, so if you want to go into the English dub of Ronja spoiler-free, please bookmark this page and come back after you’ve watched it. Ronja arrives on Amazon this Friday, January 27th, 2017, and you can find Amazon’s dedicated page for the show through this hyperlink.
The format of these posts will feature a recap and spoilers at the beginning, to be followed by points of commentary.
S1E1 “Born in the Storm” Recap / Spoilers
When a merchant caravan stops at a ram’s skull marking the middle of the road, masked bandits swinging from ropes dispatch the merchants’ guards, and when the bandit chief rides up to demand the cargo, the merchants lead the bandits on a lively chase. During the pursuit, we see that there are two bands of thieves trying to work these merchants, and their chiefs, from horseback, have a heated argument until interrupted by the approach of another rider, who shouts, “Chief, quick, it’s serious!”
Cut to shrieking harpies circling a mountain fort. While it’s sunny, the white clouds are streaked with black streamers, and thunder crackles over Chief Mattis as he rides home.
Mattis dismounts and runs into the fort, where he asks Noddle-Pete, a white haired old man that rubs dice in his hands, where Lovis is, to which Noddle-Pete responds that “she’s upstairs; where else would she be?”
After running up tower steps, Mattis breaks in the door, where his wife, eating a sandwich, pauses mid-mouthful to tell him that “the baby will come when it is ready to come.” Those who can remember being first-time fathers know that the day’s arrival can unhinge you, and the depiction of Mattis’s anxiety–forgetting even where he lives with his pregnant wife in his own fort, followed by breaking in their door–seems somewhat honest, if an over the top depiction of the expectant father trope.
Night falls, and as Lovis’s contractions come closer, the storm settles in on the fort, and the harpies’ maddening cackling echo on the mountain. Lovis begs Mattis to drive the harpies away; “let me have some quiet so I can sing…the baby would be all the joyer if it arrived on Earth to the sound of a song.”
From a wooden battlement atop the tower, Mattis shoots arrows at the harpies, and drives them off one by one, but one of the harpies lands, to say “So we’re out for a spot of hunting are we? Tonight. when you should be inside having your baby? A baby of storms? Ugly as thunder!” Mattis looses an arrow at the taunting harpy and misses, but the skies above the castle are finally harpy-free.
Lovis sings her song “Wild Wolf, Please,” the first stanza of which goes like this “Wild wolf, please / leave us be / I know you’re prowling / out from the forest / to come steal from me / I know your pain / cooked hungry again / but you won’t take mine from me.” The second stanza of the song is over-talked when the scene changes to the dining hall, and as the review copy we received from Amazon has no subtitles, I can only tell you that it begins “Wild wolf, please / why don’t you feed / on the scraps that I leave you…”
The robbers in their dining hall lay bets on whether Lovis will bear a boy or a girl. Noddle Pete says that his robbing days are over, that he’s old, and that he’d “like to meet the baby before he’s through, which could be any moment.”
Mattis enters with tears in his eyes, and says “I’m a father,” before spinning around the dining hall. “Happiness and joy! It’s a girl.” Lovis descends the steps, and Mattis says “Now my friends, behold a robber’s daughter.” Lovis introduces her as Ronja.
When Noddle-Pete holds Ronja, he is a little too carefree to suit Mattis, who seizes her back, and snarls at him. “Mattis’s daughter is our finest treasure,” shout the other robbers, and there is a joyous celebration, with dancing, music, and drinking.
In a later conversation between Mattis and Noddle-Pete, Mattis says that his rival, Borka, will be sick with jealousy and gnashing his teeth. Noddle-Pete adds that “there’ll be such a gnashing that all the wild harpies and great wolves in the woods will be howling their ears.”
Mattis agrees, saying “That’s right! The pitiful Borka tree bears no fruit. He’s falling down! I say timber to his family tree!” A harpy, in the stormy winds above, acts as if she hears it, and laughs along until a lightning bolt rends Mattis’s fort. Noddle-Pete falls over, a chest falls on some robbers, and Ronja starts crying.
“it’s like a demon struck a direct hit on this fort,” says Noddle-Pete.
The next morning, they find that the lightning strike split the castle, and now a chasm separates the two sides. “We should call it Hell’s Gap,” says one of the robbers.
Mattis is angry, but begins smiling, saying “it could be worse,” and he reminisces with Noddle-Pete about the time the older bandit was lost in the fort’s vaults for four days.
“This place is too big for us anyways,” says Mattis. “There’s just one thing,” he says, laughing.
“Chief!” exclaims one of his man, who is holding himself as if he has to relieve himself, “the outhouse is on the other side!” And comically, as they watch, the outhouse falls into Hell’s Gap.
The episode ends on this comic note, and the narrator wraps it up with the following: “And so, a new life was welcomed into the Mattis clan…Ronja was her name…Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter.”
S1E1 “Born in the Storm” Commentary
In Defense of Originitis
I expect the word or concept of originitis to arise in other reviews of Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter. To wit, those of you who dislike origin stories will not be happy about the first episode of Ronja The Robber’s Daughter, as our heroine doesn’t begin her story with a pivotal moment, but with her arrival as an infant. In fact, aside from the intro and outro, the titular character appears only as a swaddled infant in “Born in the Storm.” I’ve always enjoyed origin stories and slow builds–a one hour origin recap precedes the boots, briefs, and cape in Superman the Movie, one of my favorite films–and stronger characters often result from the introduction of their parents (one of many reasons why I prefer Spock to Kirk in ST TOS, as we get to meet Sarek and Amanda), and I enjoy both origin stories and chapters that bring the protagonists’ parents into view. In fact, I find the current critical environment of contempt for origin stories overly contentious. Sure, Superman and Spider-Man’s origin stories have had their day, and don’t need a redo at this point, but Ronja deserves this rich origin story.
A Note on Genre
In terms of genre, so far Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is a Low Fantasy, with many medieval contributions such as castles and mandolins, and a few contributions from mythology and fantasy literature, such as harpies, and the thread of fate woven through Ronja’s story–substantial enough for the harpies to observe and to make saucy commentary and predictions based upon it.
A Note on the Soundtrack
Apart from the animation, the first thing that Ghibli fans will notice is the absence of legendary Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. Fortunately, while the English-language intro is saccharine and Disneyfied, Satoshi Takebe’s instrumental score is quite good, with humorous riffs and jazzy trombone. Only a few minutes into the first episode a chase scene is kicked off with a few bars that could have been lifted from Benny Hill, and I laughed a little bit at that.
The Last Days of Ghibli Return to Their Rankin Bass Roots
Even before the arrival of the harpy, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter strongly reminded me of The Last Unicorn–a film many consider to be proto-Ghibli, as when The Last Unicorn’s animation studio, Rankin Bass, shut its doors, many of its animators went to work for Ghibli. Like The Last Unicorn, the character designs in Ronja have slightly out of scale heads, the better to display facial expression, and the color palettes between the two also have some points of comparison. There is also a similar attention to character movement in the two, and in both, you will see that they show humans not in continuous, frenetic, motion—a weakness of many animations, that are trying to capture an excitement in action that undermines the reality of the characters taking the actions—but in a default state of rest that is periodically interrupted by bursts of movement, which makes the characters seem more human.
Compared to other Studio Ghibli works, Ronja also resembles the 3D CG gaming aesthetic of the cut scenes in Ni No Kuni more than My Neighbor Totoro. It may be that the influx of 3D CG has caused the style to move back to its nascent roots in Rankin Bass, where the oversized heads of some characters had a root in stop motion puppetry. Puppetry also is a kind of performance in which you see stillness periodically interrupted by bursts of movement.