With two red braids hanging from her straw hat, Anne of Green Gables may just be the most recognisable ginger-haired girl in the world. But in Japan, the orphan from Prince Edward Island is more than just a quaint Canadian import – she’s a national heroine.
Every once in a while I hear from someone who would like to know how the documentary is going. Each time this happens I feel compelled to answer that everything is fine, kind of like when someone asks you how you’re doing. And then every once in a while I’m asked, as one of a handful of people in the world who might be considered a “subject matter expert” on the topic of the Japanese fascination with Anne of Green Gables, to contribute an opinion for a media story, as happened a few days ago for an article written up by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation entitled “Abandoned Avonlea: Anne theme park in Japan now like a ghost town”.
It’s at moments like these that I remember that I still have to account for a long period of what must seem like inactivity to the relatively small number of people waiting to see a finished documentary called “Anne of Japan”.
The good news is that the film is nearly finished. All of the footage is shot, both on Prince Edward Island and in Japan. The jigsaw puzzle pieces are all there, a few of them still in the box, and most of them are assembled into something that looks like a picture.
The bad news is also that the film is nearly finished. The cliché phrase used by filmmakers is “hurry up and wait”. When it’s time to work, the work is quick and hectic with very little time to think twice about the actual physical process of making a film. And then there are the extremely long and frustrating times when you just have to wait. The waiting happens basically as a result of needing to clear the next obstacle standing in front of the film, usually involving payment for some element that’s out of the filmmaker’s control, such as licensing fees, music, or translating Japanese to English.
There aren’t that many remaining obstacles, however, which leads me to hope that the film can be finished and screened sometime before the end of 2017. This won’t be the first time I have given myself a deadline of “this year”, though, so we’ll just have to hope that luck is with us this time around.
I’ll try and provide more updates as progress is made, and hopefully we’ll be watching a finished documentary sooner than later. Thanks for your patience.
In 1939, a translator of children’s literature named Hanako Muraoka was given a book as a keepsake by a missionary friend from New Brunswick named Loretta Shaw. Miss Shaw left Japan just as hostilities erupted, and Hanako spent the duration of the Second World War reading the book and translating it into Japanese. English was now the language of the enemy, and so she conducted her work in secret, protecting the book from harm while bombs destroyed the cities and landscapes around her. On March 31 of this year, Japan’s national broadcaster NHK will begin airing a 156-episode “morning drama” serializing the life story of Hanako Muraoka, whose primary contribution to Japanese culture was her translation of Anne of Green Gables.
Anne of Green Gables is big in Japan. Growing up in Charlottetown, I began noticing increasing numbers of Japanese tourists year after year, but I had no idea why they came. One day, a friend of mine and I were stopped walking down the street by a group of Japanese tourists. Unable to communicate with us, they signaled that they’d like me to take their picture as they gathered around my friend. Like a lot of girls on Prince Edward Island, she had bright red hair. We walked away, puzzled and amused, and didn’t think much of it.
Last September, I found myself in Hokkaido, walking through a theme park called Canadian World. The park opened in 1993, during the heady boom times of Japanese economic prosperity. The park featured a lake alongside a row of Quebec City-style buildings and a miniature railroad that snaked around the lake, as well as a full-size reproduction of the Green Gables house in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Having walked through the original many times, I cannot communicate how strange it is to wander through a Japanese replica, alone.
At its peak during the mid-’90s, the park attracted up to 8,000 visitors a day, I was told by an ex-employee. In 1997, the Asian economic crisis emptied out the dozens of theme parks that had been sprouting up across Japan, as the supply of easy money suddenly ceased.
Last summer, 20 years after its opening, Canadian World was empty. There’s a groundskeeper who keeps the place in immaculate shape and also makes sure that the tinkly piano music that plays through loudspeakers strategically placed throughout the park never stops. Walking through the Green Gables house in Canadian World is a surreal experience. Strangely familiar, it’s like a dream in which you wake up alone in your hometown. You wander the streets and it never occurs to you to wonder where all the people went. The Green Gables house is immaculately preserved. Anne’s dress is laid out on her bed. The broken pieces of the slate she broke over Gilbert’s head are placed just so inside a doorway. It could not be stranger.
A touring Japanese-language version of the Anne of Green Gables musical had just wrapped up its nationwide swoop when I arrived in Tokyo. In an interview, Takashi Suzuki, CEO of the S.T. Corporation which finances the musical and the tour, described his childhood during World War II. Japan’s famously wooden architecture had been almost completely destroyed in the flames, as had his family’s library. Japan was devastated by the war. Hanako Muraoka’s Anne of Green Gables was published in 1952, by the Mikasa Shobo publishing house. Young Mr. Suzuki and his friends had nothing else to read. An older friend of his sister handed him a freshly published copy of Akage no An (“Red Haired Anne,” as she’s called in Japanese). Everyone read it. The story of an unwanted orphan struggling to find her place in the world struck a chord in post-Second World War Japan.
In Okayama, I visited the “School of Green Gables,” a functioning school of nursing that turns out highly sought after graduates for the region’s hospitals. The school’s buildings are strikingly un-Japanese. Basically, they look Canadian. Speaking with the school’s director and a few of its students, it became clear that the spirit of Anne Shirley was responsible for more than merely offering the institution its name. The students talked glowingly of their vocation, caring for others, and stated explicitly that Anne was a role model to them. It was the first moment in the trip that I felt like weeping.
Most people, if you ask them how they know Akage no An, will tell you that they saw her on TV. The 1979 anime, released by Nippon Animation Co., and directed by Isao Takahata with an assist from future anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, has played on Japanese television more or less continuously for decades. March sees its release on Blu-ray.
With the convergence of Anne-related media activity shaping up around the imminent broadcast of Hanako Muraoka’s life story over 156 episodes stretching into September, Prince Edward Island’s premier Robert Ghiz swung through Tokyo last week on a trade mission, boldly predicting that he expects 20,000 Japanese tourists on PEI this summer.
Noticing a few years ago that so many Japanese tourists to PEI were older women accompanied by their daughters, I was assured that the Japanese fascination for Anne was on its way out as the daughters lost interest and then failed to transmit their enthusiasm to the next generation. But with signs that the love affair is rekindling, it seems as if Japan’s fascination with Anne is on its way back.
Terry Dawes is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Montreal, Quebec. He’s currently working on a documentary about the Japanese fascination with Anne of Green Gables, called Anne of Japan.
Several years ago, I caught wind of the fact that an English language school out in the countryside, in Tryon, Prince Edward Island, was closing its doors. So I decided to go out and interview the owner and ask if it would be okay for me to film a class. This is the result.
This little featurette will likely end up as a DVD extra on the current and ongoing “Anne of Japan” project, mainly because it’s old by the technological standards of video now, but also because it captures a moment in the history of the Japanese presence on PEI that passed some time ago. Also, there’s a snippet of the song “Ice Cream” from the “Anne of Green Gables” musical that might create a legal hassle if I were to include it in the main program. In this case, I didn’t impose the track on the video. It was captured incidentally, owing to the fact that the teacher had the song playing on a small CD player while I was filming the class making ice cream.
Last month I was in Toronto and visited with Erin Joy Stanfield, who worked at Canadian World theme park in Ashibetsu during the 1990s. At that time, the park was eager to hire girls from Prince Edward Island to play the roles of Anne, Diana, Gilbert and Miss Stacy. Also, jugglers. She’s got a lot of good stories about working there.
And she handed me a couple of old VHS tapes, which I promised to digitize and bring back. As you can see, the 1990s already look like the 1970s as far as video quality is concerned. All the same, this is a small snapshot of what Canadian World was like at its peak, when there were plenty of visitors. There’s a couple hours of footage on these tapes, including some news reports from Sapporo TV featuring Canadian World. More about those later. In the meantime, enjoy the trip back in time.
Recently, the “Anne of Japan” team visited the Tokyo headquarters of S.T. Corporation, which last August produced a touring musical version of “Anne of Green Gables” (Akage No An). The approach is unusual, in that it’s done with very high production values, but it’s staged by the company as a way of “giving back” to its employees. Tickets were raffled off last summer over the internet. Audience members had to apply, and tickets were given away through a lottery sort of process.
The star of the musical, in the role of Anne Shirley, is Japanese pop star Takahashi Ai. She has previous experience with “Akage No An”, also in S.T. Corporation’s touring version of the musical in which played Diana Barry, Anne’s best friend.
We conducted two interviews, one with Takashi Suzuki, the CEO of S.T. Corporation, who obviously holds the story of Anne very close to his heart, and another with the musical’s Director, Sachihiko Toda.
Because the show tours Japan, they use local kids to perform in the musical, to fill all of the supporting roles. So they hold auditions in each city and then rehearse the young actors. In the past, this has resulted in a couple of the kids going on to careers in show business. One of them went on to become a member of AKB48, a sort of Japanese version of the Spice Girls. S.T. Corporation “hires” approximately 13 kids in each town that the musical plays in.
The first time they performed Anne, back in 2003, they had an audience of approximately 14,000, but last year they estimate it was closer to 18,000.
In his interview, Takashi Suzuki remembers life after the Second World War and the fact that everything, all of the houses and buildings and books, had been destroyed in the flames, so there was nothing to read. As it happened Hanako Muraoka’s translation of “Anne of Green Gables” had just been published. He says he remembers borrowing it from an older girl and was completely moved by its story, because it gave hope and strength to people struggling through difficult times. He also points out that at that time, women were expected to behave in a very reserved way, so the character of Anne provided Japanese women with both an outlet and an example of a new way to behave. He furthermore asserts that you only have to get married to a Japanese woman to understand how they rule society (!).
He then goes on to say that the character of Anne Shirley is still very much in the hearts of that older generation of Japanese women, and that those women are eager to pass their love of Anne along to their daughters and granddaughters, and that he’s noticed them bringing these young women to the shows. The audience for the show is about 75% to 80% women, although in the interview he estimates that it’s 99%.
S.T. Company employees work on the show as a way of interacting with the public in a way that’s completely different from their usual routine of working as salespeople. We informally quizzed a few employees and they confirmed that they love working on the musical, and that for them it’s like organizing a party.
The second interview was with Sachihiko Toda, who acts as the show’s producer/director. He is also CEO of Imagine Musical. He conceptualizes the show, adapts the source material, writes dialogue, auditions the actors and directs, with the help of a small team. He presented the idea of doing Anne as an annual touring musical to S.T. Corporation over 10 years ago.
He says that the major challenge has been to include local kids in each show, something that was requested by S.T. Co’s Chairman. This was particularly challenging at the time of the tsunami in 2011. At that time they had to cancel the audition which was set in Sendai in March, but instead moved it back to June, to give those kids a chance, too, even though most of them still had no spare sets of clothes or shoes.
Another challenge is the fact that very few Japanese actors are trained for performing in musicals. But he’s confident that the people he does recruit are all very good in their roles.
He says that the show has changed quite a lot over 13 years. At first it consisted mainly of long speeches, almost like Les Miserables, but that now there is a minimum of speech and more singing and dancing. The music and dance routines have a modern feel, but the costumes and the set are faithful to the book.
He said, too, that he has noticed a change in the audience’s demographic, which once consisted mainly of middle aged women, but is getting younger and younger as the years go by. He’s convinced that the show is guaranteed to run indefinitely.
S.T. Company was also were kind enough to give us some supplementary material to use in our documentary, including footage of the rehearsal process. And we’ll be figuring out how to work that in to the longer documentary over the next few months while we collect more material and interviews.