Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1975)
Not to be confused with the Disney animated adaptation of the same name which was released 14 years later in 1989, this anime version of The Little Mermaid is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale and was released in 1975 by Toei Animation (famous for creating the Sailor Moon series). I would say it was also a more faithful retelling of the story as it retains certain key elements including the more tragic and downbeat ending.
I honestly cannot for the life of me remember how it came to my attention; I may have seen it as a child but cannot say with 100% certainty (although certain parts were familiar but that could be down to having read the original published story many times as a youngster) but I was made aware of its existence sometime at the end of last year.
I tried (and failed) to secure myself a copy as I was suitably intrigued by what I read online about this version of the tale. I am normally quite adept tracking down things (hard-to-find vintage books and the like) and did discover that there was a DVD release a number of years ago but it seemed to be long out-of-print and sadly unavailable second-hand either.
I did manage to purchase a second-hand VHS copy to watch (despite not having anything to play it on at home anymore) but hadn’t yet found the time to corner someone who still had the appropriate vintage tech to watch it! It was only this past week that I discovered that the film was now available on Amazon Prime to purchase or rent so I naturally bought myself a copy, settled down to watch it, and now here we are (with me boring you all with the minutia of how this review came to be haha!)
Given how closely related to the original story it was, I feel it was only right to do a post with my thoughts and feelings about this rather faithful adaptation. It is also quite timely as the new live action Disney version is coming out very soon (and although the live action Disney films have largely been a miss for me – with the possible exception of Cinderella – The Little Mermaid was my favourite Disney princess film as a kid and one of the very first films I saw at the cinema so it is special to me and I am excited for the new film).
** warning: spoilers ahead **
Those who have read the original story or anyone who has watched the multitude of adaptations that have been released throughout the years, will find very little new about this iteration. It follows what I can remember of the original tale quite closely.
The film initially opens to live action scenes of modern (well, modern as in the 1970s!) Denmark. After a bit, it changes to animation and this is when the true heart of the story begins.
A young mermaid called Marina saves the life of a human prince (earning herself her pearl hairpin signifying she is now longer a child) and, having fallen in love with the young royal, sacrifices her voice to the sea witch in exchange for a pair of human legs; upon doing so she can never be a mermaid again. There is another caveat: if the prince marries another, the dawn of the following day her life will be forfeit and she will turn to sea foam.
Marina leaves behind her father, grandmother, sisters, and best friend Fritz (a young dolphin calf) and swims to the prince’s palace. Upon arriving at the shore, she downs the potion given to her by the sea witch and is transformed. The prince, having been awoken by the commotion, sees Marina lying on the shore and races to her rescue.
After spending a month with her beloved, who has grown fond of Marina, the prince tells her he has no wish to marry per his parents wishes. The only one he wants is the girl who he awoke to on the morning of his rescue. However, the prince believes his rescuer to be the girl from the chapel who found him on the shore and is unaware his true saviour was Marina herself. Marina is mollified though when the prince tells her if he cannot marry that girl, he would prefer to marry Marina instead.
Unbeknownst to them both, the prince’s pet cat Jemmy is jealous of Marina, and sneaks away to the king and queen and informs them of the prince’s intentions. Fearing that their son has been bewitched, they trick the prince into absconding aboard a ship bound for their nearby allied kingdom of Finland (to meet the princess they wish for him to marry) and lock Marina away.
The prince meets his newly betrothed princess and is delighted to find she is the girl from the shore and excitedly tells Marina that he is to be married. Marina is heartbroken, and sends a message to Fritz who is beside himself with despair when he realises that Marina is doomed. He swims away and later returns in the early predawn after the prince’s wedding along with Marina’s sisters who have cut off their hair and traded with the sea witch to save Marina’s life.
However, the only way to save herself is to stab her beloved prince through the heart with a dagger provided, when his blood drips onto her feet her legs will transform back into a tail and she can return to her kingdom under the sea.
Marina sneaks into the prince’s quarters where he lies in bed sleeping beside his new wife. She raises the dagger but cannot bring herself to go through with the plan. She determines that the prince’s happiness is her happiness and she kisses him goodbye and returns to the ship’s deck.
The prince jolts awake and rushes after Marina, only to see her jump off and plunge into the water. She leaves behind her hairpin and a scale from her tail. The prince recalls the memory of his rescue (where he slipped in and out of consciousness) and with growing horror recognises that Marina was in fact his rescuer. He grieves alone on the deck of his ship, whilst we see Marina in the water disappear and turn to sea foam spiralling from atop the waves as if rising to the heavens. This is where the film once again switches back to live-action Copenhagen and end with the a view of the Little Mermaid statue in the harbour.
I’ve always found The Little Mermaid to be a sad tale – one told to children to teach them about the need for self-sacrifice and duty to others above oneself. It is a bleak story but one that is not without hope. This adaptation really gets to the heart of those themes, maybe even better that the Disney version (with its sanitised ‘Disneyfied’ happy ending). This one does not shy away from the darker subject matter and it actually makes it quite a powerful piece of animated cinema history (which makes it a shame it is not more well-known or even more accessible).
I enjoyed it quite a bit and although it was far from perfect, I felt it did a pretty great job of dramatizing the original text. I would probably put it in a category with films such as Watership Down – made for children but definitely one with themes that might not be suitable for younger or more sensitive viewers (in essence, the very films I loved as a child!)
The voice acting was mostly good though there were a few ‘over-acting’ moments from some of the supporting characters. It wasn’t too cringe-inducing as some of these English dubs can be (obviously the film was originally released in Japanese – the English dub was done some years later).
Marina was well-written and acted and I loved her sidekick Fritz who had a lot of character. The voice actors for these two characters were actually brother and sister and that really made the camaraderie between them palpable and their connection come to the fore. The prince himself was a bit of a cipher (he never even gets a name throughout the film and is simply credited as ‘Prince’) but he at least showed a little bit of personality towards the end (I do prefer Eric from the Disney version though). The other characters never really got much in the way of screen time but this was a short film (its run time is only 68 minutes) so that is to be expected.
The animation itself was fine – pretty good for the time period, actually. I really didn’t expect to see the various mermaids nipples though!! That was a bit of a shock to me (heh) and definitely something you wouldn’t see in a western production! 😉
The quality of the copy itself wasn’t amazing – I read somewhere that the English dub’s aspect ratio was altered and although the region 1 DVD restored the original aspect ratio, I think this version can’t be the original because at times characters were partly cut off from view and it didn’t look intentional (and it was a lovely box right splat in the middle of the screen!) Nevertheless, it wasn’t too egregious and it didn’t detract from my viewing at all. It would be interesting to see the original cut (in Japanese with subtitles) but failing that, I’m glad I at least got to see it in some form.
The story is its strongest aspect (naturally, given the source material). I’ve always felt an affinity for this particular fairy tale (as well as a lot of Andersen’s other stories). The Disney film was a favourite too even though it deviated a lot from the material. This was a closer adaptation that mostly worked though there were some hokey moments (when you see Marina’s grandmother you will understand what I mean!) and I much prefer Ursula as the sea witch than the one we got here (though her design is fabulous!) but otherwise it was a pretty solid outing (I could have done without the strangely placed singing parts though!)
Overall, I really enjoyed it and will definitely watch it again and recommend it to anyone who loves the original Andersen fairy tale, or as an alternative to the Disney version (which I love as well, don’t get me wrong – it just isn’t that faithful to the text). It’s a pity that it’s not more widely available and seems to have been mostly lost to time (not that I think it was all that popular with western audiences in the past either unfortunately). It was fun (but frustrating!) trying to find a copy and I’m glad I was able to view it eventually!
All of the above GIFs are from: The Anime Nostalgia Podcast on Tumblr