Ronja, the Robber's Daughter is an anime series based on the book of the same title by Astrid Lindgren, the beloved Swedish children's author most famous for her Pippi Longstocking books. The title character grows up in a remote fort deep in the forest, the darling of her father Mattis’s band of robbers. The forest contains a variety of fantastical creatures, animals, and significant environmental threats, but the greatest, most plot-shaping dangers arise from people: Mattis’s feud with another robber chieftain and both clans’ long war with the forces of law and order. After initially distrusting Birk Borkason, the opposing clan leader’s son and heir, Ronja befriends and becomes very close to him. The two children vow to treat one another as brother and sister, and when they choose to uphold that vow over the objections of their families, the children must strike out on their own and survive in the woods as best they can.
Last year, an excellent English dub of the series became available to stream and purchase via Amazon Prime, and this version is due to be released in the US soon. Co-produced by the towering Japanese film company Studio Ghibli, the show benefits from considerable resources: a well-crafted story, and production expertise that is seldom equalled. Ronja lives up to the promise of these components. This is a thoughtful, kind piece of work in the best spirit of the author and adaptors, which does credit to everyone involved.
Not everyone thinks so, however. Their reasons are varied, and range from fair to downright embarrassing. In the “fair” column, the partly computer-generated animation which Ronja uses is less labour-intensive than the traditional Ghibli process. This didn't bother me, but then I'm ill-qualified to judge—I'll admit up-front that I'm not an animation connoisseur, so I lack aesthetic context and a thorough understanding of its methods. Andrew Osmond has written an admirably researched piece on the series's visual choices, the reasoning behind them and the series's background in Ghibli and related work. Relatedly, Hanh Nguyen's Indiewire article on Ronja complicates perhaps stale popular opinions of Goro Miyazaki, the series's director, whose uneven Tales from Earthsea is not at all well-regarded, but whose From Up On Poppy Hill enjoyed more acclaim. The Guardian, too, has written on another Ghibli alumnus’s use of European settings over the course of his career, and while the article is a little scattershot, it offers up some further context for this project.
I will say that the series has a lot of wonderful aesthetic elements—sprawling nature shots and medieval Scandinavian interior details. Character expressions were mobile and very often wonderfully evocative, and sequences like the one in which a harpy, painfully slowly, bends down to smile horribly at a trapped, freezing child absolutely worked. If this didn’t strike me as my favourite animation ever, it was far, far from bad. Ultimately, I think it’d be rather affected to claim to find the art intolerable, though people who come to anime to really relish this aspect of its craft would be within their rights to be somewhat disappointed by Ronja. Its animation is not its best feature. I don't feel that diminishes the story and its execution terribly, but it is a matter of priorities.
Now on to the utter bullshit problems.
A while ago I was laughing at some awful initial reviews of My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which is perhaps Studio Ghibli's masterpiece. Let's take a look at what Variety complacently shitted out in 1993:
Displaying no more than adequate television technical craft, the simple family saga poses no threat to the commercial dominance of Disney cartoonists. U.S. box office prospects will be fleeting, likely no more than a blip among the upcoming onslaught of product. […] Obviously aimed at an international audience, the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating. The characters, despite obvious Japanese names, have Anglo features. But instead of a 1950s television neighborhood, they dwell in unmistakable Asian houses surrounded by rice fields while innocuous pop songs drone on the soundtrack. Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki has essentially padded a television half-hour into a sluggish theatrical feature. With a half-century of Disney full animation at one’s disposal, the rigid backgrounds and limited character movements appear dull and crude when viewed on a large screen. The muted pastels, homogenized pictorial style and vapid storyline all add up to an extremely lonely neighborhood when Totoro moves into theaters.
The New York Times shamed themselves, too. Really, we should have seen their complicity with the Trump administration coming. Seriously, imagine being this lazy? Imagine getting this bullish over being pig-ignorant about the cultural contexts of something you’re reviewing, for money, in a major publication? “Disorienting combination of cultures!!” my hefty ass, as if you’d know? If something is well regarded in circles you don’t move in, isn't the appropriate response to try and enter into their aesthetic categories and ask why it's well-regarded? If you can sense a logic different than ones you're familiar with at work, maybe don't rush to out yourself as a blustering idiot?
But that's the past, and anime has now massively permeated the Western cultural landscape. Today, people are a little better about—
I’ve seen the first four episodes of Ghibli’s new show, which was made in partnership with animation studio Polygon (no relation) and is now available to stream on Amazon. The show emphasizes themes that make Ghibli movies spectacular: a young girl trying to find her way in the world, a sense of self-identity, the importance of family and folklore. But despite all of the ingredients to make the perfect show, Ronja falls flat.
The key to any Ghibli film succeeding is the ability to not just believe in the characters, but empathize with them. Although Ronja and Mattis are interesting, clever people, they don’t have the same presence as Chihiro in Spirited Away or as San from Princess Mononoke. It feels like Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is trying to pay homage to former director Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy instead of figuring out its own way.
To put it simply, Ronja feels empty, void of any authentic, genuine heart. [Polygon]
I've said it before, but “I watched the first few episodes on a screener DVD, and—” is a phrase I never want to read again. Any variation of it is ridiculous. You very literally don't yet know what you're talking about, and given that all the episodes became available to view in their dubbed format simultaneously, there was no commercial or artistic reason whatever to criticise the material in this awkward fashion. This isn’t even a review. It's just weird clickbait that doesn't know it's clickbait.
The first two episodes are about Ronja as an infant. This review reads as though someone skimmed the first chapters of David Copperfield and had a full-ass opinion of the book based off Clara Copperfield's nursery arrangements. It's like flicking through the first bit of War and Peace and wondering where the war is. Why? Why would you reiterate L’Ancien sad-ass complaints about slow pace, basing your opinion on this small initial fragment, when you know full well that filmic elements like pace are highly culturally and tradition-specific, and when you've gotten what can only be a very partial idea of how arc is working in this show? Ronja is leisurely, but very little narrative time is wasted, and the show’s rhythm shifts dramatically after Ronja establishes herself as an adolescent. Yet throughout, Ronja actively enjoys its Swiss Family Robinson proceduralism: that's a major source of narrative pleasure in the series (and, I strongly presume, the source text: this is hardly an unfamiliar descriptive strategy). It's a bildungsroman, they have to bildungs; what, are you pissy that In Search of Lost Time takes a bit to get going? Jesus.
What really makes Ronja are the characters and their relationships. Ronja’s mother and father, Lovis and Mattis, and Mattis’s oldest follower, Noodle Pete, who’s been with the family since before Mattis was born, are all delightful—Lovis in particular. The woman is an icon of no-nonsense competence, and her lack of patience with histrionics is responsible for a fair amount of the show’s abundant comedy. Though young, Ronja and her sworn-brother Birk are very watchable. (Birk in particular is an entertaining little jerk.) Mattis is such an excellent father (and a ridiculous, emotional, loveable man) that his awful stubbornness and temper on particular sore subjects, such as his ongoing feud, can feel like a deep betrayal, not just of the audience but also of his family and himself. In the most tense argument of the series Mattis shoves Lovis, and it’s awful. The series knows it is: Lovis’s power, drawn in part from her own ability and in part from the immense respect afforded to her, suddenly becomes contingent, predicated on the gendered ways in which others treat her. Mattis’s behaviour during this conflict prompts Ronja to leave home. Mattis must learn to curb his ego, to forgive and to allow the best parts of his nature to overpower the worst in order for the story to progress. Time and real contrition enable him to earn his daughter’s respect again, and if Mattis is still somewhat childish at the story’s end, he’s also learned to extend grace even to his enemies, and to relax and laugh at himself.
There are strong parallels between Ronja and Birk’s bond and Mattis’s soured childhood friendship with Birk’s father Borka. This is ultimately a story about two things: growing up, and managing conflict—breaking cycles and discovering what fights are worth having. The show’s meditations on conflict are aimed at children, but they aren’t unsophisticated. There’s a good deal in Ronja and Birk’s fight about who lost a vital knife, which enables their survival in the woods, that could apply to any adult couple. Ronja storms off and Birk discovers the knife he accused her of misplacing on the cave floor, buried under the moss she was drying for his wound. He’s right, insofar as Ronja did have it last, but wrong in that she didn’t carelessly abandon it somewhere they’d never find it again. He also realises after a day of sulking that he was deeply wrong about what was more important, Ronja or the knife, and sees too late that rather than screaming at one another, they’d have done better to just look for the damn thing together. Pragmatism, picking your battles and bearing in mind the value of your relationship relative to the value of a given point never go amiss.
The logic of heterosexism makes one think that eventually these scions of warring families who love one another will do so romantically, though the general viewer wouldn’t assume they were destined for one another if Ronja and Birk were two boys or two girls. It’s possible to read a piece like this pre-conditioned by tropes to see easy inevitabilities, undergirded by unwarranted assumptions about sexuality. If this story is a prelude to a romance, it is a strong one. The children share interests and respect one another. They’ve weathered and risked a great deal for each other and do the work of friendship even when it’s difficult. But if their relationship isn’t “going there,” it’s not a lesser bond for that.
If anything, I wish we’d been able to spend more time with Birk’s family and his father’s crew, and gotten the same sense of the individuals in that band that we have of Mattis’s men. I wish we’d seen more of Birk’s parents Borka and Undis, and that they’d had their own arcs towards reconciliation and growth. Given the POV’s close allegiance to Ronja, I can see how that might have been narratively difficult. Yet I know enough to slightly suspect that Borka lets Mattis win the showdown between them because Borka knows Mattis needs to win more than he does, or rather knows that Mattis is an excellent winner and a bad loser. Perhaps this is yet another case of electing to be pragmatic, and to value a relationship—even a broken one—over the question of who’s right.
Ronja doesn't shy away from frightening and sad moments. Ronja and Birk finally become friends when an accident traps Ronja in the snow, where she awaits either slow death by exposure or “rescue” by the harpies, who would force her to serve them as a slave (and then consume her once her usefulness or entertainment value had run out). Ronja sobs with relief when Birk arrives to help her. Later, Birk and Ronja are pursued by harpies to the edge of a waterfall. They believe they’re about to die, and so tell one another they love each other. They can’t hear the words over the roar of the water, but they need to say these things, and they understand what’s being communicated without sound. The stakes and intensity of these moments give way to gentle stretches where the children tame wild horses through slow trial and error, or chisel bowls. Similarly, Mattis is comic, but his anger and his generosity and grief can’t be reduced to that. These alternating moods enhance our understanding of and empathy with the characters.
This isn’t my favourite Ghibli production, but that’s a high bar indeed, and not one I really expect or need a director’s first series to clear. Ronja stands on its own merits: very funny, touching, thoughtful and almost perfectly executed. It’s certainly made me interested in seeking out the book, and this is definitely a series I’d recommend to friends with or without kids.