Discotek is trying a little streaming experiment. They’ve subtitled the first episode of a 1986 anime version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and put it up for free on YouTube. If enough interest is shown, they will subtitle and release more episodes streaming. The previously dubbed international version will be released on BD/DVD in August.
My knowledge, and many of you may be the same, of The Wizard of Oz story begins and ends with the classic 1939 film. Which got me pondering how many kids haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz MGM movie and how much or little familiarity anyone going into this series would be.
World Masterpiece Theater is an interesting case where you can clearly see the difference between American and Japanese anime fandom. In Japan these are classic anime remembered fondly as entertainment for the whole family along the lines of the most beloved Disney and Pixar films. They were worked on by titans of the anime industry, have influenced many animators in Japan, and continue to have a lasting impact on the industry. In America, there are several fans who have taken an interest in individuals shows or sometimes even the whole series but they are hardly the norm. I would wager that more people know of Rocky Chuck the Mountain Rat as that show “Andes Hedgehog Mountain Chucky from Shirobako is based on” than as a show of the classic World Masterpiece Theater series. I admit both groups are fairly small but the first is larger than the second.
Now The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not a part of the World Masterpiece Theater series but it is very clearly a show that was made to capture that same feeling. In fact, the producers of the anime had Junichi Seki, who was a veteran of the World Masterpiece Theater, do the character designs on this show. That means if you were unaware there was a Wizard of Oz anime you would hardly be alone. Since Discotek does have a penchant for selecting titles that have some sort of fan following the series did get an English release back in the day from HBO. I never knew this existed but I’m sure it made some amount of a fanbase that would like to see the original thanks to a bit of nostalgia.
So we have a series that has flown under the radar for quite a while but has a fairly impressive pedigree. Wizard of Oz is a beloved children’s series of books and it was adapted during a golden age of children’s anime. I was very curious to see how this dream team worked together.
Dorothy Gale recently moved to live on a farm Kansas with her aunt and uncle. While she is having the normal problems of adapting to a new lifestyle, a twister comes and takes her and her pet dog, Toto, to a strange land called Oz. Can she find a way home from the land of evil witches, tiny Munchkins, and flying monkeys?
I’m pretty sure like 90 percent of you already know the plot. If anything it is more worth noting that this anime seems to be a very faithful version of the original books as opposed to something like the Wonderful Galaxy of Oz. That also means there will be some noticeable differences between this series and the classic 1939 film. There is no Almira Gulch or farmhands in the first episode as they were characters only added to the movie. If you love the books or you just want to see something slightly different from the iconic move this a solid choice.
The opening’s imagery is the most familiar with the iconic characters dancing along the yellow brick road to a charming and catchy tune. It is youthful and fun and made me look forward to seeing these characters again.
Then we enter the actual show which starts on a Kansas farm. It is an overly idyllic version of the simple country life, it is even free of the drama of the 1939 film, that somehow felt longer than its mere fifteen minutes. But I get it, it’s there to remind us why Dorothy would want to come back. Having a home is not something to be disregarded after all.
The depiction of Oz in its color, shapes, and designs felt a bit Alice in Wonderland-trippy. The role which was played by the noble and ethereal Glinda in the 1939 film, is more of a comedic witch in this first episode. And undoubtedly the differences won’t stop there.
The first episode is solid if a bit leisurely when it comes to the setup. The episode clearly wants to let the details of Dorothy’s life in Kansas sink in before throwing her into the strange world of Oz. It establishes a strong baseline of normalcy for Dorothy before the fantastical hits. Thankfully the Tornado, the Munchkins, the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, the silver shoes, and the Good Witch of the North all pop their head in during the last third of the story. It could be augured that the first two-thirds of this episode are slow but when you have to set up 52 episode of fantastical journeys a little time to let the mundane breath, in contrast, is probably beneficial.
One thing I had to point out about the animation is how I feel it has small flourishes of trippy 60s and 70s animation influences. It is hardly a main influence of the series. In fact, the first two-thirds of the episode when Dorothy is still in Kansas does not have any of it. It only really kicks in when the tornado whisks the house away. It does not go full on Yellow Submarine or Belladonna of Sadness. If is just that some of the small pieces of the animation in Oz have that vibe.
I might be the only person who notices this at all but I was always slightly thrown off by Dorothy’s stockings. She is wearing stockings with garters. On its own, her stockings are mostly just an unusual bit of an unusual accouterment to her character design and nothing more. But it seems an overly complex bit of design for an otherwise cute but rather simple outfit and overall character design. Since there is nothing else in the first episode that screams this is for fetishistic reasons I’m just going to assume it was an insight into someone’s preferences on staff more than anything else.
This anime version of the Oz story is different but not unrecognizable from the 1939 movie. And it has its own charm. Knowing that it adheres more closely to the books is actually what most draws me to wanting to see more.
Back catalog titles are always a bit of a risk when it comes up anime licensing. Streaming numbers, online conversation, and merchandise sales can all be indicators if a show is viable for licensing. None of them is a perfect metric but they are all valuable statistics. The problem is older titles can be a bit more problematic if you’re trying to predict how well they will do. Services like Anime Sols and various anime Kickstarters tried to create systems that would help judge if older anime was worth licensing with far more managed amounts of risk. The problem is Anime Sols is gone and the anime Kickstarters boom period has tapered off quite significantly.
At this point, the question is what else can be done to gauge an interest in classic series. What Discotek is doing here is hardly a silver bullet for the problem. This is a bit of an interesting corner case. Discotek already licensed and is releasing the English dub of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz due to it having an existing fan base due to its previous release. This is more of an experiment to see if it is worth also releasing the original Japanese audio in its own release as well. That said it is still an interesting experiment that if successful could point to a useful system for other such titles in the same position not named Kyatto Ninden Teyandee.
Overall it seemed like a smart title to show this way. The Wizard of Oz is about as established a story as you can get and the title is about a safe an adaptation as you can get. I look forward to Discotek releasing more of the series and how this works as an experiment in general.