I love the work of Hans Christian Andersen. His stories are often dark in tone, filled with allegory and meaning and are considered essential myths that we continue to have a need for… even in today’s climate. Yet some stories pass by us unnoticed until just the right time. Until a week ago I had never heard of The Wild Swans, but when I found that this story was adapted into a feature film created by Toei I had to see it immediately. I must also state that there is another story collected by the Brothers Grimm that is very similar and from general reading it seems their tale, The Six Swans, has more the influence on this movie. I had only one thing to say… Hi, can I be your friend? And as usual, seems always the case with anime, we got along splendidly. Let me tell you about our date together!
Much like another story by Andersen known to many of us, The Little Mermaid, there is much that is similar, yet also different. Both stories were animated by Toei in the mid 1970s, The Little Mermaid in 1975 and The Wild Swans in 1977, and share the basic style and form of the era. Both stories deal with prolonged sacrifice and hardship in the form of being away from loved ones and not being able to communicate vocally. In the case of The Little Mermaid, Marina could not speak due to giving up her voice, and tail as well, to be among the human world and her prince. As for the Wild Swans, our protagonist Elisa does not lose her voice at all. She takes a personal vow of complete silence as part of her cross to bear. Though she can speak, she promises not to.
The story begins on a happy note as we meet a lost man on horseback in a forest. He is greeted by a witch who promises him a way back home if he can grant a wish for her daughter. The attractive young lady asks to become his betrothed as she has learned that his wife has passed recently. He accepts and returns to tell his children the good news. Wow, saying yes to a woman you just met without even a date or anything? Some men are quite desperate! And you know, “some beautiful roses have wicked thorns.” But I digress, he uses a magical ball of yarn to open the location where his children are to give the news of their new mother. Everyone is happy, except that conniving woman. She is jealous of the children (what a surprise!) and plans a trap by stealing the ball of yarn and meeting the children herself.
Upon their meeting miss jealous pants bestows gifts, which the six boys accept without hesitation. These garments that are given turn them into swans and when the seventh child, a daughter, Elisa arrives she sees the damage that has occurred and stands against the evil woman. Yet all is not lost, at night time the boys return to human form and comfort Elisa. Hmm, sounds like Swan Lake? Then, much like swans born naturally, they migrate away when the proper season beckons. During this time Elisa learns she can make six garments out of nettles that will return her brothers to their natural human state. The only reservations are that she cannot show any disdain, or complaint during the process and that she has a limited amount of time. Because of this she shuts herself off from the rest of the world and vows a life of silence. Now we know why Elisa losses her ability to communicate.
For an emotionally riveting plot that seems to point towards total tragedy, The Wild Swans does end up having an optimistic outcome. This was a surprise for me and even though I was ready for an all out cry fest ready to see something sad, I still had a little tear in my eye for witnessing a happy ending. A true tale of love and sacrifice that I can put on par with Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Wild Swans shows that a dedication to love will pay off with rewards unimaginable. And if this movie borrows from either Hans Christian Andersen, or the Brothers Grimm, or both at the same time, it does not matter. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling and that is all one needs in a great anime.