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A Story of Cinderella: Adaptation, Agency, and Anime
Cinderella Monogatari or The Story of Cinderella is a 1996 animated coproduction between Japanese Tatsunoko Production and the Italian Mondo TV. The series stretches the fairy tale of Cinderella to 26 episodes, adding characters and plot to lengthen the run time and explain the internal logic of the story. But when you take a classic fairy tale and run it out to a full series, what do you add? What do you change? And what does that end up saying about adaptations and the genres it occupies?
Part One: How did we get here
First, let’s look at where this specific adaptation originated and what that means for its content. The Story of Cinderella is unmistakably influenced by Disney’s 1950 Cinderella. Because of Disney’s broad influence on any fairy tale adaptation, no new take on the classics will be able to escape either falling under or deliberately resisting its looming shadow. For Japan, whose main exposure to European style fairy tales was a postwar influx of American media, the Disney predominance as the teller of tales cannot be ignored. The Japanese adaptation is its own product, exploring different themes and characters than the 1950 animated film, but you can’t escape the mouse. This is most clear in the use of the animal sidekicks. A lumbering dog, talking mice, and a friendly bird accompanying our heroine seem awfully familiar. The stepmother even has her own evil cat who creates mischief for Cinderella and her friends. At first glance, it’s a clear lift from Disney into a longer series. However, the actual usage of the sidekicks and the story is further complicated by its other influence—shoujo anime.
The Story of Cinderella may be based on a Western folktale and have Western fingerprints from its producer in Italy, but at its core, it has much more in common with Sailor Moon than Walt’s Cinderella. This is distinctly a Japanese animated show—an anime—and plays into the history and style of the subculture, specifically shoujo anime and manga. Shoujo means literally “young woman,” an indication of the target demographic, essentially comics and shows aimed at adolescent girls, usually created by women themselves. Though not properly a genre in itself, the term has become shorthand for stories focused around female characters or female fantasies, which may or may not include slice-of-life, magic, or romantic themes. These stories were often not complex, but deeply emotional. “According to Miyadi, though the content of the stories was simplistic, by depicting life-like heroines about whom girl readers could think ‘This is me!,’ they provided a ‘model of relations’ for the reading the ‘me’ who reads ‘the world.’” (Takeuchi, 89). In reality, anything published specifically for girls in mind is shoujo, but its most recognizable (especially to Western audiences) product is Sailor Moon.
Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon is one of the most popular and influential series of all time, featuring complex plots and a strong emphasis on friends and relationships, combining the sentimentalism and melodrama of stereotypical girls media with epic fights and a need to save the world that characterized its predecessors and contemporaries in boys media. It is also the simple story a clumsy, kind, and relatable young woman trying to do her best to help others with the aid of her friends, both human and animal. This is not exclusive to Sailor Moon, it is not even exclusive to anime, but it is this expectation of the main character certainly applies to The Story of Cinderella. This Cinderella, like her shoujo protagonist counterpart, is down on her luck, but cheerful and sure that if she’s just good enough and tries hard enough, everything will get better. She falls down a lot and only ever speaks her mind to her love interest, failing to pick up on the fact that he’s the prince for a majority of the show’s runtime. Her flaws make her relatable to her intended audience, with few edges of her own for anyone to catch themselves on while they project onto the protagonist. What makes this Cinderella unique is that she is not just distinctly fairy tale, but clearly an anime character as well. And that requires several things a character living in a fairy tale usually doesn’t possess; she needs agency, character development, and most importantly, friends.
It’s notable that the producer of this series is Tatsunoko Productions, which is perhaps most famous in the West for Speed Racer, both the 1967 original and the 1997 reboot. Historically, it has trended toward shonen anime, for boys rather than for girls. Beginning in the early 1990s, it began producing single season series based on western folk tales, including Robin Hood and Snow White. Cinderella Monogatari continues in this trend. These were originally commissioned by and broadcast on NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting corporation. After about 2000, however, Tatsunoko greatly broadened its purview on what it would produce, running the gamut from Transformers to classic shonen to girl-aimed series centered around idol culture. Cinderella and her fairy-tale sibling series seem to have been early indicators of this trend, broadening the scope in a low risk setting. The animation and production could be fairly cheap with a guaranteed audience as the studio explored genres and demographics outside of its purview. The adaptation is a safe bet in exploring new areas.
Part Two: The Warrior Prince
While the Prince in most traditional tellings of the tale takes a backseat in favor of making Cinderella the clear main character, here he is absolutely the deuteragonist. Not quite central enough to be given presence over the titular character, he makes up for it by being the main focus and driving force of the secondary plot and experiencing more character development than almost any other character (except for the aforementioned evil cat, but we’ll get to that later). The Prince is almost a nonentity in many versions of Cinderella: he appears at the ball, loses the girl, and sends his servants off to find her. But the anime raises several questions about this whole situation that it attempts to answer through the increased role of its love interest. Though perhaps it’s unfair to simply label him as a love interest, when we are given every reason to see him as a fully realized character almost completely divorced from his original incarnation as the symbol of everything a better life can offer the main character.
If Cinderella became more like Sailor Moon, then the Prince is no less changed by his transition into anime. Here, known as Charles, he’s not the perfect Prince Charming, but rather given many of the same flaws that plague his princess. Attempting to answer the question of why a ball to choose a bride would be necessary, the anime presents Charles as almost wholly against taking up any of his responsibilities as the only heir to the kingdom. Instead, he skips his lessons, only takes interest in fencing for sport, and escapes from the castle to hang around the village with almost no consequences. He pays little attention to what his parents, the advisors, or friends say he should or shouldn’t do, ignores eligible young ladies, and lies to just about everyone in the process. But, although he doesn’t know it at the time, he is justified in doing so nearly every single time. This is the classic young anime hero in action: every action taken selfishly is not only unpunished but also later to be discovered as for the greater good! His doting but fairly gullible parents are easily duped by the classic evil advisor into transferring power to those seeking to destroy the kingdom; his skill with the sword—originally simply ornamental—is essential in defending his friends and stopping the coup; and his greater knowledge of the common people prepare him to be a better king. Not to mention he meets and wins over his perfect match during his escape attempts, before the ball even occurs.
The greatest conflict Charles has between himself and Cinderella is his inability to tell her the truth about himself. She hardly remains naïve to his obvious lies, dubbing him “Charles the Fibber” almost immediately. Unlike him, she holds little power in the grand scheme of things: a noone in her own household, basically insignificant in the kingdom. Despite all of this, she is the only one to hold him accountable for his consistently selfish behavior. This seems to even out, at least artificially, the power imbalance inherent in the story of a prince and a peasant girl. Cinderella is the right match for Charles because she isn’t afraid to tell the truth to his face and to force him to confront his selfish and dishonest tendencies. As he is contrasted constantly with the villain who revels in dishonesty, this is what forces his character development and cements him as a heroic figure in his own story.
The idea of having the lovers meet before the essential ball is hardly a unique take in a Cinderella adaptation, nor is the urge to develop the Prince beyond the fairy tale beginnings. What is notable about the anime is how much these changes give Charles agency within the story. He is tossed around by the actions and decisions of his parents and the evil Duke, but he has the power to fight back. He plans and plots, his sneaking around becoming much more deliberate once it becomes clear that something is afoot. His actions become less selfish; he starts to seriously consider what it means to rule over a kingdom and what responsibilities he will eventually have to shoulder. The plotline of the hostile takeover by the two-dimensional villains gives a dash of adventure and peril in what is largely a slice of life story. Both Cinderella and Charles are depicted as powerless within their own circumstances—she cannot go against her stepmother and stepsisters, he cannot seem to avoid the expectations and manipulations of court life—but he spends the run of the show gaining more ability, knowledge, and power. His interactions with Cinderella and all of the villagers give him allies in his efforts to keep the villains out of power, which is what ultimately allows him to win in the long run. (This is an anime from the 90s; we can’t forget about the power of friendship).
Despite all of his ability to act and the direct action he is able to impose on the plot, however, he is still overpowered when it comes to the decision to hold a ball to find him a wife. At this point, he has already proven he has the kingdom’s best interest in mind by single-handedly taking down the coup to depose the King and Queen. The entire concern for matchmaking has been pushed along by the very villain he just deposed, but his parents immediately double down on the need to find him a princess. The story has allowed its characters to develop past their origin because of the plot it adds, but when it abruptly returns to the fairy-tale structure, the characters must be retied to the narrative train tracks. The Prince is given room to operate in his own plot thread but must bow to the circumstances of the traditional tale.
Part Three: The Busybody Princess
The Prince’s new lateral to control his destiny stands in contrast to Cinderella, who has little control in her own life, which almost wholly consists of scenarios relevant to the traditional fairy tale. Her interactions with other characters can be divided into life in and out of her home. At home, she is subject to the Steps, who are as vain, petty, and cruel as any other adaptation. They belittle, mock, and persecute Cinderella, who does her best despite her circumstances to continue to be kind to them. She is told repeatedly (mostly by the talking animals) that she doesn’t have to put up with this kind of treatment, she does anyway, always dismissing others’ concerns as overblown or unreasonable. Any support network is ineffective or disappears, forcing her to more or less go it alone with the occasional magical help from the requisite Fairy Godmother. Her father leaving begins the social isolation in earnest. True to many fairy-tale fathers, he is nonexistent until the end, when he tellingly shows up just in time for the wedding. She has no one to stand up for her, and she can’t do it herself.
Her role becomes to solve everyone’s problems. Cinderella watches people ride off into the sunset, then has to go home and face the fact that she is hardly more than a prisoner and a servant to her family. No matter the adventure she faces in the episode before, her life returns to the status quo dictated by the fairy-tale she originated from. Cinderella doesn’t resist anything with the Steps; she can’t. It would break the fragile status quo the universe imposes on her. She even goes out of her way to help the Steps, even going so far as to protect them when the situation calls for it, when they have proven time and again there is little to no reward for doing so. Cinderella’s presence frequently teaches people to do and be better, in a way a walking dispenser of Aesops. The Steps are not immune to this, but it rarely lasts longer than an episode, denying them character development until the bitter end. All of this originates from the need of the story to keep the status quo in Cinderella’s life as things progress outside of it. She can’t get her fairy-tale ending unless there is something to escape from, even as everything around her moves forward and improves. The best example of the main characters moving the plot forward and improving their situation is when both leads find themselves engaged to people they have no wish to marry. In both cases it benefits the villains of their respective plots; Cinderella cannot reason with her stepmother that she doesn’t want to marry some guy we’ve never met before just as Charles cannot escape the villain’s insistence that he marry his daughter. Cinderella’s power is best demonstrated in this situation. She is still constrained by her inability to outwardly resist her stepmother, but her meddling and problem-solving skills prove to be what saves her.
Cinderella is framed to say that her virtue is that she makes the best of a bad situation. This is supposedly an admirable trait, one that implies patience, meekness, and a certain level of unwavering kindness. Though not quite intended, her greatest trait is recontextualized not as a passive acceptance of whatever comes her way, but an almost devious ability to come out on top no matter the disadvantages or roadblocks to her success. Cinderella and its sister tales are the ultimate underdog story. No matter how far you push her down, she will inevitably end up the queen. Audiences relate and aspire to that tenacity, almost more than the wish fulfillment of overcoming those who hurt you. The Story of Cinderella walks the fine line of giving Cinderella enough agency to eventually win in every situation while still maintaining the status quo. Her optimism and patience are almost aggressive, forcing things to be better for others in stories she stumbles across. No matter the odds, things will improve. Her reward in the end seems more justified in this way.
Part Four: Active Animals
The animal side characters are essential in giving Cinderella friends without giving her the ability to escape her situation. She speaks to them the most, and they understand her the best of all the other characters. They can’t change the situation, but they can listen and be sidekicks. No one questions too heavily the animals’ presence, allowing them to believably play the part of pets. Charles actually calls Cinderella out on talking to the animals, but she pretends it’s nothing. The series pokes at the believability of its own construction but dismisses the questions as soon as the animals become the agents moving people forward in the story. Charles will implicitly trust the animals, even though he can’t understand them. They help out Cinderella in her little adventures, but they don’t take steps beyond whatever is the conflict of the week. They can’t do much to solve permanent problems, which makes sense, they’re animals. The biggest contribution the animals tend to make is to step in when someone is kidnapped (which happens a surprising amount) or otherwise incapacitated, going to find someone to actually solve the problem. Essentially, they can’t really act until someone tells them to, which is demonstrated from the beginning where they have to be given the power to speak to Cinderella by Paulette, the fairy godmother.
Despite all this, they do end up with distinct personalities. The original cast of a dog, bird, and girl and boy mouse don’t go through any character development, remain about the same stock characters that would be expected of them. As expected of a Cinderella story, when the night of the ball comes, her loyal friends are turned into the requisite footmen, coachmen, and driver, personalities intact for the length of their stay as humans. Transformed, they are distinctly themselves, though with not much more agency than to do what they’ve been doing before: giving Cinderella moral support and doing whatever Paulette tells them to.
What’s most interesting about the animal sidekicks and their development is the transformation of the Stepmother’s evil cat. Heavily modeled off of Lucifer of the Disney movie in both personality and looks, Mischa the cat is given the power of speech rather late in the game but ends up becoming an ally where she was previously a hinderance. Her character arc is actually distinctly trackable through the limited focus she is given in the lead up to her change of heart. It is the shift to the good side that allows her more agency in the form of speech and understanding like the other animal characters. It’s interesting to note that the cat has the best redemption arc of all of the ill-intentioned side characters, even more than the human characters. It is surprising to see in a fairy-tale inspired show, usually so set in their morality of good vs evil, that an evil sidekick (or the closest thing to one) is given the opportunity to reevaluate their stance within the morals of the fiction. She is not persuaded or won over, but rather decides that she has seen enough to help Cinderella. She spends the rest of the series in company with the other animals, often as the voice of reason and by far the least annoying of them. It is her change that makes the cat an interesting character, if only briefly, rather than lingering in the same stock personalities her fellow animals have been relegated to.
Part Five: Friends and Foes
Cinderella’s side of the plot becomes, of all things, a procedural. Fairy-tale television has always had a connection with the procedural genre, especially in relation to its origins in police procedurals. Rudy and Greenhill discuss both fairy tales’ and police procedurals’ occupation with justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation in their guidebook on fairy-tale TV. Often connected to the anthologizing tendency of fairy-tale centric shows, the procedural allows for a variety of shorter stories to be explored in individual episodes while allowing for a larger plot and reoccurring characters. The Story of Cinderella uses the procedural format to essentially give Cinderella something to do before the main events we are a familiar with from her story can begin. The interactions with side characters, whether episode specific or continuing in a more permanent role, reveal the character of the two leads, while also padding out the runtime for a full series.
Side characters in the series not originally found in the source material fall into one of two categories: flat single episode characters that have their problems solved then disappear or characters that begin that way only to return in later episodes with an almost surprising amount of character development. The first type is more common in the earlier episodes and follow general stereotypes of problems that need to be solved by Cinderella: a circus performer with stage fright; a poor musician and his high society girlfriend that need to be convinced to elope. After their problems are solved, they aren’t seen again. We learn only from their plots about Cinderella’s desire for the right thing to be done, even when it’s difficult or defies societal expectations. They are useful to the plot and not very interesting.
The most interesting characters are ones that start off utilitarian but then become reoccurring. Several characters begin as either a problem to be solved or a chess piece in the larger plot but then develop a distinct personality and flavor as the series progresses. Nearly all of them end up befriending the main pair despite being initially antagonistic or simply a barrier to them. Especially emblematic of this is Jan, a fortune teller first introduced in an early episode appropriately titled “The False Fortune Teller.” His formula of telling people what they want to hear in a mysterious cloak and false beard lands him and Cinderella in trouble in the village and with the stepmother. Convinced her daughters will be the ones to marry the Prince, she gives riches, room and board in exchange for the confirmation by crystal ball. Cinderella discovers he is a liar, something she finds reprehensible, and confronts him. Though initially upset with him, like any good-natured protagonist, she forgives him as they plot to keep the Steps happy without revealing the fraud. He’s initially characterized as almost wholly selfish, defrauding people out of their possessions in exchange for what is essentially a cold read. He doesn’t quit his dishonest job, but he and Cinderella find a common ground where they resolve the episode by lying while still becoming friends. Rather than meekly learning his lesson and disappearing as would be expected by any other single-episode antagonist, he reveals hidden depths that end up playing both into Cinderella’s arc and the resolution of the larger plot. For reasons that are never fully explained, or even fully accepted by the other characters, he actually can see the future on occasion. Jan joins other characters like the animal friends and the Fairy Godmother in telling Cinderella that there is hope outside of her situation, though she hardly believes him.
Jan’s development is directly paralleled by the later introduction of Marcell, who undergoes much of the same transformation from problem to ally. Brought to the attention of Cinderella and Charles by Jan himself, Marcell is more of a problem for the Prince, as he’s an actor being trained to impersonate the Prince by the villains. Jan seems to recognize that Cinderella and Charles are the best to solve the manipulation his friend finds himself trapped him. In fairy-tale worlds, the story is necessarily centered around the protagonist, with much of the action of secondary characters being for the benefit of the main characters. How the protagonists fit into the general world they inhabit isn’t important; the world fits around them. Adaptations in general, and this adaptation in particular, do not seem to fully clock to this idea, more interested in building the world they have extracted from the tale. Therefore, in this version, Cinderella and her Prince adopt the role of helper and problem solver, a role that is recognized by characters around them. They help in the case of Marcell who, like Jan, joins them whenever they need an extra pair of hands to solve the ongoing conspiracy or the dilemma of the week. Both become crucial in taking down the villain in the finale, though the final blow falls largely to Charles in the end.
In much the same way that Cinderella needs allies on her right hand to act as a sounding board for ideas and support in her interactions with the plot, Charles has his own sidekick. Alex the manservant is introduced as covering for Charles whenever he decides to hare off for the village or perform subterfuge for the sake of the kingdom. Cinderella gets her animals as sidekicks and Charles gets Alex. He is one of the more self-aware characters, frequently voicing the consequences of Charles actions, though those consequences never quite come to fruition. Of all the reoccurring side characters, he serves the most utilitarian use while still getting a return on personality. Nothing much changes for or about him but he serves as clear foil to Charles.
As far as the true villains of the series are concerned, they are expectedly underdeveloped. Duke Zarell, who serves as the primary antagonist to Charles, and the Stepmother follow parallels of infringing on Charles’s and Cinderella’s choices without much personality to accompany them. The more interesting villain-adjacent character is Isabel, the Duke’s daughter. Originally set up to be a boring but rather unremarkable obstacle as her father sets her to be engaged to Charles, she slowly develops a personality that she then grows from. She becomes increasingly annoying and self-centered as her efforts to be engaged to the prince fail and her father ignores her for his scheming. Charles wants nothing to do with her, often seeing her as more of a hinderance to his happiness than her father, though she is clearly a pawn in all of this. Her development comes when she finds herself in the company of Cinderella. Despite their differing personalities and backgrounds, Cinderella wins her over through her unflinching dedication to the ideals of friendship. The audience knows they are rivals for Charles’s affections, though they do not. Unfortunately, much of the comparisons between them fall into typical stereotypes surrounding rivalries between women in media, but they end as friends. In fact, Isabel doesn’t necessarily learn to be more like Cinderella, only to appreciate people like her more. Cinderella learns, if anything, to maybe be a bit more of a brat like Isabel and stand up for herself. This lesson of course does not last. The rivalry is never revealed, as Charles and Cinderella set her up to elope with her childhood friend to escape her neglectful father. There are parallels unintended between Isabel and Cinderella in regards to their escapes from their unideal family circumstances. Isabel’s escape by marriage with a love based in friendship foreshadows the possibility of Cinderella’s own, though the audience knows what is coming for Cinderella.
Why speak so much about the friends and power to act in Cinderella Monogatari? As an anime aimed at a teenage and younger audience, there is necessarily a large focus on friendship and the power held therein. The power of friendship is a well-trod path in many genres and traditions, but it is a stereotype in what the West has come to term as generic anime. The clearest reason for this is its intended audience. Anime the Japanese word simply means “animated.” It has little to do with style or country of origin; a Disney film or Sailor Moon would equally be called anime by any native Japanese speaker. Animated fair is given a wider credibility in Japan as an entertainment medium for both children and adults than in most of the West. Mainstream animated shows for adults produced in the West often capitalize on underlining the subversion between the medium and the message; the cartoonier the style, the more likely the contents will go out of the way to demonstrate that this “isn’t a kid show.” This assumption that animation is for children does not hold as much water in Japan’s highly demographically diverse animation culture. The approach of animation for all age groups clashes with the western idea of animation as inherently childish and is best revealed by what is exported over to the West.
The bulk of well-known anime outside of Japan is aimed at shoujo or shounen audiences, girls and boys between the ages of 7 and 18. With a few exceptions, western audiences saw shows aimed at children because that’s what they were expecting to see. When the Pokémon or Sailor Moon franchises did well, similar concepts were pushed for localization and accepted as normal by the new audience. What got through the language and cultural barrier allowing for entrance into the Western consciousness, especially a North American consciousness, was biased toward shows aimed at children with strong themes of justice and friendship. These ideals are universal and translate despite differences between the producer and the audience. Audiences began to expect that this was just what anime was, leading to a feedback loop and growing stereotype that was based on only one cross section of animated television coming out of Japan. These perceptions have begun to shift in the past decade or so, with anime no longer being quite such a niche interest.
Cinderella Monogatari is a perfect example of an anime intended for Western consumption when only the very geekiest looked beyond the base of highly localized imports from Japan. Its use of familiar visuals and themes in an already well-trod story is to maximize its potential audience. There is no barrier for entry, no hurdle of another culture to overcome, though there are clear roots in anime conventions if one knows what to look for. Much of anime dwells on themes of friendship, justice, and gaining the power to overcome the obstacles before you. The bulk of fairy tale canon linger on the same ideals. With big, broad stories and characters with almost too much heart, we are drawn into believing something larger than life, where the power of friendship conquers all and good always, always wins.
Takeuchi, Kayo. “The Genealogy of Japanese ‘Shōjo Manga’ (Girls’ Comics) Studies.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, no. 38, 2010, pp. 81–112. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42772011. Accessed 19 Oct. 2020.
Rudy, J. and Greenhill, P., 2020. Fairy-Tale TV. New York: Routeledge.