Aug 8, 2022
Has anyone ever heard of Ai no Gakkou Cuore Monogatari before this? Yeah, me either. I didn't learn about this anime until earlier this year, when a fansub group I follow decided to sub it, as it had never gotten translated in any format before this. But I immediately decided to watch it as soon as I read the news because it's an anime based on a Western novel and reminiscent of the World Masterpiece Theater despite not being part of that staple. How could I not want to watch it? And as you can tell by the rating, I'm glad I did, because Ai
no Gakkou Cuore Monogatari is actually a pretty sweet anime that's also criminally underrated. Based on the 1886 novel by Edmondo de Amicis, Cuore, Libro per i Ragazzi (translation being Heart: an Italian Schoolboy's Journal), the story centers on Enrico Bottini, a schoolboy living in Turin, Italy late in the 19th century and his experiences going to school, enduring hardships alongside his friends, and learning life lessons from his new teacher, Mr. Perboni. That's really it as far as the story goes. There isn't much in terms of an overarching plot, and the series is pretty episodic.
But before I talk more about Cuore, I want to talk about something that actually spawned from it. For all you WMT fans out there, you may be familiar with an anime called 3000 Leagues In Search of Mother, which aired in Japan in 1976. The interesting thing about 3000 Leagues is that it's not based on a whole novel, but rather, a tiny excerpt from a single chapter of Cuore itself. In Cuore, there are segments where Mr. Perboni tells moral tales to his students in order to teach them life lessons. One of those stories happened to be a story of a boy named Marco going from Genoa, Italy all the way to Argentina to find his mother. I don't know who did this, but somebody looked at that part of the novel and said "Hey! Why don't we make a whole series out of this one segment?" Basically, the producers for that anime took the very basic idea and timeline and built a whole story out of it from the ground up. Ironically enough, Cuore itself wouldn't get an anime adaptation until five years later in 1981, and it wasn't included in the World Masterpiece Theater.
Moving on to Cuore itself, the animation is...alright. Pretty limited, which is understandable considering when it was first made, but what it lacks in actual motion, it makes up for with non-standard but charming, distinct character designs, nicely painted backgrounds, and its attention to detail in regards to the setting. Though Cuore does have a pretty glaring issue which, unfortunately, has been common with series like it: the series can never seem to get its characters' names consistent in terms of spelling. At one point, Enrico's friend Crossi's name is spelled Crosi in one scene, but then it's spelled Crossi in another scene. In a later episode, Father Fernando's name is spelled as Felnando, with the L being capitalized in the middle for some reason. The hell? Have the staff never bothered to hire proofreaders or something? I don't have as much to say about the soundtrack. It's dated, but still pretty nice, all things considered, using plenty of woodwinds and accordions, though some of the higher pitched background music can get a little grating on one's ears. Both the opening and ending themes are very nicely sung, though.
Now, I know I said Cuore as a series is fairly episodic, not following a linear narrative, just showing Enrico's school and family life, but that doesn't mean there isn't any character development. Similarly to the shows in the WMT, all the characters are shown growing up and maturing, for better and for worse, are forced to come to terms with their flaws, and really change throughout the series. Cuore isn't the most original story out there that explored this concept, but it's main charm is about highlighting the every day struggles of boyhood. Enrico and his family are all charming, likeable characters with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and the series really goes out of its way to give the same treatment to Enrico's classmates. Seriously, Cuore does a stupendous job of really giving a lot of time and depth to Enrico's friends and classmates, even those outside his social circle, whereas most series wouldn't give a damn about any character that isn't relevant to the main story. Every one of Enrico's friends, from the large, dependable Garrone, to the overweight, quiet yet mischievous bookworm Stardi (Who's my favorite, BTW), have different sides to them that give them more color and dimension than most series care to give, and I'm so happy Cuore cared enough about its ensemble cast to flesh them out and make them feel like people...most of the time. I did feel one character's turnaround at the very end came out of nowhere, but it didn't negatively affect my enjoyment of the series. One thing I can absolutely say in Cuore's favor is that I feel Mr. Perboni is one of the most well-written teachers I've seen depicted in an anime. He's strict, but not overly so to the point of being sadistic or heartless. He's depicted as a reasonable man who can be stern when he feels it to be necessary, but actually takes the time to listen to and reach out to his students when they have problems, never resorting to doling out punishments just for kicks and giggles.
Cuore, as a series, is fairly wholesome and optimistic, rarely ever resorting to cliches and actually making an effort to treat serious subject matter with respect, but like the WMT, it isn't afraid to show bad things happening to children. Granted, a lot of that is limited to the stories Mr. Perboni tells to his class to teach them moral lessons, like a story about a boy offering to be a lookout for an army, only to get shot and killed in the process of doing so, or a story Mr. Perboni tells about a kid getting stabbed to death because he got into one fight too many, leaving his elderly grandmother all alone. The series tackles issues such as bullying, poverty, the importance of an education, and something I don't see get tackled in a lot of anime: Adult illiteracy. Cuore treats its subject matter fairly well...except for one: Child abuse. Without spoiling anything, two episodes focus on two characters being abused by their parental figures, showing how their abuse affects them and whatnot, which is fairly good at first...but the resolutions to the episodes come off as way too optimistic and treacly for my liking, and winding up coming with their own sets of issues, with one episode straight out ending with the abusive parent magically learning the error of their ways and instantly changing for the better right then and there...which absolutely does not happen in real life. That one in particular really broke my suspension of disbelief, especially since I've seen other shows, even WMT shows, that tackled the subject with far more nuance and sensitivity. Also, this is more of a personal nitpick, but some of the characters' voices can border on being really high pitched and grating for those who have sound sensitivity like I do.
As far as accuracy to the book goes, I can't say, as I haven't read the original novel. I did find out there's an English translation out, so I might check it out when I'm able. In conclusion, Ai no Gakkou Cuore Monogatari is a fairly sweet, wholesome show that does make some missteps, but still manages to be charming and fun all around. People might not like the series' episodic format, the limited animation, or the non-standard character designs, but fans of the World Masterpiece Theater, me included, will definitely get their fix with this series. Plus, I'm super glad that fansub group decided to take a chance on it, as I never would have seen it if they hadn't, and I highly recommend it for people who are looking for an old-school slice-of-life series that's full of heart.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8
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