#1 World Masterpiece Theater
My Daddy Long Legs is one of the later shows of the original run of the World Masterpiece Theater, a yearly project where classic books aimed at children would be adapted into long-running TV anime. As the title implies, this one adapts Jean Webster’s novel Daddy-Long-Legs. It was animated by Nippon Animation with Kazuyoshi Yokota, who was assistant director and did storyboards for other World Masterpiece Theater shows, in the directing chair.
This adaptation tells the amazing story of Judy Abbott. She is a young girl who lives a tedious life in an American orphanage, until one day a rich man decides to sponsor her education. Judy will go to school and receive an allowance, but in return, she must write letters to the man to notify him of her progress. However, the identity of her benefactor will never be revealed and all letters addressed to her will be written and signed by his assistant.
Like all World Masterpiece Theater shows, this is a lengthy anime that enjoys both stellar animation and quality directing. In fact, My Daddy Long Legs is my favorite World Masterpiece Theater series, thanks in large part to its excellent source material.
#2 Secretly an orphan
As Judy starts her school career, she finds herself becoming roommates with Sally McBride and Julia Pendleton. Sally is a plain, but smart, joyful, and caring person, whereas Julia is the spitting image of a spoiled rich girl. While she appears to be doing a good job at befriending these two, it always feels like she is keeping them at arm’s length. After all, if she lets people get close to her, then they might learn that she doesn’t belong.
Judy is always haunted by the knowledge that she is different and, in a way, lesser than those around her. It weighs on her to know that she is surrounded by the very rich people she once loathed and envied, so she lies about having a family and keeps the orphanage a secret. Scenes that deal with this are often saddening, as Judy is an emotional and sympathetic protagonist; watching her doubt whether to truly call people friends or even accept someone’s love, simply because of her secret, is downright tragic.
This aspect of her character is adapted well and used to create some of the most gripping moments of the anime, including much of the finale.
#3 A product of the times
Jean Webster published Daddy-Long-Legs in 1912 and she herself lived from 1876 to 1916. As such, the novel and this anime take place in a time-period very different from our own. Something which the anime is really good at showing.
I was especially fond of the early episodes in the orphanage. A place where children are dependent on the care of each other while under the strict supervision religious tutors. Judy stands out as an intelligent girl, who silently resents the wealthy people who treat the orphanage like a pity zoo. It really gets you intrigued in the history and allows you to view this period in time from the perspective of someone at the very bottom of society. As the audience, you get to see the injustices of the times and the disparity between those born wealthy and those doomed to poverty.
#4 The mysterious benefactor
Besides Judy trying to hide her lack of family, she also has to deal with Mr. John Smith, the alias used by the mysterious, rich man who finances her study. She only ever saw the man’s shadow, leading to her affectionately calling him “Daddy Long Legs” in her letters. However, it’s not always clear what his intentions really are.
Sure, he pays for her education, but also asks to be frequently written despite making no effort to respond. Judy is excited and thankful when she writes, yet even she can’t help but feel disheartened when her letters go unanswered, or worse, are replied to by John Smith’s assistant. While she frequently overcomes her doubts when Daddy Long Legs shows his kindness or writes a more personal letter, over time his intentions become even more worrisome.
As Judy becomes increasingly interested in becoming independent, Daddy Long Legs tries to keep her on a leash instead. He even goes so far as to outright demand she drops some of her ambitions! And it’s never clear whether he is doing this for her benefit or his own; if this is going to be a story about Judy breaking free from his oppression or discovering that the mysterious stranger was right all along. And who is that Daddy Long Legs anyway?
#5 Romantic trials
My Daddy Long Legs is best categorized as a coming-of-age drama, so addressing the matter of romance is inescapable. As the three girls grow up, boys soon become a factor in their lives and force them into some difficult situations.
Judy attracts the attention of a football player from the nearby university, but it is actually Julia who becomes romantically interested in him, straining the friendships between the three. Judy, meanwhile, has an interest in Julia’s older uncle, which makes you wonder if this is just a youthful crush or something with actual prospects. Romances like this take up a huge chunk of the final episodes and really help bring some of the characters arcs to a close. In particular, it made me really appreciate how well-paced the arcs of Sally and Julia were.
As for Judy, the romantic problems she faces are made worse by all the above. The difference in status, the fear of letting people come too close, and the uncertainty of whether Daddy Long Legs will approve or have his assistant draft another demanding letter; it all serves to make her too anxious to engage in any romance at all.
For more on the World Masterpiece Theater, check out: The World Masterpiece Theater in retrospect