Literature in Anime

Animation (or anime) has an interesting role in contemporary Japanese culture. Artist Takashi Murakami describes post war Japanese culture as “superflat,” which is to say devoid of any social stratification, consisting of a hegemonic pop that encompasses the working to the affluent classes. High and Low Culture alike are subordinate to pop, and we get a society with an upper class that appreciates lower class elements and vice versa. Anime plays an integral part of this as one of the most dominant media in Japanese pop entertainment. It is accessible to all levels of society, and thus all cultural elements of society are therein popularized.

Literature, that cultural element that, in many cultures defines the High, and how anime treats it, is perhaps the best way to demonstrate anime’s role in maintaining the superflatness of Japanese pop. Enough anime adaptations of literary works both of Japan and from outside to make the Japanese one of the most well versed people in the world today, and to make out of Japanese culture one in which literature becomes common knowledge.

Today, Literature is an indelible part of anime. It is not unusual for an anime title to casually allude to literature. Detective Conan, for instance, is rife with allusions to Detective novels both western and Japanese, and in one episode there’s a casual allusion to the Kabuki play Kanjincho in the dialogue, while Naruto has many allusions to the Ninja stories popular during the Edo period. But here I shall try to focus on anime titles that are specifically dedicated to anime, and see how ultimately, they contribute to Murakami’s Superflat.

A still from Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro no Umiwashi (1943)

From Toei’s 1958 animated film Hakujaden, the first colored animated film from Japan

It is hardly surprising that anime’s link to literature begins early on in its history. Among the first works of animation produced in Japan are a 1918 short animated film adaptation of the Japanese folk tale Urashima Taro, Mitsuyo Seo’s two Momotaro animations during the Second World War, and Toei’s 1958 colored film Hakujaden, an adaptation of the Chinese folk tale “The Legend of the White Serpent.” As these works rank among the baby steps of the anime industry, their historiography has largely been focused on the innovation they brought to the art of animation. But it will suffice to say that they brought the folk tales from which there were based to a , slowly dominating medium, and consequently keep them in the popular consciousness.

Collective Poster of the World Masterpiece Theater

This function of keeping literature in the popular consciousness is continued throughout much of anime’s history of literary adaptation. In the 1960s, this took a Western-centric turn,influenced by Japan’s post-war obsession with the west. Japanese demand for Western culture was very high, and media companies sought all sources of material to supply the demand. Western Literature was an obvious source, and a rich source at that. And so one of anime’s longest running traditions, the World Masterpiece Theater, started. This series of series (consequently a “staple”) was of TV series adaptations of classic western literary works. Although the first among these series (Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo) was not an adaptation, it drew heavily from the storybook style of storytelling, and the subsequent series (the immediate one after being an adaptation of Finnish author Tove Jansson’s Moomin books) were all adaptations. The series’ target audience was largely children, though their appeal was definitely not limited thereto (my mother recalls crying while watching Little Prince Cedie when I was still a baby)  World Masterpiece Theater would go on to see unprecedented success, not only in Japan (where almost every child would grow up watching these adaptations) but abroad as well, with three of the series (Tom Sawyer, Swiss Family Robinson, and Little Women) dubbed in the US, and Princess Sarah and Little Prince Cedie among others dubbed in the Philippines, even seeing live action film adaptations. World Masterpiece Theater spanned 30 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a recent revival on the 2007 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I will admit that I will be being grossly unjust to this monumental series in trying to keep to this blog post’s topic, for there is much to be said about how World Masterpiece Theater actually increased the worldwide popularity of some of its source materials, about how it influenced the moral virtues of an entire generation of Japanese children, and about how it contributed to Japan’s growing cultural xenophilia.  To even list down all the titles in the series would already be an excess, and instead I will just refer you to the Wikipedia article of the World Masterpiece Theater.

Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service

Sophie and Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle

Arrietty and Sho from Arrietty

Let me just point out that it sparked the trend of western literature adaptations that would be continued in other media, such us the animated film. One of the key minds behind the early stages of the World Masterpiece Theater was an upstart animator named Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki saw success with his role in some of the series (most notable among which was Heidi, Girl of the Alps), and in 1984 he began making films under his own animation company (Studio Ghibli). Ghibli would go on to produce some of the most successful animated films of all time, among which are five literary adaptations: Laputa: Castle in the Sky, inspired by an episode in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (albeit a loose adaptation); Kiki’s Delivery Service (based on a novel by Eiko Kadano); Howl’s Moving Castle (based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones); Earthsea (based on the  series by Ursula K. Le Guin); and Arrietty (based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton). Kiki’s Delivery Service continues the didactic tradition for children began by World Masterpiece Theater, highlighting mainly Kiki’s growth. Howl’s Moving Castle is a romantic coming of age of an ingenue in the hands of a morally round character, and it starts Miyazaki’s signature moral ambiguity in his works (which would perhaps culminate with Princess Mononoke) . Arrietty, another coming of age story, is a beautiful discussion on the fragility of human relationships. I have yet to see Laputa and Earthsea.

Poster of Winter Days

In 2006 auteur Kihachiro Kawamoto gathered a veritable collection of animators from all over the world to animate one link in a renku session (link verse) between the haiku poet Matsuo Basho and 5 other poets, creating the film Winter Days. The film‘s polyphonic direction demonstrates the very heterogeneity in a renku, demonstrating at once Japanese animation’s returned introspection into the Japanese literary tradition, and its place as among the most avant garde in the international animation scene. The film is also notable for being the first to be dedicated to poetry.

Poster for Yotsuya Kaidan

Poster for Tenshu Monogatari

One of anime’s most prestigious time slots, Fuji Television’s NoitaminA , was given to a series produced by Toei Animation in 2006 called Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. The series actually consists of three independent narratives, the first two of which are adaptations of famous Japanese plays. The first story is of the most famous plays in the Japanese dramatic repertoire, Yotsuya Kaidan by Tsuruya Namboku IV. Based on perhaps the most famous Japanese horror story,  this kabuki play has acquired the same jinxed reputation as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the anime adaptation, to the delight of many literary buffs, points that out explicitly. The second story, Tenshu Monogatari, is based on a play by Kyoka Izumi. More a tragic love story than a horror story, this play nevertheless demonstrates the Japanese knack for making a striking tragedy, and captures that Muromachi aesthetic of yugen, transcendental mystique.

Poster for Genji Monogatari Sennenki

In 2009 NoitaminA aired another literary adaptation, Genji Monogatari Sennenki. Casual fans of Japanese literature will be familiar with Murasaki Shikubu’s opus. My attempt to watch this series did not fare well: I was not in a state of mind for watching a literary adaptation when I tried it, so I ended up abandoning it after the first episode. What I can say though is that it demonstrates that exquisite background design that is making the adaptation of Japanese literature en vogue in the past decade. I intend to give the series another chance in the near future.

Poster for No Longer Human

Poster for Sakura no mori no mankai no shita

Poster for Spider’s Thread

I cannot fail to mention here one of the few titles explicitly dedicated to literature: Aoi Bungaku, a 2009 series in the same multi-narrative and collaborative fashion started in Winter Days and continued in Ayakashi. Aoi Bungaku contains 6 different stories, each interpreted by a different group of animators. In order, they are: No Longer Human (based on the classic novel by Osamu Dazai); Sakura no mori no mankai no shita (based on the short story by Ango Sakaguchi); Kokoro (based on the novel by Natsume Soseki); Run, Melos! (based on another novel by Osamu Dazai); The Spider’s Thread (based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa); and Hell Screen (based on another short story by Akutagawa). As can be observed, the adaptations are all based on works right before to after the Meiji Restoration, which brought a great wave of western influence into Japanese intellectual life. No Longer Human, with its gloomy colors and faint background music, captures the overall sense of depression the dominates Dazai’s novel (and ultimately his life). Sakura no mori no Mankai no shita can only be described as strange, and it being exquisitely difficult to find the original story, I have no point of reference. Strangely enough, I do not recall my impressions when I watched Kokoro, Run, Melos! and Hell Screen, and I intend to also rewatch these episodes when time permits. The adaptation of The Spider’s Thread, a must read for any fan of literature, feels short of giving justice to this classic Akutagawa story.

Poster for Un-Go

NoitaminA featured another literary adaptation in 2011 with Un-Go, a series loosely based on the novel Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō  by Ango Sakaguchi. The series, which sets the Meiji detective novel into the distant future, in itself is delightfully interesting and intelligent, with very round characters and many points of moral dilemma to ponder on. But access to Sakaguchi’s work proves once again to be difficult, and I cannot make a decent assessment as to its quality as an adaptation. But, considering how Sakura no mori was treated  in Aoi Bungaku, I cannot help but be curious what in Sakaguchi’s works attracts avant garde (and downright bizarre) adaptations!

Poster for Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi

This year, another anime dedicated to literature is running, Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi. It is a “liberal interpretation” of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (the anthology of 100 waka poems compiled by Fujiwara no Teika), and features Teika himself talking about the background stories behind each poem. Because much of Heian poetry is highly private, to be given access to the back story with the appealing modernity of anime best represents how anime in general brings what should have been High Culture to popularity. And because there are subtle elements in this series that hint at homage to classic artistic motifs (such as the clouds and pine trees in the backgrounds), it also elevates the popular to the level of high culture. Perhaps to best demonstrate it, Ariwara no Narihira, the classic Heian beau homme, becomes the iroppoi ikemen bishounen, and consequently, the contemporary iroppoi ikemen bishounen is paralleled to the standard of Heian court gallantry. And this ultimately shows that though the Superflat remains, the Japanese are slowly returning to the appreciation of their native cultural heritage.

I am certain, though, that this list (and consequently the evolution of Japanese aesthetics) won’t end with just that! I have yet to see adaptations of many popular Akutagawa stories, as well as the widely anthologized play Aya no Tsuzumi, and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. With endless possibilities and unlimited sources of material, anime adaptations of literature will continue well into the future, demonstrating and influencing that remarkable people’s artistic sensibilities.

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