Anime and the Art of Adaptation

I borrowed this book because it has a chapter on The Tale of Genji, but I have to give it credit for getting me to finally watch Grave of the Fireflies. If you’re like me and haven’t watched that movie, what are you waiting for? It’s a fantastic film and I cried buckets (even though I knew what was coming).

Anime and the Art of Adaptation has two main goals. The first is to argue that adaptations are more than just inferior variations on the original, but rather, through their interaction and appropriation of the original works, become something new. And through the emphasis of the adaptive work, new ways of thinking of the main work can be found. The second goal is to examine a variety of anime series and movies to see how they interact with the original works that they were adapted from. The works that the book analyses are:

  • Belladonna of Sadness
  • Grave of the Fireflies
  • Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Chapter title for these three: The Nightmare of History)
  • Gakuntsuo: The Count of Monte Cristo (Chapter title: Epic Adventure with a Sci-Fi Twist)
  • The Snow Queen (Chapter title: The Fairy Tale Reimagined)
  • Romeo x Juliet (Chapter title: Romance Meets Revolution)
  • Umineko No Naku Koro Ni (Chapter Title: A Magical Murder Enigma – this one was unusual because the original was a visual novel game)
  • The Tale of Genji (Chapter Title: A Tapestry of Courtly Life)

Most of the anime mentioned here are sufficiently famous that I already knew what they were about, even if I hadn’t watched them. There are varying levels of plot summary (the first chapter has very little, while later chapters do explain more about the anime), so it would be best if you’re somewhat familiar with what all the shows are about.

This review would be six times as long if I decided to summarise everything covered in the book, but I did think that the author did a good job talking about how anime works, although often overlooked, have their own value as adaptations. The one chapter that I want to summarise what I learnt about would be A Tapestry of Courtly Life. Some interesting points are:

  • Historically, “The Tale of Genji‘s openness to adaptation is inscribed in the dynamics of cultural production and consumption typical of the epoch in which it came into being.” Basically, reading in Heian Japan wasn’t a private act but was a communal practice. Also, everyone liked to talk about how good they were at artistic stuff so of course there are tons of “reincarnations” from The Tale of Genji. One example that immediately popped into mind was The Tale of Genji Scroll, which could be seen either as fanart or the first manga adaptation of the story.
  • People back then were super sensitive to everything, not just words – your conduct and posture were also regulated. This means there was tension even in what would be mundane scenes to us. The book doesn’t offer concrete examples, so this is one more avenue I should look into.
  • They also believed that good looks meant good character.
  • The anime adaptation by Dezaki focuses on the supernatural aspects, such as the deaths of Yuugao and Aoi because of the “curses” of Lady Rokujou. In the anime, Lady Rokujou is “portrayed as a prototypical hannya (般若), or jealous woman, and hence one of the most dreaded of Japanese demons. The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris does cover superstitions and religions of that time, so this is something to look out for when re-reading the original text and Morris’s book on Heian Japan.
  • Kaimami (垣間見) refers to seeing through the gap in the hedge and is “used in literature to allude to the frisson yielded by the experience of seeing and being seen surreptitiously.” Given that women were mostly hidden away back then, I can’t believe I missed that this concept. I wonder if it’s also related to the way women arranged their junihitoe – was it to be “accidentally” seen as part of their sleeves spilled out from behind the screen?

There also two very interesting articles mentioned here that I want to read. If I can find, I’ll definitely review/summarise them here too.

Overall, this was an interesting book. The whole thing is written in an academic style, but it’s not insurmountable – after all, I managed to read it. And it made me want to watch Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, Romeo x Juliet, and The Tale of Genji. Now to ask around and see if any of my friends own any of these anime.

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