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British influence in Japanese animation

Andrew Osmond on the Anglophile tradition in Japanese animation.

During the movie, Eureka 7: Good Night, Sleep Tight, Young Lovers, the rebels at the story’s heart are introduced as the “Children of Neverland” – the plot has a rather bitter twist on the Peter Pan idea of children who don’t have to grow up. It’s surprising that a twenty-first century Japanese science-fiction film should allude to a piece of Edwardian children’s literature. But then, British kids’ fiction has a way of cropping up in anime.

In the Eureka 7 TV serial, there was no Peter Pan motif. Instead, the villain was motivated by a murderous interpretation of The Golden Bough, the study of myth and religion by Scottish anthropologist James Frazer. However, children’s literature still figures in the TV Eureka. One episode had the heroes carrying out a daring operation, using codenames like “Alice,” “Red Queen” and “Humpty,” all from Lewis Carroll.

This July will see another anime Alice, with the Japanese release of the movie Alice in the Country of Hearts, based on a game and manga series. Alice will be voiced by actress Rie Kugimiya, no stranger to being changed by magic – she’s the Japanese voice of Alphonse Elric in the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise.

Chihiro in Wonderland

Spirited Away

There are special reasons why the Japanese like Alice. It’s conducive to gothic and Gothic Lolita imagery; indeed, the latter fashion was inspired by Victorian clothing. But that’s not the whole story. What about Alice’s influence on the most acclaimed kids’ anime of all? True, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away was hailed by critics for its exotic Japaneseness, while for Hayao Miyazaki it was rooted in such local tales as “The Sparrow’s Inn” and “The Mouse’s Castle”, where people are taken to magic places. But Spirited Away also relates to Alice, with its “girl in fantasy world” set-up and its weird, nightmarish characters.

Tenniel Alice

Supervising animator Masashi Ando said that Yubaba, the witch in Spirited Away, resembled a character from an abandoned Ghibli project. This proto-Yubaba was “drawn as a grotesque character, the kind that might appear in the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland.” Compare Yubaba to Sir John Tenniel’s famed drawings of the Duchess in Alice, themselves based on a great Flemish painting, A Grotesque Old Woman by Quentin Matsys. Separated at birth? We think so.

“Britain is a treasure trove of children’s authors,” declared Miyazaki in a BBC interview in 1994. “Eleanor Farjeon, Rosemary Sutcliffe [whose book, The Eagle of the Ninth, has been filmed as The Eagle], Philippa Pearce [Tom’s Midnight Garden]… There are so many of them.” Interestingly, the writers he names are women, as are the two British authors who’ve been adapted by Ghibli so far. One is the late Diana Wynne Jones, among Britain’s most feted fantasy writers, whose book Howl’s Moving Castle was filmed by Miyazaki in 2004.

The other author is Mary Norton, who inspired Ghibli’s new film The Borrower Arrietty. It’s based on Norton’s classic 1952 book The Borrowers, about a race of people a few inches tall. As mentioned in a press release from Norton’s home town of Leighton, Japan was inundated with foreign children’s literature after World War II, and books like The Borrowers gained huge followings. The Ghibli anime was directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi and was a hit in Japan; it’s now scheduled for British cinemas this August. Ironically, while Miyazaki portrayed London in Sherlock Hound and Wales in Laputa, both Ghibli adaptations take their British stories elsewhere; Howl is relocated to Alsace in France, and Arrietty is moved to the same Tokyo district as Studio Ghibli itself.

The British Invasion

Japan is fond of children’s literature from round the world, not just Britain. Two iconic names in Japan are Finland’s Moomin books and Canada’s Anne of Green Gables. Such books have inspired dozens of TV anime, often well known in Europe but unknown in Britain. They include British-based anime such as a German co-produced Alice in Wonderland (1983); Twins at St. Clare’s (1991), from Enid Blyton’s school stories; and The Psammead (1985), from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It! about a wish-giving sand-fairy. There were also three series inspired by the writer Frances Hodgson Burnett: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1988), The Secret Garden (1991) and A Little Princess (1985).

Anglophone countries, however, generally only get unofficial anime remakes like Negima (which is nicknamed “Love Hogwarts,” by fans); the Alice-flavoured Serial Experiments Lain (in which the net turns Earth into a freakily distorted Looking-Glass House); and CLAMP’s naughty ‘90s video Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland (“Those are knobs?”). Meanwhile, the first five parts of the anime Peter Pan (1989) were released on a British DVD that can be bought online, though the imports never got past Volume One.

Another anime with a British connection is the 2000 film The Boy who Saw the Wind, based on a novel by Clive William Nicol, born in Wales but now a Japanese citizen and celebrity naturalist. It’s not clear if Nicol’s source book was ever published in English. However, the film’s hero is a boy whose parents are murdered by an evil regime; Nicol’s own father vanished when the Japanese took Singapore in World War II.

More recently, British writer Alex Shearer wrote the children’s novel Bootleg, a horrific fantasy about a health-conscious government banning… chocolate. If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the anime Chocolate Underground, which was screened at London’s BFI Southbank a couple of years ago. The Bootleg book also became a girls’ manga in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret, and a live-action CBBC series filmed in Melbourne.

Swallows and Amazon

But let’s end with a last note about Miyazaki. The Ghibli co-founder is fascinated by the Swallows and Amazons novels by Arthur Ransome, though as a leftie he dislikes postwar British children’s books being “too concerned with the world of the rich.” Ransome’s books have children sailing, camping, being independent, and in Miyazaki’s words, “really trying to experience and enjoy life.” There are parallels with Kiki’s Delivery Service (based on a Japanese book), but perhaps some day Miyazaki will put Swallows and Amazons to anime. After all, his beloved Earthsea books have been taken…

Eureka Seven: The Movie is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment on 18th April.

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