Japanese animation is often based on Japanese novels and manga, which are Japanese comic books. However, sometimes Japanese animators choose Western novels as their source material — novels that you may be familiar with. Watch anime film and series adaptations of Western novels in visually stunning formats you’re likely to find only in anime.
“Howl’s Moving Castle”
Miyazaki Hayao, head of Studio Ghibli and widely considered the “Japanese Walt Disney,” produces stories featuring strong young female leads. His 2004 movie “Howl’s Moving Castle” is based on British author Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel of the same name. Set in a medieval fantasy world, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features Sophie, a young woman cursed by a witch to become an old woman and the charming Howl, a magician who lives in a castle that moves around the countryside.
The anime film departs from the plot of the novel — adding a war that doesn’t exist into the book, for starters — so it’s unique take on the story for people who have already read it. However, what it provides that the book can’t is visual spectacle. There’s something magical about the way Miyazaki envisioned the moving castle.
Studio Gonzo’s 2004 TV anime series “Gankutsuou,” which means “The King of the Cavern,” is based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Set in a futuristic sci-fi setting with medieval flair, “Gankutsou” follows a charming count manipulating Albert de Morcerf, a young man who eventually discovers the Count was once violently betrayed by Albert’s parents. The anime focuses primarily on the relationship between the Count and Albert. This is unlike the original book, which started chronologically with Albert’s parents’ betrayal before Albert was born.
The anime is also unique in that space travel is part of the story and the count is a blue-skinned alien that more accurately accentuates his “foreign” quality. The anime is critically regarded for its bright color palette and textured colorization process.
“Tales from Earthsea”
The New York Times calls “Tales from Earthsea” an example of facing the dark side in yourself as opposed to facing external evil forces. That made it a perfect story for Studio Ghibli and the directorial debut of Miyazaki Hayao’s son, Goro. Based on American writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s series of Earthsea fantasy novels, the first of which was published in 1964, “Tales from Earthsea,” is a sprawling fantasy mostly based on the third book in the series.
The story focuses on a prince named Arren, who murders his father in the opening scene without even knowing why he feels compelled to do so. He runs, taking the king’s magical blade with him and winds up traversing the country with Lord Sparrowhawk, a sorcerer and adventurer who wants to restore peace to the kingdom. Unlike other live-action adaptations of Le Guin’s work, the anime “Tales from Earthsea” presents the fantasy environment in a beautiful watercolor palette, although the author herself was not a fan of the liberties the studio took with her story.
“Romeo x Juliet”
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has seen more play, movie and TV adaptations than practically any other classical work of literature. Still, it’s worth watching Studio Gonzo’s 2007 TV anime series “Romeo x Juliet.” Gone is the passive Juliet and the completely lovesick Romeo; in their place are two strong, compelling characters on opposite sides of a war who fall madly in love.
Taking place in “Neo Verona,” a futuristic fantasy version of Italy, the Montagues are tyrannical rulers of the city following a coup sixteen years before in which they killed all the Capulets, the then-rulers. The sole survivor saved by Capulet loyalists was Juliet. As a teenager, she is out for revenge, donning a mask and fighting tyranny on the city streets as the Red Whirlwind. Her hatred for the Montagues comes crashing down when she meets the prince, Romeo, who’s kind, caring and unlike his bloodthirsty relatives. The two must fight to change the world if they want to be together.
Watching an anime adaptation of a Western work of literature you may be already familiar is an excellent way to introduce yourself to the genre of Japanese animation or to celebrate an already developed appreciation for the art form. Anime is visually stunning and imaginative. As you’ll see from any of these adaptations, anime puts a new spin on stories unlike any versions you’ve seen before.
… written by Mitsuaki Abe is an anime blogger and long-time fan of Japanese films. He’s also a professor of East Asian Studies at a small liberal arts college.