Villian’s Exposition: Faulkner in Anime?

One of the nice things about cinema and television, as media, is that they can transport the viewer to an imagined world with greater precision than a novel or radio drama. This isn’t to say that books do a bad job at it, and, in fact, I find that a well-written story will often immerse me in the world of the tale far better than if there were visuals. However, because television and film are audiovisual media—rather than “videolinguistic,” to create a word—they can effectively create a world that all viewers will at least perceive as the same, if not necessarily interpret similarly.

And honestly, this is one of the reasons I like that we’re seeing so many cinematic and television adaptations of famous novels. It’s nice to see an old work return to popularity among the I-don’t-want-to-read-it generation, and plenty interesting to actually see how other people interpreted the same stories. Yet it is the act of cementing these stories—forcing them into a single, uniform scheme of the senses—that makes them accessible to our oh-so-lazy lives.

For those of you who didn’t know, anime creators have long had a love affair with famous, and not so famous, works of Western literature. Not just as inspirational subtext, as in Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (which bills itself as “inspired by the Jules Verne novel: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and features the Nautilus and Captain Nemo), but as direct and credited adaptations of European and American novels and theater. Les Miserables, Poirot, Moby Dick, The Sound of Music, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Swiss Family Robinson and Peter Pan all received anime film or series treatment. Indeed, there was even a project entitled “World Masterpiece Theatre” which employed the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, to create anime movies and series based on famous literature from all over the world (which, you may note, was responsible for many of the above titles, and many others, too).

But, barring the screenwriter who is a rabid fan of a particular novel, why would someone produce a work based on something to which they could never purchase the rights? It seems to run counter to many of the core tenets of making a profit in the Japanese animation industry, which is generally heavy on the merchandising, to put it lightly.

While I’m sure this question has developed into its own field of inquiry in the critical and academic study of film, I’ll toss in a somewhat condensed reasoning.

From a creative perspective, using an existing story as a basis—or the entirety—of a movie both creates and relieves pressures on the writing staff. On the one hand, you don’t have to build things from the ground up. Either your audience already knows the material, or, at the very least, you don’t have to create the whole word of the story, just interpret and translate it to the best of your ability. On the other hand, and especially if the work is popular, you have to contend with the pressures of an audience that’s expecting great things from you. After all, if they don’t think your work measures up, or that it changes too much, then you’re pretty well doomed to poor reviews even if the movie itself isn’t that bad.

How, then, can a creator benefit from the advantages of making an adaptation, while simultaneously avoiding as much of the fallout as possible from the downside?

Quite simply, you use stories that aren’t native to your culture. In America, this means we see more and more samurai or Russian history films. In Japan, this means you see more of Victorian England and Roaring ’20s America.

Yet while taking the setting and characters from a foreign, and therefore exotic, area can make a show or film more interesting, using the famous literature of a foreign culture can be a double-edged sword. Since most of the target audience may know nothing more about the original story than its name, such as in the case of anime based on American or European literature, you lose a large degree of the potential fan base who would watch it simply to see a film adaptation of a story they already enjoy. When you consider that the initial impetus for the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies was based on such fans, this is definitely not a minor idea.

Because the West has had a particularly large influence on Japan since before the Japanese animation industry even took form, though, I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that Western literature has found its way into Eastern culture through some form. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, as an example, provides a new take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

The question, then, is from whence does the popularity of anime based on Western literature spring? Is it a result of the universality of the human condition as chronicled in so many of the novels we in Western society already consider integral to our literate past? Or is it merely a consequence of the adaptation of these works, by seasoned professionals, to fit a medium and audience niche?

That, I’m afraid, is a little too big for me to answer without far more research than I’m willing to put into it at the moment. But I’ll tell you one thing: when they make an anime of The Sound and the Fury, you can bet I’ll be far too curious to stay away.