Animated Classics of Japanese Literature: The Izu Dancer, The Dancing Girl, A Ghost Story
Back in the mid 80’s Sumitomo Life Insurance wanted to sponsor an anime series that would both get their name out, and showcase the best of Japanese literature in anime form. And Nippon Animation studio took them up on their offer, ultimately making 32 different episodes, each one showcasing a different popular and well regarded story from Japanese Literature. Nippon Animation is famous for creating anime based on classic literature from around the world. Their most famous and well received anime adaptions are The Three Musketeers , Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Sawyer, and The Dog of Flanders. Not to mention their well loved World Masterpiece Series. And then of course you have Miyazaki and Takahata who have directed some anime for the studio as well. There’s also the strange offshoots Nippon often does like Papuwa and Locke the Superman. My point is that they’re a critically acclaimed studio that is well used to this type of work. While they hardly ever animate a hit series, they still manage to both pay the bills and make well regarded series going on 50 years now.
Back in the early-mid 2000s Central Park Media felt this would be an easy series to release, and so they picked a handful of stories bring over and release on DVD. They brought over a total of 10 stories in all (one was only released on VHS as far as I can tell). These surprisingly made money for CPM, as they felt they didn’t require dubs. They would put 2 or 3 stories on a DVD with subtitles, add a nice extra that explains what the story is about along with a little biography of the original author and call it a day. I won’t bother explaining who originally authored what as this is easy to look up and if you buy the DVD you can read all about them. This specific DVD has three stories on it, two of which I found to be spectacular and the third was just decent.
The first story on this particular DVD was called “The Izu Dancer” . The story was written in 1926 but I think it’s meant to take place a decade or so earlier. Anyway this story was about a student from Tokyo falling in love with a traveling performer, or minstrel as CPM decided to translate it as (which is appropriate). Mizchara is student on summer break from school and decided to travel through the countryside and make the best of his vacation. While traveling from inn to inn he ends up meeting up with a family of traveling performers and instantly falls in love with their daughter, Kaoru, who is a dancer. And although he keeps meeting up with the family for short periods of time, and he keeps on trying to make excuses to talk to her, things never work out the way he wants them to. It doesn’t help that he’s very shy too boot. Eventually he does find a way to get acquainted with the whole family, and asks if he can travel with them since they’re all going the same way. The family quickly agrees to this, saying it’s much more enjoyable to travel with others. It’s during their travels that Mizchara tries to become closer with his crush, but both he and Kaoru are very shy and things progress slowly. They’re both nervous and a little socially awkward with each-other. However this all changes when he catches a glimpse of her getting into an onsen. She looks really cute, and notices him watching her, but instead of being embarrassed, she smiles and waves enthusiastically back at him (while being completely nude). It seems she’s much less shy with her clothes off, or maybe this incident made her stop being so shy. Another possibility is that she’s just sort of childish and innocent in a way. There’s a bit of fanservice made out of this scene here, but I liked the way they handled it. She is a very cute girl and it works well with the major plot point. After this the romance starts to pick up more and more, specifically at each of the stops the family and Mizchara make at the different inns. It’s very cute to watch the romance bloom between these two young lovers. At the end of their journey Mizchara wanted to take the dancer on a date to the cinema, but her mother was against it and used the excuse that the family had a performance that night. Her older brother wanted the two to go out, and even tried to get the mother to change her mind, but it was no use. The next morning she meets the student on the docks as he leaves to go back to Tokyo, back to school, and back to his real life. This was a very fun and cute story to watch unfold until the end which becomes very depressing. It’s sad to see how life conspires against you to prevent relationships from really taking off. They made such a great couple that you root for and hope they’ll find a way to make it all work out, even though it doesn’t seem possible. It’s a very human story, that’s romantic, but also gives you great insight into what Japan was like in the early 20th century. And if you think this story is depressing, wait until you watch the next one on the DVD.
“The Dancing Girl” is another classic story about a guy falling in love with a girl that dances, although in a very different way and thousands of miles from Japan. During the Meiji Restoration the Japanese sent government officials abroad (all over the world) to try and copy the best of the west and bring it home and adapt it to Japan. In addition they let in thousands of advisers from the west to help re-create and re-imagine their country. The goal was political, legal, economic, and social. The leaders wanted to combine the “western advantages” with “Japanese values” and it was hugely successful. The country went under a huge modernization and industrialization process that completely remade the country and let it defeat Russia in a war only a few decades later! The country went from a feudal society to a modern one in an incredibly fast period of time. Ota Toyotaro is one such government worker, sent to Berlin on a mission to learn what he can and bring it back to Japan. It makes sense that this story would take place in Berlin, considering much of the Japanese Civil Codes, government, and constitution were borrowed from Germany. While in Germany he falls in love with Elise, a poor german dancer (I think she’s a ballerina). He helps support her, and take care of her mother with his salary that he gets from Japan. Anyway this is a story about a man who must decide what is more important to him, his job or his family? This is a difficult decision for anyone to make, but made even tougher by the importance of his Job for the well being of Japan. This (the late 1800’s) is a crucial time in Japanese history. Ota is a very motivated, career driven man who loves his country. On the other hand he is deeply in love with his new wife. For most of the story we are wisely kept in suspense, not sure what way he’ll go. This is a very emotional story that works very well and seems quite realistic. I wonder if such situations really arrose for some the Japanese men that went abroad during the Meiji Restoration?
The last story is meant to be a spooky ghost tale, but never really comes together. “A Ghost Story” or “Kwaidan” is about a bind luke player who likes to sing stories about ancient battles. He ends up being tricked into performing for a bunch of ghosts, being lead there by an old scary looking samurai (of course he can’t see any of this since he’s blind). The samurai brings him to his mistress every night and his playing brings tears to the entire crowd that gathers to hear his playing. Personally I think this guy’s singing is sub-par and borderline annoying. The blind luke player lives with a bunch of priests and eventually they become concerned with his disappearances at night and sleeping in late everyday, so they follow him and learn the ghastly truth. The chief preist is very worried, and believes they will eventually devour the luke player, so he paints buddhist mantras all over his boddy to ward off the ghosts. However he misses one spot, his ears. I’ll let you all watch to see what happens. Honestly though I found this whole story to be rather uninteresting. It was boring and not spooky enough. There are better old horror stories then this from Japan. It’s worth a watch though, as it does get more interesting at the end. But largely it’s boring.
The artwork is very simple for this series, but there’s a beauty to the simplicity of it all. It’s especially gorgeous when a character is shown in the rain. Backgrounds look magnificent, even though it’s not all that detailed. They have a very painted on, almost watercolor look to them. AndI like how there seems to be special attention given to the clothing design, to make sure everything is both of the period and nice looking. The animation is limited, but it does it’s job. The music is a bit melodramatic at times, and at other times very traditional, but always charming. Although when the luke player sings, it’s a tad annoying. Some may call these stories dry and cold, or boring and lifeless. And while it’s certainly”educational”, aside from the last story it’s very entertaining. These are very human, emotional, and engaging stories we can all enjoy, although if you like history or classic literature you’ll enjoy them more. These stories have captivating themes, interesting characters, and deal with relatable problems in life. It’s no wonder they became classic stories. And then of course there is the cultural, historical, and educational value this series has going for it. John O’Donnell once told the story about when he was learning Japanese literature how tedious but ultimately rewarding it was for him, and that he’d hope that since this was now released those studying Japanese lit would watch these for help. And I’ve read a few stories where people have done just that, or have compared the anime version of the story with the original and a live action adaptation. There is a lot people have gotten out of these little stories, and it has a lot more to offer too. I really think this is worth a look, as I just love the first two stories. You can buy it on amazon, although it’s getting quite expensive so don’t wait too long. Please check it out!