Mixing Fact and Fiction: Historical Fiction in Anime

by Theron Martin,

Though it has never been a dominant anime genre, historical fiction has nevertheless persisted in anime since its earliest days. These days hardly a season goes by without some new interpretation(s) of Sengoku-era figures like Oda Nobunaga and Date Masamune, but the pool of titles and subjects to draw from is much, much greater than that. Some anime titles cleave as close as possible to actual history despite using fantastical elements (Zipang and Night Raid 1931), while others merely borrow details and do crazy things with them. The latter is definitely the case with two prominent titles from this year: the Winter 2016 season's Schwarzes Marken, which fitted a very realistic look at 1980s-era East Germany into a series otherwise about mecha fighting alien bugs, and this season's Izetta: The Last Witch, which despite extensive name changes heavily patterns its setting and circumstances off of Europe in World War II. (Its big twist is that Germany remained an empire after World War I rather than going democratic and eventually fascist.)

The emergence of Izetta set me to thinking about other interesting takes on history to be found in anime. Narrowing down the roughly 600 titles which ANN's Encyclopedia identifies as having historical themes was a daunting task, but ultimately I settled on six which I think well-represent what anime can do when it turns its attention to history.

Le Chevalier d'Eon
Rose of Versailles offers an intriguing interpretation of French history in the years leading up to the French revolution, but in terms of creatively interpreting how actual history happened, it is topped by this 2006-2007 series, which also depicts mid-18th century France but has the gender-bending going in the opposite direction.

The series' story fancifully recounts the tale of d'Eon de Beaumont, an actual French spy and diplomat renowned both for being one of the premiere swordsmen of his day and for being gender-ambiguous for much of his life, due in part to his own insistence that he actually was a woman, not just pretending to be one. (He proved in death to be male, but was so famous for the ambiguity that the Beaumont Society – the largest support group for the transgender community in the UK – is named after him to this day.) In actual history Lia de Beaumont was a name that d'Eon used while undercover as a woman in the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, but in this version Lia is his older sister, a spy who died while on a secret mission for King Louis XV. d'Eon's sexual ambiguity in the real history is explained here as Lia's spirit possessing him and occasionally taking over his body to wreak vengeance, which eventually leaves him uncertain about who he actually is. Throughout the anime version d'Eon encounters many historical figures and participates in numerous activities that the historical version actually did, including visits to Russia and England and becoming involved in Louis XV's spy organization Le Secret du Roi. Even when the series fudges on details, it still bases itself heavily on actual occurrences from the time period; one scene involving a cross-gender Masquerade in the Russian court is an example of this. The main difference is that the real d'Eon probably didn't have to contend with magic-wielding Poets and their ghoulish, mercury-infused creations.

Otogi Zoshi
Another case where active gender-bending fits into historical fiction is this 26-episode 2004 series, which spends its first half in the midst of Japan's Heian Era (i.e., in the late 900s A.D.). It reimagines the storied warrior and government official Minamoto no Raiko as Raiko's younger sister Hikaru, who pretends to be him to preserve the family name after he falls deathly ill. The famous onmyoji Abe no Semei figures heavily into the story, as do Raiko's legendary retainers Kintaro, Watanabe no Tsune, Usui Sadamitsu, and Urabe no Suetake, who is openly a woman in this story. (The real Urabe was male.) Myth liberally mixes with actual history here as the story details some of the deeds of Raiko and his subordinates but also spins off into a weird plotline involving a scheme to destroy the imperial capital of Heian-kyo using mysticism. Still, that first arc offers the most impressive representation of the clothing, grooming habits, and behavioral expectations of that era to be found in anime. For another take on the same time period and characters which features a different character being a woman passing as a man, see also the 2001 OVA Kaidohmaru.

Hakuoki
The Shinsengumi was a special police force loyal to the Shogunate which existed during the turbulent years of 1864-69, the era when the Shogunate was coming into active conflict with the imperial court over the leadership of Japan. Despite being referred to by some historians as a death squad, the Shinsengumi has been widely romanticized over the years since, including many anime interpretations. The best and most interesting one I've seen is the Hakuoki franchise, a collection of three TV series, one OVA series, and two movies (as well as a series of SD shorts) which are all based on a series of otome visual novels. The story features the historically-documented activities of the Shinsengumi while its members assist Chizuru, a teenage girl disguised as a young man, in finding her missing father. The attention to detail in interpreting historical events is quite impressive, and the continued activity of some of the Shinsengumi members after they died in the actual history is amusingly explained by them secretly being turned into vampire-like creatures. Oni get involved, too, but that doesn't much affect the story paralleling the real history.

Asura
Veering well way from the other entries is easily the most obscure title in this list, as it is the only one which has not, to this point, been officially released in the West. The start of this 2009 movie can probably be dated to late 1477, as its opening scene seems to depict the devastating burning of Kyoto. This was the tail end of the Onin War, a civil war which initiated the Warring States era of Japan, but rather than delve into that, the movie instead focuses on an abandoned, bestial, axe-wielding boy trying to survive in a time and place where famine and natural disasters ravaged the rural populace. There are no major historical figures or other specific events depicted here, but no other anime that I'm aware of comes even remotely close to displaying this all-too-common scenario with this degree of severity. Though well-animated, the movie is an extremely grim, graphic, and ugly tale (cannibalism, throwing a baby into a fire, and people dying of starvation are all involved), so be sure you know what you're getting into if you decide to check it out.

Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth – The Animation
If Asura is historical fiction in anime at its darkest then this single-cour 2011 series is as far at the opposite end of the spectrum as you can get. It is a thoroughly cute, utterly innocuous little tale about a pint-sized Japanese girl who makes her way to Paris in the 1890s and winds up living with a sign maker and his elderly father, the latter of whom brought her there at her request. Nothing for famous historical figures here, either, but the setting is a mostly-meticulous reconstruction of Paris in that era (some liberties are taken, such as a shopping arcade modeled after a different location) and the story justifies its premise on the basis that France was enamored with the foreign appeal of Japan at the time. Hence young Yune encountering a girl who is a dedicated Japanophile even at that time is hardly unbelievable. The story mostly plays out as a slice-of-life tale, but even if the cute overload doesn't work for you its wealth of little tidbits – like the cultural differences between East and West at the time, the role of armants (the male equivalents of mistresses) in Parisian culture, and the operation of early film projectors – can still fascinate.

Barefoot Gen
Not even the widely-lauded Grave of the Fireflies can deliver as harsh a gut-punch about children in wartime as this semi-autobiographical 1983 movie can. In the realm of “historical fiction that you wish was more purely fiction,” it is untouchable. It portrays, in excruciatingly realistic detail, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath. This is horror-grade material, and no matter your tolerance level for graphic content, it can be very difficult to watch; it is the only anime I've ever seen where I had to temporarily step away because of the intensity of the content. Its approach is fascinating for two reasons: it doesn't pull its punches in the slightest in what it depicts and it doesn't pass judgment on the morality of the bombing, instead allowing what it shows to imply why this should never happen again. Barefoot Gen 2, the 1986 follow-up, continues the story three years later and is interesting for being the only movie available in English translation that I know of to depict post-war occupied Japan and the struggles it faced. It is also, in every qualitative and production sense, the better of the two movies.

Some other titles which were seriously considered include Maria the Virgin Witch (possibly the most accurate anime title to date in terms of depicting European Medieval warfare), Doomed Megalopolis (for its supernaturally-tinged portrayal of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923), Taisho Baseball Girls (for its portrayal of Japanese society in the 1920s), Sengoku Basara (for its fanciful portrayal of key figures and events from the late Sengoku era), Millennium Actress (for portraying assorted time periods through the memories of an aging actress), and Baccano! (for its whacked-out look at Prohibition-era gangsters and thieves in the U.S.). There are many other titles worthy of consideration, too, so if you have another favorite for historical fiction then please do argue your case in the response thread!


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