When discussing adaptations in anime, the source material is homegrown manga the vast majority of the time. If a Japanese studio is riffing on a Western property, it’s usually a big budget franchise like The Matrix, or an international brand like Batman or X-Men. However, there is a fascinating (and much less talked about) tradition of anime based on Western books.
Ghibli has made movies out of lesser-known books like Howl’s Moving Castle and When Marnie Was There, sure, but other studios have drawn plots from an even wider catalog, ranging from golden age American sci-fi to 19th century French adventure fiction. Here are just a handful. Some of these titles are quite well known in the West. Yet, you may have never known there was any animated adaptation of them, let alone an anime.
Almost a decade before Paul Verhoven followed his muse and presented audiences with a drolly satirical vision of the Beverly Hills 90210 cast going to war, Macross alum Tetsurō Amino helmed a direct-to-video series that’s much more faithful to Robert Heinlein’s seminal novel. More important than anything else, perhaps, the show prominently features the power armors that are completely absent from the live-action movie. Anime scholars may debate about who did what first, and then quibble on the differences between “super robot” and “mech” show. However, there’s no denying that this series is a very pointed chapter in the history of mecha, and in the exchange of ideas in international sci-fi.
Heidi, Girl of the Alps
Swiss author Johanna Spyri’s Heidi books might have a “square” reputation in the English-speaking world. One that’s on level with, say, The Hardy Boys. However, any otaku feeling smug about how much “edgier” anime is would do well to remember this show where Studio Ghibli’s masterminds cut their teeth. Yep, these pastoral adventures of a little orphan girl adjusting to life in the Alps are, in fact, directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), with Hayao Miyazaki himself filling a number of crew roles. And American fans may be stupefied to know that Heidi endures quite strongly in Japan’s popular imaginative, inspiring tributes from Animetal and driving many tourists to Switzerland. This Heidi has only been imported to America rather sparingly, though, so happy hunting!
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
Taking significant creative license with Alexander Dumas’ classic, this show shifts the setting from Napoleonic times to the 51st century, and presents the archetypal revenge yarn from the perspective of the Count’s clueless son instead. It also flits with a strange, boundary-pushing sexual tension between the two? The falsely-imprisoned Edmond Dantès’ struggle with revenge is personified in the titular “Gankutsuou” here. It’s a demonic entity who enables his rise as a self-made noble, but also threatens to transform him into something alien. And even with all that, this takes’ most striking feature might be its bold use of patterns and mixed-media. Every frame look like a lush Gustav Klimt painting.
Are any other anime based on Western books worth recommending? Drop your picks in the talkback.
Image Credits: Nippon Animation, Sunrise, FUNimation
Featured Image Credit: FUNimation