It should be no secret that I watch a fair amount of animé series, that is, japanese cartoon series. The production quality is usually higher than socalled “western” cartoon series, and the themes and stories are often more mature. Still, as with any other medium, there is still an amazing amount of crap going around, and it’s not always easy to sort out the good from the bad.
But I have noticed a common trait of six of the best series I have seen so far: They are all adaptations of novels.
What usually happens around here when a popular novel, or novel series is adapted for the screen, is that the movie industry takes it up and attempts to adapt it into one or more movies. This tends to happen with somewhat mixed results: It is impossible to fit everything of significance into two hours, so either you spend the effort making very long or multiple movies, or you cut out a lot of material.
What seems to happen with screen adaptations of novels in Japan is that they get adapted to an animé series instead, typically of 24-26 27-minute episodes. That’s about 11-12 hours of material. About the same as the Extended Editions of the three Lord of the Rings movies (a treatment that is really pretty rare in movie format).
Novels have space to be more unconstrained and nuanced in the subject matters they treat. And even though a season or two of episodes may still not be enough to adapt everything, it leaves considerably more running time for a proper adaptation of such depth than you could fit into a movie.
Anyway, enough with the explanations. I said six series, but I will do this in two parts. The three series I will briefly treat here are: Legend of Galactic Heroes, Spice & Wolf and Bodacious Space Pirates. All six of the series are very interesting in their own way. One common trait however, is in how the characters, the social and romantic relationships, and the settings are all presented in unusually realistic and down-to-earth ways for a cartoon setting (even in the LoGH and Space Pirates series, where the Earth plays a peripheral role at best).
Legend of Galactic Heroes
Background: The imperialistic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance are at war, and two brilliant, though very, very different commanders rise through the ranks on either side. A very ambitious Reinhard von Lohengramm (tempered by his friend, Siegfried Kircheis) on the side of the empire, and a somewhat reluctant Yang Wen-li on the side of the alliance (Yang is actually a historian who entered the military as a way of earning his tuition fees).
Saying much more about the story than this is difficult, because there is so much. The series spans over a hundred episodes, and is far more epic than Star Wars ever had any hope of being (hey, the LoGH universe contains not just one, but _two_ Death Star-like fortresses: Iserlohn and Geiersburg. And those are only small playing pieces in the larger scheme: There are intricate games of politics going on within both the empire and the alliance. Every planet and governing entity involved have their own motives, and every person involved on either side of the conflict have their own goals, passions and attachments.
Additionally, while the empire appears to be the main aggressor, there is not always a clear-cut distinction between who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. There are plenty of both evil and sympathetic people on both sides of the conflict, some of who at least try their best to minimise the damage and casualties (which are often counted in the millions), and some of who exacerbate the whole thing. The weapons are powerful and there is no effective shield technology in this series (apart from the liquid metal surfaces of Iserlohn and Geiersburg). When one ship hits another, that other ship will usually die, taking most of its crew with it.
I cannot possibly do all of it justice in just a few paragraphs. But if you like the space opera genre, it is absolutely worth taking a look at LoGH. The age of the series shows in the animation, but with a story like this, that does not really matter.
Spice & Wolf
Background: Kraft Lawrence is a travelling merchant with a horse and cart, travelling from town to town, trying to make a profit trading goods. Holo is a wolf-spirit who, after having looked over a village for a long while as their local harvest-deity, decides to travel a bit and maybe find Yoitsu, her homeland. To the villagers, she has gradually become a myth and a legend mostly played out in their local traditions. They have also introduced new farming methods, basically making her obsolete as a deity improving their harvest. So she exploits a loophole in the deal she made with the village long ago, and in secret hitches a ride on Lawrence’s cart.
After some wrangling, she convinces him that she is not actually a demon, and Lawrence accepts her as a passenger on his travels, if in return she can help him make better trades. These novels are being adapted to graphic novel format as well, one page of which I show here.
One of the most interesting aspects of this series is its setting. If we ignore the occasional supernatural spirit like Holo, this is perhaps one of the most realistic representations of the middle ages that I have seen on screen. It is not historical in the sense that it happens in a real historical context, but it does very heavily emulate what the High Middle Ages may have been like in some of the more pagan regions of Europe at the time, complete with a crusading, witch-hunting church that commands knights and is quite unfriendly to the pagans: From the point of view of the church, to the extent that pagan spirits exist, they can only be demons.
The specific theology of the church is never actually fleshed out, and instead of a cross, the dominating symbol is a line with a half-circle on the middle. It is monotheistic though, and very clearly modelled on the christian church of our own history.
The regions Lawrence usually travels are a mix of church-dominated cities and more remote pagan villages. Thus, Lawrence’s own tack on religion is that he believes that spirits exist, but his thinking has also been influenced somewhat by the church, which is part of what makes him somewhat confused and dubious when he first finds Holo and learns of her nature.
As they travel, they grow more attached to each other, and are caught up in not only purely economic trades, but also schemes of both political and religious nature. The attention to detail is impressive when they discuss specific trades, the finer practicalities of trading in a specific region, or the risks and benefits of dealing with the church and certain trading companies.
Part of my love for this series also comes from the near constant banter between the two main characters whenever they are not caught up in anything important, and their open acknowledgment of the quasi-romance that is going on between them. They meet many interesting characters on their travels. My favorites are those who come into direct conflict with the culture around them: A female shepherd in the employ of the church, in danger of being suspected a witch because she is too good at her job. A female trader who has to pretend to be a guy to be taken seriously as a trader. A female priest (deaconess) of a small church in a pagan village who not only has to wrangle with a neighbouring branch of the organisation to be allowed to take over management of the church from the recently deceased priest, but who also has to deal with a crisis of faith in the face of what appears to be a mountain of evidence that the pagans are actually right. There is certainly a feminist bent to some of these story arcs, though they manage to come across in a more subtle way than you might expect from my descriptions.
Bodacious Space Pirates
And this brings us in a way thematically to Bodacious Space Pirates. As much as I enjoy Legend of Galactic Heroes for its epic story, it is in many ways archaic, and presents a largely patriarchal culture where women are usually presented as the wives or sisters of the more significant male characters. Spice & Wolf is more interesting in this regard, as the author takes its historical setting and uses many of the story arcs to consciously, though subtly, play around with issues of the cultural oppression of women.
Bodacious Space Pirates takes it a step further. Maybe even a little too far. It takes place primarily in the context of a space yacht club and a pirate ship (the Bentenmaru). The yacht club is affiliated with an all-girls school, which is what I meant by taking it a little too far: This kind of segregation is not really conducive to an egalitarian society, and tends to be a part of the problem. I give it a pass on this though, as it feels mostly like a thinly veiled excuse to deliberately flip the usual skewed gender distribution of such series. The result is a series that would actually have trouble passing the reverse Bechdel test, which is a refreshing thing in a media space so inundated with male casts and lead characters. The girls are not there for the gratification of the male viewers either (as will otherwise too often be the case). They are people. They feel like people. Passionate, fun-loving, smart and quirky people with their own personalities and their own desires (I know, what a novelty, right?).
Background: Marika lives on Sea of the Morningstar, the third planet in the Tau Ceti system. She inherits the position of captain of the Bentenmaru from her recently deceased father. Bentenmaru is a pirate ship with a letter of marque, a bureaucratic leftover from a war of independence 100 years ago, where letters of marque were granted to pirates as a way of complementing the undersized independence fleet.
As it turns out, pirates in this day and age spend most of their time putting on shows for cruise ships: They get paid for performing mock plunders of cruise ships for the excitement of the passengers. Their ships are, however, equipped to the teeth with real, live weaponry, and barring any trouble with their insurance company, they will occasionally take on real mercenary jobs.
The yacht club resides over a solar sail ship, the Odette II. Though most of the members are unaware of this, the Odette II is itself a retired pirate ship, retaining a few system optimisations from those days. The yacht club spends most of its time maintaining the ship, and taking it on in-system cruises. There are frequent interactions between the crew of the Bentenmaru and the yacht club. At one point, the yacht club even gets to crew the Bentenmaru for a while (which initially turns out to be a bit of a challenge, with the age of and the number of poorly documented modifications performed on that ship).
While it may be easy to point out at least minor flaws in the space travel and electronic warfare aspects of the series, it actually does a remarkably good job of presenting a believable universe and maintaining an air of hard sci-fi. And while the Bentenmaru can fly pretty freely under its letter of marque, and break the rules to a certain extent, the Odette II is subject to all the civilian flight regulations, and has to file flight plans with the authorities and such.
The electronic warfare aspect of the series is also fascinatingly detailed, and includes talk of transponders, passive and active scanning, and the hacking of enemy ship systems. The hacking aspect is perhaps the more implausible part of this. I have some fundamental gripes with it. But it is again kept sufficiently detailed and internally consistent enough that I can give it a pass, even as a computer science geek: And they do sometimes play around with some interesting and very real concepts, such as the honeytrap, an isolated and monitored faux system, used to deceive and divert potential attackers. At one point, the Odette II keeps up the charade for a while of having been electronically taken over, by catching them in an electronic honeytrap. (Just don’t think too much about the obviously fundamental flaws in system design that allows ships to make takeover bids on each other’s computers like this in the first place!)
I wont talk much about the story-arcs of the show, except to say that this is a show that likes its anti-climaxes. It also bends a few tropes in the process.
Going back to the feminist aspects of the show, this is one of unfortunately still very few series where we actually get to see a non-sexualised and remarkably ordinary representation of a lesbian couple. You wont find out who they are until relatively late in the series, where their relationship suddenly matters briefly for the plot. Knowing this, you may be able to figure it out beforehand. In any case, their identities will certainly come as no surprise when you’ve seen them interacting early on.
And that’s it for the first part of this little trek through animé adaptations of novels. I will write and upload a second part with three more at… some point in the future.