If I were to sum up this excellent 2019 adaptation of Osamu Tezuki’s manga in one sentence, I would say it is “mystery play of the right brain, by the right brain, for the right brain.” It is not really a modern drama for audience to process the plot using left brain logic – instead, it speaks to audience in symbolic imagery, in colours and in subtle staging.
The aesthetics of calligraphic episode titles
The first thing that struck me about this show is that it has been over a decade since I was last impressed with the calligraphy of episode titles in an anime series. To me, the last show with such beautiful calligraphy was Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohaniheto (2006), which hired the female calligrapher Masumi Narita [成田眞澄]. The episodic titles of Dororo are the work of another female calligrapher named Bisen Aoyagi [青柳美扇]. I think the calligraphic style – which conveys masculinity, strength and courage – is a fine and subtle contrast to the new slender-figured character design of Hyakkimaru.
News reached me that Belladonna of Sadness [哀しみのベラドンナ] (1973) is finally being released for the first time ever in America this month. I thought it good timing to rewatch my Japanese DVD of this long lost gem in animation. Produced by the now defunct Mushi Production and directed by Eiichi Yamamoto [ 山本暎一], the film is loosely based on Jules Michelet’s (1798-1874) La Sorcière (1862), a historical account of the witch hunts.
Synopsis: The heroine Jeanne is raped by the feudal lord, who exercises his droit du seigneur on her wedding night. Her husband nearly strangles her for her ‘impurity’ but in the end tells her to forget about the incident. One day, as she is spinning, the devil appears, saying that she has called out to him to help her in exchange for her soul. The devil wakens her sexual libido and, after much resistance, she finally yields to the pleasure he gives. She goes to town wearing a green coat (green being the colour of the devil) and ‘earns’ a lot of money. A war then takes place and the feudal lord leads the men away for war. On his return, he is told by his lady, who is jealous of Jeanne’s erotic powers, that Jeanne is possessed by the devil. The lord then allows his soldiers to gang-rape her. She runs towards her home but her husband locks her out, so she turns to the devil for refuge. Later, a plague strikes the land and it is discovered that she can cure the sick miraculously, which eventually leads to accusations of witchcraft…
‘The Diary of Tortov Roddle’ (2003) by Kunio Kato (1977 – present)
The Agency for Cultural Affairs [文化庁] is a semi-governmental body in Japan, and every year they host the Japan Media Arts Festival, which gives out awards to, among other things, animation. In the past, they had given the Grand Prize to well-deserving masterpieces such as Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2009), Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001), and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2001).
However, it has been 3 whole consecutive years since 2012 when a Japanese anime last took the Grand Prize. The last three winners were Laurent Boileau Jung’s Couleur de peau: miel (2013), Anna Budanova’s The Wound (2014), and Boris Labbé’s Rhizome (2015).
Whether you accept this as evidence that Japanese animation has been showing signs of decline is up to you. In the past few years, many “must-see” films such as Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast (2015) and Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai (2015) have come and gone, but for me personally they were decent but not Great with a capital G.
After I watched the anime Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World) [新世界より] and also read its original novel by the always insightful Yusuke Kishi [貴志祐介], I cannot help but think of the Japanese educator and mystic Makoto Shichida [七田真] (1929 – 2009).
Shin Sekai Yori [新世界より], the anime series of 25 episodes released in 2012
First, a quick summary of the story of Shin Sekai Yori. Human societies as we know in the present day collapsed after 0.3% of people discovered that they had psychic powers, and after prolonged struggles in which the psychics and non-psychics fought each other to establish a new world order, the earth became depopulated (down to 2% of its height) and a new society in which everyone is psychic finally emerged. The protagonists of the story – a group of five friends – live in that new society 1,000 years from now. As we follow these five friends from childhood to adulthood, we discover the true history of what happened to the human race in the intervening 1,000 years through their interactions with an inferior race of bakenezumi – mouse-like mammals who are intelligent, speak human language and supposedly worship humans as deities. The story culminates with the rebellion of bakenezumi against the human race.