The medium of animation allows for all sorts of creative freedom when adapting a story from the past. Regardless of how literal an adaptation is, there are, however, historical anime that will stand the test of time, whether through the chosen story or the way they are told. Such an anime is Heike Monogatari; a Funimation exclusive, the 11-episode series adapts Hideo Furukawa’s modern take on the 12th century story, The Tale of the Heike. Narrated by fictional character Biwa, the anime recounts the fall of the Taira clan at the end of the Heian period, with each episode tinged with trepidation as viewers wait for the inevitable end.
As beautiful as Heike Monogatari was in its execution, the short duration might leave fans hungry for more historical anime. Here are some series to watch that offer insight into different parts of Japan’s history.
Another show with a different visual style to most mainstream anime, even to be considered cutting edge, is Mononoke. The 12-episode series takes place between the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji era. The anime follows an anonymous drug salesman as he wanders through Japan exorcising the various Mononoke, or vengeful spirits, he encounters.
Mononoke is a visually stunning example of Japanese folklore and horror that also pays homage to kabuki and ukiyo-e visual storytelling methods. Although the anime may be short, each episode features unique colorful and textured backgrounds, effective cuts, and traditional Japanese musical instruments that firmly anchor audiences in the surreal horrors surrounding the drug salesman.
The 12 episodes of Mononoke are available to stream on Retro Crush.
Arguably one of the most popular historical anime to date is Samurai Champloo. The original idea of the famous cowboy bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, Samurai Champloo takes place in a fictional version of Edo period Japan. Samurai Champloo follows the unlikely trio of Fuu, Mugen, and Jin on Fuu’s quest to find “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.”
The series remixes the anachronistic setting with modern hip-hop, serving as the perfect complement to the series’ smooth animation, especially in the battle scenes. While the Edo period was a decidedly isolationist time for Japan, the series opposes the ideology of exclusion through its conscious inclusion of marginalized communities.
The 26 episodes of Samurai Champloo are available to stream on Funimation and Hulu.
Fans looking for a new take on a samurai tale can check out Yasuke. The 6-episode Netflix Original is set during an alternate sci-fi version of Japan’s Sengoku period. The series is inspired by the historical figure of the same name, who served under Oda Nobunaga until the latter’s death in 1582.
Although this is a fictional take, Yasuke stands out as a series for its focus on a black character and story, whereas more often than not, black characters do not exist in most anime and, if they do, are portrayed with harmful stereotypical characteristics. Yasuke offers an atypical, yet captivating samurai tale for anime and history fans.
The 6 episodes of Yasuke are available to stream on Netflix.
Dororo is a 1969 anime series based on the manga of the same name by Osamu Tezuka. The anime received a remake in 2019, led by both MAPPA and Tezuka Productions. The remake deviates a bit from the original anime, but still follows the exploits of the ronin Hyakkimaru on his journey to recover his stolen limbs, with the young thief, Dororo, at his side.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Sengoku period, Hyakkimaru’s story begins when his daimyo father makes a pact with demons to secure power and wealth. Hyakkimaru’s father offered anything in return, only to be horrified when his son was born malformed and limbless. Abandoned by his family, Hyakkimaru is taken in by a healer who will later give him his name, and equip him with magical prostheses. Hyakkimaru’s story was born out of the upheaval of the times, and the ongoing power struggles continue to shape his and Dororo’s journey to peace.
The 2019 remake of Dororo is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
To complete the list of historical anime is Golden Kamuy. The series explores a more modern period, set briefly after the events of the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s. The story follows Saichi Sugimoto, a war veteran now panning for gold in hopes of keep a promise made to a deceased comrade. Sugimoto soon finds himself embroiled in a hunt for gold, aided by Asirpa, an Ainu girl seeking revenge against those who betrayed her father.
Golden Kamuy is certainly not the first anime to explore warfare in Japan, but combat from the 14th to early 19th century and world wars tend to be depicted more often. In the same spirit as Samurai Champloo, Golden Kamuy takes great care in its portrayal of the indigenous Ainu people. The culture and history of the Ainu play an important role in the story, helping to set this historical adventure apart from others in the historical genre.
Golden Kamuy is available to stream on Crunchyroll and Funimation.
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