Fantasy and Science Fiction in Anime and Manga – Part One: Historical and Epic Fantasy
Books, movies, video games are all widely known platforms for science fiction and fantasy. Anime and manga, on the converse, are a less known medium for the genre. Japanese mangaka—manga artists—use elements and themes taken from fantasy and science fiction regularly in their work; it is harder to find a series that does not have fantasy elements, than one that does. As such, anime and manga seem an interesting topic to investigate in an attempt to define what different types of fantasy exist, and what exactly it is that makes it fantasy.
To better introduce the topic, I’ve drafted nine categories. This week, we’ll look at historical and epic fantasy anime and manga. Secondly, we shall look at fantasy in shonen and shojo manga and anime, before—thirdly—taking a trip through fantasy horror coupled with urban fantasy and teen fantasy (the manga and anime equivalent of YA). We’ll finish the series with science fiction and science fantasy.
Historical manga and anime span through the decades of history, and around the world, from medieval Europe to Victorian England, with the obligatory trip into Japan’s own past: from its feuding years to the civil-war that tore them apart at the end of the 19th century.
Real World Settings
Manga set in Medieval Europe is happy to keep some of themes we’re all familiar with: small villages, wars that ring true, and a date we can all place in our history books. But then, add a spot of supernatural and we’re all ready for some bona fide historical fantasy.
Castlevania—the manga adaptation of the game—offers a good example; set in a small village with a dark castle looming over it, somewhere in Romania, lost in the middle of nowhere. Add the fantasy in the form of the castle inhabitants: werewolves and their all important masters, the vampires.
For Castlevania, fantasy elements aren’t just there to look pretty, they make the plot. The vampires are the main characters: they wield old magic as they fight the humans and each other. Present in more and more books like Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Vampire Assassin trilogy, the bloodsuckers are no longer only present in the horror genre and much as they are in Castlevania they have become standardised elements of fantasy.
Skipping forward in time and travelling north, we come to Victorian England, a period favoured by mangaka. From Hakushaku to Yousei (Earl and Fairy) to Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler), we can see how the setting lends itself to the mysterious, occult and supernatural elements of fantasy.
Hakushaku to Yousei bases a lot of its fantasy elements on Irish folklore surrounding fairies and their magic. It roots the story in the real world and yet adds a spin on it, as the magic is real and witnessed by all those involved. Here, green eyes not only hint that someone could be fae, if faeries existed, it means they are fae. And reminding us of Tad Williams’ War of the Flowers, there exists a faerie world separate from the human world.
Kuroshitsuji, with a butler who is in fact a powerful demon, shinigami (death gods) everywhere, and the main character called upon by the Queen to investigate weird cases filled with the unexplained, offers a thrilling historical fantasy. It’s like reading Sherlock Holmes but the only logical answer to what happens is through the supernatural.
So what does that tell us? That Victorian England, with its partial lack of science—just enough to make strange things happen but not enough to explain everything—is the perfect setting to throw in some fantasy. After all, most people in those days still believed in many of those things.
Now let’s cross the world and go back to the roots of anime and manga: Japan. Whether they take place during the feuding period of Japanese history like Sengoku Basara, or portray Japan at the dawn of the Meiji era, historical fantasy anime and manga sprawl through the ages of Japanese history.
Hakuouki: Shinsengumi Kitan takes place during the late shogunate period, and follows the group of the Shinsengumi, who were a special police force of the time. Let’s add oni—a type of Japanese demon—to the mix, a weird drug that imbues people with all the strength of said oni, but none of the control, and we have our fantasy, all against the harsh background of Japanese civil war. For those of us more familiar with Japanese mythology and history, familiar names flutter in and out of the story, as well as familiar creatures.
Imagined World Settings
So we’re now done with the real world which means we can go have a trek far away into other worlds.
Fantasy settings are stereotypically—but the cliché has been almost destroyed in the last decade or so—associated with medieval times: swords, knights, endangered princesses and dragons all come to mind. Record of Lodoss War fits most of the bill (it lacks the endangered princess but does possess a she-elf with a penchant for getting in a tight spot), and is probably the most widely known classic fantasy manga and anime. With a very Dungeons & Dragons feel to it, Record of Lodoss War offers not only a very familiar world to fantasy lovers, but also a very familiar plot and cast: the land is in danger, the dark lord has risen and his knights are out to destroy everything that stands in his way. Cue orphaned village youth who, in dire circumstances, is forced to don his father’s armour and sets off, reluctantly at first, on a quest to destroy the evil Emperor Beld.
To add to the fantasy cliché, Parn—our farmer-turned-knight—recruits along his journey a lone mercenary who becomes his tutor, a beautiful she-elf shaman/druid, a priest of the Supreme God, and a powerful magician. It all screams fantasy, even if it does leave you feeling as though you have just watched a game of D&D played by some invisible players.
In the same vein, but less stereotypical is Takeru: Opera Susanoh Sword of the Devil. The setting is a mix of European medieval and Japanese medieval without quite fitting either. The three Takerus—three men who share the same given name—set off to find a magic sword and soon discover that they are at a centre of a prophecy that Eddings would have been proud of. With the need to prove their worth to powerful female warrior/sorceresses and an evil kingdom to topple, Takeru: Opera Susanoh Sword of the Devil is a fast-paced, action fantasy that does great justice to the genre.
Slightly more subtle is +C Sword and Cornett, which takes place in the imaginary, medieval-like, realm of Noctircus. We lose magic here, as it is hardly present throughout, and instead the plot takes us through the whirlwind of court intrigue. It offers a dose of classic-era fantasy with minstrels, princesses and bastard sons without too many of the usual fantasy themes stealing the show.
A short leap forward through imagined time, and we have Pandora Hearts, set in an imaginary pseudo Victorian-Edwardian world, with fantasy elements everywhere: from reincarnated souls to the Abyss—another world where monsters called Chains reside and where time passes in strange, incomprehensible ways—to a novel concept for magic. It has all the good bits, but without any of the stereotypes.
It makes for a breath of fresh air in the anime and manga world of epic fantasy. Here magic doesn’t require incantations or the wielding of a staff, but the capacity to make a contract with a Chain. This allows the human host of the Chain to channel its power, although as with all magic, this is not without its risks.
Anime and manga epic fantasy is just as diverse as the one found in books, there is a bit of everything and there will undoubtedly be something to suit everyone’s taste.
Next time, we’ll delve into the realms of shonen and shojo manga and anime and see what their take on fantasy is like.
This article was originally posted on September 8, 2011.