Otogi-Zoshi is a great and bold experiment that works — a story that spans hundreds of years of history, that freely ties together drama, mythology and fantasy into a unified whole, and above all is grand fun to watch. It’s the complete antithesis of stuff like Trinity Blood, where they took one good idea and didn’t do a thing with it; here, they have almost more ideas than they know what to do with, but they make them all serve the story. It’s also yet another remarkable piece of work by VAP — the production company who gave us Berserk — and Production I.G, the animation studio that gave us Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Blood: the Last Vampire, and many other shows that are staples of anime at its very best.
Otogi-zoshi (御伽草子) means a book of fairy tales, and with a title like that I expected something along the lines of the outstanding Requiem from the Darkness: a series of self-contained stories that tie into Japanese myth and legend. Instead, there are two large and broadly integrated plots, both of which draw on extant folklore and history for inspiration. The first half of the series is set in the medieval Heian era (cf. Gojoe, Portrait of Hell, Onmyoji I/II); the second half, in the modern day — albeit with contemporary editions of all of the same characters. At first the two halves seem to share nothing other than the shared-cast gimmick, but over time they grow closer together and complement each other quite thoroughly. I’ve seen vague variations on the same stunt before, but Otogi-Zoshi works entirely on its own merits, both in part and in whole.
Hikaru, sister to a samurai, steps into his outfit to bring back pieces of a mystical artifact that,
according to the mysterious Monsairaku, promise to restore balance to Japan.
I’m actually fondest of the first half of the show, if only because I’m enamored of historical fantasy to begin with, and because there’s precious little of this kind of stuff in anime that’s done well. The Heian era has turned chaotic and famine-ridden at its close, allowing the warrior class to seize power from the decadent aristocracy. Word circulates of a magical artifact named the Magatama which can put things back into balance — actually, it’s a set of five artifacts, each representing a cardinal aspect of the world. A young samurai named Minamoto (possibly Minamoto no Yorimitsu) originally set out to find the missing pieces of the Magatama, but after being struck down by illness his younger sister, Hikaru, has stepped into his outfit, picked up his bow and continued the search.
Hikaru has a sidekick, the one-eyed swordsman Tsuna — Minamoto’s own lackey, now sworn also to protect Hikaru, whose bluster and anger conceal great depths of feeling for the girl. Hikaru herself is fascinated with another man, Monsairaku, a nobleman who speaks about destiny and karma in a way that captivates the girl. Things must be brought back into balance, he tells her, and she is the one to do it. With Tsuna at her side and a slowly-increasing galaxy of sidekicks — a sorceress of sorts, a prodigious young wild-child, and an acerbic bowman — she roams the breadth of Japan finding each missing piece of the Magatama and restoring it to its rightful place.
The adventure she undertakes is far-reaching and fraught with difficulty, but she has plenty of
help from friends along the way — some of whom are straight out of the legends of the era!
What Hikaru has not been told, as you can imagine, is that there is a great deal more going on behind the scenes — that she is simply an element in a much larger game, and that many of the things she thought were so important, aren’t. These plot twists aren’t terribly surprising, but the show makes them work by hooking them back into all the emotions that have been stirred up: loyalty, filial love, and ketsudan — that peculiarly Japanese sentiment of persisting, keeping one’s spirits bright and keeping one’s chin up no matter what the obstacles. Hikaru is not just a good leader and a good shot with a bow, but a good person — she thinks of her friends before herself, although she’s carrying more of a torch for Monsairaku than she realizes, and for all the wrong reasons.
Then the show leaps forward into the modern day (after some plot twists I will not discuss here), and gives us Hikaru and Tsuna again, albeit in modern garb, sharing meager living space in Tokyo. She’s a college student, but obsessed with her missing brother to the point of distraction; he’s a freelance photographer who hasn’t had any decent work in ages. One day Tsuna lands an assignment for one of those wretched magazines that covers supernatural phenomena; it’s stupid and he knows it, but it’s also money, and he needs to eat. Then his camera captures some very strange goings-on, which Hikaru herself confirms, and the two delve into secrets of Tokyo’s mystical history — all of which, as you can imagine, are intimately interrelated with the past goings-on.
Flash-forward to modern-day Tokyo, where the same characters — in modern
incarnations — seek to unravel a similar spiritual disturbance that threatens to engulf the city.
I get a little leery whenever a show wins me over because it looks so good — not because I don’t like good-looking anime, but because I’m trying to retain perspective. A show can look splendid without being much of anything else, or it can use a striking visual style to be all the more compelling. That said, the production design in Otogi-Zoshi is a knockout — the first half being more impressive thanks to the lush natural scenery and exotic costumes, but in the second half they take many of the same urges towards the fantastic and make Tokyo look all the more like the modern-day wonderland it often seems to be. (Sometimes the visual touches are indulgent — where did Monsairaku get his red-dyed locks in the 1180s, for instance? — but forgivable because the rest works so well.)
What’s most fascinating about the show is how they cheerfully plunder Japan’s cultural wealth for inspiration. Consider Hikaru’s friend the wild-child, Kintaro (“Golden Boy”). There is indeed a Kintaro in Japanese mythology, and the show cleverly suggests how Kintaro in the story could have inspired the Kintaro of mythology. In the modern-day segment, Kintaro still has many of his existing personality tics (he eats anything that isn’t nailed down, for one), and since there are plenty of male children named Kintaro anyway, it doesn’t seem terribly jarring. If you don’t know the references, that only makes the show all the more fun on a second viewing, after you’ve watched the supplements.
The show's mixture of the mundate and the mythic, the factual and the fantastic,
make it irresistible even if the second half isn't quite as dazzling as the first.
I’ve given the show a full four-star rating, even if I felt the second half didn’t capture my enthusiasm quite as much as the first. Maybe it’s prejudice, but after the sheer burst of inventiveness and imagination of the Heian cycle, the modern-era segment seems like a forced addition. Still, they find a number of ways to tie everything together elegantly, and end it all a curious, thoughtful coda which spans the last couple of episodes and provides an emotional as well as a logical resolution to everything that has happened. So, four stars, because when you get down to it this show embodies everything I look for most in anime — an intriguing concept, a dazzling execution, and lively characters that aren’t merely marketing props. It’s a true original.
Afterword: Tokyopop has translated and released a few volumes of a manga prequel to the story, which shows how Hikaru got up the nerve to take her brother’s place to begin with; it’s not all that great, but it’s a cute read and it complements the first arc pretty well.