A Classic 80’s Anime Film More People Should See

Due to my interests and the YouTube algorithm taking notice of that sort of thing, now and then, I get a short anime edit in my feed. And one, in particular, has popped in my feed multiple times: eevee- hana by the channel yotsu.

And once more this week, I watched it again, only I decided to find out what the name of the anime was and actually watch it this time around.

The anime featured in yotsu’s edit is a 1987 film called Genji Monogatari. Or The Tale of Genji for an English translation of the title.

The film is based on an ancient novel from Japan, authored by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman of the Heian period. However, the film changes some details and only covers the first three chapters of Genji’s life. But because of the strange, though admittedly poignant way the lady-in-waiting ended the story, I feel like the film covered enough to stand on its own, and the changes it made didn’t hinder anything.

Even though there isn’t any great 80's sakuga action going on, this is still one of the most beautiful anime films I have seen. There are many melancholic purples, Genji’s character design and all of his wives and mistresses look like goth lesbians. I mention this because I mistakenly thought for the longest time that the original edit I had watched must have been an 80's yuri O V A I was yet to watch, so I was a little thrown off at first. But the point is that the lipsticks Genji pulls off are snatched!

What I tend to appreciate most about anime is, well, the animation style, particularly if it either advances the medium or takes influence from something that isn’t anime. For a modern example of what I mean, there’s Mob Psycho 100, which I’ll say advanced the medium, and then there’s Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, which took inspiration from western cartoons.

In the case of Genji Monogatari, I can’t say I noticed it advancing the medium, unlike say my noticing Akira changing anime forever which would come out the following year. But what I like about its look is that it reminds me less of anime and more so like ancient Japanese artwork, perhaps of the Heian era. It’s because of this detail I have not seen any other anime resembling Genji Monogatari.

I also really love the special effects in this film. The fire being rotoscoped in perhaps has not aged well, but it certainly holds up better than the CGI fire in Golden Kamuy’s anime. Plus, it is more impressive on a technical level. It’s the rotoscoping of the cherry blossom petals on top of the cell animations, on the other hand, that I appreciate the most. Particularly when they all had crystal light effects illuminating from them individually as the film came to an end.

The protagonist Hikaru Genji is a son of the emperor but seems to not really count as royalty as he keeps his distance from it all. Politics doesn’t play much of a role in his character motivations, at least in this incarnation of the tale. His role in the court is technically political; it’s just that he doesn’t really care one way or another what that role is and accepts whatever lot he gets. And for the most part, this seems to work out because it’s quite cushy overall and keeps him out of trouble – politically.

Despite the lack of focus on politics or even displays of graphic 80’s anime violence (which I will say I was quite surprised by though not disappointed in), this film is very adult as it displays a lot of sexual exploits. No, it’s not a hentai, everything is portrayed tastefully, and you don’t even so much as hear a moan.

I say sexual exploits though these endeavours by Genji are not done out of arrogance; instead, a lot of his sexual activity is just irresponsible but coming from a place of personal emptiness. Despite the deadpanness of the characters, this is very much a human story, and the directing does a fine job of making you feel a slight pang of sadness for him from time to time.

Genji just has this very unfortunate romantic life because he cannot live authentically as a court member. First, we find out he is in a complicated marriage. His first wife can’t stand him and has no love for him for the most part. And the reasons for this are sort of hinted to be caused by an unspecified emotional or mental disorder she is experiencing.

To me, at least it seemed that Genji does care about her but just doesn’t know how he can help since his presence long-term is irritable to her. So the only thing he can do for her is to keep his distance, though I imagine he does this for himself too to reduce his own discomfort about her. But there are times when they have to interact and be a husband and wife, and it’s during these times when he tries to do his best in this role despite the circumstances. He never tries to make her feel bad or get frustrated at her. He puts effort into saying something of romance and sincerity even though he doesn’t mean it honestly, just because he thinks he owes her reassurance anyway.

I believe its also meant to be inferred that her current mental state is possibly partially Genji’s fault of previous actions in their marriage. And he maybe feels some guilt over that. But also, his wife is a member of court, and if you know anything about court women in Japan during that time, it was literally isolating. So I imagine that would have been quite maddening.

Then there’s the fact that he is really in love with his stepmother, who is more age-appropriate for him than for his father. And she feels the same for him but also wants to stop repeating the- ‘sin’. It’s only once it’s announced she is pregnant with the emperor’s son that he goes into despair for this love. Later, he gets some tiny delight when he realises it’s actually his son, but he is again forced to be distant.

And after his father passes away, she chooses to become a nun, to which Genji exclaims his abandonment complex that he has suffered from childhood, starting with the death of his mother. At one point, a female character Genji has relations with questions his motivations for not only sleeping with women but seeking comfort as well, asking him, “what are you really searching for?”

This might sound reminiscent of the Oedipus Complex, which I’m constantly seeing in media now, much to my horror, but I am hesitant to describe this film like that. Because the Oedipus myth is from Europe, and this film is based on Japan’s most seminal literature. Also, Freud’s writings and the psycho-filmic response have a phallocentrism to them, and contrary to popular belief, Freud was not receptive to the Electra complex. In this film, there is vaginal imagery to invoke the empty space in Genji’s inner life. Cherry blossoms are a bigger accompaniment to his loss as his mother was taken from him during spring. This is why he has a ghostly haunting, almost PTSD reaction to the sight of cherry blossoms.

I would recommend this film to anyone who is looking for an 80's’ hidden gem, especially those who enjoyed Angel’s Egg and are looking for a similar experience. Unfortunately, though it is unavailable, and from what I understand, the film is very confusing for some people depending on how it has been subbed. This does add to the problem of certain plot threads in the film not being fully resolved. But regardless, it’s a classic I think more anime fans should be checking out and talking about. There is at least an emotional arc for Genji that makes the film feel complete at least.

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jasonnebulaar

Pop-culturalist historian. You can also find me on YouTube as jasonnebulaar where I’ll be uploading hopefully regularly.