July 28, 2013 posted by

Anime Adaptations of American and British Lit

Japanese animation has introduced many Japanese historical events and cultural concepts to American popular culture. Contrariwise, many American, British, and other concepts have been introduced into Japan through animation. For this column, I will skip over the foreign-made animation shown in Japan, and the Japanese-produced adaptations of the better-known Western literary classics already mentioned on Cartoon Research. Here are some less likely others.

Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple. A literal translation of アガサ·クリスティーの名探偵ポワロとマープル. This program consists of 39 half-hour episodes originally broadcast on NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the BBC, on July 4, 2004 to May 15, 2005, and rerun frequently on NHK and other channels to today. The director is Naohito Takahashi, and the animation studio is Oriental Light and Magic.

The series is a generally faithful adaptation, set about 1930, of twenty of Christie’s novels and short stories featuring her amateur detectives Hercule Poirot, the Belgian private detective living in England, and Miss Jane Marple, the English village spinster who “observes life”. The adaptations vary in length, but take from one to two episodes for a short story and from three to four episodes for a novel.

There is certainly nothing unusual about a TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mysteries – for adults. Where Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple stands out is in NHK’s tying the characters of Poirot and Miss Marple together, and making it a “family” program with an element to appeal to children as well as adults. The major innovation of the TV series is the addition of Maybelle West, Miss Marple’s young and enthusiastic great-niece, who becomes Hercule Poirot’s secretary and assistant to learn how to become a private detective herself. Maybelle (who every English-language summarizer of this program insists on spelling her name as the more prosaic ‘Mabel’) has a pet duck, Oliver, who was doubtlessly added for the toy and plush doll merchandising potential. The mysteries are mostly told through Maybelle’s observing of the cases during her employ with Poirot or her visits to Miss Marple, through the devise of her soliloquising and her letters to Miss Marple, which are usually Christie’s own words, often as the incidental dialogue of supporting characters.

Future Boy Conan. Mirai Shonen Conan. 28 episode TV series, April 4-October 31, 1978 on NHK, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Keiji Hayakawa, produced by Nippon Animation. This was a strange choice. There have been many Japanese animated adaptations for TV of American classic children’s literature – Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rascal: The Story of a Raccoon, The Yearling, The Call of the Wild, The Story of Helen Keller, even Paul Gallico’s Manxmouse – but this was an adaptation of The Incredible Tide by Alexander Key (The Westminster Press, 1970, 159 pages). A very minor boys’ science-fiction novel by a very minor author from a very minor publisher. What Were They Thinking?


The Incredible Tide is set five years after a cataclysmic war that destroyed the world. The planet was thrown off its axis, the northern and southern polar icecaps have melted, and only the peaks of the tallest mountains remain above the water as isolated islands. Conan, a 17-year-old orphan who has lived alone on his island since the disaster, is rescued/drafted by the New Order, the successors of the fascist power that started the war. He learns that the New Order has established an uneasy trading relationship with High Harbor, where the remnant of the Western powers are building a new nation. Basically the peaceful inhabitants of High Harbor are waiting fatalistically until the militaristic New Order feels strong enough to annex it. Conan will become their new leader who, with God’s help (Key was raised by his grandfather, a southern Methodist minister), will save both sides from the giant tsunami that will engulf the new nations.

Co-Director Hayao Miyazaki, who has gone on to better things, rewrote the story heavily but kept the basic plot of two forces on tiny islands that are all that is left of the world. Key’s undated story is set in 2021. Both new sides originate in highly organized socialist Industria. The “good” side renounces regimentation and, led by Dr. Lao, escapes after the war to a distant island they name High Harbour to live in a simpler agrarian society. The remainder of Industria is taken over by dictator Lepka, who is searching for High Harbour to conquer it and use Dr. Lao’s efficient solar power to rule the world. Conan has become an eleven-year-old semi-mutant with super-powerful feet that permit him to hang from a ledge by his toes, or run up the sides of buildings and along the wings of aircraft in flight; and limited telepathy so he can communicate with Lanna (who is distant from Conan throughout most of the novel; Miyazaki makes her a major onstage character). The semi-villainous Commissioner Dyce of Industria is converted into a friendly supporting character. The bullying teenager Orlo of High Harbor, a major antagonist in the novel, is reduced to a minor character; and Conan is given a new boy-pal, Jimsy. Miyazaki’s dynamic direction has made this a fan favorite for over thirty years, with anime fans who have no idea that it is based on an American s-f novel instead of being an original Japanese scenario.

Rascal the Raccoon. Araiguma Rascal. A 52 episode TV adaptation, January 2-December 25, 1977, of Sterling North’s Rascal, a Memoir of a Better Era (1963). Directed by Seiji Endo and Hiroshi Saito (episodes 1-29) and Shigeo Koshi (episodes 30-52); produced by Nippon Animation. North’s memoir of his childhood, raising a pet baby raccoon in rural Wisconsin in the 1910s, was an American best-seller upon its publication. It got or was nominated for several Young Adult literary awards, and was filmed as a live-action feature by Disney in 1969. North’s account of how the almost-angelic Rascal brought the estranged young North and his father back together must have seemed a natural for a Japanese children’s TV show. Also, North’s episodic book was very easy to break down into separate TV episodes. Finally, it had the allure of a cute exotic animal unknown in Japan, almost but not quite like the Japanese tanuki/raccoon dog.

rascal200Unfortunately, Rascal the Raccoon was so popular with Japanese children that it became responsible for the importation of thousands of North American raccoon cubs into Japan as pets, enough of which were released into the wild after they grew into non-cute adults (North’s book similarly ends with his releasing Rascal when the raccoon grows up and becomes destructive) to create a serious imported-alien-wildlife problem today. Despite this, Rascal the Raccoon remains so popular in Japan after almost forty years that Nippon Animation still maintains a Rascal website where Rascal merchandise may be bought. A report on the Tokyo Anime Fair 2013 in March says, “… a lot of lovely Rascal merchandise new for 2013: plushies, pens, bags, …” Edgerton, Wisconsin, which has maintained North’s late 19th-century/early 20th-century boyhood home as a local-boy-makes-good museum, has recorded Japanese tourists coming to see Rascal’s real home.

Sorry that I do not have a clip of Rascal the Raccoon for this column, but Nippon Animation has been vigorous in making YouTube remove them. Disney’s movie contract does not allow any other cinematic version of Rascal to be shown in America; hence the TV cartoon, popular worldwide, has never been shown in America. Dailymotion has videos of the German dub subtitled in Spanish; but without the original Japanese theme or background music, it’s just not the same.

tomb_dracula1Tomb of Dracula. Yami no Teio: Kyuketsuki Dracula (literally Lord of Darkness: the Vampire Dracula). A 95-minute TV movie (81 minutes plus commercials) broadcast August 19, 1980, directed by Minoru Okazaki and Akinori Nagaoka, and produced by Toei Animation Co. This was a condensed adaptation of most of the 1972-1979 70-issue Tomb of Dracula Marvel Comics comic book. Marvel and Toei Animation were considering several co-productions in the late 1970s. Nothing came of the proposed Marvel comic-book adaptations of Toei properties, but Toei made a live-action Spider-Man TV serial (with a plot more imitative of Japanese super-sentai shows similar to those Americanized as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers), and animated TV movies of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein comic books.

Tomb of Dracula was a success in two respects; its faithfulness to Gene Colan’s comic-book artwork, and a lovely symphonic score featuring a harpsichord by Seiji Yokoyama. Otherwise, it was cringeworthy bad. The animation was so limited that the standard put-down of a limited animated production being little more than a fast-changing slide show springs to mind. Its worst aspect was actually its faithfulness to the first 52 or 53 issues of the comic book, instead of picking one of the comic book’s many story arcs and developing it in some depth. The movie switched from one comic-book plot to another with confusing speed, apparently adding and dropping supporting characters at random.

An added insult was its release in America as a direct-to-video animated movie, titled Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned with a laughably bad dub by Harmony Gold Ltd. – overly melodramatic dialogue read by voice actors in bored or hoked-up voices.

Anime fans got bad video copies of the Japanese TV broadcast in late 1980 or early ’81, just as Marvel’s management was denying it existed. This was partly to explain to fans why the company was not selling it, but more to fend off demands from the comic’s creators for royalties. I have a personal story here. One evening I got a telephone call from either Marv Wolfman, who had been the regular writer of the comic for most of its 70 issues, or his friend Len Wein. The two had been trying to find out whether the story that Tomb of Dracula had been animated in Japan was true, and somebody had just given them my name as a fan of Japanese animation who might know whether this was so. When I answered that I actually had a copy of it on video, they pleaded with me to drop everything and drive over to Wolfman’s (or Wein’s) house so they could make a copy of it. I never found out directly from them what happened next, but it is public knowledge that Marvel fired Wolfman rather than give him any royalties (more for Wolfman’s creation of Blade, Vampire Hunter, a supporting character in the comic book whom Marvel had licensed to be featured in an original live-action movie trilogy, than for Tomb of Dracula itself).

It seems appropriate that I leave you now with the the first 10 minutes of Tomb of Dracula American dub:


  • “The Incredible Tide” is a pretty obvious right-wing metaphor for the Cold War, with Industria representing the Russians. Miyazaki hated the book for its politics and tried to make the characters a little more balanced in his adaptation.

    • If you think “The Incredible Tide” was preachy and right-wing, have you read Key’s “Escape to Witch Mountain”? It is hard to tell whether the villains are Soviet secret agents or disguised demons under orders from Satan. Key implies that there was no real difference. Disney left that out of the movie; no surprise. Key’s novels are actually quite good, but you have to be aware of his prejudices. He was a Southerner, and he was very anti-Southern Redneck stereotypes and pro-racial tolerance at a time when this viewpoint was not popular in the South.

  • Future Boy Conan is seriously one of the best anime series I’ve ever seen. It desperately needs an American release (as do many of Nippon’s other flagship shows), but the age of the property probably scares away any potential distributers. Then again, Diskotek recently released the original 1971 Lupin III series, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

    • They have Hayao Miyazaki’s name to ride this with if they want, it’s simply a matter of whether Nippon Animation’s fees aren’t too out of the ballpark for them to consider (since I heard they’re rather terribly expensive).

  • How did the Rascal theme song end up being used as background music in the video game Frogger?

    • Wow; I did not know this. I have never been a video game player, although I have heard some excellent music on the games that my friends played. I hope that someone can answer this question.

    • We’ll never know the answer Jeff, no doubt Japanese pop culture made it so. Another Japanese tune heard in Frogger is “Inu no Omawarisan” (or “The Policeman Dog”), you can hear it as the start of the game itself, here’s one cute clip I found of the tune on YouTube!

    • Early arcade games were crazy about lifting copyrighted songs from other sources. Super Locomotive, Pengo, Rainbow Island and others did the same.

  • I see you left out The Moomins, kind of a pity

    • My column this week was overlong already; besides, “The Moomins” was based on a Finnish series, not American or British.

      The C/FO did see several episodes of “The Moomins” in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and we generally liked it a lot. Reportedly author Tove Jansson hated it because the Japanese animation company threw out her stories and just used her characters in new stories. That was too bad, but they were good stories; very enjoyable. I have wondered what the Japanese could have done with her original stories.

    • The Moomins are neither American nor British. They debuted in Sweden in 1945.

    • Basically, this is about American literature adapted into anime. Shows that fit into this category may include this…

  • “Miyazaki’s dynamic direction has made this a fan favorite for over thirty years, with anime fans who have no idea that it is based on an American s-f novel instead of being an original Japanese scenario.”

    Not bad for a story from the author of “Escape to Witch Mountain”. Not that I could see Disney tackle “The Incredible Tide”, but it’s just a dumb thought!

    “Sorry that I do not have a clip of Rascal the Raccoon for this column, but Nippon Animation has been vigorous in making YouTube remove them. Disney’s movie contract does not allow any other cinematic version of Rascal to be shown in America; hence the TV cartoon, popular worldwide, has never been shown in America. Dailymotion has videos of the German dub subtitled in Spanish; but without the original Japanese theme or background music, it’s just not the same.”

    I see French-dubbed episodes of Future Boy Conan as well up on Dailymotion too. It’s a start though that series did get fansubbed anyway so it’s not too hard to look for it, though I wish it was released here. Shame about the Disney thing. Nippon Animation can make some terrific stuff like their adaptation of Anne of Green Gables that just never gets traction here.

    “An added insult was its release in America as a direct-to-video animated movie, titled Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned with a laughably bad dub by Harmony Gold Ltd. – overly melodramatic dialogue read by voice actors in bored or hoked-up voices.”

    Speaking of bored voice acting, I recall Future Boy Conan did get an English dub that I only heard a clip used in a later video game encyclopedia type deal that was released in Japan for the 3DO player. It sounds like they got Mike Reynolds to do Dyce in this version. I’ve read an English version of the series was seen in some foreign markets like in southeast Asia.

    And yet we ate it up!

    “It seems appropriate that I leave you now with the the first 10 minutes of Tomb of Dracula American dub:”

    That’s just an excuse for you to go eat a hamburger isn’t it? 😛

  • A nice list, but yet another series based on a key classic of British children’s litterature (and one of my personal favorites) is missing: “The Twins at St. Clare’s” /”Ochame na Futago” (, a 26-episode series made by Tokyo Movie Shinsha in 1991 based on Enid Blyton’s -best known for her “Famous Five” books- series of novels about twin sisters at a typical British boarding school during the 40´s. This charming series has had a wide international release, though it never aired neither in the U.S. nor -ironically, since it´s Ms. Blyton’s native land- in the U.K. It has been released on DVD in France but with French audio only.

    • Thinking of another British novel at the top of my head (though not taking place there), it’s Ouida’s “A Dog of Flanders”, telling the sad story of a boy and his dog out in the Flemish countryside during a time of great prejudices. Japan saw two TV cartoons based on it, notably Nippon Animation’s own from 1975 which sparked a great deal of interest in Japanese tourism in Belgium. The story itself is not very well-known most everywhere else though numerous movie adaptations in the US have been made int he past century (though Belgium hardly knows this story anyway, and why should they, it was a stark commentary on their past society from an English author). A documentary on this phenomenon was put out 6 years back on the matter.

      To add more, TMS Entertainment made a TV adaptation themselves in the early 90’s under the name “Boku no Patrasche” (or “My Patrasche”), I see someone uploaded a bunch of episodes on YouTube so you better get on it if you want to see another take!

      Nippon Animation would later adapt their popular series into a feature film in ’97 that saw a release in the US in both subtitled and dubbed form, though it’s English version despite casting such noted actors like Robert Loggia and Sean Young, much of the dub was re-edited substantially that I wouldn’t recommend it.

    • When I was a child and a teenager during the 1940s and ’50s, I read lots of modern juvenile fantasies, usually by American authors — I think that Edward Eager was among them — and I noticed that several made fun of a stereotypical British lady author who churned out condescending twee fantasies for little children about fairies at the bottom of the garden. There were lots of these by different writers, and I didn’t know what they were talking about because there was nothing like that in the Los Angeles libraries at the time. Then I went to college at UCLA, whose library had a much wider range of books, including those by Enid Blyton, and I found all of those fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden books at the same time. Shelves and shelves of them! Most were so veddy, veddy British that I could understand one reason why they were never published in America. Another was that they really were so condescending that they were an insult to the intelligence of anyone over five years old. Blyton’s “Famous Five” novels were for older children and weren’t so condescending, although they were still veddy, veddy British.

      On the other hand, I loved the adventures of Billy Bunter and the boys of Greyfriars School, and you couldn’t get much more British than that.

  • Just reminded myself a pal of mine talked about the several adaptations of Alcott’s “Little Women” at his blog that impressed me that there were that many at all. One of them is currently airing on TBN’s “Smile of a Child” channel I believe.

    • That version (American English Dub by Saban Productions – now known as Saban Products, known for its notorious “mangling” of Maple Town and Samurai Pizza Cats) was also broadcast in LATAM Spanish on XHGC TV 5 in Mexico City in the mid 1990’s.

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