Sunday, January 29, 2023

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Taishou Otome Fairy Tale


Okay, so long time no see.

I'm sorry for not updating in a while. I'm afraid I've lost just a little bit of interest in all this fairy tale/folk tale stuff. Well, not so much lost interest as my interest settled down to a reasonable level. This seems to be a thing that happens a lot with me. I'll develop an interest that will be at the forefront of my mind for a while. Sometimes to the point of preoccupation. Then, after indulging in it for a few years, that preoccupation will stop and just become a regular general interest while something else takes its place. (Honestly, this might be an ADD thing. But I haven't really thought about that particular diagnosis since elementary school).

Anyway, I'm trying to not let this blog die completely, so let's take as look at some media property that calls itself a “fairy tale” and see how much of a fairy tale it is. Because sometimes they use the term “fairy tale” just to call attention to the fact that it's a fantasy or to indicate that it's a love story, when those things aren't necessarily the same as being a fairy tale.

Today's media is: Taishou Otome Fairy Tale.

The promo image for the anime.

I might want to clarify that, because that title (which is how it's labeled on Crunchyroll) is kind of a mix of English and Japanese. In Japanese, it would be “Taishou Otome Otogibanashi”. In English, it would be “Taishou Maiden Fairy Tale”. “Taishou” remains the same because it's a proper noun. The Taishou era was a period of Japanese history ranging from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926, coinciding with the reign of Emperor Taishou. (Note: I had not realized how short this time period was before writing this. Only 14 years).

Taishou Otome Fairy Tale is a 12 episode anime series based on a five volume manga series by artist Sana Kirioka and originally published in Jump Comics SQ.

The story is set in the early 1920s. Tamahiko Shima, second son of the wealthy Shima family, lives alone and hermit-like in a large house in the countryside of Chiba. Having been in an auto accident that claimed his mother's life and the use of his right hand, the rich and imposing young man (Tamahiko is unusually tall, as are much of his family. Possibly over six feet, which is fairly rare for Japanese men) has resigned himself to a life of pessimism, self-loathing and isolation. Until one day, a young girl of 14 named Yuzuki Tachibana shows up on his doorstep. By way of explanation, she tells Tamahiko that she was essentially purchased by Tamahiko's father to pay off her own father's debt with the intention of her being Tamahiko's companion and future wife. Yuzu, unusually cheerful for someone in her position, sets to work cleaning, cooking, sewing, and doing everything she can to make the gloomy Tamahiko's house into a home. As things continue on, romance blooms between them as Tamahiko is slowly brought out of his shell and starts to interact with the surrounding community as well as deal with his abusive family.

So, it seems that we're dealing with a “fairy tale in name only”. The title probably comes from the fact that it's a romance story. I mean, the 1920s hardly seems like a time period conducive to fairy tales. There's no magical elements in any of the story. Very few particularly overt fairy tale motifs.

I mean, what else could we take from a story about a young girl who's traded away because of the actions of her father and made to live in a secluded home with a depressed, disfigured and imposing man . . .

And . . . this is just “Beauty and the Beast” isn't it?

Japanese cover for the first manga digest

[SIGH] It was right there in front of my face.

This one's kind of a new one on me, actually. In some ways, Tamahiko and Yuzu actually resemble their more literary counterparts more than some of the popular versions of Belle and the Beast do. The early French literary versions of the Beast often seem gloomy and depressed like Tamahiko does, as opposed to the angry Beast we see in the Disney film. Literary versions of Belle are also much more willing to make do with the situation they're in than the Disney Belle is, much like Yuzu. (I know I'm only comparing to the Disney version, but is there any other version that's reached the same heights of popularity?). You could even say that Yuzu's trip to see her friend in Tokyo could be the equivalent of when Belle goes home to see her ailing father. Though, that ends up playing out very differently (it involves an actual historical event: The Great Kanto Earthquake).

However, it kind of stops there. Even the most complex early version written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve doesn't account for some of the places Taishou Otome Fairy Tale goes. Like, I'm pretty sure the Beast never ended up becoming a tutor for the village's children. I'm also pretty sure Belle never inspire the Beast's younger sister to study medicine. I doubt that Belle and the Beast ever befriended a popular musician of the time either.

It's like the fairy tale was a writing prompt. Like someone gave Sana Kirioka the prompt “Beauty and the Beast in 1920s Japan, no magic” and this is what spun out from it.

I guess at this point, the question becomes whether or not Taishou Otome Fairy Tale is a worthwhile watch on its own merits.

Well, I will say that I like it. It's a charming romantic comedy set in a historic era. The settings are interesting (if you have a sense of Japanese culture and Japan's post-Meiji Era development, you'll probably have more fun with it). The characters are likable enough. There is a little bit of, pardon the term, “anime bullshit”. But not too much. Most of the stakes are lower, and more daily life related. But when the really heavy stakes hit, they hit hard.

I am going to say though that it's probably not for everyone. Especially the series' heroine if you're used to the more feisty, bookish Belles or just feistier heroines in general. Yuzu might not be up your alley.

This anime is, obviously, a product of Japan. And I sometimes have trouble explaining to people here in the Western world just how old-fashioned Japan can be. In many cases this is because they grew up hearing about Japan during the 1980s when they were killing it in the economic spheres of electronics and cars, or have seen YouTube videos about bullet trains or something. They don't know that it's still a country where businesses continue to rely heavily on outdated tech like fax machines and paper business cards. Or where homes don't have central heating or air conditioning no matter how cold or hot it gets. Or where media still depicts “housewife” as one of the most common and acceptable careers for grown women. Now, imagine how true this might be for an anime actually set in the past.

Yuzu hard at work.

The thing with Yuzuki Tachibana is not only that she seems way too accepting of a potentially bad situation she's been placed in by a number of different men with very little say over what's happening to her. It's also that she's SUPER domestic. She's always cooking, cleaning, sewing, buying groceries and doing other housekeeping tasks with no annoyance or frustration. Yuzu throws herself into the job of taking care of a house and other people as if it's what she's wanted to do all her life. And at one point, when questioned about whether she wants children someday by a close friend, she responds that she wants “lots and lots of them”. The one saving grace here is that it seems that it's not being communicated as a trait of girls in general but just Yuzu in particular. In a flashback scene to her time at a girls' school, we find out that even her school friends acknowledge how domestic she is by comparison, even going to her when they need tears in their clothes patched or things like that. And there are other girls in the cast who have devoted themselves to studying medicine or performing music. So, it's what Yuzu likes and what she wants to do. But if it's not something you get, this character might not connect with you.

So, fairy tale or not, if this show sounds interesting to you then give it a shot. I don't know about other countries, but here in the United States it's currently on the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. There's also the manga. In addition to the original manga, there's also a sequel titled Showa Otome Fairy Tale that takes place a few years later with new characters and seems to borrow some of its set-up from Cinderella. However, neither of those have gotten any kind of official release in the United States, so you'd have to resort to other means to read them.

It may be a little while, but until next time.

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