Nowadays, the word “epic” is often used as an adjective to describe something we deem good to the extreme, something utterly awesome. We don’t often consider the origin of this word and its accompanying characteristics, instead re-naming such works as “adventures” or “dramas.” But I’d like us to take a step back and re-consider the full implication of the term, as well as discuss some example anime that exhibit one or more of the genre’s attributes: Kemono no Souja Erin, Juuni Kokuki, Utawarerumono, and Seirei no Moribito.
I remember first studying epic poetry back in middle school, with works like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both Greek works, I wasn’t too interested until I saw Wishbone episodes featuring some of the tales from these great pieces of literature. The kids television show helped me better understand the stories and also made the people and their struggles more tangible. Living where I do with temperature extremes and the wilderness, I grew up loving the idea of setting out into the raw world to claim my own adventure. Though the desires tamed a bit later on, college introduced me to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, Metamorphoses, Beowulf, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. I won’t even mention the plethora of modern texts I ended up reading. The point is, a strong foundation was set into me for an interest in tales of political, national, and romantic turmoil. Throw in a dose of protagonist sufferings countered with brief moments of merriment, and I’m a happy gal. Much to my pleasure, I discovered that the epic takes genre form in anime as well and, like in literature, has the potential to grab my heart, soul, and mind. Like in video games, these stories are usually described as “adventures,” but if you’re familiar with epic poetry, you’ll notice the similarities between the poetry and genre forms.
Though a bit dated, Thomas Greene’s still relevant 1961 article, “The Norms of Epic,” begins with the assertion that “The first quality of the epic imagination is expansiveness…Epic characteristically refuses to be hemmed in, in time as well as in space…” (194). In other words, we’re talking area, and large amounts of it–both literally and figuratively. This area also takes up both space and time as well. Kemono no Souja Erin is perhaps the best example of this, as we follow along with Erin in the 50 episodes across many lands, from her childhood to adulthood. We have the feeling that her world is vast, and that we’ve only seen a miniscule amount of it. Through the course of her life, we see government leaders fall and rise, entire species of creatures almost die out and re-populate; Erin makes friends who later also die, and she continues on to make more friends and cherish her relationships with them. She begins in a small village that raises “tohda,” beasts used for the nation’s miliatry, and eventually ends up working as a master in an “ohju” beastmaster school that nourishes ill and injured ohju (pretty much the mascot of the kingdom, and more ferocious than the tohda). She goes on to catch the attention of the higher ups in the kingdom, who only want to use her skills with the ohju for power and war.
Another norm of the epic has the “…expansiveness of epic…checked finally by a complementary, containing quality which affects not so much or not only the sense of space as the capacity of hero” (196). While the hero may be surrounded by powerful movements and figures, the hero him or herself is very human, with all of a human’s vulnerabilities. This hero often embodies our ideals and hopes. The hero constantly struggles between “…capacities and limitations” (199). While physically or intellectually strong, our hero is still subject to injury, illness, and personal misjudgement. Yoko, the female protagonist of Juuni Kokuki, starts off as a weak, and essentially flat, character. She wants to please others and stay out of trouble herself, so she goes along with the interests of others, whether that be for good or bad. Fate catches up to her and she discovers that she is the next destined ruler for a mystical kingdom, separate from her (and presumably our) world. Through a good many episodes, she is whiny, teary, and afraid for herself and worries about what others may think about her. Despite how annoying I find her, I also find her reactions to the foreign world believable and all too understanding were I to enact the same story. However, through her struggles, she discovers steel within herself and takes that firm resolve to fit into her role as queen and warrior. She begins to care for others, instead of just for herself, and in the end, I find myself willing to follow her and desiring to befriend her and be like her.
The Roland and the Charlemagne Figures: Representing 2 Plot Forms
Greene briefly summarizes Lubbock’s two kinds of epic narration, and focuses primarily on the “scenic, which descends to a given incident at a given hour and place” (202). Within this in-the-moment visual, Greene goes on to break the scenic into two kinds of episodes: the Roland figure and the Charlemagne figure, the pathetic and the ethical.
The first episode stresses “activity and movement…the struggle between capacity and limitation” (202). We are bombarded with graphic images and feats of glory. If you’re at all familiar with the French epic The Song of Roland, you’ll recognize the reference. If not, this episode description aligns with the famous battle of Roncevaux Pass, which the epic uses as a base for its story. Roland, a loyal knight and Charlemagne’s nephew, is ambushed along with his men due to treason, and slaughtered down to the last man. The lyrics go into great detail on his fall, and his sacrifice is used as an example of independence and bravery. The second episode “…is concerned with the significance and consequence of violence” (202). These type of episodes have less imagery and more dialogue, though not dialogue in the chatty sense since epics are lyrical. Dialogue in this case means the formal speeches which reveal the connection between physical and symbolic. Charlemagne hears the final three blasts of Roland’s horn and returns, too late, to survey the massacre. He gives pursuit, and in the end, the traitors are sentenced to death and the enemies subdued. However, he receives a message from God that he is to continue his warring. Violence begets violence.
This point is the most difficult for me to discuss with anime, since I have a hard time thinking up specific examples instead of broad comparisons. Utawarerumono is rife with war, as the kingdoms of this world seem completely bent on conquest. Our protagonist, the male “Hakuoro,” ends up becoming the leader of one of the kingdoms. Ever the noble king, he only fights to protect his kingdom, and never goes out of his way to defeat another land. However, his kingdom’s ensuing prosperity and victories only invites further conflict. We get plenty of on-screen violence, notably with our main character as well as with some wonderful female fighters, but we also have plenty of times where everyone sits back and contemplates the outcomes from all the fighting. Because of the density of the plot, this 26-episode anime felt more like a 50-episode season. But I find that to be a good thing!
Greene’s fourth and last norm of the epic is his discussion of “…the quality of heroic energy, the superabundant vitality which charges character and image and action alike” (204-05). Seirei no Moribito is very high on my list of favorites, as well as on my list of all time best anime. By the same author as Kemono no Souja Erin, it’s easy to see the patterns in Uehashi’s story writing. Like Erin, Balsa is a strong-willed woman, and she’s reached this point of strength through tragedy. Again, like Erin, she has immense confidence in her own capabilities, though in this case the skills are not in beast mastery, but in combat. Balsa is a Kanbal spear-wielder, a weapon that is looked down upon in the New Yogo Kingdom as a footman’s weapon. Any disdain for this weapon is quickly proved worthless, as Balsa defeats many a sword and and plenty of other weapons time and time again. Due to this anime’s great focus on character, plot, art, and music, you feel a tension all throughout this adventure. The danger feels very real, and I actually feel excited as I go along with Balsa and the child prince she guards, Chagum, as they encounter opposition and friends alike. I don’t want this to turn into a praise-fest, especially since this isn’t a review of any one anime, but of the four epic animes listed, this one is probably the one that captured my interests the most. It also felt to be the most detailed, as well as the best concluded. Though the action sequences are few, they are among the best I have ever seen animated. I also found the story highly unique and intriguing, and the characters utterly believable. This anime is a regular 26-episode long series, but its depth and energy equal this to any 50-episode epic anime.
I continue to cherish and re-watch the named epic anime, though I admit that I am currently watching Erin for the first time. At this moment, I am only at episode 41 of 50. But if things continue as they have, I have high hopes of loving it just as much as any of the above three. I know there are plenty of other great epics out there that I have yet to see, such as Guin Saga and Xam’d, and I’m open to any other suggestions that aren’t already on my anime list as planning-to-watch or dropped. I am fascinated with tales of heroism, tragedy, and perseverance. Man is fascinating in his struggles.
Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters; for he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future days, while the gods grant him courage, and his knees have spring in them. But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him, against his will he must suffer it with enduring spirit. For the mind in men upon earth goes according to the fortunes the Father of Gods and Men, day by day, bestows upon them. (Odyssey 18.130-137)
Related reading: Baka-Raptor’s “Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Epic”