Earlier this year, while watching the Aoi Bungaku series of animated adaptations of classic Japanese literature, it became immediately clear they weren't even scratching the surface with the titles they'd chosen. The Manga de Dokua book series adapts both Western and Japanese literature to manga, and sports dozens of titles, many of which (Dogura Magura, for instance) would make great anime. What I'm most intrigued by, though, is the possibility of adapting things from beyond the greatest-hits or classics-illustrated lists — writings that have spunk and vivacity, that lend themselves to being extravagantly visualized. Case in point: Musui's Story.
That kid will never amount to anything
His real name was Katsu Kokichi, and he lived during the last days of Japan's Tokugawa Era, right before Commodore Perry made the term "gunboat diplomacy" a household word and Japan found itself transformed into a modernized nation. He was nobody's idea of an important historical figure — a low-ranking samurai of the era, living in a time when such men were rarely afforded a chance to be distinguished. Musui's Story is Kokichi's memoir, written while under house arrest for various offenses, and available in English by way of Teruko Craig's translation. It's picaresque, fast-moving, loaded with local color of the sort that rarely shows up in history lessons. And if half of what's in it is true, Kokichi was to samurai virtues the way Bluto from Animal House was to higher learning.
Right from the start, Kokichi was trouble. Born into a samurai family, he quickly became the embodiment of the opening lines of another story about another junior hellraiser, Sōseki Natsume's Botchan: "From the time I was a boy the reckless streak that runs in my family has brought me nothing but trouble." In Kokichi's case, though, the trouble didn't so much run in the family as he seemed to be the wellspring of it. Impulsive and brash, the young Kokichi finds every imaginable kind of trouble to get into, incurring the wrath of his father and grandmother; the later takes her own revenge by doing things like diluting his soy sauce with water. But it's Kokichi who gets the best of the last laughs. When he picks fights with other kids in his judo class, they retaliate by tying him up, hanging him from the rafters, and eating his lunch. His response: he urinates on their heads and into their food.
At the not-so-tender age of fourteen, Kokichi hits the road. Almost immediately, he gets ripped off, and receives a crash course in the finer points of roughing it. When a band of samurai almost kick the stuffing out of him, he gets in their good graces by proving he knows how to ride horses. But he finds more camaraderie with other beggars, who don't see a samurai's son but just a fellow traveler in need. A more straightlaced story would revolve around how the trials of living on the road made a man out of him, but here the trials in question have blackly comic undertones: by the time he gets home, he's been saddled — pun intended — with an injury to his testicles that leaves him bedridden with a case of crotch-rot for months on end.
Kokichi isn't much better as an adult. He pilfers tax money intended for the Shogunate and spends it in the red-light district in Yoshiwara, and tries to cover up the theft by replacing the money with rocks. He gets into street fights. He duels with members of rival sword schools, and rips off their nameplates on the way out the door when they lose. Sometimes his sense of derring-do comes in handy, as when he teams up with a village untouchable to bring in a renegade samurai, but for the most part he's content to rake in gold on the sly, and to get neck-deep in debt to keep up his roustabout reputation.
Since the whole thing is written as a memoir looking back, Kokichi claims to regret his bad behavior now. But you can tell from the way he savors recounting it all, he's closer to a Tokugawa-era incarnation of GoodFellas's Henry Hill. What he regrets most about the criminal life he led was not that he was a bad person, but that the good times had to end someday, and that he had to get caught and give them up.
Everything old can be new again
Why animate a property like this? The first and most blatant reason is to give us samurai-era action, and there are no end of extant go-to examples for why this is a good idea: Rurouni Kenshin in all its incarnations; the underappreciated samurai satire Carried By The Wind; the wide-gauge dazzle of Sword of the Stranger; the list goes on. This stuff is always great fun to watch, no matter what the pretext. The sheer number of scrapes and misadventures Kokichi gets into — the duels, the brawls, the thefts, the screw-ups — could handily fill a two-hour movie, or even a thirteen-episode TV series with a little judicious rewriting and expansion. The character makes a great center of gravity for such a story, no matter what the length.
The other reason falls into the more general category of why Musui's Story could be adapted into any other visual medium, and that's because it depicts a slice of period life that lies far outside the usual romanticizations of the period as seen in mainstream Japanese media. Bribery, graft, off-the-books work are all ways of life for Kokichi and his buddies — exactly the kinds of things that the official story of the era tried to erase or leave off. It's an embodiment, if an unwitting one, of the kind of cultural criticism found in many of the live-action samurai pictures of the 1960s and 1970s (Harakiri, Kill!, etc.). Few anime take that tack at all when dealing with such material; for the most part, they're a reflection of being aimed at younger audiences, and so focus on swashbuckling or comradeship rather than social commentary. It'd be nice to have something that changes that up a tot.
Most every popular culture turns to the history and traditions of its society for inspiration. Japan goes through the same cycles of doing so as most every other nation: what was once a staple concept (ninja) becomes a stale cliché until some rejuvenating new way to look at it comes along (Naruto). That rejuvenation comes at least as much from attitude as it does from actual innovation. Musui's Story has attitude aplenty to serve as a baseline for how to rethink samurai anime. Everything old can indeed be new again.