Let's Animate This is an ongoing series where we explore the idea of adapting non-anime properties as anime productions: what it would take, which works would make for the best adaptations, and what issues would be raised in the translation.

O fœtus, O fœtus
Why do you writhe about?
Does the soul of your mother
Strike fear in your heart?
from the opening to Dogura Magura

There are, in my view, some kinds of stories that lend themselves all the more to being animated rather than being filmed. The more "unreal" the story — the more it defies our sense of the rational, the material, the actual — the better suited it is to such a treatment. Animation suspends some of our disbelief for us right off the bat, and requires us to use just that much more of our own imagination to engage with it. Small wonder that when I went looking for a candidate to kick off this series, Dogura Magura fairly leaped out at me as just such a story. Its legacy as a seminal work of Japanese fantasy — or dark science fiction, or horror, or all of the above — closes and cinches that deal.

Dogra Magra (or, in its literal Romanization, Dogura Magura) was the most famed of many works by author Yumeno Kyūsaku (1889-1936), famed in Japan to this day for work that stands somewhere between multiple poles. As hinted at above, it's somewhere between mystery fiction, psychological horror, dark fantasy, and early SF, but the end result is more than just the sum of those ingredients: it has the gruesome power of David Cronenberg's 1980s movies, the existential dread of Philip K. DIck's what's-really-real? SF, and the gothic ghastliness that is a product of its period in Japanese history.

Darkly dreaming Ichiro

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Japan of the Twenties and Thirties was marked not only by the rising militancy of the government but the rise of the "ero-guro" sensibility — the fusion of the erotic and the grotesque, something that found its most famous (read: notorious) incarnations in the darkly fantastic detective fiction of Edogawa Rampo. Rampo's stories revolved around crimes of passion, with the passions in question raised to the level of black arts: e.g., a man who embodies himself in the form of a chair so that he might stay close to the woman he loves. Dogra Magura fit right into such a sensibility, and was if anything the product of an even dreamier, more free-ranging imagination than Rampo's.

Dogura Magura (1935) — the title refers to Japanese notions of mystic Christian incantations like "Abracadabra" — opens with its narrator, a young man named Ichiro Kure, waking up in a mental hospital to the sound of the chiming of a great clock. Confined there for having attempted to murder his wife and mother, the doctors there seem quite eager to explain his behavior by way of a pet theory of theirs. The brain, they believe, is not actually what stores human memory or consciousness. Rather, it is something participated in by the entire body — and one's genetics as well, meaning that insanity and other mental conditions are hereditary. One of Kure's own ancestors, after all, is purported to have been in the grip of a madness no less colorful, one that drove him to such grotesqueries as creating a progressive series of drawings documenting the decay of his wife's corpse.

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But as the story turns itself inside out and upside down, other possibilities loom. Did Kure in fact commit these crimes, or was he simply tricked into thinking he did? The most objective reading of the book (as in Sari Kawana's analysis of the story in Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture) hints that Ichiro was conceived as part of an experiment to validate the scientists' theories, human morals be damned. But even more ominous is the possibility that none of this has happened, that it is simply the fantasy of an unborn foetus, awaiting its turn to embody the madness passed down by its ancestors. And so in true Möbius-storytelling fashion, the story ends as it begun, with Kure falling back to sleep to the sound of the chiming of the great clock.

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Manga de Dokuha's adaptation: Classics Illustrated, but with little flair of its own.

Fantasy, horror, and science fiction from previous eras is exceptionally susceptible to dating badly, especially when it revolves around some aspect of the natural sciences that has turned out to be fallacious or disproven. Dogura Magura in particular should have dated very badly indeed, in big part because of its heavy reliance on Freudian psychology and its markedly unscientific notions about human memory and biology. But because the aim of the story is the evocation of a state of horror, and not a rational explanation for anything, it actually hasn't dated badly at all — certainly nowhere nearly as badly as some of Rampo's own stories that attempted to use the still-nascent science of psychological forensics to drive their plotting.

Then again, scientific accuracy isn't remotely the point. Instead, it's about creating an atmosphere of terror and bewilderment, that of an innocent man ensnared in circumstances far greater than anything he could conceive. Here, though, instead of those circumstances being only that of the law or human relations (as per your usual noir thriller storyline), they're created by the contrast between the hapless Kure coming face-to-face with the impersonal forces of nature — and maybe also the manipulations of his handlers — that have shaped him ... or, perhaps, that he has been led to believe he has been shaped by. This is no web he's caught in; it's a Möbius strip.

Once, twice, three times an adaptation

The single biggest reason for Dogura Magura having virtually no mindshare outside of Japan is the simplest: it's never been translated into English. My own appreciation for Dogura Magua has been colored by this, since I've only been able to approach it in bits and pieces — via the original text, which my own stumbling understanding of Japanese only allowed me to approach so much; via the French translation, which again I could only close in on so much because of my skills with that language (although I was able to make more headway there, I admit); and through three adaptations into other media: a manga, a live-action movie, and a 3D CGI animated feature. Even I could tell all three had their limits, though, and experiencing them has only convinced me all the more an animated adaptation could have phenomenal possibilities.

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The manga version hails from the Manga de Dokuha ("Reading Through Manga") series, an ongoing project wherein literary classics, Japanese and otherwise, are adapted into manga form to spur interest in modern readers. This kind of Classics Illustrated approach works far better for some books than others, and ad a result the MdD series varies widely in quality from book to book, both in terms of the art and the fidelity of the adaptations. Their version of Dogura Magura is at least on-target in terms of presenting the story in appropriately nightmarish, Gothic terms. It also appears to follow the plot (especially the ending-is-the-beginning ending) with fair fidelity, albeit with a good deal of compression and reduction — and with, at times, the artwork verging more of the goofy than the horrifying. But it's clearly no substitute for the labyrinthine head and word games of the original, and it only serves as an introduction to the original in the sense of alerting an audience to the fact of its existence — and I'm dubious how useful that approach is for a book this deliberately difficult and labyrinthine. (That hasn't stopped MdD from creating adaptations of everything from James Joyce's Ulysses to Nietzsche's Antichrist, though.)

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Toshio Matsumoto's film: labyrinthine and moody, but perhaps to a fault.
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Never let it be said that anything is "unfilmable", because to the suitably ambitious, anything is filmable. Dogura Magura's convolution and narrative trickery all but guaranteed most people would consider it unfilmable, but most people were not Toshio Matsumoto. A director and professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design, he only made four feature films, but given that his debut was the boundary- and narrative-shattering counter-cultural Oedipus Rex remix Funeral Procession of Roses, he was "no stranger to difficult jobs," as Thomas Weisser put it in the entry for the film in his Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia guidebook. His film of Dogura Magura, made in 1988, was the last feature film he made to date, and is as convoluted and difficult as the book ostensibly is. Many of the book's conceits — its joined-together ending and beginning, its varied narrative modes, its Gothic tone, and above all its surreal ambiguity — are preserved remarkably well. But it feels frustrating instead of tantalizing, as I observed in my original review of the film some ten years back. It works best as a curio for those interested in the extreme fringes of Japan's live-action cinema, and those who have some inkling of what they're getting into when they watch it.

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A third adaptation also exists — an anime of sorts, a CGI production created by T.O. Entertainment, of Egg Man and Mass Effect: Paragon Lost. Unfortunately, it seems to be an adaptation of the original only in the loosest sense. From what I was able to piece together — as the Japanese DVD does not have subtitles — it keeps the same basic conceit involving its hapless protagonist, but shifts the action into the future on board a spaceship where the experiments have been taking place. It's difficult for me to determine the value of the end result, but the bland computer-graphics look of the production isn't promising — it feel more like gloomy cyberpunk than Gothic dreadful, and tinkering with the flavor of the original is something done at one's own peril.

Finding the right pieces

So what would a faithful and inspired animated adaptation of Dogura Magura be like? For one, I think we can safely leave the look of the Manga de Dokuha version out. It's acceptable as a comic, but doesn't have nearly enough flair of its own to serve as the basis for an animated adaptation. Rather, we might want to turn to several existing anime for ideas — titles that don't have to be followed slavishly, but with elements worth using as inspiration.

Mononoke comes first to mind, both because of its wild, stylized animation, but also because of the way it delves, in its last chapters, into the very era evoked by Dogura Magura. The style might need to be made less colorful, more foreboding to be appropriate to the material, but the stylization, the disinhibition, is what's needed. Likewise, Shiki has a fitting mix of horrific mood and foreboding imagery — although it sometimes leavens it with humor designed to catch viewers off-guard, something that might need to be dropped for this. And Texhnolyze, despite being science fiction, is suffused with such a suffocating mood of claustrophobic dread that it makes an excellent model to study for Dogura Magura. And while I haven't yet seen it, I understand the anime adaptation of No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku) also sports the right combination of terror, dread, and Taishō-era darkness to serve as a source.

Somewhere between those projects lies the right combination of flavors for an anime rendition of Dogura Magura, but any adaptation would also need to bring its own distinctive touch to the table as well. Labyrinthine and unsatisfying as Matsumoto's film was, I couldn't deny it was the product of a singular mind-set, just as Kyūsaku's book before it seems to have been. An anime adaptation would need to be no less idiosyncratic than the book — a tall order to fill, but if filled by the right hands, likely to be a thoroughly rewarding one.

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The CGI-animated production: was moving the action in the future wise?
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.