Say the words literary classic to most people. Watch the eyelids droop and the heads nod. But if the classics are a bore, maybe that's only because we're too used to thinking of them as dusty museum artifacts and not as living products of their age. Adaptations of classics, for all the flaws they may have (they're "unfaithful"; they deter people from reading the original; the authors would spin in their graves), do provide audiences with a major service: they make the work in question a living thing, in some form, for a new generation. This is why I had no problem at all when Lupin III creator Monkey Punch was drafted in to help create an adaptation of Sōseki Natsume's classic novel Bōtchan: for a novel that rowdy and free-swinging, you needed someone with an art style and an attitude to match. Boy, did they ever get it.
Bōtchan has remained in print ever since it first appeared in Japan in 1906, and it's not hard to see why. It is funny, and moreover it's funny stuff from an author who wasn't widely known for being funny. Natsume was also responsible for one of the other great bestsellers in Japanese history, Kokoro — which has also received its own anime adaptation, one I should delve into at some point — and that book was as sorrowful and powerful as Bōtchan is light-hearted and free-wheeling. This anime adaptation of Bōtchan does pretty good justice to the book's comic spirit, even if it trades some of the book's comedies of manners for the kinds of physical pratfalls that Monkey Punch himself loved.
City kid hits the sticks, and the sticks hit back
The word Bōtchan is itself a term of endearment, something like "young master" in English, and it's the only label we ever hear applied to the main character and narrator. From the beginning, he's been a trouble magnet: throwing himself out of a second-story window in his school when his classmates taunt him for being too chicken to do so; fighting with his effeminate brother when he cheats at chess; or getting hotheaded when the hotheads of the world breathe down his own neck. Natsume created the character as a way to lampoon a certain type he saw prevalent in his society — the "sincere" man who would rather die than bend, in conflict with a great many other people who would rather bend than do much of anything else.
At a loss with what to do with himself, Bōtchan takes a job teaching math in a school out in the sticks, and even before the first bell rings he's already preparing to quit on principle. The headmaster (the "Tanuki", as Bōtchan dubs him) is a windbag whose ideas of education are so high-flown — shilling for overblown — that ultra-straightlaced Bōtchan is prepared to walk right on out for fear of not being able to live up to them. The assistant principle ("Redshirt") is cultured and suave, but at the same time shifty, and the other math teacher ("Porcupine") is a bluff, blustering loudmouth with a backslap that could dislocate a spine.
The students are no better. Not only do they heckle him for talking too fast — their backwoods accent features a drawled-out "-na moshi" hanging off the end of every sentence — but they single out Bōtchan for the kind of abuse that would scarcely be visited on another student. A visit to a noodle shop gets him sassed for days on end with messages like "TEMPURA SENSEI" and "DUMPLINGS IN THE RED-LIGHT DISTRICT — MM, MM GOOD!" turning up on the blackboard when he walks into the classroom. A visit to the local bathhouse yields even worse results. Crickets — no, locusts — turn up in his bed in the middle of the night. In this environment, all thoughts of teaching, never mind preserving one's sanity, fly right out the window like so many freed birds.
Touchy and upright hothead that he is, Bōtchan has no chance of coping with such goings-on. But bit by bit he finds something for him to sink his righteous teeth into: a scandal involving Redshirt, the meek English teacher at the school, and a local beauty known as "the Madonna". With his former antagonist Porcupine now an ally, the two mete out their own brand of justice, consisting of the kind of humiliation that would sink even the most buoyant of stuffed-(red)shirt fatheads.
All-stars of animation
Monkey Punch isn't the only name on in the credits for Bōtchan that ought to draw the eyes of attentive anime fans. The director, Yoshio Takeuchi, may not ring bells by himself but the projects where he's occupied a top chair might: AKIRA (animation director); the anime adaptation of Yukinobu Hoshino's space fantasia manga 2001 Nights (likewise); The Rose of Versailles (director of episodes); Space Adventure Cobra; and many others where he was paired up with another name that might be a bit more familiar: Osamu Dezaki, the legendary director whose signature pastel-chalked freeze-frame imagery adorns both Bōtchan and a number of the other projects noted here. Animation director Akio Sugino was also a regular on many Dezaki projects, so it's not hard to see this as a reunion of many like minds.
But it's Monkey Punch's spirit that is most prevalent here, in the free-wheeling way most everything's been brought to life. Many episodes in the original story lend themselves to the kind of hambone comedy you might see in a Lupin III episode, but others are more along the lines of battles of wits between the unarmed — something that might work well as a live-action production, but is tougher to make the most of in animation. To that end, Takeuchi punches up many scenes with the kind of visual pratfalls that seem right at home in a Lupin episode, e.g., when he climbs up on his desk to bellow at his unruly students, or when he and Porcupine smash blackboard erasers into each others' faces. Sometimes the visualizations are a way to evoke Bōtchan's puffed-up state of mind: when he runs the gauntlet of being introduced to his fellow (insufferable) teachers, the whole experience is epitomized for him in a hilarious freeze-frame that's patterned after an ukiyo-e scroll, with Bōtchan sporting the haughty, frowning, pop-eyed mien of a kabuki actor.
Most of the crucial parts of the original story have been preserved, but with only a 70-minute running time, some things had to hit the cutting room floor head-first. Wisely, Takeuchi and his writer (Yoshiyuki Fukuda, of Mushi Pro's Kanashimi no Belladonna) kept the opening episodes from Bōtchan's rambunctious childhood as a pre-credits sequence. They did, however, ditch Bōtchan's experiences with his landlords — one of whom keeps trying to foist worthless antiques on him, the other who seems hospitable enough until he starts singing (badly) in the middle of the night. But the biggest omission for me is a completely gratuitous change to the climax itself. In the novel, Bōtchan literally eggs his antagonist into submission; here, he throws ink. Why change it? Eggs are funnier anyway.
Good enough for another go-round
Six years after this Bōtchan appeared on TV, another animated version showed up as part of what fans of the now-defunct Central Park Media label will remember as the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature lineup. Created in 1986 by Nippon Aimation Co. Ltd., and with Captain Tsubasa director Eisuke Kondo at the helm, it featured animation director Takeo Kitahara (City Hunter, Sherlock Hound, Mobile Suit Gundam F91) and screenwriter Akira Miyazaki, who also adapted Tove Jansson's Moomin stories for an anime series and feature film.
Those credits may pale a bit next to the likes of Dezaki and Monkey Punch, but Kondo's version isn't bad at all, and shows some flair in scenes like the one where Bōtchan has a bedbug problem. Its main drawback is how it doesn't have the raucous sense of fun a story like this really needs to catch fire. Bōtchan comes off as being more stolid, square, and hidebound than hotheaded and headstrong, and some of that is reflected in the way the story's unfolded. A fairly major theme in the book was how Bōtchan's one soft spot was for the maid of his father's household who doted on him in the absence of his mother. In Takeuchi's version, that stuff works all the more as a contrast to the wackiness of the rest of the goings-on; here, it's just another bit of business. Still, they do keep the only-sane-man-in-the-asylum flavor of the humor, a vital part of what made the original tick.
The real shame with both versions, though, is how they have fallen out of print. I was lucky enough to discover the 1980 version on DVD in New York City's Book-Off; the only other copies I've seen since then are on Amazon.jp, where prices run as high as ¥29,000. The 1986 version has been issued domestically, and while copies are still floating around, who knows how long they'll still be available no thanks to Central Park Media folding. Ideally, though, it's the Takeuchi / Dezaki / Monkey Punch version that most needs a little re-exposure — and on both sides of the Pacific, it seems.