published in Empire No.71, Sydney
‘Otogo Zoshi’ translates as ‘fairy tale’ – but the anime series Otogo Zoshi provides something a bit more complicated than mere allegory. Divided into 2 parts – the Heian Arc and the Tokyo Arc – five characters on a mythical quest appear in both, with the modern day Shinjuku quintet becoming re-incarnations of the original troupe from 12th century Kyoto.
In the Heian arc, young archer Raiko is sent by the imperial court to retrieve three missing Magatama stone artefacts containing mystical powers which will grant the Imperial Court of Kyoto power to repair its ailing city. But Raiko takes ill and his sister Hikaru undertakes the job disguised as her brother. With archery skills equal to her brother, she is sided by her indomitable retainer Watanabe. Along the way they encounter 3 unlikely comrades: the mysterious Usui, the sleazy Urabe and wild child Kintaro. They venture across Japan and clash with tribes and sects who possess the Magatama stones for their own needs. The adventure resembles a series of small scale civil wars, with Hikaru and her band always outnumbered. Complicating matters is not only the subterfuge of the corrupt Imperial Court, but also the intermittent appearance of master dancer Mansairaku with whom Hikaru becomes enchanted.
Following an earth-shattering finale I cannot disclose, the story abruptly shifts to modern day Japan. Here is where the series truly resembles a fairytale. Like a frog turned into a princess, the Tokyo arc is adorned with completely different credits and theme songs. Nothing about it resembles the Heian arc except the faces of the five key characters. Drawing style, plot details, and overall tonality are substantially different, yet one feels it’s always vaguely familiar. A wealth of historical info on the Heian period plus Tokyo’s formation from its feudal era villages enhances this mesmerising exercise in tale-spinning.