It comes as no surprise to anime fans that most anime and anime films are based on manga or Japanese light novels. Some even come from Japanese folklore, true events in Japanese history, or live action programming. Anime is created and produced primarily in Japan, so it makes sense that most of the source material is Japanese. But did you know that some anime, maybe even some of your favourites, are actually based on Western literature? That’s right; books and stories from Western culture have also been adapted into anime, and quite successfully, too!
Even when a manga becomes an anime, there is a level of creative licensing that happens, and there are always changes between the versions. With anime based on Western literature, which often doesn’t have pictures as a base like manga does, this happens even more. The anime definitely has been adapted to suit the style, some more than others, from its original source. But that source remains a piece of Western literature, which makes the anime special and in a unique minority! So are you ready to see our picks for the Top 10 Anime Based on Western Literature? A few entries may even surprise you!
10. Pandora Hearts
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Apr. 2009 – Sep. 2009
Pandora Hearts follows the story of a young noble named Oz Vessalius, who lives a life a luxury without giving much thought to the folklore surrounding a dark world called the Abyss. That is until at his coming of age ceremony he is threatened to be tossed into a land he always assumed to not actually exist! Oz has to confront the Abyss and the monstrous “Chains” that live there whether he wants to or not. As Oz searches for the meaning behind the strange events happening in his life and where he fits into the grander story, he explores the Abyss alongside a strange Chain named Alice and those from an organisation called Pandora.
You may be thinking that Pandora Hearts doesn’t sound like any Western literature that you know, but you would only be half-right. Actually, Pandora Hearts is based on a book that most people know - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The story and characters are mostly quite different and are clearly the anime writers’ own creative variation on this old and well-known story. But the inspiration is they're all the same, right down to a strange girl named Alice being key to the plot line, and an adventure into a mysterious and dangerous world once thought to be nothing more than a story. Pandora Hearts is more about having a similar feel to Alice in Wonderland than a retelling of the same story, with darker and more supernatural twists and turns along the way. But the inspiration is there all the same from the much-loved piece of literature.
9. Inaka Isha (Franz Kafka’s The Country Doctor)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Oct. 2007
Inaka Isha is an anime movie based on Franz Kafka’s short story A Country Doctor. It follows a doctor who lives out in the countryside and receives a very urgent summons by a young patient. The doctor is then transported very mysteriously directly to her bedside by what can only be described as “unearthly horses.” But due to his own preoccupation and distracted thoughts, he does not notice the fatal wound on the patient and she dies at his hands. The villagers are infuriated, and the doctor has to face their disappointment and anger as he embarks on an endless trip home having lost everything.
Let’s face it, if you’re interested in something by Kafka, you’re not looking for a light-hearted and happy story. You’re looking for something psychological and metaphorical, and probably something dark. Well, Inaka Isha really captures Kafka’s style incredibly well. The anime film animates A Country Doctor nearly line-for-line, bringing the short story true to life on the screen. That means the surrealism and metaphors are there, along with the long internal thoughts and monologues of the main character. But for fans of Kafka’s style, that’s what makes Inaka Isha so intriguing. While arguably not for everyone, Inaka Isha is an award-winning film that does what it set out to do - bring Kafka’s story to the screen. And it does a truly great job.
8. Sanzoku no Musume Ronja (Ronja Rövardotter)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Oct. 2014 – Mar. 2015
Ronja is the main character of Sanzoku no Musume Ronja, an anime produced by Studio Ghibli. Ronja herself is a young girl who is the daughter of bandits and lives in a huge castle deep in the forest. Her father is the chief of a bandit tribe, and Ronja lives with many of these bandits in her forest home. The anime follows Ronja’s life growing up in the forest as she encounters mystical creatures, makes friends, and explores her beautiful surroundings.
Sanzoku no Musume Ronja is based on the Swedish book Ronja Rövardotter (in English, Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter), which is a fantasy book for children by Astrid Lindgren. Besides being an anime, Ronja Rövardotter has also been adapted into a film and a musical and has been translated into 39 languages. The stories and characters are similar, and both tell coming of age stories for Ronja and the young friend that she makes. Sankoku no Musume Ronja is quite true to its Western source and provides a unique story taken from Swedish literature that anime fans may have otherwise never had the chance to explore.
7. World Masterpiece Theatre
- Episodes: 1,471
- Aired: Apr. 1969 – Dec. 2009
World Masterpiece Theatre is not just one anime, but actually a long-running series. The series aired from 1969 to 1997 and then began to air again in 2007. Each year, World Masterpiece Theatre would show an animated version of a classic book or story, most of which were of Western origin. Big names in the anime industry like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata helped to contribute to the project over the years. Each story was anywhere between 26 and 50 episodes long, with most being around 40 episodes.
World Masterpiece Theatre brought so many different Western pieces of literature to life for people all across Asia, finding success not just in Japan but even in Southeast Asia as well. Some of the shows even were popular in Europe, making World Masterpiece Theatre a truly international endeavour. Some of the more famous stories featured include Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Peter Pan, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Heidi Girl of the Alps. And that’s just naming a few of the many stories that World Masterpiece Theatre has brought to life for so many people over the years! It’s an incredibly ambitious project that was very well-received.
6. Zetsuen no Tempest (Blast of the Tempest)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Oct. 2012 – Mar. 2013
Zetsuen no Tempest is based on not one, but two of Shakespeare’s plays - the Tempest and Hamlet. Zetsuen no Tempest begins with Yoshino Takigawa secretly dating his best friend Mahiro’s little sister, Aika. But everything turns sour with Aika mysteriously died, and Mahiro vows to solve the mystery of her sister’s death. She disappears for a while, and when she returns, she’s not alone. Mahiro enlists the help of a witch named Hakaze Kusaribe, as well as a powerful entity called the Tree of Exodus. When Hakaze is banished to a deserted island, though, Mahiro and Yoshino have to help her. Only then can they figure out what happened to Aika.
Zetsuen no Tempest may not have any of Shakespeare’s original characters in it, having created new ones that are Japanese, but the plot itself and ideas behind it are heavily inspired by the original sources. The story of the island and the magic that happens is drawn from the Tempest, whereas the mysterious murder and the rest of the mystery are inspired by Hamlet. Many movies, books, and shows have used the story of Hamlet for their inspiration, and Zetsuen no Tempest is yet another one. But it presents its story in a unique way that feels distinctly like an anime; all the characters are Japanese, for starters, and the setting is modern. It takes the best things it can use from Shakespeare and creates something new, yet surprisingly familiar.
5. Gankutsuou (Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Oct. 2004 – Mar. 2005
Gankutsuou follows a young aristocrat named Albert Morcerf. Through a strange series of events, he meets and befriends a wealthy nobleman - the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s right; Gankutsuou is based on the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Young Morcerf is very charmed by the Count, so he invites him to meet Morcerf’s friends and family. Everyone is a part of Paris’ upper-class society. Morcerf thinks that it’s all just fun and games, and a chance to show off his new friend. Little does he know, the Count has much darker and sinister plans in mind, and begins to put them into action!
Gankutsuou is an anime that is only loosely based on its original source in Western literature. It does keep the same general idea but takes creative liberties to make a new story with them. The main character Morcerf is given a more prominent role than he had before, and the Count himself is a new interpretation of Dumas’ original character. While both Gankutsuou and the Count of Monte Cristo are adventure stories, Gankutsuou is also a supernatural and science fiction tale. That gives an all-new element to the Parisian aristocracy. Those who have read Dumas’ work will be able to find the similarities between it and Gankutsuou but don’t go in expecting a usual retelling of the familiar story. It’s something completely new!
4. Karigurashi no Arrietty (The Secret World of Arrietty)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Jul. 2010
Arrietty is a 14-year-old girl just looking for a great adventure in Karigurashi no Arrietty, but she has one serious thing holding her back - she’s small. Extremely small, actually. She and her family live in the secret places in the garden of a normal family, living their lives as “borrowers” where they take what they need to survive, hopefully without ever being noticed. This lifestyle seems to be working out okay until 12-year-old Shou notices things are missing, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Arrietty. Their friendship potentially puts Arrietty’s family at risk for exposure, though, which could mean their end!
Karigurashi no Arrietty is based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. It’s a completely reimagined telling of that story done by Studio Ghibli, so it’s not the same as the 1997 film you may be familiar with. The story this time takes place in Japan, and the characters are original ones. However, the story is the same; it’s still about tiny humans living a secret existence in the shadows, and the eventual friendship between them and a human child that leads to both risk and reward. The Borrowers story and Karigurashi no Arrietty show a unique look at the human world from an all-new perspective and tell a great story of friendship.
3. Takarajima (Treasure Island)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Oct. 1978 – Apr. 1979
Most people have heard of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel Treasure Island, but did you know there is an anime based on the classic story as well? That anime is Takarajima, an old but well-made show. Takarajima is the tale of Jim Hawkins, a young boy who ends up on a treasure hunt for the legendary treasure of Captain Flint. Jim’s best friend on the ship is John Silver, who eventually reveals his true nature as a pirate when he overthrows the captain and takes over the ship. While Silver still sees Jim as a good friend, Jim has to deal with the conflicting feelings he has over his friendship and what he sees as a betrayal. And not to mention, there is treasure on the line!
Takarajima is an anime that is very true to its Western literature source. It follows the story of Treasure Island very accurately and even has a more Western style of animation. This makes Takarajima easy for even non-anime fans to enjoy if they like Stevenson’s classic novel, and it’s a great adventure story for anyone who enjoys the genre. While Takarajima is admittedly quite dated and old these days, don’t let that discourage you from watching it. It’s still highly rated and loved, and if you like Treasure Island and pirates stories, you’ll probably love Takarajima. Just like it’s source, it’s a classic!
2. Romeo x Juliet
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr. 2007 – Sep. 2007
Set in the floating city of Neo Verona, Romeo x Juliet tells Shakespeare’s famous romance story with all new twists. The anime begins with the Montague family slaying nearly the entire Capulet family to take control of Neo Verona. Only young Juliet Capulet escapes the slaughter and grows up in secret. While she may not remember her family’s death, she still becomes a vigilante who helps the oppressed and downtrodden people of the city. When she meets Romeo Montague, the son of the ruling ruthless lord of the city, the two fall in love at first sight. But between the history of their families and a dark secret deep in Neo Verona, can their love ever survive?
Romeo x Juliet keeps the same basic idea as William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet - it is a tale of two warring families and the young people that fall in love despite their surnames. It even keeps many of the character names the same, including the setting of Verona. And Romeo x Juliet doesn’t shy away from tragedy, which is what the original play is best known for anyway. But Romeo x Juliet adds a new twist to the story by making Juliet into a figure of vigilante justice and setting the whole story in a fantasy-based city. Romeo x Juliet is by far not the only retelling of Romeo and Juliet out there, but it’s definitely an interesting and well-made way to enjoy some old Western literature.
1. Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Nov. 2004
Howl no Ugoku Shiro is the story of a young hat maker named Sophie who becomes cursed by a witch to have the appearance of an old woman. It’s a curse born from jealousy, as Sophie was recently rescued by a mysterious wizard named Howl whom the witch is in love with. Ironically, to get the spell lifted Sophie must live and travel with Howl and his strange companions in his even stranger moving castle! Sophie serves as a cleaning lady and cooks while she tries to learn how to lift her curse - and help everyone living in the castle as well!
Howl no Ugoku Shiro is based on a British novel by Diana Wynne Jones. The book is actually only the first in a series of stories, though only the first was made into an animated film by Studio Ghibli. All of the main characters in the book and movie have the same names and very similar personalities, and the basic plotline is the same as well. Howl no Ugoku Shiro does a great job of making the film have a Western feel, avoiding Japanese cultural references and clearly taking place in a fictional Western country. Of course, the book Howl’s Moving Castle has far more details and even more characters than the film, but generally Howl no Ugoku Shiro is a great representation of its Western source and is an award-winning film.
While anime will likely always draw mostly from a manga and Japanese light novels as it’s primary source, it’s fun to see it coming from a variety of different backgrounds. Western literature has had an impact on Japanese animation in the past and will continue to in the future. It adds new stories and ideas and gives anime all new sources to draw from. Some of the anime feels quite different from its counterparts based on Japanese sources, but that’s all part of the fun of enjoying many different kinds of anime. And who knows, that Harry Potter or Game of Thrones anime so many fans dream of might just exist someday!
Which anime based on Western literature is your favourite? Did we miss one you would like to see added to the list? Are you going to watch any of these now to check them out? What piece of Western literature would you like to see turned into anime? Let us know in the comments below!