"This is a fantasy, based on reality." This tagline for the much awaited, much delayed Final Fantasy XV has perplexed and probably annoyed some fans. When it comes to losing ourselves in a story, a fantasy, reality is often the last thing we want to be reminded of. Now, I'm not going to be speculating or writing about Final Fantasy here. As some (most?) of you know, my discipline is art history. Art history and anime otakudom seems to be somewhat of a rare combination, but as I've seen lately, the two things can really complement one another. Something that art history and fantasy have in common is an ability to inspire the imagination, to enchant us and make us want to search for more. Part of the allure of some of the world's most famous works of art is that we will never know the full story and circumstances of their creation. These mysteries can be just as exciting as fantasy, because there are so many possibilities to fill in that gap of the unknown. When a fantastical setting uses a realistic foundation, it can be quite wonderful. Historical fiction is not the most popular genre for anime, but when done well, I've seen it enrich both the writing and world-building of the show, and our understanding of actual history. The following isn't spoilery, I think, unless you're really sensitive to anything being a spoiler.
Spice and Wolf, despite being an anime about travelling merchant and a pagan wolf goddess, is probably more historically accurate than some BBC miniseries. It takes place in a counterpart to Renaissance Western Europe, and unlike most stories set in this period, chooses to focus on business rather than political or military intrigue. By the time I finished both seasons of the show, I was extremely impressed by its inclusion and references to real world details. These details could be easily missed, but if you catch them, they really round out the show's setting so much more.
An early arc in the first season takes place in a port town called Pazio. Various shots of the city let us know that this is the universe's equivalent to Florence, Italy. Holo, the wolf spirit, is surprised when her companion Lawrence explains how many currencies are in circulation. This provides the backdrop for a bit of intrigue in the show's plot, but it also makes historical sense. Italy at this time was a collection of city-states, each with its own government, and thus its own currency. Though some coins held more weight (er…no pun intended) like the Florin, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that a real travelling merchant would have a vast array of coins in his possession like Lawrence does.
The second season takes place further north, most likely in a counterpart to Flanders. Holo and Lawrence arrive in a town known for its fur trade, and meet another merchant who is of noble blood. A flashback to her wedding day made me squeal out loud, pause the show, and go to Wikipedia to explain to my boyfriend why it was so damn clever. The wedding shot is Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, one of the most famous paintings in history, and certainly of the Northern Renaissance. This painting being referenced in Spice and Wolf can tell us a lot about the setting and culture of the show. We can pin a date on it. That being the mid-15th century. It's important to note that while all of the regions in the show were still under influence of the Catholic Church, it's a bit less of a presence up north. The Northern Renaissance was generally more secular than its southern counterpart, and much of the patronage for its art came from the growing merchant class. Look at the clothing of this character that Lawrence has business negotiations with below. Does it look familiar from Van Eyck's painting? This little visual reference really drives home the point that this dude is quite the big wig in business.
Another show that does history and art history in a clever way is Samurai Champloo. Unlike Spice and Wolf, it takes place in the "real' Edo era Japan, with tons of flourishes. One episode gives us a hilarious take on how Van Gogh came to be inspired by Ukiyo-e painting.
I think it's amazing when anime does this. These touches are not only fun for people with the historical knowledge, but my hope is that some people watch shows like these and leave wanting to know more about the actual events and history involved. It shows how anime, like many other forms of media, can get the intellectual juices flowing. It's safe to say most of us on TAY know that anime can be nuanced and sophisticated, but next time you run into someone who thinks that it's all fluff, maybe point them to stuff like this.
Have you noticed any art/historical references in anime, or has anime ever inspired you to study up on a topic?