Guest Contributor: Jennifer Cresswell on Ancient Greece in Anime and Manga

In my previous post, I looked at the amazing attention to detail in Japanese depictions of Ancient Rome in anime and manga. But Rome isn’t the only ancient civilisation to get the manga treatment. If anything, Ancient Greece has been even more popular…

A prime example is the manga Historie by Hitoshi Iwaaki, a fictionalised account of the life of Eumenes, the secretary of Alexander the Great. It’s engaging for all sorts of reasons, not least its collapse of Alexander and one of his generals, Hephaestion, into a single person. Alexander is the good, generous aspect of the new man, with Hephaestion the bad. When the action turns to Athens at one point the Acropolis is acutely observed, featuring not just the Parthenon but also the Propylaea and a range of surrounding structures all in their correct locations…

Hitoshi Iwaaki also utilises classical art at times, as with the front page of Chapter 43 of the manga, which is based on an ivory carving of Philip II of Macedon:

And the art is more than just a header: it adds to the story.

Detail of the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii...

The famous Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii (left) is shown gradually morphing from its original mosaic form into a naked man (left, below).

This man is then revealed to be the lover of Olympias, Alexander’s mother – thereby casting strange doubt on Alexander’s paternity (Hephaestion even comments on this at one point, noting the physical similarity between the now dead man and Alexander).

This turns out to be a theme in manga and anime’s use of Greek imagery and ideas: an enormous depth of research combined with mischievous and fantastic re-workings.

...and as it appears in Historie, before morphing into moving human form

Another Greek favourite for Japanese manga and anime artists is of course mythology. There’s a strong tradition, for example, of using Greek mythological names with a distinctly Japanese twist: Kurumanda’s Masami’s Saint Seiya features the Greek pantheon of Gods, Ryoko Yamagishi’s Medusa re-imagines the classic tale as a science-fiction story, and Riyoko Ikeda’s Window of Orpheus sets the tale of Orpheus in an early twentieth century Austrian conservatory.

By far the most commonly used name from Greek mythology is Gaia – mother Earth. In Shiro Masumne’s Appleseed she appears as a supercomputer, while in the Final Fantasy game and film series the name gets used in all sorts of different ways: the Planet from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX is named Gaia; so too was a town in the original Final Fantasy game.

So when a name was needed for alien spiritual entities in the first Final Fantasy film – The Spirits Within – ‘Gaia’ seemed an obvious choice. The enemy of this Gaia, raining down destruction on the Planet, its inhabitants and the innocent alien spirits, is the ‘Zeus Cannon’ – Zeus, in Greek mythology, being responsible for the downfall, imprisonment and destruction of Gaia’s children, the Titans and the Giants.

Gaia and the Zeus Cannon in 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'

But probably the best known use of Greek mythology comes in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki took the name for his ecological heroine from a character in Homer who had a similar affinity with nature. Both characters are young princesses, though Homer failed to give his Nausicaä a glider jet to fly around on. Nor did he have her speak to bugs – this aspect of the character of Nausicaä comes from a Japanese folk story, ‘The Princess Who Loved Insects’.

The non-Homeric Nausicaä - riding her glider in 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind'.

Miyazaki has said that the Homeric Nausicaä and the Insect loving princess somehow “became fused into one and created the story” – another example of Greek culture being given the anime-manga treatment, transporting readers to adventures way beyond the everyday…

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2 Comments

  • June 12, 2012 - 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Hey there! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your articles.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that
    cover the same topics? Thank you so much!

  • February 19, 2013 - 9:03 pm | Permalink

    “Guest Contributor: Jennifer Cresswell
    on Ancient Greece in Anime and Manga |” was indeed
    a fantastic post. If it owned alot more images it would be quite possibly far better.
    Cya -Leslie

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