The Art of Adaptation Revisted: Why Romeo x Juliet = Flying Horses

April 12, 2007 at 3:15 pm (Analysis, Anime)

I wrote an entry on adaptations and loyalty to source material a while ago, but I wanted to revisit some issues after watching the first episode of Gonzo’s Romeo x Juliet.

I’ll refer you to my life-time arch nemesis jpmeyer, because this is a blog and thus obviously I need to make incestuous rants about why I disagree with other bloggers. He attacks Romeo x Juliet for ignoring its source material. So this is about half a critique of that, and half musings on adapting anime from sources other than manga.

“Willy” doesn’t like me talking about him behind his back

First of all, though I’m aware there are a shit load of translations of Shakespeare, including some Kurosawa adaptations (I so fell asleep during Throne of Blood), I think there is a big loss when Shakespeare gets translated. This gets into a huge topic of debate: What’s so great about Shakespeare? One thing that comes up is that he’s an incredible linguist. All of his plays are written in iambic pentameter, making them as much poetry (in the classic sense at least) as prose. Also they’re full of puns and neologisms. We already miss the neologisms, because this was 400 years ago and now a lot of them are just accepted English words. This is stuff it is simply impossible to translate. The best you can do is, if you’re really awesome at the destination language, use a native poetic form that at least imitates the feel of iambic pentameter, and try to make up your own wordplay. But, ya know, good luck with that; I don’t see it happening. The language in Shakespeare is tough for most modern English-speaking people; I know I need annotations to follow all of it, at least. So naturally people have tried to rewrite it with modernized language. Many of these attempts have just flopped and been forgotten, because so much is lost in both feel and cleverness when the language goes away.


So aside from the language, what does Shakespeare bring to the table? Well, I like his comedies a lot more than his tragedies or histories (which have nostalgia I don’t care about, because it’s 400-year-old nostalgia), but the man certainly was a skilled dramatist. Shakespearian tragedies are so played up in their drama-level it’s, well, sometimes comedic. The entire story to Romeo and Juliet (which is actually adapted closely from another guy’s poem, which is adapted from something else, all of which traces its core waaaay back to when it was first written to the page by Ovid as “Pyramus and Thisbe”) is so played up it’s nuts. The play is full of huge monologues, and extended death scenes, and ANGER and LOVE and PASSION and JUSTICE. It’s the same in Hamlet and Julius Caesar, where the characters are in these epic unrealistic situations of drama that have almost come to define them. The plots are totally contrived. The characters are usually victims of their own dramatic flaws turned up to infinity. It’s totally contrived and ridiculous and really kinda fun if you can get into it. This kind of drama. It can translate, certainly. Obviously, I just described like a million different anime. But I also get this feel from the first episode of Romeo x Juliet. It’s all saving the innocent, and deposed royalty and hiding, and tragic romance! Exactly the kind of thing you get in a typical Shakesperean tragedy. Given that — and also the number of cameos from his other plays — it may be more appropriate to view this as a pastiche of Shakespeare’s tragedies than as an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but, well, you have to call it something.

Maybe if I can get rose petals to blow past my face, the girl will instantly fall in love with me

The fact that we can joke about how if [book/play/movie] were anime, then one character would be a magical girl, and the other would be a nekketsu mecha pilot and they’d use their combination winged-starlight-moon-assault move to save the world is telling. While in the literal sense, anime is a format and not a genre, that sentiment belies the truth. The huge majority body of anime has a very unique approach to genre(s) that’s identifiable by just these kinds of conventions that we would joke about. I think it’s kind of amazing that in addition to its own culture, Japan has its own fantasy culture, that’s distinct (though certainly there is cross-pollination) from the Western World’s. Manga shares a lot of this culture, so a manga->anime or game->anime adaptation is not very puzzling. Modern light novels like Haruhi I think also are bred out of this same culture. But what about something like Shakespeare? Or any novel divorced from the Japanese manga/anime/game fantasy subculture? How can you take a work like this and adapt it into anime? Obviously you don’t have to use this subculture, but that’s sort of like ignoring your audience. If you’re hardcore like Satoshi Kon maybe you can just do your own thing and be successful, but for a serialized TV anime you have got to consider your audience and how you will bring them to the table. I am really fascinated by how Romeo x Juliet and Gankutsuo manage this. They seem to really have hit on the thematic synergy from these classic Big Dramas with the thematic tendencies of anime. As I was saying earlier, they’re both full of big capital-letter feelings. Then on the other end there’s something like Powerpuff Girls, which you wouldn’t think would *need* an anime adaptation, since it’s already a cartoon show about magical girls (sorta), except PPG wasn’t tied to this subculture, so it still underwent some story translation to work inside the genre framework of conventional anime. I want to see more adaptations from different sources, because the entire process and how this cultural translation happens interest me.

Gankutsuo is sci-fi, so it has space vampires and mecha. Romeo x Juliet is fantasy so it has flying horses and masked vigilantes.

More stuff. In the original Romeo and Juliet, the two main characters aren’t typically highly sought-after roles by actors, because the characters are not very interesting. They’re pretty much just stupid kids. The most sought after male and female roles are usually Mercutio and Nurse (Juliet’s nurse; I would have laughed if she had been here dressed like a hospital nurse), if I remember correctly from talking about this in high school a decade or so ago. In Romeo x Juliet they’ve done something a little weird with this issue of having idiot main characters. They, uh, made Juliet into a masked crusader for justice. In the original, Mercutio convinces Romeo to go to a Capulet dance party with him to try and cheer him out of his funk, while Juliet is dealing with her father trying to arrange a marriage for her. The anime does an interesting role reversal, where Juliet is the errant child sneaking into the ball (I love how they dude in the carriage didn’t recognize her; I never understood how people could actually fail to be recognized behind those masquerade masks) and Romeo’s father is trying to set him up with some girl. Gonzo’s Juliet is channeling Princess Knight, I guess. The gender role-play in anime has always been a pet topic I like.

Given all of the above, I think it’s very unlikely Gonzo’s adaptation will maintain the tragic ending from the original story. Hopefully we can replay the entire brouhaha over the end of Mai HiME, but where in HiME the happily-ever-after end fit into where the story had been going thematically, in this case I think it will just be a consequence of the cultural adaptation I was talking about before. A form like a Shakespearian tragedy simple does not exist in anime, which would make the tragic ending very jarring to most viewers. So I don’t think they will do it, since it would be out of genre.

As a side-note, people similarly complain about Disney sterilizing the works they adapted into movies, but I think Walt was mostly just taking inspiration from them and making movies he thought would appeal to his audience and sensibilities. Aladdin was originally a somewhat blasé folk tale, but I thought Disney’s version was a lot more fun.

I’m also hoping, though this is probably not gonna happen, that they will do more with using Shakespeare’s presence as a character, and all the cameos and pastiche to play around in an interesting way. Self-referential story-telling can lead to interesting (or just stupid) places.

Alright, well long-story-short, I’m pretty excited about this show. It’s not as ridiculously awesome as Gankutsuo, but, particularly if the production values stay at the levels in the first episode, it will at the very least be a fun fantasy-romance-adventure. With flying horses.



  1. Senna said,

    I haven’t seen Romeo x Juliet yet so I can’t comment on that, but … though I would agree that anime tragedy isn’t exactly Shakespearian tragedy, I would argue there’s plenty of tragedy that can be mined from different anime endings. Wolf’s Rain is a good example–it’s ultimately hopeful, but only after a whole lot of shocking death. (Maybe that’s what you were saying? I haven’t seen Mai-Hime, so …). Just my two cents ^_^

  2. kuromitsu said,

    Why is everyone so concerned with the flying horses? O_o Those are the LEAST deviation from the play… (And they’re pretty cool.) Anyway. MY problem with this “adaptation” is simply that it’s not an adaptation. Not even a “based on”. It’s a completely different story (aside from the whole “forbidden love” angle) that’s being touted as “ROMEO X JULIET based on the play by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.” If this was a, say, household product, it would be bleach instead of shampoo. There’s no justification for this – so far RxJ is not a “new spin on an old tale” no matter how some people insist. If the characters had original names, no-one would ever recognize it as a RandJ adaptation. (Shakespeare may have based RandJ loosely on similar works, but at least he didn’t call it “Pryamus and Thisbe”. And even if he did, back then originality wasn’t as much of a concern as it is today. The general attitude was different.)

    Also, as an ex Shakespeare student who switched to Medieval Studies later on, I won’t get into argument about interpreting and adapting Shakespeare here, but I think it’s a pretty weak argument that “it’s too old for modern audiences”. There are so many ways to adapt Shakespeare plays for a modern audience without completely discarding the source material, and people have been doing it for a long, long time. (West Side Story, anyone?) There’s more to RandJ than “ANGER and LOVE and PASSION and JUSTICE” (uh, was justice a theme in the play?) – if we go by this then Gone With the Wind is also a RandJ adaptation…

    Anyway. I think this is a pretty nice show, so far, but I think it would be much better if it wasn’t called RxJ.

    (Also, “A form like a Shakespearian tragedy simple does not exist in anime” – well, Gankutsuou could’ve been a very nice Elizabethan style tragedy had they discarded the whole redemption angle, so instead it became a Byronic tragedy of sorts. But I think anime would be a great medium for Elizabethan style tragedies… they don’t exist simply because people don’t make them.)

  3. tj han said,

    Well Britney Spears is better than Shakespeare. Let’s have some BS anime.

  4. sethjohnson said,


    I’m not concerned about the flying horses. I was just using them as an icon of how it is different from the original.

    If you renamed Romeo “Juliet and Juliet “Romeo” would you consider it a more faithful adaptation so far?

    And why does it matter if it’s faithful at all? That is the principal thing I do not grasp. You can say West Side Story is a faithful adaptation and I can call it fraudulent for converting from Elizabethan English, but what difference does it really make? If the story is all you’re looking for, then it’s there. This is a classic story told in a hundred different guises. I suppose it might be more “faithful” to call RxJ “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Why is the general attitude different today? Mine isn’t.

  5. kuromitsu said,

    I’m not concerned with RxJ not being a _faithful_ adaptation – I’m not the kind who watches adaptations and expects the original. However, how can you call an adaptation that if it doesn’t have ANY ties to the original (at least so far)? West Side Story is an adaptation that re-shapes the original play, but unlike RxJ, it keeps the characters and the themes mostly intact (no, “forbidden love” is not the only theme in RxJ). Gankutsuou was IMO a good adaptation of The Count of Monte-Cristo (except for the whole Franz thing) because even though the story went off into a completely different direction and the development of the main character himself was the direct opposite of the original, these were all based on things that were touched on the novel, so Gankutsuou is basically a “what if” version of the story. But RxJ is a “what if R and J had a completely different background that made them completely different characters, and they had a completely different relationship?” It’s like saying Star Wars is based on The Comedy of Errors because hey, it has twins separated at birth.

    Like it or not, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is what Shakespeare wrote. Yes, the story itself is an old tale, retold a million times and ways since ancient times, but ‘Romeo and Juliet’ = Shakespeare’s play. And RxJ is being advertised as such all over in the promo material and the opening – “based on the story by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE” when it’s not. It may be a similar story about star-crossed lovers and whatnot, but it’s not RandJ. That’s why I’m saying that I’d like it better if it had a different title and wouldn’t use Shakespeare as a marketing gimmick for a show that so far has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s work.

  6. sethjohnson said,

    I doubt it’s a marketing gimmick; something tells me Shakespeare is not a big enough draw to young Japanese viewers for that to be feasible.

  7. kuromitsu said,

    Well, for one, RandJ is well-known and famous enough to attract young viewers, even over there. Two, this show is obviously not intended only for the home market. Lately Gonzo has been actively seeking international attention, and their line of adaptations of famous works such as Seven Samurai, The Count of Monte Cristo and now Romeo and Juliet (yeah, right) is part of this, along with their work on stuff like Witchblade, Afro Samurai and GI Joe.

  8. sethjohnson said,

    Hmm, you make some interesting (and well-stated) arguments, but I suppose in the end I feel there is some mountain-molehill juxtaposition going on here. This may be because I have a reactionary tendency toward the pedestalization of, well, pretty much anything.

    Also marketing a TV show is not so simple, due to the split-by-episodes format. With a movie, you can hype it all to hell and make a ton of money on opening weekend, but with a TV show the profit comes in more slowly. If people watch the first episode and say “This isn’t Romeo and Juliet!” then there’s nothing forcing them to watch the rest of the show, or buy any merchandise. Hype is only ever good enough to make people watch the first episode or so of a TV show, and all hype is almost inherently ridiculous. So you can say “FALSE SHAKESPEARE HYPE,” but it’s not really any different than any other marketing scheme. I do not see what is so vile here.

  9. Danny Choo said,

    I’m enjoying the series so far. Juliet is sooo cute!

  10. Lai said,

    omg dannychooooooo! hahah
    well, if adaptations were all similar, wats going to b soo interestin about it?
    i’m enjoyin this series so far also, and the animation is nicely done.

  11. random said,

    I dont get why pple start dissing this anime because it is not “true” to the original story. If we all started to diss movies and series not true to the original story then we might as well tell Holywood and anyone else to just stop “basing” their stuff on books and such because quite frankly most adaptations suck if you were to compare them to the originals. That doesn’t mean their adaptations are bad for pple who havent read the original books I mean i quite enjoyed Eragon (just an example) and I met someone who read the book and dissed it completely. So if we could just watch this anime and any other “adaptations” without thinking of the original we would all be much happier. Also when something is based on something else it only means that it draws one or two things from the original. In no way does it have to be an exact adaptation. And besides, even though it was Juliet who went to the party and met Romeo instead of the other way around, the party was still there! so yeah they are switching things and making up new stuff but that doesnt mean it sucks. Frankly I prefer this adaptatioin to the original Shakespeare play because all his works (except Midsummer Night’s Dream) seems completely and utterly boring to me. I’ve just had to read it to pass high school -__- and no it’s not ’cause i dont understand them, it’s because to me they suck…

  12. Willy said,

    Shakespeare was all about entertaining the people with his works. His plays were what, the Elizabethan period’s equivalent of awesome blockbuster movies, or something along those lines.

    So I think he’d enjoy the spirit of RxJ in what it is to many of its viewers – a good damn entertaining watch on what he probably didn’t intend to be the more classic Western love story ever.

    Right guys?!

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