Kaze to Ki no Uta
In 1887, Serge Batouille, the orphaned son of a viscount and a Roma woman, attends the elite boarding school Laconblade outside of Arles, where he is roomed with a strange boy named Gilbert Cocteau, who is shunned by his classmates for his aggressive sexual demeanour and rumoured to sell his body for term papers. Undeterred by the boy's poor reputation, Serge takes it upon himself to protect Gilbert, to Gilbert's chagrin.
At what point, and to what degree, does historical importance trump perceived quality when assessing a work of art? I struggle with this question, to be quite honest. Sometimes the significance of a work in the context in which it was released overshadows the work itself, obscuring its flaws and even smaller triumphs, and I don't entirely care for that fact, but it can also push against biases and force one to, as I often say, give credit where credit is due.
Keiko Takemiya's Kaze to Ki no Uta (literally "song of wind and trees" or "poem of wind and trees") began publication in the bimonthly magazine Shōjo Comic (affectionately abbreviated as "Sho-Comi" by fans) in January 1976, and ran in the magazine until 1984, along the way receiving the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award for best shoujo title in 1979. Takemiya was already something of a celebrity within the world of Japanese girls' comics, and a pioneer within them, her 1970 short "In the Sunroom" widely considered the first example of shounen-ai, if not one of the first on-panel instances of male homosexuality in Japanese comics period, yet it was with the science fiction epic Terra e... and this sweeping historical melodrama that her reputation was truly made. What's more, before that publication date, Takemiya had fought for an entire decade to get Kaze to Ki no Uta published without censorship.
So, a labour of love over the better part of eighteen years by a widely respected mangaka known for pushing against Japanese heteronormative standards. Sounds like good source material for an anime adaptation. Perhaps the sexual politics might be a bit problematic given the age of the property and the genre, but one might also argue that it predates many of the most pernicious tropes in BL—and indeed, while there's some very dark content here, the seme/uke dynamic and the romanticisation of rape are avoided by a wide margin. What's more, the adaptation is directed by the extremely talented Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, character designer for Mobile Suit Gundam and the creative powerhouse behind the overlooked gem Arion.
This should be a classic in the making, or at the very least a landmark series. Surely more than a historical footnote.
It would have been, wouldn't it? But, well...
Series? What series?
One episode. Sixty minutes, including the opening and closing credits. Oh, sure, it covers the beginning of the manga at a fair clip, and it ends more conclusively than it has any right to. But it also leaves out most of the story. As it would have to, being only one sixty-minute episode.
Even without knowing beforehand just how much story is absent, this OVA feels like a prelude, or a summary, but despite this, it has its charms both as a period piece and, well, a different kind of period piece. So let's try to take it on its own terms.
The presentation here is, for its time and relatively small pool of staff, quite appealing. While the animation frequently lingers on mostly still shots in the latter half in particular, the gorgeous hand-painted background art with little touches of well-observed period detail and solid, reasonably fluid animation where it counts keep things from feeling cheap, while the soundtrack partakes in an emulation of classical and Romantic repertory which grounds the whole affair both in its time period and its intended tone, being particularly effective in those scenes where Serge demonstrates his prodigious piano skills. The classic '70s shoujo character designs, while perhaps not to everyone's tastes, ranging from comfortably toony to luxuriously effeminate—there are rather few actual ladies in this tale—further enhance the mixed mood of wistfulness and melancholy. But above all, it's the visual direction that steals the show here: The use of colour contrasts, the framing of bodies in space, the use of juxtaposed situations and ideas to create what Eisenstein referred to as "intellectual montage"—Yasuhiko's work here is exquisite.
The story is a little more scattered, however. Framed as a set of recollections by a much older Serge revisiting his old stomping grounds and remembering his first love, it feels more like a collection of compelling but largely disconnected scenes, united in their overall significance to the characters and their emotional growth (or lack thereof) but more nebulous in terms of an actual narrative through-line. While this certainly can work if done well, the story raises too many potentially interesting plot threads which it has no chance to follow through on, whether it be in clear seeds of future development and conflict or even the introduction of an actual big-picture antagonist whose presence practically ends soon as it begins and raises nearly as many questions as it seems (theoretically) designed to answer, if not more. Some noteworthy characters with even more screentime fail to receive even that degree of resolution, be it the menacing and ridiculously pretty Rosemarine or the kind but emotionally defeated Carl; at least the supremely endearing science nerd Pascal receives a fairly significant scene towards the beginning to flesh out his relationship to the protagonists. Another thirty minutes alone could have solved most of these problems, with some creative editing—surely Yasuhiko would be so capable—but apparently that was not in the cards.
This is, of course, ignoring whether the viewer might find the central romance in itself compelling, and that... well, it's in the eye of the beholder, but I think it's solid enough, if rather melodramatic. People with baggage falling for one another and having to negotiate that baggage can be fascinating to watch, and Gilbert in particular has baggage in spades. And yet, while progress is made in terms of confronting these issues by tiny degrees on the part of both parties, it falls short because we never really see the culmination of it. We see the beginning of a relationship between these two young men, watching it flower out of some strange mix of animosity and mutual fascination and ultimately transform into a kind of reciprocal love, and yet we don't get to see it go anywhere. And then there's just how dark said baggage and its results get on Gilbert's part, which is just plain alarming. Granted, it's not quite so explicit as the manga, but if the mere implication of the systematic emotional and sexual abuse of a child is too much for you, stay far away. Similarly, the homophobia of the setting is not glossed over, nor is its racism ignored, although again, the manga does more with it.
And of course I'll have to keep saying that. If you want the full story and can take the harsher elements, just read the manga. This is a mere taster. In that capacity, it does its job well, but I'd rather anime satisfy my appetite than whet it.
Potentially exceptional material is not the same as an exceptional end product, particularly when incomplete. Subtract a star if this sort of melodrama wearies you; add a star if you're into old-school shoujo fare and don't mind reading the manga. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: While the source material was indeed published in a shoujo magazine—and I have no doubt that there are many teens emotionally mature enough to handle the subject matter here—by Western standards this OAV features some really heavy stuff, and is not recommended to those triggered by sexual violence and abuse—although, as noted, this content is not portrayed as romantic in the slightest. Additionally, there is some non-explicit nudity and a few homophobic slurs.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Kaze to Ki no Uta © 1987 Keiko Takemiya, Shogakukan and Pony Canyon
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