MissElaineous’ Adventures in Anime

I have a confession to make: I am an almost 40-year-old adult who loves animated films. Not all animated films mind you (Frozen, I’m looking at you), but the ones with a cracking plot, great characters, and a positive message are some of the best cinematic storytelling experiences available today. Pixar’s Toy Story series and fantastic Inside Out immediately spring to mind, as do the watery worlds of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.  The Book of Life and Big Hero 6 bring their imagined worlds to life with such confidence and colour that you can’t help but enjoy getting lost in them for 90 minutes.

Laika’s Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings are also firm favourites (although you can give Boxtrolls a miss in my opinion). In particular, I have fond memories of seeing Coraline at the cinema in 3D, perhaps the only occasion where this gimmicky technology actually enhanced the story and helped immerse me in the film’s magical world. Oscar-winning Zootopia (a.k.a. Zootropolis in Europe) should be mandatory viewing for everyone; if it doesn’t make you want to fight against prejudice and stereotypes in the real world, then I’m afraid you need to see a doctor because your heart is clearly made of stone.*

Looking beyond the English-speaking world, Japan has long embraced the storytelling power of images and animation. Unlike the West, there is no assumption that “it’s a cartoon and therefore it must be for children”, but rather manga (comics and graphical novels) and anime are simply viewed as another medium to be used to entertain and inform. The works of Hayao Miyazaki in particular bring both original ideas and adapted novels to life with beautiful illustrations and sensitive stories. Although I can’t remember which anime film was the first we watched, by the time we got to Spirited Away and others from Studio Ghibli, MrElaineous and I had both become fans.

Because we already loved the animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender** and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, it wasn’t hard to make the leap into anime on TV. This opened a whole new level of learning and entertainment to us as we immersed ourselves in a different culture, explored imaginative worlds and, perhaps most importantly, discovered intriguing stories filled with characters who were often more three-dimensional than their live-action counterparts in the West.

However, we soon uncovered a curious phenomenon: the deeper we went down the anime rabbit hole, the closer we got to home. Indeed, the spectre of Alice in Wonderland itself can be found throughout many manga and anime, whether it’s the classic Alice outfit as drawn by John Tenniel or the falling-through-the-rabbit-hole motif popularised in the original Disney cartoon. England itself and elements of British culture play a role in a number of anime as well.

Black Butler, our first foray into the world of anime television shows, takes place in a dark, twisted version of Victorian England.*** The charming Little Witch Academia is set in Blytonbury, a city that shares its name with famed British children’s author Enid Blyton and which is patterned after Glastonbury, with the famous tor given a magical makeover. Sword Art Online gives its characters an adventure to find the most famous sword of all: King Arthur’s Excalibur.**** K-On, a gentle comedy about a girls’ band, was popular enough as a television series that a film was made, sending the animated characters to London.

I found this fascinating, as I was more familiar with the opposite: the English interest in Japanese culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. After centuries of isolation, the opening of Japan to the world in the mid-19th century saw the country viewed as an exotic, fairy tale land, and a craze for items such as fans, silkscreens, kimonos, and pottery swept through Victorian England. Beyond bric-a-brac, country estates and manor houses built Japanese-style gardens, and colourful Japanese maples can be found throughout British arboretums. By 1885, cultural stereotypes were firmly cemented with the success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado … although many of the lyrics are in reality a satire of British politics of the time.

It was through the research of friend and fellow anime-aficionado Dr Catherine Butler that I was introduced to a reverse cultural exchange that occurred in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The export of children’s literature and entertainment—from the aforementioned Alice and the animal tales of Beatrix Potter to the literary and film juggernaut that is Harry Potter—have permeated Japanese culture, painting a picture of a rural idyll and places removed from modern time.

As a result of Catherine’s research, I was surprised to discover that one of the most popular places for Japanese tourists to visit happens to be in my neck of the woods: the Cotswolds. The thatched cottages, golden Cotswold stone, and general quaintness of the area mesh perfectly with this imagined retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is the Cotswolds that has now become the land of fairy tales. *****

I was further stunned to learn that there was an anime pilgrimage site located practically on my doorstep. Fosse Farmhouse near Castle Combe was used in the series Kiniro Mosaic as the home for Alice, a teenager who leaves England to experience high school life in Japan. Although it only appears briefly in the show, the farmhouse B&B has a steady stream of visitors who want to see the real location. Indeed, even the Japanese Imperial family has popped by! It was here that MrElaineous and I recently went to meet Catherine for a cream tea and to explore the mix of East and West that has found its way to Wiltshire.

With Catherine leading the way, we were given a tour of the building that came with a sense of déjà vu because the artists had so closely translated the farmhouse from reality into animation. From the bricks and mortar (and the now-famous red front door) to the soft furnishings and antiques, it was all there as seen in the show. Caron Cooper, the owner of Fosse Farmhouse, describes how the animation company wanted to use a real place, rather than design it from their imagination, in order to make it real for the viewers.

It has more than succeeded at this. The notes from visiting fans and paraphernalia from Kiniro Mosaic completed the scene, calling to mind a combination of the Harry Potter studio tour and the shrine to fallen Torchwood character Ianto in Cardiff Bay. This in turn reminded me of my own research, and the strong desire that many of us have to see and experience the remains of the past, whether it’s a battlefield, castle, or simply the place where a famous person once lived or worked. I think it taps into the part of our brain that is primed for storytelling and imagining the lives of other people.

Visitors to Fosse Farmhouse include fans of Kiniro Mosaic, members of the Japanese Imperial family, and Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame. Please visit Fosse Farmhouse’s Kiniro Mosaic page to see how the real thing has been translated to screen.  

While we were exploring the farmhouse, Caron and her assistant Ayako were preparing for the next part of our visit: a Cotswold cream tea. As far as I know, cream teas are a uniquely British tradition that is composed of scones, jam, clotted cream, and, of course, tea.******

Scones are not like American buttermilk biscuits (and, to confuse matters, biscuits in the UK are similar to American cookies), but are denser, making them the perfect platform to add the clotted cream and jam. Or jam and clotted cream. The order of which goes on the scone first is a battle that Devon and Cornwall will still be waging centuries hence, and even mathematicians have weighed in on the question. Either way, it’s a delicious taste of summer.

In many ways, I feel like I missed spring this year. The lockdown occurred just as MrElaineous and I returned from the US, and we stayed home as advised. There were no bluebell walks or journeys to see the wild garlic and yellow fields of rapeseed. My internal calendar says it should be nearing the end of May, but according to reality this is a summer that is somehow rapidly turning into autumn. But cream teas in a garden under the most British of weather (clouds, rain, and sun) and chatting with friends was a real treat, making me feel like I checked off at least one normal activity for the year.

It was also a good reminder that travel doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go very far, or even leave your home. MrElaineous and I have escaped into the world of anime, started learning Japanese on the Duolingo app, and have put together our dream visit to Japan in a Word document. Indeed, this year has shown that you can create your own brand of escapism wherever you happen to be.

Many thanks to Ayako, Caron, and Catherine for making our first (but definitely not last!) visit to Fosse Farmhouse so special!

If you’re interested in paying a visit to Fosse Farmhouse yourself and enjoying one of Caron and Ayako’s scrumptious cream teas, please note that you will need to book at least 24 hours in advance via email or phone:

* Regarding animation and things made of stone—i.e. trolls—Guillermo del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia series, composed of the intertwined stories of Trollhunters, 3Below, and Wizards, is well worth watching on Netflix. Also worth catching: Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts. Although it has nothing to do with trolls, intergalactic visitors, or wizards, it is a lovely story packed with post-apocalyptic megafauna. [Return to text]

** Do not under any circumstances watch the M. Night Shyamalan live-action film adaptation. You have been warned. If you’re looking for another animated series by the same creative team behind the original Avatar, try The Dragon Prince on Netflix. [Return to text]

*** Black Butler is a little more violent than most of the anime we usually watch now, but the first season is great. I do not recommend watching any further. You have been warned. Again. [Return to text]

**** Feel free to skip episodes 15-25 of Sword Art Online. You can thank me later. [Return to text]

***** The Lake District and Beatrix Potter’s home of Hill Top is another favourite with Japanese visitors to the UK. [Return to text]

****** Clotted cream is made by heating normal cream to evaporate some of the liquid, producing a thick cream (hence its name). [Return to text]

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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MissElaineous Travel Blog: Escape, Explore, Discover, Enjoy