With the upcoming theatrical release of Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms hitting the UK late next month, director Mari Okada is a name on many of our minds. While Maquia marks her debut as a director, many of us know her as the screenwriter behind Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day and Anthem of the Heart. Now, in a bid to offer western fans of hers a chance to learn more about the prolific name, digital publisher J-Novel Club have released Okada’s autobiography: From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to “Anohana” and “The Anthem of the Heart”, which I’m here to review.
This book tells the remarkable story of someone with deeply rooted social anxiety and depression and their journey into the working world. Like with most good tales, the beginning of Okada’s voyage focuses on her life throughout her school years, as this is what shaped her into who she is today. Between growing up in the rural city of Chichibu (which shares a border with Tokyo) and being a “truant” for most of her adolescent life (defined as ‘a pupil who stays away from school without leave or explanation’), Okada spent her days at home doing very little.
As we discover, Okada finds interacting with people incredibly difficult. She’s deeply anxious about social situations after being bullied throughout elementary school, which led to her transition into being a truant. This lifestyle persisted throughout middle school and high school: endless days of not wanting to go to school. For her mother’s benefit she’d pretend that she was planning to go and simply changed her mind at the last minute, ultimately leading to a strained relationship between the two. It’s heartbreaking to read. As Okada ages, she begins to resent living in Chichibu, where the job options are limited and everyone knows one another and gossips about the girl who doesn’t go to school. All she wishes for is to escape and make something of herself; a wish that is eventually granted.
As we flip through the book we’re reminded of how unkind young children can be and how cliquey social groups are. However, one positive thing that stands out is that Okada was lucky enough to have some passionate teachers, who would call or visit her in a bid to get her doing some schoolwork. This often resulted in them giving Okada written tasks, such as writing short stories or about her life, and from here we see where Okada’s desire to become a screenwriter was born – even if she didn’t know it then.
In the second half of the book we join Okada as she leaves Chichibu behind for Tokyo, where she’ll be attending a game school. Okada mostly just wants to get away from Chichibu and, while having interests in gaming after spending her childhood years playing them, is unsure of what she truly wants to do. Eventually she finds work writing scripts, and while these begin with direct-to-video porn they later lead into anime. We follow Okada’s life until just before the widespread release of Anthem of the Heart.
For someone as interested in anime production as I am, the later half of this book is a real treat. It’s not as in-depth a look into the industry as you might expect but that’s okay; the small glimpses we do get into the world of anime are worthwhile. Most importantly, we learn so much about Okada from this autobiography that I feel revisiting Anohana or Anthem of the Heart would present them in a whole new light. Reading the book makes it evident how much both are based on Okada’s life and experiences, and it’s fascinating to see.
It should be mentioned that autobiographies are only as interesting as your interest in the person behind them. I personally have a vested interest in Mari Okada due to her work with Anohana and Anthem of the Heart, and because she handled the series composition for one of my all time favourite series – Pet Girl of Sakurasou. If you’ve not watched any of her works nor have any interest in her upcoming movie, Maquia, then there probably isn’t much for you otherwise. It’s not something I could recommend just for its look into anime, for example.
The book is being released by J-Novel Club in English and is only available as a digital ebook. The company are best known for offering a wide range of ‘Isekai’ titles, but I for one am incredibly pleased to see them bringing something more unique to the market. The ebook is well structured and includes some wonderful design sketches of characters from both Anohana and Anthem of the Heart at the beginning of each chapter. These are drawn by the original character designer Masayoshi Tanaka, who also handled character designs for blockbuster hit Your Name. Translation for this book has been handled by Kim Morrissy, which reads smoothly. You can tell that her translation has had a lot of love poured into it. Honestly, my hat goes off to all involved in this project because this is a truly great release.
Ultimately, From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to “Anohana” and “Anthem of the Heart” is an incredibly honest and insightful look into Mari Okada’s life. The book is also really inspiring for anyone chasing their dreams. It proves that you don’t have to be a model student to accomplish what you want (although I’m sure that helps!), and that being passionate is often what really sees you through. A highly recommended read for all fans of the director’s work.