Elegant Spirits: Amano’s The Tale of Genji and Fairies Review

Yoshitaka Amano is probably best known in the West for his distinctive illustrations for the manga and anime Vampire Hunter D and the highly influential character designs and art for Square Enix’s Final Fantasy video game series. Elegant Spirits brings together two very different projects (already published separately in 2006) in one splendid hardback volume from Dark Horse: The Tale of Genji and Amano’s Fairies.

‘Be it your will that I live out my days feeling sorry for myself? Though night may end and turn to dawn, never will there be an end to my thoughts of you.’

The Tale of Genji is based on Lady Murasaki’s classic eleventh century novel of courtly love, dating from the Heian era, featuring extracts about the ‘Shining Prince’ himself and the women he loves (including Murasaki herself). The text by Anri Ito and Junichi Imura (translated by Rachel Nacht) consists of selected quotations from the original novel and short synopses of the individual stories they’re taken from. These passages are sumptuously illustrated by Amano with a sometimes surprisingly bold and rich choice of colours (the Heian court were very refined in their use of nature-influenced colour palettes when selecting what robes to wear and how to theme and layer them). The main focus here is on Genji and Women, with portraits of Murasaki herself, as well as several of the loves of Genji’s life including Utsusemi and Yugao. This gives Amano the opportunity to create different moods to reflect each of the personalities of the women through his striking colour choices; it’s difficult to do justice to them in words!

Amano’s Fairies brings the reader to Shakespeare’s England and the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with depictions of Titania and ‘that shrewd and knavish sprite’ Puck mingling with characters from the Matter of Britain: Merlin and Nimue as well as creatures from Celtic folklore (Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Cornish). The spirits depicted here vary from mischievous house goblins to a variety of fairies, some benign, others far less so. Swan maidens and mermaids are also featured. The portrayal of these creatures, some grotesque, others quaint and quirky, harkens back to the fairy tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham (Ellyllon and Leprechaun) while again presenting portraits that are unmistakably Amano’s own interpretations, as in the Welsh legend Gwragedd Annwn and the traditional tale of Allison Gross and the Seelie Court.  

The English translation is by Camellia Nieh and there is a fascinating essay by Kimie Imura at the end entitled The Celtic Fairies – Changes of Figures in Japan. This explores the appearance of ‘fairy’ and ‘elf’ in Japanese literature and the fact that there is, it seems, no ‘good’ Japanese translation of the word. Imura also explores the various artistic mediums employed by Amano to bring his fairies to life: water-based acrylics, ink and oil paints, adding that ink painting is ‘just the right medium for Banshees… water colours are selected for more sprightly creatures, and oils are used for the Mermaids.’ Some, like the Leprechaun, are described in little stories, others in verse and, of course, Shakespeare with Shakespeare. But this is not just a collection of beautiful pictures; the accompanying folklore is of real interest too.

Even though the influences on Amano’s artistic style are eclectic, ranging from art nouveau (although I detect a doff of the artistic hat to Odilon Redon and Leon Bakst) through Japanese ukiyo-e to Western comics, his gorgeous art is always instantly recognizable as uniquely Amano and employs a ravishing use of colour. The volume also contains fold-out images.

If you’re a fan of Amano’s art and don’t already own the two books separately, then this handsome tome is a must-buy although, inevitably, it isn’t cheap. But with Christmas a few weeks away as I write this review, it would make a wonderful present!

9 / 10


Sarah's been writing about her love of manga and anime since Whenever - and first started watching via Le Club Dorothée in France...

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