Anime has a way of bringing to life stories and characters wholly unique to its genre and style. It can fulfill our fantasies of an isekai adventure or get our blood pumping with shonen action. That being said, it’s easy to overlook the equally fascinating stories that have both transpired already and continue to play out.
Some of the best narratives that anime has produced have taken inspiration from the greatest narratives of all, real-life stories. With just a little, or a lot, of research and a flare for the dramatic, seemingly everyday occurrences can become epic tales. Maybe they’re inspired by the creators’ own experiences like Bakuman, or maybe the historical era serves as a backdrop like Rose of Versailles.
Whatever the case may be, anime based on real events helps shed new light on stories that may otherwise be unknown. So, without further ado, here are, in no particular order, 10 Anime Based on True Stories!
UMA MUSUME PRETTY DERBY
Alright, this first entry is a little bit of a stretch but stay with me. Uma Musume Pretty Derby is a multimedia franchise featuring horse girls training for various races across Japan.
Anime is no stranger to anthropomorphized characters, but Uma Musume’s twist is that every horse girl is named after and based on a real racehorse. Special Week, Silence Suzuka, and Tokai Teio, just to name a few, were all real horses and the anime goes to great lengths to adapt their personalities, racing styles, and achievements.
The real-life references also include competitions, locations and tracks, and even a couple of jockeys turned commentators. Granted, the anime takes a lot of creative liberties, least of which is the all-female cast, but it’s a fun ride, nonetheless.
This anime movie is an example of the director drawing from his own experiences to deliver an authentic and heart-warming story about family. Mamoru Hosada is very wellknown in the community.
His other works include The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wolf Children, and The Boy And The Beast. In an interview with Animation World Network, he said the main inspiration for the setting of Summer Wars was his wife’s home in Ueda, Nagano.
He was attracted to the history of the Sanada clan, repurposed into the Jinnouchi clan in the movie, along with the beautiful scenery and old-styled houses.(1) By making the themes of family and social networking the center point of the story, Hosada was able to transform his experiences into a cinematic wonder.
What do you get when you cross the 1968 TV series Wacky Races with Western and samurai drama set in the good ol’ US of A?
With director Masakazu Hashimoto at the helm, you get this gem of an anime. From the start, he wanted to make an anime about racing across the American continent, but he hasn’t named a specific event or race that inspired the idea.(2)
Coincidentally, there was, in fact, a first transcontinental automobile race held in 1905. The racers started in New York City and followed the Oregon Trail, ending in Portland, Oregon. Advertised as “From Hell Gate to Portland,” the race took a grueling 44 days, and only two cars officially crossed the finish line.(3) A far-cry from the flashy and admittedly anachronistic style of Appare-Ranman, but that’s the beauty of anime. We can have fun and learn new things.
Historical figures are prime sources of storytelling, and while anime has no shortage of these, it’s rare to see one stay so faithful to history. Admittedly, the author has not openly claimed where the inspiration came from, but the similarities between Arte, the titular character, and another female painter are striking.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a female painter, born in 1593 in Rome, Italy at the height of the Renaissance. She was a prodigy and by the age of 17 had painted her magnum opus Susanna and the Elders. (4)
Because of the discrimination she faced from the male-centric artist community and her artistic focus on women, she’s become a modern symbol of female empowerment. There are so many parallels between Arte and Artemisia it’s not hard to claim inspiration.(5). The anime takes a more relaxed approach, opting to focus more on Arte than her art, but the connection is there. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make a story more meaningful.
SKULL-FACE BOOKSELLER HONDA-SAN
History isn’t always about the influential figures or the huge events. Sometimes, it’s all about how we live each day navigating whatever hardships come our way.
And for Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san, those hardships result in hilarious workplace hijinks. This manga/anime series documents the real-life routines of the real-life Honda-san as a bookstore clerk in Japan. Everything from stocking shelves, to dealing with foreign customers, to negotiating with publishers is expressed in agonizing yet comedic detail.
Fourth wall breaks and jokes are aplenty, since the manga was being released concurrently to Honda’s workdays. All of their coworkers and acquaintances are depicted with masks and pseudonyms, which just adds to the surreal humor. The world runs because of people like Honda-san and giving them a voice is the least we can do in return.
GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
World War II was a traumatic period for the world and Japan was no exception. To take that pain and transform it into stories of hope and reconciliation is but one of the purposes of art.
Grave of the Fireflies tells one such story. First released in 1967 as a short story then adapted into a film in 1988 by Studio Ghibli, it tells the semi-autobiography of its author Akiyuki Nosaka.
Nosaka lived through the fire-bombing of Kobe in 1945 and lost his adoptive father who was in the Japanese Navy at the time.
He also lost both of his sisters to malnutrition. Needless to say, the plot was heavily influenced by Nosaka’s own life and the character Seita could be seen as his stand in. Many critics have labeled this movie as an anti-war film, and there is a strong argument to be made in favor of that point. However, the imagery, themes, and storytelling, do more to highlight the transience of life and how humanity looks toward the future. It does more than recount a horrific event, it stands to say something greater and offer new perspective.
THE WIND RISES
Much like the previous entry, this animated film is widely known to be based on the life of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi. He was responsible for designing and building the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a light-weight fighter plane with better maneuverability but less endurance.
For Japan, it gave them a strong advantage in aerial combat, and the whole world felt the effect. It was the model prominently used in the Peal Harbor attack. However, under the direction of Hayao Miyazaki, the film chooses not to focus on the wartime ramifications of Horikoshi’s work.
Instead, the film takes some creative liberty to portray Horikoshi as an artist, tackling the moral conundrum of dedicating himself to his craft more than his life.(6) The film indulges in a more romanticized version of the historical person to tell a different, but not wholly unconnected, story of art and the sacrifices we make.
It’s amazing what can be spun into a full-fledged narrative. Steins Gate managed to take the modern-day mythos of an internet hoax and create a sprawling time travel drama.
John Titor was the pseudonym of an internet user claiming to be a soldier from the year 2036. He said he went back in time to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer. He posted on forums schematics of his time machine, explained the mechanics of how he had time traveled, and even made predictions about the future under the many-worlds interpretation.
Steins Gate took this elaborate ruse and developed it to its foregone conclusion. In the anime, John Titor plays a major role in driving the plot and is intricately linked to the world-building. No spoilers here, but the masterful execution of creating a story around, essentially, an internet prank deserves the highest praise.
ANGOLMOIS: RECORD OF MONGOL INVASION
Some moments in history are more talked about than others. Japan seems perpetually enamored with the Warring States period and Oda Nobunaga, but this anime sheds light on an event that shaped Japan’s early development.
The year is 1274 and Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongols, orders an invasion of Japan from the southern-most islands Tsushima and Iki. A huge fleet of ships are dispatched from Korea and makes quick work of the unprepared and underequipped Japanese soldiers.(7) This would come to be known as the Bunei Campaign.
The anime’s setup is very similar, though it follows a group of convicted prisoners who help defend Tsushima, similar to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It also seems to condense the invasions of Tsushima and Iki onto just Tsushima. For all the familiar story beats and playing up the fights and stakes, it does an admirable job of retaining its historical roots.
A Viking epic spanning several mythologies and generational sagas deserves an equally epic anime reimagining. The author of the manga, Makoto Yukimura, takes the backdrop of 11th century Dane-controlled England, weaves in plot points from stories like the Saga of Eric the Red, and adds a dash of anime goodness to deliver a truly one-of-a-kind series
Yukimura went on several trips to Iceland to gather research materials, study the language, and observe the scenery.
It shows everything, every character, every hint of ancient Viking culture can be traced back to real world influence.(8) Ultimately, the story should not be taken for fact and the details are pulled from an amalgamation of sources. That doesn’t make Vinland Saga any less fascinating. In fact, it indirectly spurs viewers to seek out the original sources with strong storytelling and compelling characters.
Another list complete, another 10 anime to sink your teeth into. There really is no limit to what anime can adapt and real-world stories offer infinite sources. Like with any entertainment medium, what stories are told and how they’re handled makes all the difference.
Smaller personal stories can stand toe-to-toe with huge well-known stories. Even stories based on the same subject or event can have widely different interpretations. There’s nothing quite like learning the real-world influence behind your favorite anime.
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