This Week: The Poem of Wind and Trees (Kaze to Ki no Uta)
From the Character Designer of Mobile Suit Gundam and the Director of 1983’s Crusher Joe film, Yasuhiko Yoshikazu helmed this 1987 anime adaption of Keiko Takemiya’s groundbreaking shōnen-ai manga.
I like to think I seek to maintain enough variation in what I come to write about here so as to better keep myself from becoming complacent. To wit then, I realized something. While I have watched and reflected on shōjo-ai and Class S anime works via Sweet Blue Flowers and the Maria Watches Over Us franchises respectively in recent months, I had yet to give the same attention to the shōnen-ai end of the spectrum for these particular posts.
And that I can surely attempt to remedy.
This film uses the framing device of an adult male revisiting what we come to learn was his old academy during his formative teenage years. His dorm room of the time, Number 17, he has been told remains unoccupied even now, and is allowed to stop in for a bit by a member of the staff before they are to go on with meeting the old principal and such. And so, just like that, the nobleman Serge Battour is able to mentally transport himself back to so much which occurred between him, his classmates, former roommate Gilbert Cocteau, and much more. What are in some ways may well be his best treasured, and in others dearly painful, years of his life and love.
It is a familiar setup for many stories, and it works well for establishing so many facets that make up aspects of this tale. The Lacomblade Academy, in the deep south of France near to Arles, has its Christian religious trappings, etiquette rules, and Mass sessions running through its veins. A boarding school structure for these youth of society to be in close proximity to one another often, and the social structures which can become even trickier to navigate in such conditions due to how ever present they are for the individuals involved. And the things which can be difficult to hide in such conditions, such as sexual advances.
Assuming, of course, one even wanted to hide at all, and any fallout it could entail.
Gilbert Cocteau, as the key blonde haired focus of the film as Serge reflects, I find to be a fascinating character to unpack as an individual.
They are strained to multiple extremes, as someone who due to their horrific background circumstances continuously places themselves in intentionally destructive scenarios. Violent fits and outbursts towards Serge’s initial attempts to become friends with him as a roommate. Sexual encounters with older men. Attempting to in a sense weaponize his sexuality in manners to make others uncomfortable such as by demanding they kiss him (for which he would take either backing down or submission to the demand as a kind of power victory). And so on down the line. He is troubled, emotionally damaged, and has a deeply fractured capacity for expressing himself effectively. So much of his ability to process and react to the world coming from lenses of extremes. And virtually everyone at the school is aware of his sexual antics to boot, though due to his family supporter (and their personal reasons for having raised him as such) his attendance remains secure.
There is a lot of rawness to Gilbert and Serge, each in their own ways.
The former can in one moment go from seemingly full control of a situation, complete with ojousama style stereotypical noblewoman’s laugh should he so employ, to having an emotional meltdown shortly thereafter. His is not a randomness act for the sake of being random though. Rather, his is a mind clearly spinning on so many cylinders at once and flicking between options of how to best express itself from minimal options to maximum capacity in that instant. His emotional processes having been developed and raised as a very all or nothing set of parameters, they can often seem to suck the air right out of the room at points as one waits tensely to see what he may do next.
This is helped all the more by director Yoshikazu knowing these need not always be guided by any music at all. The silences which can be created as a result between the cracks of such beats add more weight to his actions and feelings than a string instrument accompaniment ever could, and so the soundtrack fades out frequently and subtly. Visually, touches like Gilbert running in distress and every footstep he takes over ground and grass being portrayed to feel akin to his body shattering glass beneath him (such is his perceived weight in that moment), portray so much even as he himself says little in such moments.
Serge, as the man reflecting back on these days and then us seeing them play out on screen (with a charming set of watercolor style backgrounds and differing types of color filtering to guide us though), is not a passive part in these school memories either. He wants to be Gilbert’s friend as a roommate, and he wants him to be able to socialize with the rest of the school better. Even other members of the student body, such as student supervisor Karl or science aficionado Pascal, encourage such behavior. Serge also, understandably, wants friendships among the rest of the student body as well. There are even prospects of great things, as his piano skills are regarded as wonderful and would be able to receive greater guidance and supervision in developing those skills further from the same man who taught his own father. He is torn not merely out of a required narrative conflict, but multiple aspects of his life pulling him in several understandable and relatable human directions at once.
Throw in the additional complications and tensions of a developing attraction towards Gilbert and inner confused jealousy regarding his roommates misadventures he has trouble coming to terms with, and things only become all the more contorted for him internally.
The Poem of Wind and Trees is a work Keiko Takemiya had to fight exceptionally hard to have published in its original printed form.
While successful in 1976 to begin its serialization in Shōjo Comic, the concepts and narrative had been hammered out nine years prior. It is easy even in this roughly hour long anime OVA form, released several years after the manga concluded and which does not adapt a significant chunk of the complete work, to see how. In the anime adaptation, drug abuse, teenage sex with partners of varying ages, rape, molestation, and more still manage to work their way in via diluted for time yet never in impact methods. Takemiya saw these as essential to the story she wished to tell and the troubled people she had populated its world with, and kept from compromising on them lest her entire vision fall apart. In the meantime, she was releasing other core works in the development of shōnen-ai as a manga genre, like In the Sunroom in 1970 (which contains the first male on male kiss in manga form) and 1975’s The Door into Summer (Natsu e no Tobira) (of which an hour long 1981 anime adaption was also created).
That she eventually won the appropriate editorial freedom for her project, and her manga could go on as planned after nearly a decade, would itself be remarkable. That the work still achieved status as the first manga to give its narrative attention on young men in romantic and sexual relationships is further astounding. On top of this, it achieved recognition to the extent that in 1979 the Shogakukan Manga Award recognized both Takemiya’s The Poem of Wind and Trees and Toward the Terra (Terra e…) for the combined Shōnen/Shōjo category of the time. These are all immense acknowledgements of her creative drive and belief in the format she was working in, that of manga’s capacity to tell these stories and push all manner of demographic boundaries.
She is a credit to the efforts of the famed Year 24 Group’s wide reaching impact on the industry on the whole, and as of April 2014 she began to serve as President of Kyoto Seika University (previously dean of their manga department since 2008, and in 2010 developed the first graduate level manga studies program in the country).
I find it deeply appropriate that someone who poured so much time, effort, and even risking potential future career prospects so as to see their controversial school age academy story through is now leading an educational institution themselves. There is a resonance in that, on a meta-narrative level. In taking risks, being true to oneself, any frustration that may be inherent in that, and so on. That it can all indeed work out wonderfully, even if at the time things may not seem that way.
As it goes, it was over the course of a single night Takemiya brainstormed and hashed out the plot of where she wanted The Poem of Wind and Trees to go in manga form.
It would take so much longer to be approved, produced, completed, and later distilled down at least in part for this hour long animated feature. Serge has a lot of personal weight on his shoulders, returning to Lacomblade Academy as he does at the start of this movie and reopening the door of his old dorm room to reflect and remember. In every sense, it took such a long and arduous time for things to come together and play out this way. For Takemiya, the characters, for the manga and eventual anime production staff, and even for us as consumers.
I feel it is important for Serge’s memories to live on today. Not merely out of respect for the historical importance of the work in question, but that I found echoes throughout even in limited anime running time form of the difficulties, complexities, and strains induced by human emotions. Its character explorations still connected as very invigorating and quite modern in their numerous layers.
We should remember with Serge so that we may all have the benefit of meeting more well crafted fictional people like he and Gilbert in our stories.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.