LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND (1990) – Anime Tale of Village Girl-Turned-Empress

19 Jul



In 1992, I bought a VHS tape, an animated feature in Japanese with no subtitles, from a dealer at a comics show and it was pitched to me as a film by Hayao Miyazaki, whose work I’d begun recently exploring. The title was LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND (KUMO NO YOUNI, KAZE NO YOUNI) and it was from 1990 and 79 minutes long. I watched it with my daughter. It seemed clearly set in China several hundred years ago and followed the progress of a spunky young peasant girl, Ginga, who learns of a drive by the palace to recruit girls to be potential brides or consorts for the new Emperor. She’s picked to join them and embarks on a series of classes and instruction and physical training along with dozens of other girls who are eventually winnowed down to a handful, including her three roommates, each a disparate type. Palace intrigue threatens them on the inside while a rebel army building force threatens them on the outside, eventually forcing the girls to use the palace stocks of cannons, flintlock rifles and other weapons of war to fight back.

I couldn’t grasp too many of the individual details, but the film offered beautiful designs of the Chinese palace and its interiors and the various costumes and a bit of spectacle in the battle scenes. It moved well, the female characters were lively and fun to watch and the whole thing charmed and amused both me and my daughter. It ended with a catchy, upbeat song over the end titles. The characters resembled Miyazaki characters and character types, but I wasn’t sure it was actually a Miyazaki movie.

This was before easy access to the internet and potential sources of further information about this title. I gradually pieced together that it was made for television and that neither Hayao Miyazaki nor his company, Studio Ghibli, had anything to do with it. Eventually, I got a fuller plot description and watched it again and eventually got more or less sufficient production credits. It turns out that it was written by veteran anime screenwriter Akira Miyazaki, no relation to Hayao. In 2012, twenty years after first purchasing the title, I picked up a Region 2 DVD copy, in Japanese but also lacking subtitles, from Book Off, so I could have a better copy of it. Here are the front and back covers of the R2 DVD:

Earlier this summer, I started to watch the DVD when some sixth sense urged me to check the web and see if it had ever come out in a subtitled edition. Indeed it had. Discotek Media released it on Blu-ray in 2018. And it was on Amazon Prime with subtitles! I started to watch it that way, although that print was inferior to my DVD. I stopped and instead ordered the Blu-ray, which I now have, and finally watched it with subtitles some 29 years after first acquiring it. The Blu-ray is absolutely gorgeous, but I could only use the R2 DVD to get images for this piece.

I’ve since learned that the film is based on a book by Kenichi Sakemi that had won a then-recent Japanese Fantasy Novel competition. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“In 1989, Sakemi’s novel Kōkyū Shōsetsu won the first Japan Fantasy Novel Award. The following year, this novel was nominated for the Naoki Award and made into the anime television film Like the Clouds, Like the Wind.”

It further says about the author that he “graduated with a major in Chinese philosophy at Aichi University in Nagoya. Sakemi uses many themes from Chinese history in his writing. He examines the meanings of freedom and imprisonment as well, even if this causes his stories to vary from historical fact.”

In the subtitles on the Blu-ray, the country where the action takes place is called “Sokan” and most of the characters and place names are Japanese. (Ginga is the Japanese word for galaxy.) The settings, costumes, architecture and characters are obviously designed to look Chinese, but I’m not sure they’re supposed to be. It’s possible that the Japan Fantasy Novel Award was meant for novels that offered fantasy versions of Japan and not “fantasy” in the supernatural sense.

In any event, as I watched it now with subtitles, I learned that the the Emperor wants a wife to be his Empress, which, for some reason, will strengthen his position in a divided court, so he sends his eunuchs back to their hometowns to recruit suitable girls. Ginga, who lives with her widowed father, who is concerned chiefly with her happiness, only wants the palace gig because it promises regular meals and the opportunity to eat and sleep all day. (Little does she know.) Mano, the eunuch from Ginga’s hometown, settles on Ginga for lack of other choices and tries to make a lady out of the outspoken, unrefined, wide-eyed country girl as they travel back to Castle Sokan. On the way, they hire a band of ruffians led by Konton and Heisho, two blustery local characters, to guard the party from bandits as it heads back to the palace. Both of the tough guys take a liking to the saucy, fearless young girl who wants to see the countryside and meet and talk to people along the way. They also both get ideas to take advantage of the political turmoil at large in the country.

Meanwhile, the Empress Dowager (a distinctly Chinese figure) who is mother of the previous emperor, wants her own son placed on the throne and directs her faction to find a way to get the new emperor out of the way quickly.

In the residence at the Inner Palace, Ginga finds herself with three quirky roommates. Seshamin is a vain, conceited daughter of nobility who assures them all that she’s got it in the bag and the rest of them should just pack up and go home. Kouyou hails from a northern tribe and is adorned in colorful headgear and tunic and offers a laidback persona as she lies in her bunk smoking from one of those thin little metal pipes. Tamyun is a tall, stately beauty who is secretly the emperor’s sister and has lodged with the girls to seek out spies and assassins. She has a set of hidden blades, which she twirls to great effect. Seshamin laments being saddled with a roomful of “freaks.” Meanwhile, Ginga has already met the handsome young emperor, Koryun, without knowing who he is.

Ginga has a curious mind and takes quickly to the long daily lessons given by the sagacious Professor Kakuto, eager for the first education she’s ever gotten. She even goes with the professor to his chamber lined on all sides with books. Have you read all of them? she asks. “Half of them,” he replies, “I wrote the other half.” Ginga is stunned!

Eventually, Konton and Heisho, out of sheer boredom, rally a rebel army and begin storming through the countryside, taking over the boundary gates one at a time.

As the girls get winnowed out, with only a handful remaining in the running, Ginga is finally chosen to be the new Emperor’s bride and she gets quite a shock when she learns Koryun is the Emperor (something known to the audience already). As the rebels close in, the girls are all that are left to defend the Inner Palace where the girls have lived and trained. When they learn of a stock of flintlock rifles and cannons collected by the emperor’s brother, they use those to put up a defense of the palace. Things take quite a dramatic turn for Ginga and Koryun, who have a final moment alone together (guarded by an indulgent Konton) and the film builds to a somewhat anti-climactic but not unsatisfying ending with a tragic element. The narrator then informs us how it was all resolved years later. Only then do we learn that the film is set in the early 1600s.

At times, the quality of the animation and imagery was strong enough to make me consider that the film might have deserved a theatrical release instead of a television premiere (on March 21, 1990). However, with a television budget, the film shies away from the potential epic material in the story to focus instead on a more intimate look at the lives of the girls in the inner palace, with palace intrigue and outside forces working on the periphery of the narrative. As a result, the storyline never aims for the kind of dramatic high points and character arcs that inform the best anime features of the era (e.g. Miyazaki’s films). Although Ginga matures and gains knowledge and training in the process, she never quite experiences any big dramatic change. Until their final scene together in a stable where Koryun has been imprisoned by the rebels, Ginga’s and Koryun’s relationship hardly varies from the time they first meet early in the film. Besides, the film’s 79-minute length is more geared to TV than the big screen.

We also never get much of a sense of urgency since the rebellion depicted seems motivated entirely by its leaders’ boredom and we never see exactly what’s at stake for the kingdom of Sokan or the surrounding country (be it China or Japan or whatever the author was thinking when he created it). Contrast this with the great anime historical spectacle about China from two years later, GREAT CONQUEST: ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS (1992), based on the classic Chinese text about three friends whose military campaigns are crucial to the unification of China 2000 years ago. Made for theaters, it features some spectacular battle sequences. Similarly, Disney’s animated MULAN (1998), another film about a spunky Chinese village girl who becomes a warrior, stresses action and spectacle over character portraits, although it did remind me of LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND when I first saw it.

Still, I enjoyed watching the antics of Ginga and her three roommates and the reactions she inspires from the eunuchs, the ruffians and the wise old teacher who mentors her. All are presented somewhat sympathetically, at least initially. It’s fun watching a girl display such curiosity for learning and human interaction in an era when girls were supposed to be discreet about such yearnings. However, I would like to have seen a confrontation between Ginga and the Empress Dowager, which would have given the storyline a needed dramatic punch.

I also like the detailed attention paid to the art direction, particularly in the landscapes and design of the palace interiors and exteriors, resulting in many exquisite compositions. Much of the imagery reminds me of the classic Shaw Bros. historical epics made in Hong Kong in the 1960s. 

The film was written by Akira Miyazaki (1934-2018), who wrote scripts for the 1986 TV series, “Animated Classics of Japanese Literature,” including “The Izu Dancer,” and then wrote the 1987 animated TV version of “Little Women.” One can see the dynamic of the four March sisters echoed in the interactions of Ginga and her three roommates here. “Little Women” resembled Hayao Miyazki’s films somewhat since the character designer for that series, Yoshifumi Kondo, did the same job for many Miyazaki movies and went on to direct one of Studio Ghibli’s finest features, WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995).


Katsuya Kondo, the character designer and animation director for LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND, did the same jobs on Hayao Miyazaki’s film of the previous year, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), and on many other Miyazaki films, so it’s not at all hard to understand why fans thought this film was a Miyazaki film for so many years.

Ryoko Sano, who voices the character of Ginga, also sings the upbeat end song, which now has subtitles and reveals lyrics that may reflect the character’s inner thoughts, but have no direct link with events in the movie, which isn’t unusual for anime theme songs.

The director of LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND was Hisayuki Toriumi (1941-2009), who also directed “Area 88,” “Lily C.A.T.,” “Mysterious Cities of Gold,” and “Space Warrior Baldios,” the few titles of his that I’ve seen. If there are any other works in his filmography that offer a hint of the artistry he would bring to this film, I’m not aware of them. Yuji Ikeda, the art director for this film, served that function on many great anime films and TV shows, including “Phoenix – Space,” “Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl,” “Demon City Shinjuku,” “Rail of the Star,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Fushigi Yugi” (which also has a historical Chinese setting), “Master Keaton,” and many of the Dragon Ball Z movies.

Discotek Media has lots of great anime titles, including many that have been out of print for years and several that I’ve only had on VHS all this time, including GREAT CONQUEST: ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS. Time to upgrade!



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