Taken alongside its dark fantasy aesthetic, the English subtitle attached to The Girl From the Other Side ‘Siúil, a Rún’ immediately invites the assumption that one of its key influences was traditional Gaelic and Celtic folklore.
Roughly translated as ‘Go, my love,’ ‘Siúil, a Rún’ is an old Irish folk song that has been reinterpreted by countless artists throughout the country’s history. Perhaps the most famous rendition is by Clannad, performed here live in 1978.
The origins of the song are unclear, as they are with most traditional folk music. At heart, it is a love song, taking on the point of view of a heartbroken young woman who wishes ‘in vain, I wish I had my heart again.’ Her lover goes to France to ‘try his fortune to advance,’ but she’s unsure if he’ll ever come back again.
Furthermore, in The Master of Ballantrae, iconic Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson describes how the exiles, torn away from their home country during the Forty-five Rebellion (an attempt by the Scottish Jacobites to restore the House of Stuart to the throne), were reduced to tears upon hearing it. However it came about, the song remains a key part of Irish and Gaelic culture, and still evokes emotion today.
The only problem is that original author Nagabe didn’t choose this subtitle. In a series of questions asked by fans and answered via the official Girl from the Other Side Twitter, Nagabe revealed that ‘the editor in charge of my work made the final decision.’ What’s more, that editor explained that ‘Mr. Nagabe couldn’t decide the title till the last minute, but we definitely needed [one]… I suggested the Irish folk song I had got to know through a band called “clannad” [sic].’ No doubt Nagabe thought it fit the work, but the fact remains that it wasn’t his idea initially.
Questions asked to Nagabe !
— 『とつくにの少女』(The Girl from the Other Side)【official】 (@totsukunishoujo) December 26, 2020
Does this strengthen or weaken the argument that one of The Girl From the Other Side‘s key influences was traditional Gaelic and Celtic culture? Before we answer that question, we should say that Gaelic culture is often considered a subdivision of the Celtic: the Gaelic peoples were descended from the Celts, after all, although there are some differences.
Even though the title wasn’t Nagabe’s choice, those influences manifest themselves in The Girl From the Other Side in countless other ways. We just need to look a little deeper below the surface and review some more sources.
Connections With Traditional Folklore
First, the big question is whether The Girl From the Other Side’s mysterious ‘Othersiders’ draw any sort of inspiration from the creatures that appear in traditional Gaelic mythology. That would be the easiest way to prove the link, given how integral the fantasy element is to the story, but the reality is that this is hard to quantify: while pieces of said mythology crop up here and there, nothing is taken wholesale.
The argument could be made that the soul-stealing Othersiders are like a combination of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Slaugh, both legendary creatures in the pantheon of Irish folklore. According to Timeless Myths, the Tuatha Dé Danann came from the mystical Otherworld and were among the first to live in Ireland, even before the Celts. They served the Mother Goddess Danu and were led by her son, Dagda.
There are clear similarities here between the Otherside of Nagabe’s manga and the Otherworld of traditional Irish folklore, and the same goes for the Sluagh: perhaps more of a frightening figure than the Tuatha, the Sluagh were said to feed on the souls of humans as ‘hosts of the unforgiven dead.’
Again, one can see here clear similarities with how the Othersiders of Nagabe’s manga take the souls of humans and offer them to the mysterious figure known only as ‘Mother,’ who could be seen as a representation of Danu. There’s also the Dullahan, who look a lot like the four-legged Othersider that wears a sheet, and the Bánánach, goat-like demons who may or may not have inspired the creature designs.
Nevertheless, Nagabe has never named any of this as an out-and-out inspiration for The Girl From the Other Side, and has always talked in interviews more broadly about the idea of mythology and our relationship with it.
This brings us to the age-old question: do we base ourselves on what the author has said, or interpret the work in isolation?
If we take the latter approach, then we could quite easily take the relationship with Gaelic culture one step further and say that the Curse is actually a representation of the blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1852. But we won’t do that.
Aesthetics Over Content
Instead, we have to recognize that the influence of Celtic and Gaelic culture on The Girl From the Other Side is about as complex as it is multi-faceted, hardly ever fitting into a neat box. That makes the task of tracking down its inspirations quite hard, but there are some concrete facts which we can rely on.
Again on Twitter, Nagabe said that ‘there is not a specific setting [where the story goes on] but I vaguely imagine medieval Europe. I wanted to portray a simple and somewhat primitive life, so “Cotswolds” matched the image the best.’
Questions asked to Nagabe !
— 『とつくにの少女』(The Girl from the Other Side)【official】 (@totsukunishoujo) December 27, 2020
What is being referred to here is an area in the south-west of England populated by traditional rural villages, built using a bedrock of limestone dating back to the Jurassic period. This gives them their unique gold color. Here, at last, we have concrete proof that some form of Celtic culture served as an influence for The Girl From the Other Side: even if it was just used for aesthetic purposes, the inspiration behind the setting can be pinned down.
Indeed, ‘aesthetic’ appears to be the operative word here: Nagabe appears to be more interested in how things look than making concrete cultural references. As a result, his influences are about as varied as they are contradictory: although the series is ostensibly set in southwest England, the design of Teacher’s skull is made up of beef bones and the horns of a markhor, a type of goat native to Central Asia. Even if it means combining parts of animals that exist thousands of miles apart, if it looks cool, then so be it.
Nagabe himself admits in a discussion with The Ancient Magus’ Bride author Kore Yamazaki that The Girl From the Other Side is ‘more of a picture book or a poem than a manga,’ which underscores the author’s more artistic approach to drawing inspiration from western culture. In that interview, he also cites such older works as The Beauty and the Beast, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Moomins as major influences on The Girl From the Other Side for their ‘lack of resplendency or extravagance.’ In terms of picture books, he recommends Arthur Rackham’s illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland and de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
That last title is pretty significant as it mirrors very closely the entire artistic approach of Nagabe’s series. While the characters are fine and the story intriguing, the art is undoubtedly the main draw here on account of its bleak, almost minimalistic presentation. The Little Prince also evokes many of the same emotions as it uses the negative space of the page to further its own themes of existentialism and isolation. It’s therefore no accident that Nagabe names this as a key inspiration for The Girl From the Other Side; not Beauty and the Beast or Alice in Wonderland, both of which probably informed the main ‘human and something else’ character dynamic.
Triangulating the Influences of The Girl From the Other Side
Trying to figure out what exactly acted as an influence on The Girl From the Other Side is a difficult task. The subtitle fills you with expectations that it might be heavily indebted to traditional Gaelic and Celtic culture, but that very quickly turns out not to be the case. More likely is that Nagabe incorporated elements from lots of different sources, operating with more of an eye to aesthetics than consistency.
A good counterpoint to this is The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which is often compared to The Girl From the Other Side, fairly or not. Kore Yamazaki strove from the start to create a world that was very much situated within a concrete setting: the English countryside, with visits to London and other real-life locations. Her work feels more keenly influenced by British culture in general; many of the creatures are taken from real-life folklore, too.
One possible reason why The Girl From the Other Side draws from such varied influences is because any work produced outside of Japan feels ‘foreign’ to Nagabe, so there doesn’t appear to be much of a contradiction for him to use an Irish folk song as the subtitle and then ape the style of a French children’s novel.
Regardless of all this, the result is a work that is endlessly fascinating, both as a manga and as a piece of art. WIT Studio’s new long-form adaptation fills me with intense excitement because the production staff know best of all that aesthetics are king.
You can read The Girl From the Other Side via Seven Seas Entertainment.