They Come in Pairs

One of the seminal manga of the early 21st century was Himoru Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a gripping story full of interesting characters living in a deep and fantastical world with a clear and understandable “magic” system. The story began simply and spiraled out into seemingly ever more complex layers. At the end, however, the place we began turned out to be the place we arrived at: The maxim that mankind cannot gain anything without giving something of equal value in return. The fundamental law of alchemy proved to be the fundamental law of the story.

Arakawa has a flair for characters and simple but striking visuals in action scenes, skills she has levered in her artwork for other series. However she hasn’t produced her own fantasy story in over a decade. Silver Spoon, her love letter to the farmers of her home island of Hokkaido, is a great story but also a very mundane one. When I heard she had launched Yomi no Tsugai (localized as Daemons from the Shadow Realm, a literal but somewhat cringey translation), a new fantasy work, I was immediately interested.

First, and perhaps most interesting, Yomi no Tsugai is set in contemporary Japan. While Arakawa’s previous original creation was set in the modern era adding a layer of the supernatural on top of that added a level of depth and, just as importantly, gave her the opportunity to add a rich symbolic language to her story like she did in Fullmetal Alchemist. I cracked open the first chapter with great anticipation.

I was not disappointed.

That said, I was very, very surprised by the nature of the story Arakawa presented. Fullmetal Alchemist featured what is known as a “hard” magic system, where there is a system of supernatural occurrences that work on a series of concrete, almost scientific rules. The story’s titular alchemy has several solid, predictable maxims. Mass must be conserved. Energy needs to come from somewhere. The dead cannot come back to life. Our protagonist, Edward Elric, is a man of knowledge and reason, as befits a master of what is essentially a branch of science in his own world. Edward and his brother Alphonse are as close and brothers can be. The bonds between Edward and his family are a central driving force in his life and he relies on them from beginning to end.

Yomi no Tsugai has what is known as a “soft” magic system. There are few or no hard and fast rules in a soft magic system, they represent the bizarre and inexplicable forces in life that mankind have always struggled to understand and live with. In this case, these forces are called tsugai, spirits of the netherworld that bind themselves to certain people. Tsugai have abilities based on what they are and usually follow some kind of theme. They’re unpredictable and often hard for people to understand. There’s only one concrete rule about tsugai; but more on that in a moment.

Our story opens on the birth of our protagonist. This is not a normal place to start, in fact it would be downright inadvisable except that Yuru and Asa are children of prophecy – twins born on a day where light and dark are equal, one at night and one during the day. This condemns them to a cruel fate. They have the potential to access phenomenal abilities for the low, low cost of dying once and, whether they want to pay that cost or not, others are happy to force it upon them.

The twins are cruelly separated and then cruelly brought together again. Circumstances conspire to destroy all trust between them and Yuru, our protagonist, is forced to leave his home and doubt almost every meaningful connection he has formed in his entire life. Even the village he was brought up in was a lie. Yuru has been raised in a society still living in the middle ages and when he leaves he finds himself in modern day Japan, with all the culture shocks that come with that. It turns out that Yuru is totally ignorant of the world he lives in. The only thing he has to rely on are Sayuu-sama, the guardian deities of his home village. Sayuu-sama are tsugai, the spirits that live in two stone statues that defended the gates of the village for four hundred years. This brings us to the one hard and fast rule of tsugai.

They come in pairs.

The statue on the Left and the statue on the Right are as opposite as they can be. The Left is a stoic woman, not given to expressing herself much, with a hard attitude and a tendency to go out and solve problems proactively. The Right is a boisterous, outgoing man. He defends what he cares about, expresses his fondness for others readily and encourages Yuru to think for himself. Only their stone bodies and dedication to their master Yuru join them together.

What’s fascinating is that, just like equivalent exchange in Fullmetal Alchemist, this paired yet opposite nature of tsugai is reflected in every aspect of the story. Yuru and Asa are fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. Through the story we quickly learn that they pair day and night, light and dark, binding and release, stoicism and emotivism. They are caught between two warring factions, one of which pursues modernity, the other which tries to restore the past. Asa chooses to align herself with a faction, Yuru announces his intention to stand alone.

It’s as if every aspect of the story is slowly revealing itself as another tsugai who’s character, powers and intentions we have to wrap our minds around in order to understand the narrative. It’s brilliant but also exactly what I should have expected from Arakawa. She’s very deliberate with her storytelling. Perhaps far more so than I ever anticipated. It was only when I got current with Yomi no Tsugai and went back to reread Fullmetal Alchemist while I waited for more of Yuru’s story that I made the final discovery. I’ve hinted at it already. That is, of course, that Yomi no Tsugai and Fullmetal Alchemist are also a pair.

They pair hard and soft magic. A fantasy world and a world like the present. A protagonist of science and reason with intact relationships and a protagonist of ignorance and naivety who’s trust has been broken. The thematic core of Yomi no Tsugai looks like it has been implemented in such a way as to duplicate that theme even when it’s just sitting on a shelf next to Arakawa’s previous work! That’s a very meta inference to make, I know. And yet creating a good story requires such care and intentionality that I can easily believe that Arakawa went to that level when crafting Yomi no Tsugai.

Is it true? I don’t know. But I certainly intend to keep reading ’til I find out.


Cool Things: Azumanga Daioh

So we’ve covered gunslingers in outer space and Meiji era romantic swordsmen, what remains to give a full bodied, even handed overview of manga and anime, this month’s focus here at Nate Chen Publications? Oh, yes, of course.

High school.

Now many Americans have fond memories of their high school days. But in our culture college is probably the more important educational milestone. While fewer people go to college, it is where a lot of people seem to form their first meaningful lifetime relationships outside of their birth families. Roommates, sports teams, fraternity or sorority friends or just people who took the same classes you did, college is where you meet them. Sure, you have some friends from high school who might stick around, if you’re lucky. But for the most part, in America, college is where independence really starts and tends to be our high water mark for growing up.

In Japan, it’s high school. College admission exams are exponentially more difficult there, often consuming most of a student’s free time in their last year of high school so, at least in pop culture, the first two years become a frantic rush to accumulate experiences and meet those people sharing your interests. Then you bond together and set your sites on a life path and work towards it as a group.

This theme is made so much of in Japanese pop culture that I have to conclude it’s what actually happens on at least a semi-regular basis. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sell it so frequently. But the way it’s typically presented in Japanese pop culture is probably not the way it really is.

There is one work I’ve ready that has the ring of truth to it, though, and that’s Azumanga Diaoh by Azuma Kiyohiko.

If you’ve read/watched any manga/anime at all you know that the Japanese have a slightly higher tolerance for abnormal elements like superhuman martial arts, mind readers, spiritualists and the like in their entertainment and fusing these elements with high school is a very common approach to story telling. Azumanga Daioh is not that.

High school manga or anime are also considered a great format for stories of all out competition with sports teams or game clubs or even movie making groups doing all in their power to win a major competition before exams crash down and end their high school days. Azumanga Daioh isn’t that either.

Lastly, even in America we recognize the unique romantic atmosphere of high school. There’s cute members of the opposite sex all over the place to be chased, gossiped about and rejected by. The Japanese are just as fine writing high school romances as Americans. But Azumanga Daioh doesn’t waste its time with romance.

Azumanga Daioh is what’s known as a slice-of-life drama. It follows its central characters around as they arrive in high school, get to know each other, do funny, stupid or otherwise entertaining things and eventually graduate.

I know, I know. This sounds boring. Somehow, it isn’t.

I really wish I could explain this manga better. It’s roughly the equivalent to a comic strip, what’s called “4-koma” in Japan. Most of the stories are told in a series of four panels that serve to basically tell a joke. But in each of those jokes a surprising amount of character development goes on.

This is significant since Azumanga Daioh (and slice-of-life in general) is not a sitcom. The genre is driven by its characters and not the situation they are in. What Kiyohiko does is he builds a set of very understandable, deep and relatable characters and then lets us live with them for three years until they graduate (high schools in Japane have a 3 year curriculum spanning 10th to 12th grade, just one of many differences between Japanese education and the U.S.) By the end we really feel like people like Osaka, Chiyo and Sakaki really were our classmates. That’s a particularly impressive achievement if, like me, you were homeschooled…

The Japanese pop culture obsession with high school may not always make sense to Western readers. But it is that very fact that makes Azumanga Daioh a great example of it for people dipping their toes into manga and anime. It seems as if this is what they’re really expecting to get, what they really want out of high school. It’s an idealized take on the formative years of young people, from the perspective of Japanese culture.

Plus it’s consistently funny, occasionally heart touching and not that hard to get a handle on. Maybe saying it’s a story about girls who go to school for three years, become fast friends and graduate to move on to bigger things doesn’t inspire you. But all dreams need foundations. And, in a very real way, that’s what Azumanga Daioh is – a foundation for bigger things.

Rurouni Kenshin

Manga is more than just a variation of comics – it’s a learning experience! A great example of this is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic Rurouni Kenshin. The title character is an Issin Shishi veteran of the Meiji restoration, one who lived as a killer, an elite fighter sent to eliminate the most dangerous opponents of the revolution. What’s so interesting about this story is that it doesn’t take place during the Bakamatsu, but rather afterwards.

All soldiers need somewhere to go when the war is over but people rarely plan that far ahead. The Bakamatsu was no exception. So when the long days of fighting are over Kenshin is left with nowhere to go and no idea how he goes from a hardened killer to the citizen of a peaceful country. Like many long veteran soldiers, Kenshin finds he loathes fighting and sets out to live in peace. He exchanges his katana for a sakabato and vows to never kill again.

Unfortunately, back in the day Kenshin had quite the reputation and a decade after disappearing into the mists of history Kenshin finds that someone has stolen his name and is using his old reputation for their own ends. Living in peace is not enough to satisfy, it seems. Kenshin must ultimately seek redemption for his misdeeds. He will find it only in humility, service towards others and diligently performing housework for women who will never learn to do it on their own. Everything from the way he lives to the way he speaks, referring to himself in a diminuitive fashion and addressing most other people with the highly respectful “dono“, point to the change in Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin is a shonen manga to the core – it has lots of action, lots of humor and an emphasis on making the community you live in a better place.  Every time Kenshin swings his blunted blade he does so in the hopes that the ideals he fought for during the Bakumatsu will be upheld in the new era but, unlike many works about the past, Watsuki makes no attempts to sugarcoat the reality of the Meiji era. Yes, there were patriots out there on both sides of the conflict. But by and large most people were seeking their own gain.

As a weekly comic that ran for five years, Kenshin had a lot of time to look at the various forms that took. Disreputable merchants looking to buy power over people, disreputable teachers looking to play the wealthy and well intentioned for their own ends, well intentioned men branded criminals so others wouldn’t take the heat, virtuous men who turn to violence and crime in the search for petty revenge. All these and more are things that Watsuki and Kenshin stare down through the pages of their manga. Each one is overcome by relying on three simple rules:

  • Serve humbly.
  • Fight for the oppressed.
  • Teach others to do the same.

Rurouni Kenshin is a great yarn about a country, an era and the people that made it. It’s not going to give you anything like a comprehensive idea of what the time was like but it will give you a starting place. None of the historical events mentioned in it are made up, although much of the story taking place around those historical facts is pure fantasy. But there’s still one thing beyond sketchy that Kenshin teaches.

Heroes, it seems, look the same no matter what the culture or the era.