The Comics Classroom: Champions of the Gods, Part 1

Preface

Much of my knowledge on this particular subject began when I was lucky enough to have heard voice-actor/mythology scholar Crispin Freeman perform his Anime Mythology talk entitled ‘Mystics, Priestesses & Warrior Women’. If you in the Los Angeles area and can make one of his mythology panels, do it. Crispin’s mythology website can be found at http://www.mythologyandmeaning.com/. His panel, as well as events hosted at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s SGMS (Schoolgirls and Mobilesuites) Conference, have been invaluable in shaping my knowledge of this particular comic/manga genre subject.

Those who have taken the time to read my various posts know that I frequently tend to fall back on certain elements when talking about comics. One of the most obvious topics for my writing is the Greek classics. The reason for this is a composite of my education (English Majors tend to get a lot of Plato, Euripides, and Sophocles-based writing projects), my own personal passions, and the fact that much of the foundations of Western literature come, in one form or another, from these blockbusters of Antiquity.

Sailor-Moon-post1

While I will indeed be talking about the Greek gods, this series will have a bit of a twist that allows for some cultural examinations of my other favorite culture – Japan. I was fortunate enough to have pursued an Asian Studies Minor while I was closing out my Undergrad degree. I pursued this Minor because I was always had a vested interest in Japanese mythology and storytelling, from my love of manga, my brief time working for an anime company, and my time championing academic projects at my current University which have cross-cultural elements, mainly East/West dynamics regarding writing or other arts. So, how will my passion play itself out in this particular column series?

The aim of this series is to examine two of the most endearing and wonderful comic characters ever created, ones whose impact has proven to stand the test of time in print, film, and TV. These two characters are linked by certain aesthetic elements but, at first glance, might seem completely different. I am referring to Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon) and Princess Diana (Wonder Woman). These two female characters are linked by a connection with the Greek deities and/or cosmological elements, but also by their positions as female exemplars of heroism. Still, having said that, they are vastly different, perhaps so different at first glance that one might think their natures irreconcilable for the purposes of listing them both under the same column heading. What I hope to explore is their backgrounds as ‘Princess’ characters, their connections to the Greek gods, how their creations emerged from different cultural backgrounds/traditions, and finally what role both play in showcasing the power of female characters have within different genres.

The Shojo Genre

For those who might now know the story of Sailor Moon, let me give you a brief rundown. The story of Sailor Moon existed first as a Japanese comic (called manga) written by Naoko Takeuchi in 1992. While the plot and creation of Sailor Moon would have a proto-genesis in a side-comic called Codename: Sailor V, the main comic series itself focused on showcasing young teenage girls who discover they have cosmic powers. The first tradition which influenced the creation of Sailor Moon is known as Shōjo manga. Directly translated, this term means “little/young girl” manga. Shojo manga has a long history that actually goes back to the start of the 20th Century. While manga had appeared in print newspaper as far back as 1900-1910, manga still followed a particular format, that being humor above content. This is similar to how American comics began. The points of particular importance to the Shojo genre and Sailor Moon’s creation are the following:

Princess Knight is created 1953 by Osamu Tezuka. This series focuses on the character of Princess Sapphire who, in order to inherit the family throne, must disguise herself as a boy. Princess Knight was full of intrigue, action, and drama, elements familiar to Tezuka’s other work and hugely important to the Shojo genre as a whole.

akkoaHimitsu no Akko-Chan (essentially, The Secret of Akko) is created as a manga in 1965. This work shows a young girl, Akko, being granted magical power after coming into contact with a magical mirror. Her treatment of the mirror charms the Queen of the Mirror Kingdoms and makes Akko-chan a kind of ‘bridge’ between their realms. Akko uses her power to transform into different things as she wishes.

Sally the Witch is created as an animated TV series in 1966. This series, which has based partly off the US TV series Bewitched, shows the adventures of a young witch named Sally (hence the show’s title). Sally is a Princess from the Kingdom of Magic who, after discovering the world of humans, befriends two children named Yoshiko Hanamura and Sumire Kasugano. Sally decides to remain in the human world, however by doing so she forces herself to use magic in secret.

These pioneering elements of the Shojo genre have much in common with important Western stories and troupes, partly because of Tezuka’s love of Disney (possibly one of the reasons Princess Sapphire comes from a land designed after England, the stock background for many famous Disney films of that period) and partly because of Sally the Witch’s copying of Bewitched elements. Still, manga is a Japanese tradition and as such it draws a great part of its strength from the unique traditions of Japanese mythology.

Magical Maidens

Among the works of the Japanese literary canon, perhaps no story has the most intentional parallels to Sailor Moon as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. While this story has similarities of the Chinese tale Tian Xian Pei [The Fairy Couple], the traditional story goes as follows: a poor woodcutter, while clearing away bamboo for harvest, finds within one of the stalks a small baby about the size of a thumb. The poor woodcutter takes the baby home to his wife where the couple raises her as their own. Over time, the girl, named Kaguya, grows into a renowned beauty whose charm attracts suitors ranging from commoners to the Emperor. Sadly, Kaguya reveals to her parents that she is not of the world of man, but rather the Moon. In time, Kaguya must return to the Capital of the Moon, leaving a distraught Emperor behind. As a kindness, Kaguya imparted the Elixir of Immortality to the Emperor before she left to return to her celestial people. The Emperor sends his emissaries to burn a letter bearing the elixir atop what would be known as Mt. Fuji so that the smoke might reach Heaven and let Kaguya know that the Emperor could not bear an eternal life without her in it.

bishoujo-senshi-sailor-moon-1045229The powerful story imparts many themes would go on to exist in Sailor Moon – a princess from a celestial race with strange abilities, a connection between the kingdoms of man and the kingdoms of the other world, and lost/unrequited love.

Another important and uniquely Japanese element that is important in Sailor Moon is the tradition of the Miko. In Japan the dominant religion transitioned from more ancient, female-centric powers to that of male-dominated religious power, much as it has done across many cultures across the world. Miko are popularly known today for their position as assistant priestesses to the heads of temples. The history of the miko is a long and complex one, however the basic idea posits that women have an inherent connection to the divine world. While the layered and complex tapestry of this knowledge spans back to when women in Japan might have been considered divine elements in their own right, the miko tradition evolved to where certain women represented the divine world as a partnership with a male monk within a temple.

Thus it came to be that, as a divine pair, a miko would reveal the words of the gods and the male monk(s) would take direct action on behalf of the divine world, be it cleansing a temple, assisting one who asked for the gods assistance, or any other deed. The important thing to remember is that it is a female who is the vessel for divine power, not man. Man might be responsible for acting on the terms the gods set forth but it is woman who is the bridge between the world of man and spirits.

*To my knowledge, the aspect of Men becoming involved with the spiritual traditions of the miko is a Buddhist addition, however I am unable to corroborate this directly.

So, (finally!) returning back to Sailor Moon. Naoko Takeuchi’s comic blockbuster focuses on young Usagi Tsukino, a 14 year old high school student, who is contacted by a talking cat named Luna. Luna reveals to Usagi that she is the magical hero called Sailor Moon, one of a group of magical-powered girls who must stop the evil schemes of the Dark Moon Kingdom before they enslave the world. Usagi later finds the other ‘Sailor Scouts’ and also learns of her own past. She is the re-incarnation of a woman named Princess Serenity, once the heir to a thriving lunar kingdom on the moon that watched over Earth. Princess Serenity’s mother, Queen Serenity, had her daughter be sent into the future and reborn on Earth to protect her from the fall of the Lunar Kingdom as it was being attacked by the forces of Dark Moon Kingdom. Serenity, as well as her friends, the Sailor Scouts, were all once lunar beings who have been re-born as humans. Having discovered their past, the Sailor Scouts together re-double their efforts to drive away the Dark Moon Kingdom’s designs for Earth.

One of the other important plots in Sailor Moon is, naturally, a love story. When Usagi existed as Princess Serenity she was in love with Prince Endymion of Earth. The two are torn apart when the Dark Moon Kingdom attacks the Lunar Kingdom, a fracture which causes Endymion to be reborn on Earth. Endymion becomes Mamoru Chiba and, subconsciously, still has a love for Serenity (now Usagi) which causes him to unknowingly become the hero Tuxedo Mask in order to protect Usagi when she fights as Sailor Moon. In time, Endymion and Usagi remember their past lives and re-unite.

In a sense, Endymion and Serenity embody the coupling of the Male/Female partnership in the Shinto tradition. Sailor Moon, the leader of the Sailor Scouts, is the embodiment of a guardian of the moon. This positions her, in the strict Shinto sense, as a kami, a divine being. The closest word we might have in English would read as god. Serenity then can harness her divine state to combat evil, thus literally making her a divine super hero who has a mission to prevent the destruction of the Earth and (later) other cosmic domains. While it is Mamoru/Endymion who assists her (often times, saving her) he is not the star of the comic. Sailor Moon, a Lunar Princess, walks a fine line between traditional, costumed super heroine and divine agent of celestial stability and reverence.

One last note regarding the names of Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion and mythology. The story of Sailor Moon borrows heavily from Greek and Roman mythology so in many cases names of characters are very revealing. The messengers which reveal to Usagi her Sailor Moon powers are cats named Artemis (the Greek goddess who assumed the role of Moon Goddess after a time) and Luna (the Roman name of the deity associated with the moon). Princess Serenity even bears connection to the myth of another lunar deity in that her lover is named Endymion. The myth of Selene (the moon goddess of Greece pre-Artemis) and Endymion is one which loosely mirrors the story of Princess Serenity/Usagi and Endymion/Mamoru. Still, while these names show a borrowing from the rich fabric of Greek lore on the part of Naoko Takeuchi, Usagi and Princess Serenity are very much rooted in the Japanese mythic tradition as being divine vessels for cosmic power as opposed to being a divine power in itself.

The Crybaby

While it might seem like an extremely odd thing to point out after having established that Usagi is, in a sense, a goddess and a super hero, she is more importantly a person. Far from being a stoic or dashing heroine, Usagi is still very much the same 14 year old girl she was before she was discovered to be Sailor Moon (and, later, Princess Serenity) and she is after her past is revealed to her. Usagi is temperamental, she is emotional, she binge eats, she does poorly at school and she is, genuinely, a normal human girl.

Usagi_Material_CollectionsThe importance of Usagi’s character is her endearing humanity. Sailor Moon, as a comic and later as an anime, was written for young female audiences. This knowledge of the audience caused Naoko Takeuchi to create a character that was as believable as she was heroic. Sailor Moon does save the say. She does lover her friends and her family. She also hates homework, loves food, and she has a distinct personality. Usagi’s nature, unlike Superman, is not dependent in its entirety on being a secret. While the main story does have Usagi’s ‘Sailor Moon’ identity be a secret, Usagi herself acts absolutely no differently while in costume than out of it. For Usagi, as well as for the other Sailor Scouts, being a hero is something that is an extension of who a person is, not something they adopt. This factor is important in understanding the primary difference between Japanese super heroes and Western super heroes: Japanese heroes react to something that impacts them privately/personally (normally somebody attacking them or revealing something to them) while Western heroes tend to acquire powers privately and them set out to use them publically.

Usagi is approached by Luna to be told she has powers and it is also Luna who tells Usagi in what way to use her powers. It is later that Usagi finds out how the Dark Moon Kingdom destroyed her civilization and it is only then that the fight against the forces of evil become genuinely impactful. Super Man, for example, grows up to discover his power and decides to use them for good. While she knows he is not human, he decides to continually act for the betterment of society by fighting crime. Usagi never fights normal civilian crime. She reacts to the needs of the Earth and/or the Universe as needed. Usagi is a reactive heroine who maintains the status-quo while a character like Superman exists to proactively preserve the status-quo. Usagi has homework and tests to worry about in addition to her duties because there is no ‘line’ between her responsibilities as a young girl in high school and as a Guardian of the Moon. Clark on the other hand uses his responsibilities at the Daily Planet as a cover for the fact that he wants to put his powers to use in the best ways possible, but he cannot merge his Clark/Kal-El identity into one.

Usagi is a very human character who, as a female, showcases that it is okay to be yourself (flaws and all) and still be heroic. Usagi blows up monsters and saves the universe, however she also worries about her weight, making a good grade on a test, hanging out with her friends, and basically just being a girl. Her femininity might come across as a little jarring to some male readers/viewers, but then again, have you ever spent time with female teenagers? Usagi is not a caricature of females, she is a positive representation of teen youth. Usagi’s femininity is nothing that she tries to hide from, even after becoming Sailor Moon. She grows into her responsibility and, over time, becomes the best kind of Princess character – one who establishes their own identity based on their heart, their friends, and their family.

While Usagi is indeed saved frequently by Endymion/Tuxedo Mask in the popular Sailor Moon anime, the relationship between the two characters is humorous. Usagi and Mamoru tease and berate each other before finding out that they have been working together as heroes for weeks/months, and then they discover they were in love back in their past lives. The characters compliment the other in ways not seldom seen in the Western super hero genre which is another reason the series has proven so popular even today.

Conclusion

In closing, I hope that I have revealed enough about the rich history of the Shojo genre of manga/anime, how Sailor Moon as a character owes a great debt to the miko/Shinto tradition, and how Usagi herself serves as a unique kind of female heroine. Next time we will look at one of the Western comic canon’s greatest literary creations, Princess Diana, Wonder Woman! While Sailor Moon is a Japanese manifestation of the Greek goddess Selene, Diana embodies multiple deities as part of her job.

 

 

 

 

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