Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi by Yamagishi Ryôko
Yamagishi Ryôko 山岸涼子. Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi 日出処の天子. 1980-84.
I finished this a few weeks ago but never got around to writing it up; I was so glad to be done with it that I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. It was another case of my completist compulsion getting me into a series that I ended up disliking but couldn’t let myself quit halfway through.
This is a shôjo manga about Shôtoku Taishi: that places it in the category of historical adaptation, and that’s where it falls down. …It’s mainly concerned with the uneasy relationship between Shôtoku (Prince Umayado), related to the Imperial family, and Soga no Emishi, scion of a powerful noble family. The story starts when they’re both in their teens; Emishi encounters a mysterious adolescent girl bathing in a pond, and she enchants him. The reader soon figures out that this is the Prince, who has powers that seem to include gender-switching; Emishi, for some reason, never quite figures out that the girl is the Prince, even though he and the Prince develop a kind of intimacy that includes exposure to several supernatural phenomena.
The manga’s strength is the strange relationship it creates between Shôtoku and Emishi. Shotoku’s powers are never quite spelled out, but frequently they involve the Prince having special access to a world of Buddhist demons and afterworlds. The Prince doesn’t really understand his gifts – they alienate him from his family and torment him, rather than giving him any pleasure or wisdom. Emishi is the only person he allows to get close, and even they don’t communicate very well; also, Shôtoku’s occasional female manifestations complicate matters and provide extra frissons of sexuality.
In Japanese legend, Shôtoku is an interesting and important figure, with all sorts of miraculous and significant accomplishments attributed to him; he’s considered particularly important in the establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Yamagishi’s idea is to imagine him as this kind of tormented figure whose relationship with Buddhism is less one of faith than of torment; he’s in constant slippage into a sort of Boschian landscape of underworldly creatures. To this Yamagishi adds some antiheroic qualities – Shôtoku’s alienation from his family manifests itself as extreme antisociality and occasional cruelty.
Emishi, meanwhile, is essentially a straight man for the Prince’s peculiarities: wanting to befriend Shôtoku, gradually falling in love with him (as both male and female), but never quite understanding what Shôtoku’s all about and why.
So far, so good. The problem is, this storyline is intertwined with a far too in-depth recreation of the politics of the period. This is the trap Japanese historical fiction all too often falls into: since everybody vaguely remembers reading about these people in high school, authors seem to feel pressured to work in everything that shows up in the textbooks, while at the same time authors often seem to feel that all they have to do is work the events in – they don’t have to dramatize them particularly well.
I’ve seen this in Japanese historical fiction, and it’s the big trap taiga dramas fall into. I watched most of Fûrin kazan last year, because I’m really interested in the potential of the taiga drama form, but it was boring as hell, because it devolved fairly quickly into an intricate recreation of Sengoku military campaigns, and worse yet the political machinations behind them, without bothering to make any of it interesting or meaningful. It’s just like names, dates, places. This manga does that: we get a detailed account of the Soga clan’s struggles against other families at court: but we’re never given a reason to care about them, and the struggles aren’t presented in an interesting way. So it gets tedious real quick.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Yamagishi just doesn’t seem to be that talented a manga author. Her art is fairly rudimentary. She has some interesting pages, but that’s mostly when she’s drawing Shôtoku’s encounters with demons and whatnot, so the subject matter is intrinsically attention-grabbing. Her drawings themselves aren’t particularly accomplished, her page layout is pretty conventional, and her visual narration is, frankly, uninteresting. Lots and lots of pages of people sitting around nondescript rooms talking about politics.
This was a very popular and acclaimed manga in Japan, so maybe I’m missing something. I think what I’m missing is a Japanese education: I’ve studied Japanese history, and I know about Shôtoku and the Soga and the beginnings of Japanese Buddhism, but I did it on my own, because I was interested. I don’t have this history embedded in my brain as the detritus of a high-school social studies curriculum. A Japanese reader might look at this and think, I know I was supposed to learn all this stuff in tenth grade – now’s the chance to get it in a painless way. That might be enough to make it interesting, I don’t know. I should add that I think historical fiction in the West is probably prone to this problem as well, but since I’m not an outsider to Western history I don’t notice it as easily. I am to Japanese history, so I notice pretty quickly when a book stops showing history and starts telling it.