Author Archive

Rereading the Stack: Ranma 1/2

Series Info
Title: Ranma 1/2
Author/Creator: Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha, Rin-ne)
Media Type: Manga, Anime
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Martial-art fantasy

So that's Ranma... and that's also Ranma.

So that’s Ranma… and that’s also Ranma.

A lot of people in the anime circle might have heard Rumiko Takahashi from Inuyasha, the alternative-universe fantasy story about a girl and a half-breed demon, but before she wrote Inuyasha, her biggest hit was Ranma 1/2, a martial-art fantasy story told as slice of life, a series which I think is still the most influential of all her works, and I’m not just talking about the number of copies sold.

For me personally, Ranma 1/2 was my gateway manga. I watched the anime series on Saturday mornings, usually after breakfast because food was choking hazard while watching Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo going about their lives. Since the anime series never followed through with the storyline, and they didn’t have to, I bought the manga and began reading them obsessively. Again, food was choking hazard.

What is intriguing about this story is that while it is a romantic comedy about two teenagers who can never get along in the same vein as You’ve Got Mail (the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan one, by the way), Ranma has a giant predicament: he is half a girl.

Screech. Halt. Stare. Yes, I just said Ranma is half a girl.

Ranma 1/2 is set in a fantastical world that is sort of like ours but not really. In this world, there are a group of hot springs in China called the Cursed Springs which turns anybody who falls into a well into the creature that cursed that particular well. Ranma happened to fall into the Maiden Spring while training in martial art with his father. Now every time he is doused with cold water, he turns into a red-head, C-cupped version of himself.

The choice of making the lead protagonist a girl half the time led to speculation that the author intended for the series to be a commentary on gender. It turned out she just wanted to have fun, and my ten-year-old self agreed with her decision wholeheartedly. Ranma 1/2 is a rom-com of extremely unlikely situations with quite an amount of drama, and that was what made it so addictive.

My current self, however, sees more into it than it is intentional. I don’t think it is a direct commentary on gender like Otomen, but the topic inevitably has to come up from the premise. The fact that the protagonist can change his sex at will (or sometimes against his will) makes it a fertile ground for the discussion of gender identity, sexuality, and shows our perspective on related topics.

What related topics? Here are a few I can think of from the top of my head.

1.The Romantic Trope of Love as Something to be Won

I have to say I am glad this trope is not as prevailing in the shape and form as it once was twenty years ago when the series was first published. But since we still have the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

I have to start with this one because it glares us in the face the moment we are introduced to Ranma and Akane. They were both teenage martial artists, both proud and independent individuals, betrothed to each other by their parents who are best friends and thought the idea of their children marrying are kinda cool. Ranma and Akane, of course, were never consulted about this and only found out that they are engaged the day they were supposed to meet for the first time. It was also the day Ranma and his father moved into Akane’s family home and in effect moved into her life.

That is how Ranma is introduced to Akane’s morning routine, which involves literally fighting off suitors. Akane, despite not being a super hot chick by today’s standard, is cute, athletic, and popular to the point that Tatewaki Kuno, Captain of the Kendou team (the manliest of all sport in Japan) and the biggest misogynistic idiot to ever exist on the surface of the Earth, announces that only those who can win against Akane in a fight have the right to ask her out to control the number of suitors in school.

So she kicks every one of their sorry asses every morning and develops an anger management problem.

The first thing that is established about Akane is that she hates guys to the point of being misandric because of the immature behaviors her fellow classmates show towards her. She is the idol, the goddess, the ultimate prize for the winner, but never really Akane Tendo to them. Ranma was just as unlucky as Akane in this department. His female self attracts the attention of quite a number of guys, most notably our dear Captain Tatewaki Kuno, who pursues her/him with the same attitude he has when he pursues Akane: to get her as his prize. To say Ranma is annoyed by the attention towards his female self would be a massive understatement.

The usual reaction to people flirting with Akane.

You can’t say Ranma and Akane aren’t a team when fighting off unwanted attention.

This trope does not only apply to women in Ranma 1/2. The male Ranma got pretty much the same treatment from his female suitors. Despite him being rude to Akane (mainly because she is rude to him first), Ranma is actually a pretty nice guy, an attitude that is surprisingly due to him being raised mostly among men. I always have a feeling that Ranma doesn’t quite know how to act around girls, so he settles with being more reserve and tries to be nice to them, which makes him much more pleasant than, say, Tatewaki. And a number of girls who come into close contact with him take to him almost immediately.

Again, have the girls ever asked for Ranma’s input before they proceed to fight among themselves for him. No, they never have.

And because of the idea that love is something to be won, Akane and Ranma are constantly pestered by each other’s suitors. The first mention of Ranma being Akane’s fiancé leads to him fighting Tatewaki in his first day of school and almost every day after. In all honesty, Ranma doesn’t want to be involved in the competition for Akane’s hands, but he can’t avoid it. Same goes for Akane with Ranma’s female fans.

By spending so much time on this trope, the series ultimately showed why it doesn’t work and ultimately why Ranma and Akane works despite the fact that they never go easy on each other. They might fight each other a lot, and probably through that they become very perceptive about one another. Ranma will offer to be Akane’s punching bag if he thinks she needs to let out some steam (and it isn’t like Akane is going to seriously hurt him anyway). And Akane, on the other hand, will always be on Ranma’s team, offering him a helping, if sometimes unwanted, hand.

2.The Rape Jokes

There isn’t any rape in Ranma 1/2, or the series would never have made it to 9:30 am slot on Saturdays, but it does have sexual harassment in its various forms which usually result in hilarity of one kind or the other. Of course, nothing physical happens, but the use of date-rape type of drugs, mind/behavior-altering substances (read: love potions), and kidnapping and withholding kind of situation? Plenty here.

The young-me wasn’t disturbed by these stuffs back then because I knew nothing bad would happen to any of the characters. The God Almighty Takahashi wouldn’t let it go that far. The old-me, however, sees these situations as real and knows how far they can go and to what consequences. They stop being funny because they are not funny in the real world where nobody is there to stop them from going too far.

However, because the disturbing nature of the situation and the subsequent reactions, sexual harassment in Ranma 1/2 actually reflects quite a lot of what we think of those situations. The one I remember most keenly is probably the closest to rape Takahashi had gone. It happens after Ranma, male, saves the life of Tatewaki’s sister who is unfortunately just as much of a psycho as her brother and smarter to boot. She promptly becomes infatuated with him and decides to drug and rape him to get the point across.

Thanks to her vanity, i.e., checking and refreshing her makeup at the last moment, Akane is able to save Ranma before anything truly devastating happens. But then Akane turns around and accuses Ranma of ‘asking for it’.

What stunned me is how candid Takahashi went about victim-blaming in that scene which makes me realize how many societies accept this as norm, that the victim is to be blamed for the rape. In the very same scene, she showed us how utterly disgusting and mean it is. Ranma isn’t ‘not fighting hard enough’, he is drugged to the point where he can barely move his head although he is still conscious and is really fighting back with all he has. He also isn’t ‘asking for it’ by saving her life. Any decent human being would have done that. He is clearly taken advantage of by the girl he presumed is in need of help (and she does to a point). The same goes for any rape victims. They weren’t ‘asking for it’. They weren’t ‘not fighting hard enough’. They were taken advantage of. The people who should be on the receiving end of the shouting are the rapists, not the victims.

3.Sexualization of Breasts

Ranma 1/2 the anime doesn’t have much of these, but the manga had plenty of uncensored breasts that anyone reading this series should do so in the privacy of one’s room lest the person be called pervert in public.

I remembered being uncomfortable about this when I first read the series because the subliminal message about breasts in the media was that they are sexual organs. I kind of have to look away at times but it was hard to do because sometimes Ranma’s C-cups were just too glaring to ignore. It took an older me (not this-old me, but quite a few years older) to understand that those breasts weren’t meant to be sexual. It is just Ranma walking about bare chest in exactly the same way he did all his life as a guy but in a female body.

That is not to say Ranma 1/2 doesn’t intentionally sexualize breasts. It does sometimes with the typical ‘bigger breasts are sexier’ undertone. However, it points us to the absurdity of doing so through Ranma. As a child I didn’t think that little display as anything aside from ignorance, but as an adult I actually think Ranma has a point. Breasts are not something inherently sexual. Our cultures make them so. That’s why women’s breast are obscene in public and breastfeeding can cause a ruckus while guys can walk around bare chest and it would be perfectly acceptable (unless they do it in the work place). Again, I own it to Ranma 1/2 to make me question what seems blindingly obvious in our cultures but actually doesn’t make any real sense unless you take into account that most of the world’s cultures are patriarchal, which means that men control what they sexualize but women don’t get much say in the arrangement.

4.Biological Sex, Sexuality, and Gender Identity

This topic just comes with the premise of the story. You have a lead character who can change sex at will. Is he a guy or a girl?

Ranma is, of course, 100% a guy even in a girl’s body wearing a short frilly skirt acting all cute and girly. And the readers know those acts don’t mean anything because we know Ranma. We know what he is capable of, including dressing up and acting like a girl to get what he wants.

That is not to say Ranma himself is all grounded and doesn’t have a problem with being half a girl. He has plenty in the beginning. It is clear that being able to turn into a girl gives him an identity crisis. He won’t wear anything that vaguely girly on his girl body. He hates being treated like a girl even though he can’t possibly explain his situation to everyone he encounters. But he eventually gets over it. He begins using his female body when the occasions call for it. That takes an understanding of his own identity and some level of comfort in his own body to pull it off.

You might think this should have made the young-me very confused. Surprisingly enough, it never did. Of course, my understanding of gender and sexuality was wibbly-wobbly if not non-existing at that age, but to the young-me Ranma is a guy but most importantly he’s Ranma. Nothing else aside from that really mattered.

As an adult, though, I think Ranma having a female body does matter but to no one else aside from himself and to nothing else aside from his relationship with Akane. Ranma was trained to be tough and self-reliance. He never allows himself to be anything else especially in the beginning because it would contradict what he was told all his life that being a man is about. Having a female body creates a loophole for him and allows him to be vulnerable. A scene that best illustrated this was when Ranma just comes out of a clinic and his legs’ muscles give up on him. Akane offers to help, but Ranma flat out refuses even when he can’t even stand. Annoyed but also sympathetic to his plight, Akane douses Ranma in cold water so he would be in a girl’s body and so not draw attention or ridicule as she piggy-backs him home. Ranma, being off the hook from the pressure of being a man, allows Akane to help him.

Akane, on the other hand, was conditioned by her experience to fight men not being open with them. That is why her relationship with Ranma starts out rough. When they become friends, the fact that he is a guy still prevents her from forming a deeper emotional connection. Ranma’s female body gives her the loophole to be vulnerable around him while not feeling like she was being threatened or behaving out of character. It takes some time and some shared experience before she can get past Ranma as a guy to just Ranma as Ranma.

They don’t hug, unless someone’s life was in danger and Ranma is a girl, and even then…

Although, Ranma constantly looks for a way to have a fully male body, in the end I don’t think it matters so much anymore. Being female doesn’t worry him the way it used to and Akane honestly doesn’t care. And I don’t think the audience care either. We are just happy that they recognize their feelings for each other even if they still fight and argue all the time. And I think that’s the best part of Ranma 1/2. It liberates us from the idea that sex or gender are more important in a relationship than the person while throwing both misogynistic and misandric ideas in our face and makes us laugh about it. And I think that’s the genius of the series. I know it wasn’t Takahashi’s intention to do so, and all I’ve said might be completely unfounded. Ultimately, Ranma 1/2 is a romantic comedy, and it’s absolutely fine reading it just as that.

The One That Got Away

An art work by M!kE (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeisalwaysdepressed/4096905343/)

By M!kE (click the image to visit gallery)


‘The One That Got Away’

You are the one that got away,
Because I never say hi.
I looked and, like a fool, I waited,
Telling myself that it wasn’t the time.

You are the one that got away,
Because I wallowed in self-doubt,
Too young, too uncertain, to realize
That this wasn’t what it was about.

When a soul touches a soul,
The bodies could be left behind,
The burdens could be left behind,
And it could have been just you and I

…for a moment in time

You are the one that got away
Because your voice was silenced.
Only then did I realize
That my chance was taken.

You are the one that got away
Because there is no more next time
Never thank you’s, sorry’s, or good bye’s.
And all I wanted was to say hi.

This poetry is prompted by an art assignment of the same name (click here for the video and find out how to contribute to an art project). It didn’t open a can of worm so much as a bout of emotions that I haven’t experienced for sometime. And the way I deal with emotions is either to cry or to write poetry.

In this case, I did both.

I Live

Here’s a poetry from one fine afternoon.

‘I Live’

I live for the day
when the young look at me and say
“you are narrow-minded and unkind”
because it would mean
the world is better than what has been.

Sprouts

Pee Mak Phrakanong and the changing script of love

Image

This banner sum up everything about the movie… almost.

Movie Info
Title: Pee Mak Phrakanong
Author/Creator:
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Horror, drama, romance, comedy

Warning: Spoiler-y review… again.

Is there such thing as a movie that deserves to be written about twice? Apparently, there is.

That is because the first time I wrote about Pee Mak Phrakanong, I hadn’t watch the movie yet. The excitement from Thailand, however, was too palpable to ignore, and I devoured all the material there was at the time. The movie turns out to be the highest grossing movie ever in Thailand. While the intentional audience is teenagers and young adults, the movie found fans from all demographic. Let’s just say nobody could have predicted the success of the movie, and I don’t think anybody really understand what happened either.

Part of it was probably luck. Pee Mak came out the same time as Khu Kam, both being beloved stories in the country, so the cinema goers were probably only weighting between these two movies despite having others on show. And more tightly focused the interest is, the more likely it is that either of them got selected rather than, say, G. I. Joe. Moreover, Pee Mak was marketed as romantic-horror-comedy. For people who were stressed out all week, this sounded like a better option than a romantic-tragedy that Khu Kam is.

That being said, the success of the movie didn’t just come from luck. The movie itself is actually pretty good. It is bold in the way it takes a much beloved horror folktale and put a spin to it. What I didn’t expect, though, is how bold it is in the way it discusses love.

Both Khu Kam and Pee Mak are about love. Khu Kam is about a patriotic young woman who becomes involved, unwillingly at first, with a Japanese soldier during Japan occupation of Thailand in WWII. The original novel is a classic in the way it discusses the conflict of the nation and the heart, but it also uses a very particular script for romantic relationship. The girl plays coy about what she thinks or feels and pushes the guy away, making him chase after her like they are playing catch in a forest in a Bollywood movie (cue to the Bollywood music here). In Khu Kam, it is justified because he is an enemy and she was involved with another person before she met him. Still, that script is so old and so overused (The Cather in the Rye anybody?). Sure, there are people whose relationship still follows that script, but the question is how many of us really thinks that is the way to go in this day and age.

Mae Nak, the original story of Pee Mak, uses a script for different stage in the relationship. Mak and Nak are already married when Mak has to go to war and leaves his pregnant wife behind. Nak waits for his return day and night even after she died while giving birth and scared off people who see an apparition of a woman standing on a pier holding a baby in her arms.

Nak, despite being a scary ghost, is always thought of as the symbol of everlasting love. She waits for Mak even when she’s dead. She cares for him when he is back injured. But that love is a selfish kind of love, the one that will not let go even when that love hurts both of them. In the folktale, Nak has to kill people to shut them up, so she can maintain the illusion of a happy family for her husband. Being under Nak’s spell, Mak becomes isolated from the community due to them being threatened by his wife. When the illusion is broken, Mak is overcome with fear and flee to get help so he can be free from Nak.

I have always thought that Mak is a Mary Sue in the story; i.e., that he is a character that does not actually have a character. He reacts to knowing that Nak is a ghost like he has no previous history with her whatsoever. He is also highly objectified, like a trophy that Nak has to keep to make her life complete. And that is a script used for a long, long time since before classic Disney animation came along with their highly objectified princes.

What I like about Pee Mak is that it puts character into Mak. The movie isn’t his story precisely, more of his friends’ watching Mak and Nak together and deciding how to interfere in what is potentially a fatal relationship. I think Banjong Pisanthanakun’s genius is in knowing that his audience has a preconceived notion of the story. But instead of catering to it, he runs with it. Since the beginning, he investigates the detail of the story and turns to question our understanding of it. Is Nak really dead or did something happened that people in the village treated her as an outcast? Did she really kill any of the villagers or was the death a false attribution? Is Nak the one who is dead? It is a pleasant surprise to find a horror movie that is cerebral while making us snicker along with its slapstick jokes.

To me, the biggest punch line comes at the end when Mak is dragged along with his friends to escape Nak who, by then, already shows herself as a ghost. Unlike previous incarnations, he doesn’t run from her right away and seemingly unable to comprehend that she is a ghost. I think that is a more realistic reaction than running for the hills since he wouldn’t really be able to reconcile his loving and seemingly alive wife with a spirit that easily. He still cares about her and does not want her to get hurt but at the same time being absolutely scared and can’t really look at her without crying like a baby. And Nak is scary at that point. She is furious that people destroys her chance at a happy family and now taking Mak away from her. She goes after him, but that is where the parallel to the folklore ends.

And that is about where Banjong challenges the previous script of a romantic relationship.

In the old script, Nak looks as Mak as her object of affection and would do anything to keep him with her. When he runs, she hunts him down despite knowing that she scares the living day light out of him. It is a very unbalanced, unthoughtful relationship. In this version, Nak stops when Mak faces her in tears. Even in the height of her anger, he is not an object to her but a person she deeply cares about. So, without the prompting from the monk she needed in the folklore, she decides to let him go and move on, only to be told by her sobbing husband to stay put and let him talk.

That is when I realize how much more balanced their relationship is in this movie. Mak doesn’t see his dead wife as a scary ghost but as a woman he fell in love with and married to. And he is right, because she is still as intelligent and self-aware as she was when she was alive. She is just able to extend her arms and defy gravity now, which scares him because those are not normal, but doesn’t change who she is to him at all. Mak’s confession that he has known for a while that she’s dead serves as a great tearjerker because we have seen throughout the movie how he tries to keep the status quo without even realizing what he is doing. This Mak might not be the macho soldier like in other incarnations, but he is definitely the strongest in his willingness to fight against social convention for what is important to him.

Okay, guys. Stop being adorable together already. Like, seriously.

And I think that reflects a lot of how we see love in this day and age. Before this, the ideal love has to fit the social convention and the underlying script of a romantic relationship. The ideal love in Pee Mak is more about being thoughtful to one another, which is itself a new kind of script but a much more flexible one. The end credit scenes from Pee Mak also hint at what thoughtful love can do in a larger context. When Mak is able to get over the fact that his wife is no longer human, he starts to appreciate her and even be proud of her for what she is. Nak walking the ceiling to fix the leaks while Mak chats away with the monk is one of the more adorable moments in the movie and also shows that accepting the differences is a source of power not decline. Mak’s openness is also infectious to his friends who witness their exchange and come to accept Nak as well. Of course, it is not that the whole village is suddenly 100% okay with a ghost living among them. She is still ‘the Other’, the outcast, and their love is viewed as ‘unnatural’ because it doesn’t fit the usual boundary of love. However, the movie doesn’t portray Nak as the tragic heroine who fights for and loses love but acknowledge her as having the right to love and happiness like anyone else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that touches on marriage equality in such a powerful and convincing way. That is, of course, if anybody reads that much into it as I do, although I don’t think the message is subtle at all.

I like to think that if money can vote, the grossing of this movie shows that the people of Thailand is ready to acknowledge the right to love.

Silver Diamond: Divine Providence vs. Human’s Willpower

Shiho Sugiura's

Rakan Sawa and Chigusa Senrou in their best surrounding: flowers.

Manga Info
Title: Silver Diamond
Author/Creator: Shiho Sugiura
Media Type: Manga
Genre: Fantasy, drama

Warning: Major spoiler for Silver Diamond, especially for the story of Chigusa Senrou. I recommend not reading this if you are a fan but haven’t already discovered who or what Chigusa is. If you have, you’ll probably already know the rest of the stuffs mention here.

Also a lot of babbling, just so you know.

Honestly, I had a really hard time trying to figure out what to write about Silver Diamond. Should I write about the purpose of life? Should I write about conflict resolution and reconciliation? Should I write about fideism and humanism? Should I discuss evolution and intellectual design? Or should it be about soul, self, and free will?

My biggest problem is that Silver Diamond is all that and then some. Choosing to talk about one of them seems like a disservice to this long, complex, and exposition-ridden manga. The series didn’t start out that way, though. The first few volumes is pretty simple, like the start of any alternative universe story. The protagonist is somehow sent to an another world or another time and becomes somewhat of a savior to that world. This plot device is used over and over in so many manga and anime from the shojo side (e.g., Fushigi Yugi, Magic Knight Rayearth) to the shonen side (e.g., Inuyasha, Escaflowne). It is even prevailing in literatures (e.g., Narnia, The Neverending Story, Neverwhere, The Wizard of Oz). Surely, Silver Diamond isn’t different, is it?

Well, yes and no. If you say the devil is in the detail, you would be absolutely right.

Silver Diamond tells a story of a seventeen-year-old Rakan Sawa, a Japanese highschool student who lives alone after his family, his mother and grandfather, passed away. People in his community know him as a temperate and polite young man who lives virtuously and earnestly. Girls in his school and other schools in the area know him as a somewhat aloof cutie who looks his best with a bouquet of beautiful flowers he picks from his garden. He isn’t the school’s sport star or an outsider, just a normal school boy getting on with his life.

That is, until a man by the name Chigusa Senrou appears out of nowhere in his garden and point a strange looking gun at his face.

Chigusa is a rebel and an outcast who is ousted from his world after he tries to assassinate the Prince who, by the way, have the same face as Rakan. After they establish that Rakan is definitely not the Prince and that Chigusa is definitely in the wrong universe, they sit down and have a chat over a home-cooked dinner like civilized people.

Chigusa’s adventure with Rakan in the strange new world that is ours is hilarious, awkward, and adorable. At first, Chigusa’s behavior seems to be because the two worlds are very different down to how life operates. If you say Chigusa is a humanoid alien, it wouldn’t be too far off. However, once two more newcomers from that world arrive in Rakan’s garden, both of whom are clearly human, it is pretty obvious that even by that world’s standard Chigusa is an outlier.

Actually, he is called a monster, a man born to a clan that brings death and destruction to people in that world. Chigusa’s awkwardness isn’t only because his world is vastly different from ours, but he is physically and mentally different as well. His body contains cells of plants that help him heal quickly when he is injured, so he does not feel pain and he cannot die. His emotional response is limited to a small smile when he is content and a serious face when concentrating. Chigusa has only twelve years worth of memory when he looks as if he has reached his thirties, all of which he spent alone, so he barely knows how to interact with people around him without being a creep.

Knowing Rakan and being treated like a human being for the first time starts Chigusa’s growth as a person. And that is not exactly a one-way street. Rakan, by knowing Chigusa, discovers many things about himself. First, he discovers that he actually has something of a superpower. He is what people in Chigusa’s world called a Sanome (pronounced saa-no-may), the tree-growers, a precious being in a world that largely consisted of deserts. Having Chigusa helping out around the house also reminds Rakan of the loneliness that he refuses to acknowledge since his mother and grandfather died. Upon learning of the situation in Chigusa’s world and having that view confirmed by actually coming face to face with the Prince himself, Rakan is forced to accept his desire to leave his normal life behind and agree to help save Chigusa’s world.

So, unlike a lot of protagonists in this subgenre who are sent to the other world by accident, Rakan goes with Chigusa to his world voluntarily although probably with less thought given than someone who is going to switch universe should have. But Rakan is nothing if not optimistic. His can-do attitude and innate curiosity allow Rakan to survive and thrive in the strange new world. Not to mention that his honesty, earnestness, and exceptional empathy make it impossible for people to distrust or dislike him even though he is clearly different from them.

The most distinct characteristic of Rakan is his humanistic belief. In Chigusa’s world, there is an undertone of belief in universal order or divine providence. People don’t seem to have a strong belief in an omnipotent god that is a separate being from the universe, but rather the universe is god. When they use the word god, it is often used as somewhat of a synonym to divinity. The Prince is dubbed ‘the Child of God’ with his ability to prophesize and miraculously heal or save his believers, but, unlike religious figures in our history, he commands faith to himself and not to other supernatural beings.

Is it possible, though, for a medieval kind of understanding to have no strong belief in the existence of a god as a conscious entity but still have the belief in a divine providence? I think it derives largely from a view in East Asia that the universe has its own order separated from any supernatural beings and without any kind of conscious intention. One can say there is no omnipotent god in that system since nothing can disrupt the universal order. Since the Chigusa’s world is somewhat of a East Asian medieval fantasy written by a Japanese manga writer, I think it is safe to say that the view is translated into the story as well.

We only need to turn to the creatures in that world to see the presence of universal order. Aside from humans and Sanome, there are giant serpents trapped in rocks fed with human sacrifices that become rivers once they die. There are plants that can perform certain functions like providing shelters, keeping time of day, digging wells, or turn into weapons. There are stone-eating giant animals and animal-eating stone plants. Some humans can also create creatures of stones for their own use. The most vicious of the creatures is the Ayame (pronounced aa-yaa-may), creatures of the desert who feed on plants and humans, making them wither and die.

The Prince of this world, unknown to most people, is in fact a human Ayame.

The setup in the beginning pitches Sanome against Ayame, greenery against technology, and life against death — sort of like The Lord of the Rings if you think about it. That is actually true for the first ten volumes or so until something uncanny happens. Somehow, there are creatures that are both greenery and technology, creatures that seem to combine both life and death and transcend into immortality. I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers find this development unsettling like myself since Shiho Sugiura is clearly breaking the rules she has painstakingly established for the first thousand pages.

The thing is the characters’ understanding, and by extension our understanding, of that world is flawed, like our understanding of our own world is flawed. Greenery and technology are not polar opposites, just like life and death might not be two opposite concepts either. If so, are Sanome and Ayame really nemeses or is there something else at work here?

The answer is, spoiler alert, yes, there is. The specific functions of the plants should have given it away right at the beginning but we, the readers, didn’t have enough information or the inclination to connect the dots until much later where everything is getting twisted on its head. The plants have functions because they were designed to have functions. These are living things that specifically serve the needs of human, so would it be such a shock that the world is designed for human and that there is actually a god as a separate being who is a creator in that world (although not the universe). Everything that has happened in that world for the past thousand years at least is really according to the divine providence.

Him being a god doesn’t guarantee that his providence is necessarily ‘good’, though.

The social structure, for one, is established by this god and designed to maintain the order of the world. Clans have roles and serve different functions in the larger society, much like the creatures serving larger functions in the natural world. Kingen clan, for instant, is the Mouth of God, the family guided closely by god to lead the people. However, the role of divine providence affects the culture more deeply than that. People in the clan have duties to their clan which is understandable in a desert world where resources are scarce. People prioritize their family’s survival by having parents judging the usefulness of their child at birth, a custom in which many societies in our world also followed. But since their society is very squeamish about killing their children, they give the ones with birth defects, taboo characteristics, or just unwanted numbered names. Hence born the caste of the ‘Numbered Children’, outcasts and slaves subjected to mistreatment, poverty, and starvation who are products of a pro-life belief in a world that cannot afford that belief. The ugliest part is that this caste system runs so deeply across all demographic that even when starvation isn’t an issue, children are still cast out and left to die because they cannot serve the interest of the family.

The biggest outcast in the grand scheme of things is the Senrou clan which the entire family is abhorred. Chigusa is constantly called a monster, a sinner, or a demon by people who come across him and know who he is. Of course, Chigusa as we know him is anything but a monster. He might be different, but we learn pretty quickly that he is not bad. Like ‘demons’ in East-Asian mythology, he is more chaotic than malign. The prejudice seems hasty and unjustified, and Rakan fights consistently to thwart that belief whenever it becomes an issue.

But if there is divine providence that guides this society, then the Senrou has to have a role. Chigusa thought he is meant to eradicate the Ayame as it was the only thing he remembered aside from his name when he woke up twelve years ago. But as he delves deeper, trying to regain his memory, he soon realize that something is amiss, especially after he discovers that his body also contains the cells of the Ayame. Amidst the confusion after the revelation, Chigusa’s body stops working like it used to and he knows he is about to go mad and die like every Senrou before him.

Not for the first time, though.

Okay, another big spoiler coming: there isn’t a Senrou clan. There has always been the one and the only Senrou, the Death God, sent to eradicate any potential harm to the world at large be it overpopulation or epidemics. This society, after all, places such high value on life that they would not destroy their own. But when the society decides to be virtuous at the peril of its own existence, god has to intervene, and Senrou is his hand of destruction as much as the Kingens is his hand of guidance. The prejudice of the people comes precisely from the fact that the presence of Senrou means many people are going to die and they do not understand why.

In the grand scheme of things, Senrou’s existence is a necessity. At a personal level, however, it is a catastrophe. Senrou has no way of coping the emotional consequence of the deeds he has done, a severe PTSD if you will. At the intellectual level, I think he understands the importance of his role, but that does not mean he has to like it. Being the hand of god and created by god means that he doesn’t have a choice. He is just a doll created for a single purpose. That realization is what drives Senrou to madness and suicide just to be revived and start the cycle over and over and over again.

And still, Chigusa freely admits that this god is good, that people has lived and thrived in this world because of him. The problem, Chigusa thinks, is with himself and not with god.

If that thought is not sad, I don’t know what is.

But Chigusa is right in a sense. The problem is not really with this god but with the notion that a sentient being that is created and artificial does not have rights over its body and decision, that it doesn’t have a soul so to speak. Rakan, of course, vehemently opposes this idea. To Rakan, a soul is not given but acquired through interaction with the world and experience with others that share it, again an idea that is prevailing in East Asian mythology. In Japan, there are the Tsukumogami, referring to spirits of tools or objects that have been around for so long they become self-aware. Ancient Chinese literature are full of demons, conscious beings that are born from objects or animals that exist for such a long time that they become conscious.

In a way, Rakan has been taming the demon Chigusa by teaching him empathy and the value of life in the same way that the monk Xuanzang tames Sun Wokung in Journey to the West. Wokung is a monkey demon born from a giant boulder high on a mountain. Although he has wrecked havoc on earth, heaven, and the underworld, Wukong is always treated as an individual with personality and needs by everyone he encounters including the gods. Chigusa never was, not even by his own creator. To say Rakan is pissed with this god would put it rather mildly.

So, as the story goes on, Silver Diamond becomes a tale about the battle between two belief systems. It pitches the belief in the individual against the belief in the divine and the belief in willpower against the universal order. Rakan’s enemy is no longer the Prince, but the idea that the individual is defined by their duties in the grand scheme of things rather than who they are as a person. And if Rakan has to take down god, the greatest offender there is, then he is going to do it.

And it is pretty clear which side of this argument Sugiura is in. She has been, since her first long-running fantasy series The Ice-cold Demon’s Tale, a believer in the potential of individuals and our ability to control what we become. Chigusa might start out being no better than the Terminator, but he comes to understand beauty, compassion, and sadness. He learns to see people for more than their functions and capabilities. Although the understanding of what it is to be human coupled with returning memories might have been the trigger to his deterioration, he is able to fight against his conditioning to become more than what he was designed and be free from his creator, like Wokung’s going from being a demon to being a god.

I can gush over Chigusa’s evolution for a long while, but I should point out Rakan’s role in this. Rakan’s persistent belief that Chigusa is good and that he is a person worthy of a sincere connection is what allows Chigusa to bear the burden of his memories as they return in full. Rakan is also a great inspiration for Chigusa. Rakan objects god for Chigusa. He is firm in his belief but never tries to impose them on others. Rakan gives his time and energy freely and sincerely and takes great satisfactory in helping others. I think over time Rakan becomes Chigusa’s reference to what being ‘good’ really is instead of an idea of a benevolent god.

That is all good and dandy if not for the fact that this development is pretty one-sided between Rakan and Chigusa. Rakan doesn’t change in a dramatic way that Chigusa does. He is so well-balanced and level-headed that usually he can always sort things out himself. Up until volume 19, I haven’t seen Rakan really struggle emotionally yet aside from when Chigusa is dying. And that is boring from a reader’s perspective. Call me a sadist, but even Ishuca, the most level-headed character in The Ice-cold Demon’s Tale, has his fair share of emotional turmoil and self-discovery. What makes Ice-cold very compelling is that no one in the story is static despite the humongous cast. With Silver Diamond, I have a feeling that most characters are static with only a few that actually show any growth.

The problem might be that Sugiura tries to grapple with too many big ideas in Silver Diamond that she doesn’t have the chance to really develop her characters in the way she did in Ice-cold. Since she ends this series at volume 27, there is still some space for Rakan’s character arc. Rakan still has to face his evil twin the Prince although the objective of his quest has been changed. There are also many unanswered questions like what role does the Ayame have in that world, what role really is of the Prince in the divine providence, who is Rakan’s father, can the world be saved, and is this god redeemable. Hopefully, in the process of getting those answers, we will get to see Rakan grows as a character as well.

It’s not that I don’t like Rakan as he is. I love both him and Chigusa dearly. I love the ideas he is behind like compassion, collaboration, respect, and empathy; I just can’t quite connect with him. I really want to see what is at stake personally for Rakan aside from his firmly held belief in a world where the living creatures choose their own fate, or what would it be for him to have that very belief challenged. After all, the free-world shaped by the individuals for the individuals is not guaranteed to be any better than the old one if it means overpopulation and fatal conflicts. The kind of willpower require to change that is enormous, but if there is anybody who is going to do it, it is Rakan. I am really looking forward to how the story in the last 8 volumes is going to play out. From what I know of Sugiura’s style, it is most likely a happy ending all around, but then the devil is always in the detail, isn’t it?

I Buried My Love in a Tomb

This poem (I guess it’s a poem) actually comes from a character I’ve been working on for the past couple of months. It’s not inspired by him so much as he wrote it himself, which is a bit creepy, but I guess there is a first time for everything.

‘I Buried My Love In A Tomb’

Because you were so beautiful,
I don’t know how I could’ve forgotten you,
Trapped and buried deep in my memory
Enclosed in a tomb.

I did not intend to dig you up today.
It is too late, I know. The light has been long out,
And you aren’t lying there anymore
Where I last left you.

Now you are simply a ghost,
As I am definitely to many other.
As I lie in your empty grave, I wonder
If I belong here.

I’d love to know whose painting this is.

Of Narrative and Fact

When I tell people I do science as my day job and creative writing as a hobby, the reaction is usually of dismay. And that’s understandable. Science is about facts, hard-earned data, equations, and numbers. Creative writing is about telling stories, emotionalizing them, and, most distinctively, making things up. A creative pursuit like fiction writing doesn’t seem compatible with the dry, confusing facts of science.

While I believe that science is as much a creative pursuit as any form of art, I have to admit that in this case the observation is right, sort of, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

I believe that the fundamental mode of human communication is always telling of stories. I believe that when scientific textbooks fail, it is because they are so focused on the facts that they lose the readers in the complexity of those facts. The exercise in creative writing is an exercise in telling stories and a space to learn how stories affect readers. By knowing how to tell stories, we can communicate facts better, right?

I went to Royal Ontario Museum a while back and it got me thinking a bit about narratives and facts. It seems to me that every museum old enough to have extensive collection of historical artifacts display them similarly: group them according to the culture they belong and label every single piece with a tag. Those artifacts are bullet points, pieces of history, facts. They are scattered and disconnected and never enough to give anybody a good idea about the culture they came from or the people behind them.

Where is the man behind the mask?
Where is the man behind the mask?

On the other hand, recent exhibitions display artifacts sparingly but with great details about the people, the culture, the lives they lived. Those exhibitions made a lot more sense and encourage people to reflect on the diversity of ideas and their manifestations. These exhibitions are narratives. They don’t have all the (arti)facts, but they have enough to make you understand.

Or do they?

The problem with telling a story is that you can only ever tell it from one point of view. If you’re lucky, you might be able to fit in a few more perspectives, but that is about it. A story needs a POV regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, whether it’s based on true story or is completely made up. Having a POV restricts the facts that are used to support it. Stories can really be compelling and true, but it can’t be the truth. The truth is always too large for a POV to contain. The only thing that ever contains the truth are the large extensive collection of facts.

The problem with facts are that they are so dry and often seemingly irrelevant. Facts require so much time to absorb, digest, and connect. Facts don’t appeal to the mind because they lack emotion and context. Hence, facts become the playground of the specialized and not so much of the general population.

And that is okay. There are millions of bullet points about our world, our population, and our knowledge that are probably of no use to me, and I am okay not knowing them. What we need is an honest way to get to understand the things that matters, probably in narrative form, so we have an idea of what is going on around us.

The key word is honest. Considering that every person wielding pens and papers, tablets, and everything that can put thoughts to words have their own beliefs and agendas, there is a good chance that the narratives are in some way dishonest. I am not saying journalists are not honest people, they are, but their POV’s and needs will distort the stories no matter how much they try to keep the facts straight.

That is why we have disproportionately sensationalized stories in the news, documentaries, political statements, and history books (not all of them, of course, thank goodness). That is why sometimes the things that needed attention most are not recognized. We are hardwired for good stories not important ones, and it is often hard to distinguish between the two. And that is probably why I like fiction so much. Because no matter how good the stories are, they are honest in their dishonesty. They don’t pretend to matter where they do not. That creates a refreshing level of truthfulness that I feel non-fiction writings sometimes lack.

While I think non-fictions are pretty much doomed to incompleteness, I don’t think it is necessary a bad thing especially in this time and age. Stories have limitations, sure, but facts are out there and we can find them. We just need to remember that they are the ones that are true, narratives not so much. And if the facts can’t form a single coherent narrative, it is just how it is.

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