Tuesday, May 31, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #12: LADY SNOWBLOOD (1972)
PLOT-SUMMARY of “Rokumeikan Murder Panorama” (wr) Koike, (ar) Kamimura, (1972). In Japan of the the late 1800s Lady Snowblood uses both womanly wiles (including frequent disrobings) and sword-skills to serve at times as assassin, at other times as an agent provocateur. In “Rokumiekan,” she serves more as the latter, working for statesman Ishizaka. Ishizaka, a proponent of traditional Japanese values, abhors the extreme pro-Western voices in Japanese government and wants Snowblood to destroy the “international social hall” Rokumeikan, where Japanese officials entertain Western visitors with all manner of debauched activities. As part of her plot against Rokumeikan, Snowblood spends a month learning the skill of picking pockets. She waylays a coach bound for Rokumeikan and murders its female passenger. Then she forces the coachman to help her impersonate the dead woman. While she dances with the officials who run Rokumeikan, she picks their pockets of assorted items. Then she lures a Western official out of the hall with the promise of sex, kills both him and her coachman-accomplice, and leaves their bodies in a heap with the dead woman. The owners of Rokumeikan finds the bodies, and then Snowblood turns up, accusing them of the murders and claiming that she has proof, in the form of the telltale items she picked from their pockets. The officials sic their guards on Snowblood, and she kills a few (while wearing no clothes, incidentally) before Ishizaka shows up, asserting that he’ll expose the controversy to the public unless the officials close Rokumeikan. The officials capitulate, and Snowblood departs for her next mission.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: As with CEREBUS, Koike and Kamimura’s LADY SNOWBLOOD is a complex tapestry in which it’s difficult to analyze any single sequence without making at least passing reference to others. “Rokumeikan” is one of the earliest Snowblood adventures, however, so that prior to it are only two debut stories showing the protagonist as a mystery woman, and then some stories that reveal at least part of her origin. The first two “mystery woman” stories have considerable bearing on this story, in that the two earlier tales put Snowblood in the position of defending an orthodoxy, just as she essentially does in “Rokumeikan.” In both, the owners of criminal or shady enterprises hire Snowblood to get rid of their rivals, who have gained economic ascendancy through some new innovation. For example, in the first Snowblood story the assassin is sent to kill a gambler who has attracted greater custom than his rivals through offering prostitute-services aboard “entertainment boats.”
Now in “Rokumeikan,” the orthodoxy is a good deal more sympathetic than a bunch of aggrieved gamblers. Koike’s script makes clear that the social hall is simply a means for unworthy men to advance politically by pimping out their daughters to both Japanese and Western officials. In addition, Ishizaka is appalled that the pro-Westerners, in their desire to equal the Western imperialists, consider such extreme measures as abandoning the Japanese language for English and sponsoring massive interbreeding with Caucasians in order to spawn a new, less “inferior” race. Both measures--which Koike says were genuinely considered in 1880s Japan--are clearly assaults on Japanese culture in favor of assuming a Westernized façade for profit motives. Thus in “Rokumeikan” Snowblood becomes a mythic defender of her culture against Western barbarism, represented by both institutionalized racism and sexual license.
Of course, the relationship of the SNOWBLOOD series to sex is a double-edged sword, both in the diegetic and extra-diegetic senses. In the diegesis Snowblood uses her beauty both to beguile men into compromising themselves, and when she fights, her nudity implicitly serves to distract them, making them vulnerable to her blade. Extra-diegetically, though, her displays of nudity appeal to mostly male readers, who on some level are “getting their rocks off.” Amusingly, this makes them closer in spirit to the story’s villains, like the dissolute officials of the Rokumeikan.
George Bataille, a philosopher strongly influenced by Marx but not enslaved to his narrow economic dictums, attempted in his fiction to go beyond what he called “libinal economy,” to devise sexual scenarios so outrageous that they would no longer serve the purpose of simple economic exchange, be it that of a john buying real sex from a prositute or a customer buying sexy fiction for a sexual thrill. In fact, the exchange of a “cash nexus” for an object or a service parallels the most disinterested form of sexual exchange, which is in its turn comparable to Buber’s “I-it” relationship.
Does LADY SNOWBLOOD also exceed “libinal economy?” Not in the same manner as Bataille’s fiction, to be sure. The SNOWBLOOD manga-customer in the real world expects to see a lot of sex-action for his money, just as do the inhabitants of the SNOWBLOOD world do for their money. However, in the extra-diegetic world, the customer also expects to see the lady assassin slice and dice assorted villains, so the extra-diegetic customer is also getting the thrill of action. One can imagine a slavish Marxist interpreter believing that Snowblood’s attacks are an attack on capitalist economy, and thus implicitly a validation of Marx’s anti-capitalist wish-dream.
I called Snowblood a “mythic defender” of her culture earlier because she falls in with a long line of Japanese heroes whose raison d’etre concerns committing brutal actions with a near-mystical detachment. Though “Rokumeikan” opposes her to Western imperial control and sexual license, Koike and Kamimura show that traditional Japanese culture is no less given to economic abuse than the West. Indeed, in the story of Snowblood’s origin, her samurai path is determined, prior to her birth, by the murder of her father and the rape of her mother by individuals attempting a moneymaking scheme no less crass than that of “Rokumeikan.”
SNOWBLOOD thus avoids the ratiocentrist conceits of Marxist fictions, for the story is concerned, first and foremost, with the elemental conflicts of human life and thought. At the conclusion of “Rokumeikan,” Snowblood, having brought down the social hall, takes her leave. Though she’s naked, she’s utterly unaffected by the gazes of the men around her, and some of them lower their eyes deferentially, after the fashion of the “Lady Godiva” legend. Ishizaka defines, as best he can, the mystery of Lady Snowblood, using the Japanese concept of "syura" (Hell):
“What purifies the turbid state of this world isn’t white snow, but the scarlet, fierce snow of syura.”