Monday, August 24, 2015
MYTHCOMICS: BECAUSE I'M THE GODDESS, BOOKS 1-3 (2003-04)
No one will mistake Shamneko's BECAUSE I'M THE GODDESS, a short comedy-manga comprised of three collected books, as one of the seminal works of Japanese comics. However, it does illustrate a point I want to make about the overt adaptation of tropes from archaic myth into narratives that may not have much resemblance to the original subject matter.
In a pair of back-to-back essays from May2009, I cited two usages of the Greek myth-character Icarus. I validated this one, because the writer had a sound symbolic purpose in using a variation on the name-- "Icy Harris"-- as a touchstone for the same type of psychological myth seen in the Greek tale: showing the consequences of unbridled ambition. On the other hand, I invalidated this one,
because the creator simply took the name "Icarus," changed the spelling a little, and used it to connote nothing more complex than a hero who could fly around. Thus "Icy Harris" is a more mythic character than "Ikaris" even though the latter has a more mythic appearance, and is tied into a world of gods who are also mostly named after Greek personages. On that logic, it's less important to keep faith with the actual situations of myth-figures than to show insight into their symbolic essence.
GODDESS is one of many manga-tales that borrows freely-- some might say "wildly"-- from the corpus of Greek myth. One of its two main characters is named Pandora, but she's not the rather passive figure of the traditional tales. On one hand, she's being used as a figure of light, T&A themed comedy. On the other, she represents a meditation on the nature of the "eternal female" as the "giver of all things" (which is more or less the way the name "Pandora" renders in English).
In the Greek tale, Zeus sends the beautiful mortal girl Pandora to Earth to bring trouble to mankind. In some renditions of the story, the Titan Prometheus has just given fire to mankind, and Zeus wants to keep mankind in line by allowing Pandora, the eternally curious female, to open the forbidden box (also a jar in some versions) and unleash many evils upon mankind. The manga does include its own versions of both Zeus and Prometheus, and they play roles not too far removed from their Greek counterparts, though both are essentially supporting characters.
Pandora, in many respects a stereotypical busty blonde ditz, is created by Zeus and sent to modern-day Earth to corral mysterious objects called "gifts." It will be later revealed that these gifts were dispersed upon Earth by another goddess-figure, symbolically linked to the new Pandora and in some sense an "evil twin" of the younger character. Pandora, unlike the mortal character of the tale, possesses the power to do almost anything with a magical gesture, and she demonstrates her godly capacity to a befuddled young Japanese student, Aoi Ibara. However, she soon finds that every time she uses the power, she "deflates" to a shadow of herself; a ten-year-old girl. Pandora also discovers a solution to this dilemma: she can recharge her power by kissing Aoi, the young man with whom she shares a supernatural destiny.
Obviously, the author was having fun with-- and maybe at the expense of-- the well-known Japanese tradition of the Lolicon, or "Lolita fantasy." Aoi feels a mild paternal protectiveness toward the juvenile Pandora, but he doesn't want to kiss her. At the same time, he's also upset by the boobalicious-ness of Pandora's adult form. Whereas many male protagonists of comedy-manga are unrepentant horndogs, Aoi is portrayed as a righteous young fellow who's a little phobic about females, possibly due to the circumstances of his upbringing. The mere fact that Shamneko can expect his audience to laugh when an underage girl kisses an adolescent male illustrates the gulf that still separates Japanese humor from what mainstream America will tolerate.
However, it may go deeper than that. I've puzzled for some time over Japanese culture's pre-occupation with the "Lolicon" theme. Even "harem manga," in which a fortunate male has four or more cute girls living with him, frequently include a female character who's underaged. Without trying to delve too deeply into these waters, I'll just say here that I think Japanese culture is fascinated with the inevitability of the transition between pre-pubescent innocence and increasing maturation-- which in itself is NOT something real Lolita-fanciers care about, if one cares to believe Humbert Humbert.
Aoi is somewhat dragged into his role as Pandora's protector and manservant, a running joke about female dominance that is mirrored in less flattering terms by the manifestation of the "gifts." The "gifts" are actually small god-entities-- some resembling Cupid-- who possess only mortal women and cause them to enslave men to do their bidding. Obviously Shamneko was also playing with another common Japanese sexual trope, that of female-over-male domination. I don't think he manages to illuminate this trope quite as insightfully as he does with the one about the "Lolita complex." Still, the comedy situations are never less than entertaining, and they consistently play into Aoi's aforementioned "bad upbringing" as well.
This being a Japanese manga, it will be no surprise that one of the characters endures a heroic death, but Shamneko still finds a way to end on a upbeat comic note. In the end Pandora appears in a form that is neither the immature juvenile nor the over-endowed sex-doll, but merely than of an ordinary woman. I'm tempted to say that Shamneko is showing that real femininity, as opposed to the fetishes thereof, is the most profound "gift" of heaven. But I'll freely admit that this is only my own conclusion, for the author doesn't try to draw any such morals himself.