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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


In this mythcomics essay I hypothesized that Japanese popular culture's enthusiasm for the incest-kink (in fiction only, I specified) might have stemmed from the role played by an incestuous couple in their mythology. I stated clearly that this was an hypothesis that no one can prove one way or another. In the same spirit I advance the idea that the culture's similar enthusiasm for the interlinked concepts of sadism and masochism might have partial roots in another aspect of their mythology: the Japanese concept of hell.

Some mythological hells, like that of Sumeria, are merely dull places where shades drift about without passion or feeling, but the Greeks, the medieval Christians, and the Japanese exert great inventiveness in devising tortures for the souls of the dead, who must pay for the misdeeds of their mortal lives.

Reiji Suzumaru's series LOVE IN HELL is in many ways a predictable seinen (adolescent boys') manga. There's not as much fighting as in the more adventure-oriented stories, but there's lots of violence, and strong sexual content, though no actual on-panel copulation. Some of the stories of this episodic 18-part series (collected and released by Seven Seas Entertainment) play with extremely familiar seinen tropes, such as a schtick in which the protagonist and his buddy play peeping-tom inside a women's bath. That said, Suzumaru comes up with one wrinkle on infernal torments that strikes me as wholly original.

Protagonist Rintaro is a Japanese guy in his late twenties who's kicked around most of his life doing very little of anything, and who kicks the bucket in a spectacularly stupid manner. When he dies, he's surprised to find that he's been sentenced to hell, since he's not aware of having done anything particularly evil. He also finds out that as a "sinner," he's been assigned to a particular demon charged with meting out his punishments: a deceptively gentle female demon named Koyori, who looks like a 17-year-old Japanese girl, except for having a pair of horns and being dressed in black fetish-wear.

Rintaro soon learns that hell isn't run in quite the same way as depicted in traditional tales. For one thing, though he doesn't remember what sin he committed, and though Koyori won't reveal his sin to him, he learns that hell has many levels, and that he and other souls are minor sinners, allowed to inhabit a somewhat desolate city and pursue daily routines that approximate their mortal lives. On the lowest level, "the Abyss," the truly abominable sinners, like rapists and murderers, endure extreme suffering closer to the traditional torments of hell.

Here appears the seemingly original notion: the sinners in the hell-city are obliged to participate in the city's economy because they still experience bodily needs like hunger and the need for shelter, even though they're not literally alive. Koyori informs Rintaro that the base currency of hell is pain: that a sinner can amass infernal money the more he volunteers for suffering. This clearly runs counter to the traditional idea that demons just continually torment sinners for the fun of it. Still, the story-concept jibes roughly with a Buddhist notion that souls guilty of lesser sins may be able to expiate their sins and thus graduate to heaven, rather than simply staying in perdition forever, as in the dominant Christian version. In addition, the idea of paying for your food and shelter with pain might seem to many wage-slaves like a faithful reproduction of the real dynamic of the workplace.

Rintaro does encounter a sinner who's been able to amass a fortune in hell-currency because he's a masochist who loves pain, but the protagonist himself doesn't take to the idea of having his flesh cut off or having to sit in baths of boiling lava. Koyori, though she is in many ways a standard manga "cute girl," is fully able to administer punishments to Rintaro, like bashing his head in with a spiked bat, but for her part she usually carries out her duties in a businesslike manner. Thus just as Rintaro shows no real masochistic traits, Koyori is neither an outright sadist nor one of the "innocent sadists" scattered throughout manga, who somehow manage to cause another character pain without even consciously trying to do so.

It will come as no surprise that Rintaro and his infernal punisher form a "love connection," and it may be that Suzumaru wanted to avoid characterizing that affection with the familiar "sadist/masochist" psychological myth. But the de-emphasis of S&M agrees with the Buddhist ideal of atonement. At one point in the narrative, Rintaro thinks that he can make money in hell by doing "odd jobs" in the city, but he learns to his dismay that hell's rules won't allow the lesser sinners to keep jobs indefintely. Their only real "job" in hell is to suffer, to pay for their sins. The illusions of life in a human city are just there to get the sinners acclimatized, but the sinners are supposed to suffer in order to graduate to a higher level, assuming that they're capable of that transformation.

At another point in the narrative, Rintaro meets a demon who's something of a wimp about torturing sinners, and who almost seems to embody the idea of forgiveness. This demon's badass sister disagrees with her brother's gentler sentiments:

Hell isn't about people changing their ways. It's about being punished-- and paying for your sins.
In other words, this is a rejection of the "inner transformation" concepts of religion: one can only pay one's way out of hell with physical sacrifice. Without giving away the story's ending, I can say that Rintaro does have to risk his soul-existence in order to win clemency, The conclusion also involves Rintaro recollecting the particular life-sin that landed him in hell, and how he chooses to atone for the sin in a more personal, less cosmic manner.

The one false note is that although Rintaro's sacrifice involves the romantic feelings he and Koyori clearly share, the wrap-it-up-quickly denouement neglects to tell the interested reader the status of the demon-sinner relationship at story's end. Perhaps Suzumaru wanted to keep the "will-they/won't they" schtick going indefinitely, much as manga-fans saw when Rumiko Takahashi concluded her two signature works URUSEI YATSURA and RANNA 1/2.

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