Monday, June 27, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: INU-YASHA [THE BLACK PEARL. 1997-98]
I've always thought Rumiko Takahashi's works get short shrift from American critics of manga. For American readers, Takahashi can be challenging simply because so much of her work is intensely wrapped up in Japanese themes-- theoretically, one of the reasons that URUSEI YATSURA failed to interest American audiences, because its humor was so imbricated with the author's cultural references. In contrast, RANMA 1/2 enjoyed a full publication in the U.S., possibly because its specific Japanese content was subsumed by the subcategory of fantasy-themed martial arts, with which American comics-readers were well acquainted.
Admittedly, Takahashi probably did herself no favors-- as far as ideological critics were concerned-- in that her two landmark serials followed the pattern of sitcom humor. Some of these episodic stories were as brilliant in their way as the better episodes of American sitcoms, but because of the episodic structure, it's easy for the diamonds to get lost in the-- well, not trash, but the less impressive pebbles.
While URUSEI and RANMA both included considerable magical fantasy-content, most of the concepts were "one-offs" designed to set up this or that joke. INU-YASHA, launched in 1996 and concluding in 2008, was Takahashi's first attempt to organize her fantasy-content into an epic structure, roughly akin to the prose fantasies of American and British authors.
INU-YASHA (sometimes translated as "dog demon") is named for one of its central heroes, a young male who exists in Japan's medieval "Sengoku" period, and who is a hybrid of a mating between a human female and a male "dog demon," both of whom have expired at the time that the series begins. The other primary character at the series' outset is 20th-century female teenager Kagome Higurashi, who finds herself transported by magical forces back to Inu-Yasha's time. Partly because Kagome is the reincarnation of a Sengoku sorceress named Kikyo-- who, before her demise, was the lover of Inu-Yasha-- Kagome becomes involved in Inu-Yasha's quest to locate all the pieces of a magical icon, "the Shikon Jewel." Even when Kagome gains the power to cross back into her own time, she continues to periodically return to the medieval fantasy-scape, not only out of a sense of heroic responsibility but also because the two young people have started to form the almost obligatory romantic attachment.
The set of stories I term "The Black Pearl" was the first time Takahashi gave her exploration of Japanese mythology a strong sense of psychological structure. By the time this storyline begins, Inu-Yasha and Kagome have just barely put aside their differences enough to start working together. As mentioned before, both of Inu-Yasha's parents and his former lover are all deceased, but the demon-youth's half-brother Sesshomaru-- seen above-- is still around, and he seeks out Inu-Yasha because Sesshomaru covets a special treasure left behind by the dead demon-father they have in common. To learn the location of the treasure, which Inu-Yasha does not consciously remember, Sesshomaru
presents his half-brother with what seems to be the spectre of Inu-Yasha's late mortal mother.
However, the spectre is actually a "nothing woman," a faceless demon composed of the spirits of mourning women who have lost children. The demon gains the secret Sesshomaru wants. But because she's begun to think of Inu-Yasha as her actual child, the nothing woman sacrifices herself for Inu-Yasha.
This doesn't deter Sesshomaru from plucking the secret he wants from Inu-Yasha's head-- or more specifically, from his eye.
The black pearl that the full-demon brother steals transports him into another world, the otherworldly tomb of the demon-dog father of both Inu-Yasha and Sesshomaru.
While the medium of comics is replete with all sorts of weird fantasy-dimensions, the idea of the two Japanese heroes being forced to root around within the skeleton of a dead demon is one of Takahashi's most psychologically astute fantasy-concepts. (Sort of the inversion of Freud's notion of how all individuals carried the "family romance" around in their heads.)
Within the skeleton-structure, Sesshomaru finds the treasure he seeks: a magical sword named Tetsusaiga, stuck in the earth. In a clever reversal of the Excalibut trope, neither of the brother-rivals can draw the sword, but Kagome can.
I won't go into detail regarding the conclusion of the first battle between Inu-Yasha and Sesshomaru over the sword, for Takahashi doesn't truly resolve it. Both Sesshomaru and the sword continue to play major roles in the long-running series, so the termination of "Black Pearl" is more in the nature of a stand-off.
Throughout the series proper, Inu-Yasha continually seeks to master all the magical powers of Tetsusaiga. This part of the demon-youth's spiritual journey no doubt bears some comparison with other Japanese narratives about heroes mastering sword-craft, real or fantastic. But perhaps because Takahashi herself is female, she's careful to arrange the sword's purpose as one that indirectly reinforces Inu-Yasha's protection of, and bond to, Kagome.
Interestingly, though Inu-Yasha's mother and father do not make literal appearances in the series, it might be argued that negative symbolic versions of such figures appear. Sesshomaru may be viewed as a displacement for a hostile father-figure, in that he is a pure demon and older than Inu-Yasha. In addition, the deceased mortal sorceress Kikyo-- once Inu-Yasha's paramour-- is reanimated with all of her charms-- which are largely the same as Kagome's, since the two females are "related" through the vehicle of reincarnation. I view the "nothing woman" as an anticipation of the role Kikyo plays throughout the series, though instead of being a maternal figure to Inu-Yasha, Kikyo is more in the nature of an "older sister," who overshadows teenaged Kagome with her superior wisdom and maturity. Thus Takahashi's very freewheeling exploration of traditional Japanese mythology is also the medium through which she explores her most frequent theme: that of the enduring sturm-and-drang of male and female.