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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...

Friday, July 28, 2017


(This will be one of those rare posts in which the density of the mythic material is such that I can only sketch it out in the space of a single blogpost.)

The format of Kabuki drama embodies a favorite motif in the art of Japan: the expression of intense emotion behind a facade of apparent affectless implacability. I'll skip the usual speculations as to why this motif should be popular in Japanese culture, but it makes some of its most notable manifestations in fiction based upon the ethos of Japan's historical samurai class. I've touched on this motif in essays about three prominent samurai-manga: LADY SNOWBLOOD, LONE WOLF AND CUB, and RUROUNIN KENSHIN.

All three manga-serials were authored by native Japanese artists, and all three serials are heavily rooted in Japanese history. This fact of cultural heritage does not make it impossible for a non-Japanese artist to produce quality work on the theme of the samurai, or, for that matter, related genres that focus on assassins, ninja heroes, or combinations of all three. Still, it may be harder for a non-Japanese to ground his narrative in the complexities of Japanese history. Possibly for that reason, though David Mack's KABUKI does have some grounding hi a specific period, it's not a work of historical fiction like the three cited manga. Rather, Mack begins the story of Kabuki-- a heroic assassin who wears a "sexy ninja" outfit and a Kabuki mask-- in a slightly futuristic version of Japan. This allows Mack to give Kabuki a background involving the specific era of World War Two, while having his twenty-something heroine grow to adulthood in a culture that has more in common with Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER than with the Japan of the 1960s.

The initial collection of Kabuki stories is subtitled "Circle of Blood," and Mack spares no effort in pervading his narrative with circular images, far too many for me to explore in detail. Yet the emphasis upon circularity is part of the story proper, not just a visual motif. Kabuki's life-path begins in a bloody conflict, and ends in the same manner. For the same reason, Mack also makes extensive use of images involving mirrors, reflections, or copies, in order to impart a sense of infinite regress to the proceedings.

The modern-day sequences, when Kabuki is an adult, concern her role as an assassin for a secret government organization, ":the Noh" (another stylized form of drama). She and her fellow assassins-- all female, with specialized code-names-- are charged with assassinating criminals who threaten Japanese security. However, a master criminal manages to use the Noh against his competitors. This puts Kabuki in line to battle the villain, who happens to be tied in to her very involved backstory.

In truth, the World War Two backstory is the main source of Kabuki's mythos, so that everything that happens to the heroine in the present is merely a reflection of her turbulent history, as well as forming her predestined end, to borrow a phrase from THE WOLF MAN. Japan's war years, in fact, lend Mack's narrative the source for his subtitle, for the primary meaning of "circle of blood" is the blood-red sun featured on the Japanese national flag.

Western comics usually lack the necessary perspective to examine Japanese imperialism's effect upon other cultures and nations in Asia proper.  Mack's "bloody sun" lacks any of the feminine qualities the solar orb acquires in the Japanese mythology of the sun-goddess Amaterasu; it is in the backstory an emblem of male aggression, representing Japan's self-aggrandizing desire to conquer the rest of Asia. Because armies of men have needs, this leads Japanese soldiers to abduct women from non-Japanese tribes to serve as "comfort women." Kabuki is the offspring of a union between one of the Japanese conquerors-- a Japanese soldier named Ryuchi Kai-- and a woman named Tsukiyo, a native of the Ainu of Hokkaido, a marginalized collection of tribes who descend from a different Asian genetic strain than the normative Japanese.

Further complicating this origin story is that Tsukiko, whose Ainu name means "moon child," anticipates her daughter's destiny when she performs kabuki-dances for a particular Japanese troop-- but this comes about because the troop's commander, a man known only as "the General," takes a fancy to Tsukiko and places her in this honored position, rather than letting her be raped by his men, like other "comfort women." In Kabuki's reminiscences she thinks of the General as "Father Sun," as if he was the logical mate to a woman named for the moon. But the commander is not the true embodiment of Japan's penchant for militarism. The true "Sun" is also the General's real son Ryuchi, who impregnates Tsukiko. By so doing, he too creates his own deadly destiny, since the daughter he creates with a woman he deems less than human will destroy him.

I don't think that in saying this I'm revealing an ending that will at all surprise the reader: Mack pretty much telegraphs the conclusion, while layering the narrative with enough evocative imagery to make the expected trip fascinating. For instance, Kabuki's chosen weapons-- a pair of sickles, once used for cutting grain on Ainu farmlands-- clearly reference the crescent-shape of the real moon, and thus also serve to connect the heroine with the fount of feminine values represented by her moon-mother. In contrast to many "masculine/feminine" conflicts in comic books, Mack's narrative is never marked by the shrill notes of righteousness. The artist's labors are meant to mine the deeper vein of tragedy, even though-- to give away yet another aspect of the conclusion-- Kabuki doesn't exactly experience the final fate meted out to most tragic heroes. In this she's similar to Lady Snowblood-- not in her manga version, but in the cinematic iteration, in which Snowblood dies at the end of her first film but "gets better" for the sequel.

Perhaps more than any other Western practitioner of comics, Mack succeeds in tapping into many, though certainly not all, of the major motifs of Japanese art. The relationship between Kabuki and her evil father suggests the culture's enduring fascination with the many forms of incestuous relationship, arguably dating back to the mythology of Izanami and Izanagi. There's also a sequence in which Mack depicts a handful of artful assassinations committed by Kabuki's sisterhood of killers, but although such quasi-Sadean tableaus can also be found in a lot of Japanese fiction, Mack doesn't quite manage to integrate these with his principal narrative, so that these sections "stick out" from the rest.

The phenomenality of Kabuki is a debatable subject. Most of the things that Kabuki, her sisters and her opponents can do fall into the realm of the uncanny, although Kabuki herself has an optical chip in her eye (yet another source of circle-imagery). I finally decided that though I sometimes view alternate timelines to be merely uncanny if they do no more than reshuffle the historical specifications, there's just enough "future-city" imagery here to ally KABUKI with SF-texts like BLADE RUNNER, to say nothing of a text to which Mack directly refers: George Orwell's 1984.

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