Some time before reading John Jakala's call for manga with "literary merit," I finished the 8-volume set of VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE. I'd seen some of the anime for which the manga series was devised (a reversal of the more typical manga-to-anime spinoff pattern), but didn't appreciate the mythic underpinnings of the work until reading the full manga series. (Or, to be specific, one of the two manga series spun off from the anime property: the 8-volume VISION was designed for the boys'/shonen market while there's a shorter one for the girls'/shojo market.) An introduction for the manga notes that the narrative in the anime developed differently from the shonen manga, but I don't have either the anime or the shojo work for comparison, even if I was inclined to make such a comparison.
As a further prefatory note the anime concept is dominantly credited to two creators who had nothing to do with the manga itself: thus, for all the differences in narrative, the concepts in ESCAFLOWNE represent a conceptual collaboration between the anime creators and the credited manga-creator, Katsu Aki. Thus any credit for concepts in the manga ESCAFLOWNE concepts is probably to some extent shared by all three, even if I may speak here or there of Aki as the sole manga-author.
On the face of things, VOE falls into both the "giant robot" adventure-subgenre and the subgenre which Americans call "sword-and-planet." The latter subgenre, largely coined for American works following in the pattern of ER Burroughs' JOHN CARTER books, almost always deals with a denizen of our contemporary Earth spirited off to some planet with a quasi-medieval appearance and culture but whose inhabitants possess all manner of advanced SF technologies (on Burroughs' Mars, these are the remnants of an earlier, more civilized state). This subgenre had an arguable effect on Frank Herbert's more sophisticated DUNE books, which in turn influenced Lucas' STAR WARS-- which is probably a more immediate progenitor of VOE, for all that the action in VOE takes place on just two planets, a la the Burroughs model.
The contemporary Earth-person who gets translated to another world is ordinary girl Hitomi (note: I'd be surprised if any girls are ever the reader-ID in American sword-and-planet). She finds herself enmeshed in adventures on a medieval-looking planet called Gaea, which (a) was colonized originally by space-voyagers from an advanced, Atlantis-like civilization whiich existed in Earth's prehistory, and (b) is only able to sustain life only because of a substance called "superfuel" located beneath Gaea's surface. Hitomi, distantly descended from an Atlantean ancestor, becomes the crux in a battle between free nations and an Evil Empire, because Hitomi inherits the ability to harness the power of "Energist"-- explained as an artificially-crystallized version of "superfuel." Energist can be used to activate the good guys' most powerful giant robot, Escaflowne, and thus is poised to help Prince Van (the noble, hot-headed teen leader of the good guys) fight back against the Zaibach Empire.
So far, this retelling probably sounds like STAR WARS 101, and its Evil Empire sounds pretty much like that of George Lucas: a metaphor for the narcissism of its leader, who wants to keep everything to himself under absolute control. In one work Joseph Campbell gave this archetypal figure the name of "the tyrant Holdfast," which does describe 95% of all the villains in this type of adventure-story.
However, in the later books ESCAFLOWNE throws the reader a curve in the motivations of its villains, the emperor's right-hand man Dilandau and the Emperor himself, given the most unfortunate name (to American ears) of "Dornkirk."
Dilandau, functioning more or less the "Darth Vader" of the tale (though his age would make him a "bad brother" to Prince Van/"Skywalker" rather than a "bad father") is a self-hating monstrosity. In childhood his mother goes insane, tries to kill him, and ends up forcing Dilandau to kill her, which pretty much messes him up from then on. He seems to break away from Dornkirk to help the good guys, and then crosses both parties up toward the end. But until the end even he doesn't know that the purpose of the Zaibach Empire isn't to perpetuate some eternal tyrannical grip upon all the lands of Gaea.
Instead, in the concluding books the reader learns that Dornkirk (also psychologically messed-up for reasons I won't go into) is less of a "Holdfast" than an "anti-Noah." The Emperor uses the resources of his conquering empire-- which as I noted is inherently a metaphor for his own narcissism-- to fuel a great ark left over from the Earth-born colonists. He plots to leave Gaea behind and set sail for the homeworld Earth, but in doing this his takeoff will destroy Gaea. This is if anything an even stronger narcissistic metaphor than that of the Empire, for the former carries the vibe of destroying one's own existential world in a childish fashion because it doesn't meet with one's desires. This transmutation of symbols is striking: whereas most Noah-like figures (including the original Siegel/Schuster Superman) preserve life by leaving behind a world doomed to destruction, Dornkirk's planned leavetaking will be the cause of the world's destruction. And though Earth is not endangered directly, such ruthlessness on Dornkirk's part doesn't make it sounds as if his return to his "homeworld" will be much to Earth's good fortune either.
There are a wealth of other symbolic subtleties to be uncovered in VOE, but let me return to the question of "literary merit." Let us suppose that after reams of argument I convince readers that VOE is a cut above the usual SF-adventure opus, comparing it to works of roughly-similar theme that entertain on the kinetic level but not on the mythopoeic (MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH and RAGNAROK would be probable examples, as I recently finished both and found both devoid of symbolic complexity). Is VOE part of "literature?"
And of course it depends on how you use the word. If your "literature" is shorthand for "serious literature," it would not be. If "literature" means to you the totality of all literary endeavors, good and bad (see "Contentions Over Content"), then obviously it must be. But even in this synoptic sense, there's still the sense that the work for which one claims "literary merit" (albeit maybe not the same sort of "literary merit" awarded to Hemingway and Fitzgerald) is somehow apart from routine bad literature. I presume that's why one of the choices on the Jakala list is ASTRO BOY, which among other merits is seen as being one of the progenitors of Japanese entertainment-manga, much as Superman is for American comic books.
Hopefully when I go through my forthcoming essays on critical schemas (no, this isn't one of them) I'll be able to touch on some of the ways in which literature and its "rival sibling"-- whether called "junk literature" (Thomas Roberts), "paraliterature" (Samuel Delany), or something else-- intersect in their respective "visions."
SIMON SEZ (1999)
3 minutes ago