Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Night of Falling Stars

The American release of Saint Seiya never made that much of a splash, but I managed to get into it, becoming one of the few North American Saint Seiya newbies, even rarer because I preferred the manga. When I subject these feelings to intellectual analysis I don't have a lot to say about Saint Seiya that is good, but it sucks me in time and time again.

It started with a heavily cut dub of the original anime, retitled Knights of the Zodiac. Heavily-edited TV anime are usually hideous, but I still use them as a litmus test for my interest in the original property. Regardless of fandom hyperbole, something of the original property survives in such programming; though Knights of the Zodiac was as terrible as you would expect, something in it drew me towards Saint Seiya.

After this, I picked up the first volume of the manga on impulse, released by Viz Media. It was produced under the dub’s title, but the original title was placed at the top of the logo in smaller font, and the gore of the first volume made it abundantly clear that it was almost unedited, except for changing a few names to match the early dubbed episodes. These were hurdles I was willing to leap over, given that I almost always prefer the original manga to its anime adaptation. The title wasn’t a big issue because the releases of Saint Seiya in other countries were often called Knights of the Zodiac, too.

The Saint Seiya manga was not as visually appealing as the anime, but over time and with some mild exposure to the unedited anime (with one legitimate uncut disc and assorted clips on YouTube), I grew to prefer the manga because of its more streamlined plot and its more appealing characterizations. Choosing the manga also served me well when ADV films discontinued the production of uncut Saint Seiya DVDs, while Viz’s manga release finished.

Saint Seiya began in 1986 as a manga written and drawn by Masami Kurumada. Its era is unclear, but it takes place in an alternate modern day in which Greek gods are sometimes incarnated as humans. Several gods are served by armoured warriors, but of chief concern are the Saints of Athena, youths who wear armour called “Cloths”, based on the constellations and divided into ranks of Bronze, Silver, and Gold. The story centres around five Bronze Saints  (Pegasus Seiya, Andromeda Shun, Dragon Shiryu, Cygnus Hyouga, and Phoenix Ikki), who must stand beside Athena, incarnated as the young girl Saori Kido. The first arc involves infighting among the Saints of Athena, while in the next two manga arcs, they face incarnations of Poseidon and Hades. The anime contains several films and another TV storyline, featuring yet more mythological characters, as well as other classes of Saints and warriors.

It’s much easier to talk about the reasons that I don’t like Saint Seiya than that I do. Like a few other works that I follow, there’s nothing about the larger plot or themes that attracts me, but instead I remain due to an attachment to a select few characters and some superficial aspects, which are enough to carry me through long stretches of boredom.

While I am still hard on the character art for the manga (including its recycled poses and limited number of faces), the design of the armour for any faction can get spectacular. The early Bronze Cloths (and all the female Cloths, which I get to below) are simplistic and scanty, but their complexity and quality of design grows as the story continues. As an additional bonus, Kurumada has planned out how all of these panoplies separate into pieces and are stored as a representation of their constellation, though some unspoken growing and shrinking is required to make this work.

In addition, it may just be my hormones talking. I love the idea of handsome and beautiful men kicking ass, and while the manga art may not be as attractive as the anime redesigns, the intended appearance of the characters is still somewhat obvious. There are plenty of secondary and cannon-fodder Saints have the kind of droopy-eyed, sagging faces common to comical male characters of that period, but they can’t change this.

I’ve already documented my love for Andromeda Shun, and stand by my ill-researched opinion that he’s a stronger character in the manga than in the anime, though still prone to activities which could make him a mimetic wimp. Among my other favourite Saints are Eagle (Aquila) Marin and Dragon (Draco) Shiryu.

Marin has had my attention from the first volume of the manga, which showed her as a far more ruthless and blunt teacher than I ever remembered from Knights of the Zodiac, and excitingly so; she may be a bitch, but she is always a bitch with a purpose. She can also rescue herself, and defy authority for a greater good. However, Marin is hampered by a character design that is as compelling as a train wreck, sporting an incomplete-looking Cloth over what looks like an eighties exercise outfit, but still she has a strong presence.

Like Shun, Marin seems to have been downgraded into the anime, with alterations and extra scenes which make her into a much weaker character in terms of attitude and constitution, so that she doesn’t rescue herself, and is often shown defeated or in peril.

As time goes on, I also realize how shallow my attachment to Dragon Shiryu is compared to the other two characters. I mostly like him because he’s handsome and controlled and has done a few really cool things, but his appeal doesn’t cut quite as deep as Shun and Marin’s does. A panel in the manga in which he says that he doesn’t intend to let Shun wear a Cloth after their current battle also eroded my interest in Shiryu. Shun is a reluctant fighter, but Shiryu’s line is horribly condescending.

None of these three are particularly deep characters, and beyond these reasons it is far easier to talk about the reasons that I don’t like Saint Seiya. Firstly, I don’t consider Saint Seiya to be a welcome antidote to modern cynicism and complexity, or to a lack of “manliness” in the current world. I prefer the attitudes of modern times, and the simplistic forms and roles of Saint Seiya are what make my interest in it surprising.

However, my interest in Saint Seiya is also not an excitedly ironic one, where I point and laugh at how gloriously over-the-top it is. What I like, I enjoy earnestly, and what I dislike, I dislike with the same amount of conviction. For some reason, I don’t have the urge to laugh too hard at the world, even though it’s often very silly.

While there are works that are morally simplistic but manage to have an air of power and sophistication, that is not what Saint Seiya feels like. It feels like it could be better than it is, with so many missed opportunities for character development, moral complexity, and status quo shakeups. Both of these things do happen, but their impact is small. Some characters will even disappear from the plot with no explanation, even those with significant ties to the main characters.

Of the three main arcs, I prefer the first, the Sanctuary arc, which involved infighting among the Saints of Athena and a gradual, if basic mystery. It’s still clear who the heroes are in that scenario, but it’s more interesting than the next two arcs, which involve fighting more incarnated Greek gods and their Saint analogues instead.

I am a fan of Greek mythology and of the goddess Athena, especially. That is part of the draw for Saint Seiya, but also part of my dislike of it. The largest shortcoming in this area is the representation of Athena as incarnated in Saori Kido.

There seem to have been arguments about this in the past, but my bottom line is that Saori is not the kind of female character who plays the war game in a “feminine” way and manages to be just as strong as the fighters. Instead, for the first two manga arcs, she is incapacitated and her rescue is the main driving force. There are a few flashes that indicate she stores a great power that she never uses, but there is almost is no sense of mythic majesty, of godly gravitas to Saori, and it remains hard to accept her as representing one of my all-time favourite mythological figures.

These conditions do improve in the final arc of the manga, and in the belated sequel series The Next Dimension. In these stories, Saori does undertake some more active planning and show a wider range of emotions—before The Next Dimension reverted to an infant state, thus taking one huge leap backwards.

Of the rest of the major female cast, most are tertiary, but those that receive some characterization grate on me. Ophiuchus Shaina changes from hating Seiya to loving him for no apparent reason, and does stupid things like running to confront Poseidon herself, confident he hasn’t awakened to his godly power despite all evidence. Her character design is also a virtual copy of Marin’s, for no apparent reason.

Shunrei and Chameleon Juné, Shiryu and Shun’s possible love interests, were those female characters who scream at the male characters to stop doing courageous things and furthering the plot, because they might get hurt. Such characters are portrayed as screaming hysterics who just don’t “get it”, and if their wishes were obeyed, there would be no story. And again, their angle is never developed—Juné in fact disappears altogether. Despite this, I ship Shun and Juné like crazy.

Female Saints are also cursed with terrible armour and clothing design, with Shaina and Marin sporting but asymmetrical metal bikinis with knee guards and one gauntlet, and Juné as a metallic dominatrix. They also wear different clothing under their Cloths than the male characters do: instead of their simple sleeveless leotards, female Saints have a hodgepodge of stockings, leg warmers, one-piece swimsuits, or thigh-high boots. In short, they seem to come from a completely different design sensibility than the male characters. Other female warriors in different incarnations of Saint Seiya can be better or worse with this, but female Saints are the earliest introduced and most prominent, and thus are hard to ignore.

This different armour style is also in spite of a plot point that female Saints symbolically “hide” their femininity behind masks, which doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot when they’re dressed in sexy metal armour. I like Marin, but it would take so little effort to make her Cloth and outfit not look like crap.

Furthermore, female Saints have a bizarre rule about not letting a man see behind their masks or they must either kill him or fall in love with him, a scenario driven by questionable logistics and thin explanations. Do they have to retire from Sainthood? What happens if multiple people see them unmasked? Why deprive Athena of warriors based on an arbitrary rule? This is especially important when Shaina loses her mask at least once an arc and never has anything happen to her after the first time, which results in confessing her love for Seiya, though they never get together.

Back to The Next Dimension, I was initially reluctant to read it, being that I felt I had exhausted my interest in Saint Seiya. Three arcs of the same basic formula seemed like enough for me, and I was so zoned out I didn’t realize that the conclusion of Saint Seiya had left the title character at death’s door without a resolution.

However, Shun being a main character in The Next Dimension eventually got to me and I started to read the fan translations. There was a bit of the change in the status quo, but it is largely the same type of series, and this is not helped by a time travel plot in which there just happen to be past characters that look and act like present characters. Despite that laziness, I would still keep reading The Next Dimension.

Of course, if you want to be technical the manga world of Saint Seiya doesn’t just incorporate the three arcs and The Next Dimension. There have been a number of sequels, prequels, and alternate universes by different authors and artists, not considered canon to the original manga. Sometimes I like works like this, but when my interest in Saint Seiya is as narrow and dull as it is, I don’t feel any need to seek out these additional stories.

It is likely because of this disinterest that I don't share a lot of fandom’s fascination with the Gold Saints, the twelve most powerful Saints, whose Cloths represent the western Zodiac. They have definite personalities and important roles in the manga, but apparently, the additional manga delve more deeply into the Gold Saints, upping their fandom popularity.

Of course, one can’t talk about Saint Seiya without mentioning the prominent slash/yaoi fan culture that has sprung up around it. The largely male cast, their attractiveness, and perhaps even issues with the female characters and maybe-love interests, are the likely reasons for this, but I’ve always remained detached from that side of female fandom. I don’t hate the idea of these fan-made couples, and like the idea of porn by female nerds, for female nerds, but such pairings have never turned my crank. I just can’t look at any of the male Saint Seiya characters and get interested in their potential pairings with each other. For example, Hyoga x Shun is a popular pairing, and I can see where they get the idea, but it`s not canonical or inevitable, and I am just not feeling it.

Overall, my relationship with Saint Seiya is a love-hate relationship. My attachment to Shun and Marin, and to a lesser extent Shiryu, is definite. I love the armour designs and the battles when I am emotionally invested in them.  Yet the story often feels hollow, and with a host of minor, gnawing issues that further bring it down.

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