MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
I’m far from an expert on the development of anime in the 2000s. Still, based on my spotty viewings, I note a downward trend in overall creativity and mythicity. This view finds some support in two television serials released in the late 2000s, both adapted from manga-features debuting in the early 2000s.
NABARI NO OU proves derivative in the extreme, and can best be summed up as “pretty ninjas with problems.” Like many American teen soap-shows, NABARI has no ugly people, and barely anyone who even skews somewhat homely. If the scripts showed some awareness of their status as lightweight entertainment—BEVERLY HILLS 90210 comes to mind-- perhaps the writers might’ve had fun with the melodrama. However, NABARI presumably follows the example of its manga-source, drowning all potential for humor in relentless seriousness.
Though it’s not unusual for a serial’s viewpoint character to be an “everyman” type, NABARI sports one of the dullest principals in pop-culture history. High-school boy Miharu has no familial connections or friends, and floats through school in a state of apathy. Then he finds that rival ninja clans want to induct him because he’s inherited a mystic power, the “Shinra Bansho.” The good ninjas, most of whom wear modern suits or school uniforms, just want to monitor Miharu’s power, while the bad ninjas, “the Grey Wolves,” want to gain dominion over the ninja world.
Because NABARI specializes in copious talking-head scenes in which very little is said—aside from keeping up the melodramatic tone—it’s never very clear what the Shinra Bansho can do for its possessor. When Miharu relecutantly summons the power, he blazes with light and scroll-symbols appear on his body, but the limits of the ability are unclear. Once the glowing light looks like the DNA double helix, but no one makes any commentary on this manifestation. Sometimes Miharu has mental reveries with a female demon who’s apparently the incarnation of the power, but she doesn’t really do much of anything either.
The supporting characters, despite their good looks and their archaic weapons (almost no one uses a gun), are dull in the extreme. The closest thing to memorable melodrama appears in the backstory of girl-ninja Raimei, for her B-plot involves squaring off aginst her brother Raiko. Since she believes him guilty of slaying her clan and her immediate family, the backstory sounds like a setup for the sort of superheated passionate drama for which Japanese animators are justly famous. Instead, this plot peters out with some minor revelations. Even the serial’s fight-scenes are dull and makework, making NABARI NO OU one of the worst anime-serials I’ve ever encountered.
CORPSE PRINCESS is no classic, but it’s at least as good as many of the better formulaic anime-shows from the eighties and nineties. The manga presumably provided a much better model for the serial in terms of concepts and characters than that of NABARI NO OU. To be sure, though, NABARI does at least give the viewer closure at the end, while PRINCESS’s 26 episodes evidently weren’t able to capture the range of the original manga, which ran for about six years. However, if the viewer accepts that the ride will be wild but somewhat brief, PRINCESS is worth a look.
The manga provided the serial with a relatively novel take on Japanese folklore about “angry spirits.” Whereas many ghosts in the Westenr storytelling tradition appear as ephemeral phantoms, Japanese revenants tend to be capable of taking on solid form with many repulsive characteristics. I’m not sure whether or not the Japanese word “shikabane”—which literally means “corpse”—appeared in genuine folklore as a word for such a revenant, though I tend to suspect that the original manga-author has taken many liberties to adapt legend into pop culture.
The Shikabane of this anime-serial are less like ghosts than zombies. If, at the moment of a human being’s death, that person nurtures deep resentments—repeatedly termed “regrets”—the person’s body simply re-animates. These living dead people have no organic needs as such, but they feel driven to avenge the wrongs done them in life. However, a particular Japanese sect (possibly Shinto) called the Kougon Sect evolves a special means of fighting death with death. Certain monks of the sect make contracts with dead Shikabane, in which the monks supply the Shikabane with a power called ”rune.” In exchange, these benign Shikabanee then use their inhuman strength and endurance to battle the more malefic corpse-monsters. An additional facet of this arrangement seems rooted in Japanese pop-culture’s preference for cute young female heroes, for the monks are only able to forge their contracts with deceased girls of a certain age. (And yes, this circumstance is played for as much raunchy fan-service as is feasible.) All of these undead women are termed “Shikabane Hime,” meaning “Corpse Princesses.”
Though several of the “Hime” (as I’ll call them from now on) and their “contracted monks” appear as supporting characters, the focal figures here consist of one particular “Corpse Princess,” Makina, and a young man, Ouri who’s forcibly introduced into the world of metamorphic zombie-fights. Makina, a dynamic young Hime, is originally given her mission by Keisei, who’s both a Kougon monk and the adoptive brother of Ouri. However, early in the series Keisei perishes, and the later episodes deal with the problems faced by Ouri as he tries to assume his brother’s role in this dangerous scenario—not least because he and Makina face not only random undead menaces, but also an organization of evil Shikabane, the Seven Stars.
The somewhat passive Ouri and the hardcore Makina make a good “opposites attract” team, though by serial’s end it’s unclear as to whether or not there will be romance between the principals. At the very least, though, they complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Further, the scripts are sensitive to the melodramatic potential of human beings who feel cheated of life but must define themselves as the living dead—though not without lots of high-powered shonen action, wherein the super-powered Hime (who wield weapons but don’t usually change form) battle hordes of shapechanging zombies. A particular standout appears when Makina goes toe-to-toe with Hokujo, a Shikabane who seemingly has no human sentiments, and therefore seems to Makina like the incarnation of death itself.
As noted earlier,,the story is unfortunately truncated. Episode 25 ends with Makina fighting, and apparently winning out, over Hokujo, but there’s no wrap up of the situation,. The final episode concerns one of the supporting characters, and was apparently released as a solo DVD feature in Japan when it became apparent that another full season would not appear. Still, even these limited adaptations of Makine and Ouri make me want to invest some time in the original manga.