Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 3 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 7-9)

I really love the cover art they chose for the third VIZBIG (three-volumes-in-one) release of Fushigi Yuugi. It depicts Miaka and Tamahome in what appears to be Bei Jia ceremonial garb (Bei-Jia is the northernmost of the four kingdoms in the Universe of the Four Gods, modeled after Mongolia).

But anyways, down to brass tacks. And be forewarned that, like all my reviews, this post is very spoilerific. I would also warn readers that this installment of Fushigi Yuugi gets kind of intense at some points. Volumes 7-9 (entitled “Castaway”, “Friend”, and “Lover”, respectively) are a bit darker than earlier, more comedic volumes have been. Each of the three contains a very tragic and/or violent event with significant traumatic repercussions for our characters. In volume seven, it is the slaughtering of Tamahome’s family at the hands of Suboshi in reparation for the supposed murder of his twin, Amiboshi. In volume eight, it is the tragic death of a main character, Nuriko. In volume nine, it’s Nakago’s apparent rape of the innocent heroine, Miaka. And so although Fushigi Yuugi might technically be classified as shoujo (“young girls”) manga, it definitely earns its T+ (older teens) rating in these three volumes.

Yet in spite of all the tragedy and melodrama contained therein, Fushigi Yuugi is still not nearly as harrowing a read, emotionally speaking, as a more subdued, realistic series could be. For example, I’ve found the melancholy coming-of-age manga Sand Chronicles to be much more affecting, because it feels much more real and is therefore more poignant. With Fushigi Yuugi, its frequent and gratuitous forays into “over-the-top” territory prevent me from ever taking the series seriously, even when its main characters are suffering. That being said, I always enjoy FY, perhaps precisely because it does not need to be taken seriously. Yuu Watase is a talented artist and storyteller, and even if her works incorporate many elements of the ridiculous they are usually engaging and addictive and engrossing. Fushigi Yuugi in particular has a sort of timeless quality that rarely disappoints. I always get sucked into reading it, even though I already know the story from watching the anime, and I’m always excited to pick up each new release, and proud to add each one to my shelves.

Volume 7, “Castaway”, begins just after the botched summoning ceremony. Tai Yi-Jun tells Miaka and the warriors that their last hope for summoning Suzaku is to find the Shentso-Pao, a mystical artifact of the priestess of Genbu, who came to the universe of the four gods many years ago. Tai Yi-Jun also warns Miaka in private that although Tamahome has returned to them, she is to have absolutely no (physical) relations with him; in order to summon Suzaku the priestess must be pure, i.e. a virgin. Confused and conflicted, she begins by treating him coldly to push him away, but confesses everything to him soon enough. Although initially taken aback, Tamahome promises her that until Suzaku is summoned he will be content to serve her faithfully as a celestial warrior should. Once everything is over and peace is restored, however, he will “make her the happiest bride in the world”. Also in this volume, we learn more about Chichiri’s past, and he actually turns out to be a much more serious person than we might have thought. In a touching scene, he confesses his past transgressions to Miaka before removing his mask and showing her, for the first time, his true face. Later on, we also learn about Nuriko’s past, and why he first began to cross dress at a very young age. Nuriko was already one of my favorite characters because of his hilarious, straightforward personality, but this revelation of his more serious, tender side just made me love him all the more. I should have read the warning signs right then and there, but it was only later that I began to suspect the imminent killing-off of his character. Alas.

I’d also like to take a second to appreciate the fact that the summoning of Suzaku, as the driving force of conflict in the story, has come to represent so much more than a simple granting of Miaka’s wishes. When she first learned about her priestess-hood, all Miaka could think about was using her wishes for simple, selfish means like passing her high school entrance exams. At this point in the story, however, she and all the other Suzaku warriors have each become fully committed to the summoning for a higher purpose.

Volume 8, “Friend”, follows Miaka and the six warriors (Hotohori had to stay behind in Hong-Nan and do his emperor thing, poor guy) on their journey to Bei-Jia in search of the Shentso-Pao. I like it when the gang goes on the road, because it invariably provides for lots of humor involving the three most gregarious of the warriors (Tasuki, Tamahome, and Nuriko). After being shipwrecked in a storm, the crew washes ashore on a sinister island populated solely by female warriors who kill men on sight (or do worse to them), so of course the celestial warriors must all disguise themselves as women! Nuriko’s thrilled, Tasuki and Tamahome put up a fuss, and poor, sweet, burly Mitsukake fails miserably despite his honest efforts. They finally escape from the island, but not before some nasty encounters with Seiryu warriors. In order to summon Seiryu, they also need the power of the Shentso-Pao, but rather than seek it themselves, they’ve chosen to go about it indirectly by sabotaging the Suzaku warriors whenever possible. Our heroes do finally prevail and reach Bei-Jia in tact. Their triumph, however, is short-lived.

Both the Seiryu and Suzaku camps reach the capital of Bei-Jia separately, but it doesn’t take long for them to run into each other. Nakago learns that the spirit guardians of the Shentso-Pao will never relinquish it to a Seiryu warrior, so he decides to wait until the Suzaku group wins it fair and square and then steal it from them. Bastard. It’s at this point, when the Miaka & co. are on the verge of securing the Shentso-Pao, that Nuriko dies suddenly and tragically in combat. Although it really is quite devastating for such a lovable character to die so brutally, Nurko is pretty lucky in that he at least got to make peace with himself and his conflicted identity issues (resulting from his sister’s death) before he died. He also got to tell Miaka how important his role as her celestial warrior has been to him, and how much he’s grown as a result of it. Even if he had to do everything over again, he wouldn’t change anything. He’d still choose to die in her service. Heartbroken, Miaka is more determined than ever to summon Suzaku.

In Volume 9, “Lover”, Miaka and her remaining five companions venture into the cave containing the Shentso-Pao, guarded by the spirits of two of the Genbu celestial warriors. After a series of trials, in which Miaka surprises even her own warriors with her newfound strength and resolve, they succeed in receiving the treasure, which actually turns out to be an elaborate necklace worn by the priestess of Genbu during her (successful) summoning ceremony. The group’s happiness is cut short be the discovery that the Shentso-Pao alone is not sufficient to summon Suzaku; they must also secure an artifact from the remaining kingdom, the Western Xi-Lang. Poor Tamahome! His crestfallen “will I ever get married!?” expression is really quite hilarious. But as they emerge from the cave, I was strongly reminded of a line from one of my favorite plays ever, Into the Woods: “You may know what you need but to get what you want better see that you keep what you have.” Because the Shentso-Pao is of course immediately stolen by those gosh-darn Seiryu warriors.

This is almost too much for Miaka. After everything they’ve been through, after Nuriko’s sacrifice, to just lose the Shentso-Pao? Guilt-ridden and distraught, she’s willing to do anything to get it back. Knowing this, Nakago is ready to take advantage of her desperation. Using Seiryu’s power, he creates an illusion of Tai Yi-Jun that tells Miaka the only way to reclaim the S-P is to weaken Nakago’s chi. Because she’s no match for him in combat, her only chance, says the fake Tai Yi-Jun, is to seduce him. Miaka is appalled, naturally. “But I thought the priestess had to be a virgin in order to summon Suzaku?” Fake TYJ says that was just a lie she made up in order to keep her and Tamahome in line. This is especially sickening, because not only does Nakago not love Miaka, he doesn’t even desire her. His one and only motive is to violate Miaka and thereby prevent her from ever summoning Suzaku (because the virgin rule is actually valid). So why doesn’t he just kill her? Because as the priestess of Seiryu, Yui has some control over Nakago and she doesn’t want Miaka dead. She still hates Miaka (or thinks she does) and wants to destroy her chances of happiness, but she doesn’t want to kill her.

And so, crying bitterly, Miaka goes to him, but of course she cannot go through with it. Nakago’s much stronger, however, and easily overpowers her. She desperately tries to access her spiritual powers to fight him, but he’s still too strong, and the effort (plus all the emotional stress) really wipes her out. She faints, and we don’t actually see what happen next. The other Suzaku warriors, meanwhile, have been caught in an illusion of their own, while Tamahome, sensing that Miaka’s in danger, breaks free and follows her. He arrives at the Seiryu camp – just as Nakago is leaving. It’s not long before he puts the pieces together and figures out what must have happened. He’s there when Miaka wakes up (undressed and in pain) and quickly takes her away from the Seiryu camp. The next few scenes are pretty painful, but I love how Tamahome surpresses whatever he must be feeling on his own behalf (anger, hurt, etc) and concentrates solely on Miaka’s needs. He tells her how much he loves her, how much he’ll always love her. “You’re beautiful. You’re no different from before. No one and nothing could defile you. Even if we can’t summon Suzaku, it doesn’t matter. I promised I’d make you happy, remember?” But the pain she feels can’t be so easily mitigated; she still feels hurt and used and guilty. And so while Tamahome sleeps she slips quietly away and runs off on her own. End of volume 9.

Well that was a little more detailed of a summary than I intended, but these were pretty action-packed volumes. Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 4 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 10-12) will be available on December 15.

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