Purity and Power in Magic Knight Rayearth

This essay contains spoilers for the completed series.

Takeuchi Naoko’s shōjo manga Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, which began serialization in 1991 in Kōdansha’s shōjo magazine Nakayoshi, was a truly transformative work. Not only was it an incredible inspiration for other manga artists, but manga editors and anime studio executives also started aggressively mixing and matching the elements of Sailor Moon to create derivative works such as Wedding Peach and Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Meanwhile, popular anime franchises like Tenchi Muyō! quickly developed magical girl spin-off series. Unfortunately, many of these new magical girl series merely regurgitated different aspects of Sailor Moon in an endlessly looping cycle of character tropes and plot devices. Thankfully, Magic Knight Rayearth, one of the very few magical girl series from the nineties to survive without ever going out of print in Japan, effectively broke the cycle of narrative consumption and reproduction, both for its creators and for its audience.

In order to capitalize on the success of Sailor Moon, the editorial staff of Nakayoshi hired the fledgling creative team CLAMP, whose debut series RG Veda was enjoying a successful run in a monthly Shinshokan publication called Wings, which also targeted a shōjo audience. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth is a shōjo manga featuring many conventions of the mahō shōjo, or magical girl, genre. For example, its three heroines are equipped with fantastic weapons and garbed in middle school uniforms that undergo a series of transformations as the girls become more powerful. Also, like Sailor Moon and her friends, the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth are able to attack their enemies and heal their injuries with flashy, elementally based magic spells.

Magic Knight Rayearth draws clear influences from other genres besides mahō shōjo, such as mecha action series for boys and video game style fantasy adventure. Over the course of their adventures in the fantasy world of Cephiro, the three protagonists of Magic Knight Rayearth must revive three giant robots called mashin, which will aid them in their final battle against the mashin of their enemies. The sword-and-sorcery elements of the title seem to be borrowed directly from adventure series such as Saint Seiya and Slayers, and the manner in which the weapons, armor, and magic of the three heroines “level up” through the accumulation of battle experience is a feature drawn from role-playing video games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Although Magic Knight Rayearth seems to have been shaped from a high concentration of elements drawn from genres targeted at boys, its ornate artistic style, narrative focus on the friendship between three adolescent girls, and guiding theme of romantic love place the work firmly in the realm of shōjo manga.

The character tropes represented by the three heroines of the series are also common to shōjo manga. Hikaru, the leader of the team of fourteen-year-old warriors, is extraordinarily innocent. She never hesitates to help her friends despite the danger to herself, and she trusts others implicitly. No matter what perilous circumstances the girls find themselves in, Hikaru’s hope, trust, and naivety are unflinchingly portrayed in a positive light. Umi, a long-haired beauty, is an ojōsan, or young lady, from a rich family. As such, she is used to getting her way and a bit more willing to question her circumstances and the motivations of others. Instead of being portrayed as experienced and savvy, however, Umi’s skepticism comes off as foolish and bratty; she endangers her two friends and must be gently put back into line by Hikaru’s emotional generosity. Fū is the meganekko, or “girl with glasses,” of the group. As such, she is demure in her interactions with other characters and speaks in an unusually formal and polite manner. Fū is enrolled in one of the most prestigious middle schools in Tokyo, and the other characters occasionally comment on how intelligent she is. Although Fū does indeed manage to solve a few of the riddles the three girls encounter in Cephiro, her common sense and deductive skills are no match for the pure heart and magical intuition of Hikaru. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth valorizes girlish innocence, trust, and emotional openness. All obstacles may be overcome by the power of the friendship between a small group of teenage warriors, whose battle prowess derives not from training or innate skill but rather from the purity of their hearts.

Hikari, Umi, and Fū are summoned from Tokyo to the fantasy world of Cephiro by a fellow shōjo, Princess Emeraude. The opening page of the manga presents the reader with a single glowing flower suspended in space. At the heart of this flower is a young girl with long, flowing robes and hair. The following page reveals that she is crying. “Save us” (tasukete) are her first words; and, as she summons the Magic Knights, a beam of light emerges from a glowing jewel that ornaments the circlet she wears. In a two-page spread, this girl looks directly at the reader, still entreating someone to “save us.” This girl is Princess Emeraude, the “Pillar” (hashira) who supports the world of Cephiro. In Cephiro, one is able to magically transform the world according to the power of one’s will. Emeraude, who possesses the strongest will in Cephiro, maintains the peace and stability of the world through her prayers. Unfortunately, since she has become the captive of her high priest, an imposing man in black armor named Zagato, Emeraude is no longer able act as the pillar of Cephiro, and the world is crumbling. She thus summons the three Magic Knights to save her and, by extension, Cephiro.

Princess Emeraude is the quintessential shōjo. She is delicate, fragile, and beautiful, just like the flower in which she is imprisoned. She is gentle and kind, yet possesses a great strength of will. Her undulating robes and hair associate her with water, and it is suggested that she is imprisoned beneath the sea. Like water (which is often associated with femininity in anime and manga), Emeraude is outwardly weak and attempts to exert her will through nonviolent methods. Her wide eyes, which are often brimming with tears, reflect the open and unguarded state of her interior world, and she innocently trusts the Magic Knights while still attempting to see the goodness within the man who has supposedly imprisoned her. Princess Emeraude is similar in both appearance and disposition to Sailor Moon‘s Princess Serenity, who also embodies the shōjo ideal of gentle compassion.

In Beautiful Fighting Girl, Saitō Tamaki explains that “subcultural forms […] seduce and bewitch us with their uncompromising superficiality. They may not be able to portray ‘complex personalities,’ but they certainly do produce ‘fascinating types.’ The beautiful fighting girl, of course, is none other than one of those types.” Hiraku, Umi, and Fū are beautiful fighting girls (bishōjo), and Princess Emeraude is a classic damsel in distress. Yet another of the “fascinating types” common to anime and manga is the demonic older woman, the shadow cast by the unrelenting purity of the shōjo. As a psychoanalyst, Saitō identifies this character type as the phallic mother, an expression “used to describe a woman who behaves authoritatively. The phallic mother symbolizes a kind of omnipotence and perfection.” Words like “omnipotence” and “perfection” just as easily describe characters such as Hikaru (or Sailor Moon); but, in the realm of shōjo manga in particular, these qualities become extremely dangerous when applied to adult women. The concept of “phallic” is of course threatening (heavens forbid that a woman have the same sort of power and agency as a man), but so too is the concept of “mother.” In her discussion of shōjo horror manga, Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase notes a clear trend concerning the abjection of the mother, especially through the narrative eyes of daughters, who “have seen the struggle of their mothers and the tragedy that they endured in patriarchal domesticity.” For a teenage female audience, then, an adult woman is both a frightening and pathetic creature. Her mature adult body has already passed its prime, her anger and frustration can change nothing, and any power she wields is capricious and often misdirected. For such a woman, who has lost both her innocence and her emotional clarity, power is a dangerous thing that dooms her to the almost certain status of villainhood.

The three heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth must fight two such women in order to save Cephiro. The first of these women, Alcyone, is a twisted perversion of Princess Emeraude. Like Emeraude, Alcyone is associated with water. We first see her emerging from under a waterfall, and her long hair and cape cascade around her body as Emeraude’s do. Alcyone has a large, circular jewel ornamenting her forehead as Emeraude does; and, like Emeraude, she possesses and strong will and is skilled in the use of magic. Unlike Emeraude, however, Alcyone is evil and must be defeated by the Magic Knights. The primary difference between Alcyone and Emeraude is that, while Emeraude is portrayed as an innocent child, Alcyone radiates an adult sexuality, which is apparent in her revealing costume and condescendingly flirtatious dialog. Alcyone attacks the Magic Knights on the orders of Zagato; and, after she is finally vanquished, it is revealed that Alcyone is in love with him. This sexually and emotionally mature woman is characterized as evil, then, simply because she is in love with a man she cannot have. The long, jewel-tipped staff that Alcyone carries and the ornamentation on her armor mark the character as a phallic mother, or a powerful woman who is ultimately rendered pathetic because of her inability to successfully wield her power to attract the attention of the man she loves.

In the final pages of Magic Knight Rayearth, Hikau, Umi, and Fū must fight Emeraude herself, for Emeraude is also in love with Zagato. Because she has fallen in love, Emeraude’s purity of heart and strength of will are compromised, and she can no longer act as the Pillar of Cephiro. Since no one in Cephiro can kill her, and since she cannot kill herself, she has imprisoned herself and summoned the Magic Knights so that they may save Cephiro by destroying her and thereby releasing her from her responsibilities, for it is only with her death that a new Pillar can support Cephiro. By falling in love with a man, Emeraude has renounced her pure shōjo status. When the Magic Knights finally find her, the princess no longer appears as a child but has instead taken on the body of an adult woman. Emeraude’s adult body represents both her selfishness – her wish to devote herself just as much to her personal desires as to the welfare of the wider world – and her willingness to use her immense power in order to achieve her “selfish” goals. The two-page spread in which the reader first encounters Emeraude as an adult mirrors the pages in which Emeraude first appears as a child. Emeraude still floats in a watery space, and she completes her first phrase, “Please save us” with the target of her plea, “Magic Knights.” Instead of appearing metaphorically as a flower, however, Emeraude’s full body is displayed, and her white robes are accented with black armor. Emeraude has thus been transformed into a phallic mother like Alcyone, and the tears in her eyes represent her anger, an impure emotion that is entirely ineffectual against the combined powers of the Magic Knights, who are doomed to succeed in carrying out their mission.

The demonic older woman is thus defeated by the pure-hearted shōjo, an outcome that was never in doubt. Based on the gendered character tropes and story patterns of shōjo manga and the various genres for boys that CLAMP’s manga emulates, this is simply how things work. In Magic Knight Rayearth, however, a happy ending is not forthcoming. Hikaru, Umi, and Fū are shocked by what they have done, and the manga ends abruptly with their realization. On the third-to-last page, Princess Emeraude dissolves into light, and, in the final two pages, the three Magic Knight are suddenly back in Tokyo, crying in each other’s’ arms. The manga closes with Hikaru screaming, “It can’t end like this!” – and yet it does end like this. Youth and innocence has defeated maturity and adult understanding, as per the conventions of shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy, but no one is happy. In fact, this outcome is traumatic not just for the Magic Knights but also for the reader. By upsetting the reader, CLAMP also upsets the narrative cycle in which character tropes and story patterns are endlessly recycled. In its antagonistic and confrontational dynamic between virginal shōjo and sexually mature women, Magic Knight Rayearth mimics the shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy that has come before it. However, by representing this character dynamic as tragic, CLAMP critiques the misogynistic tendency in anime and manga to villainize older women who possess both sexual maturity and political power.

Just as female fans of Sailor Moon are able to find messages of feminist empowerment in the series instead of polymorphously perverse possibilities for sexual titillation, female creators like CLAMP are able to stage feminist critiques of real-world sexual economies of desire within their application of gendered narrative tropes. Therefore, when cultural theorists such as Saitō Tamaki discuss otaku immersing themselves in fantasies that have nothing to do with the real world, they acknowledge shōjo series like Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth but completely fail to take into account the female viewers, readers, and creators for whom fictional female characters are not entirely removed from reality. Within the communities of women who consume and produce popular narratives, however, the female gaze is alive and well. This female gaze not only allows female readers to see celebrations of empowered female homosociality in works that would otherwise be dismissed as misogynistic (such as Sailor Moon) but also serves as a critical tool for female creators like CLAMP, who seek to overturn clichéd tropes and narrative patterns both as a means of telling stories that will appeal to an audience of women and as a means of feminist critique.

For more about CLAMP, please check out the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Manga Bookshelf.

Snow Country

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”