Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Ceres: Celestial Legend
by Jason Thompson, Jul 29th 2010
Episode XII: Ceres: Celestial Legend
"There are only two types of beings in this world…men and women."
—Ceres: Celestial Legend
My favorite statistic about manga is that, in 2007, the Japanese PTA marked Shōjo Comic the "#1 most dangerous magazine for Japanese children." You'd think that Be-Boy or Comic Kairakuten would traumatize a child a lot more, but as usual, media watchdogs don't care about low-print-run explicit comics, they care about tamer comics that sell a lot of copies and might actually get into the hands of thirteen-year-olds. The "problem" with Shōjo Comic, from the PTA's perspective, is that many of the manga have sex scenes; romantic sex rather than dirty sex, but still the nekkid kind, as opposed to one of those manga where the characters fret endlessly over their first kiss or who gives chocolate to who. From the relatively tame Rie Takada (Happy Hustle High) and Kaho Miyasaka (Kare: First Love), to the more explicit Mayu Shinjo (whose rapey Haoh Airen Viz licensed but apparently didn't dare publish), Shōjo Comic is a largely sex-positive magazine. There are other shojo magazines even more explicit than Shojo Comic—Cheese! for one—but Shōjo Comic and its sister magazine Betsucomi strike a nice balance between smut and love.
Shōjo Comic also published most of the work of Yuu Watase, a mangaka whose unmemorable art sometimes obscures the fact that she is a great storyteller with a wide range of themes. Some of my friends can't stand Watase's Fushigi Yûgi because the main character is such a ditz, but to me, it's a great mix of monsters, magic, fighting and the more typical Shōjo Comic material, romance. Watase is currently working on her first boys' manga, Arata: The Legend (available on shonensunday.com), but like CLAMP, her work has always existed on the border between shojo and shonen. In an old interview, she noted that her favorite manga are shonen manga, and her own works mix the love and relationships themes of shojo manga and the action and fanservice of shonen. "I'm a woman," she writers in her author's notes, "but half the time, when I'm drawing, I try to think like a man-- and that's why there are some suggestive shots (smiley)". Manga editor/comic artist Shaenon Garrity pointed out to me that most of Watase's manga are reversals of shonen themes—Fushigi Yûgi (harem manga), Absolute Boyfriend (magical girlfriend manga), etc.—and this cross-gender appeal adds to the popularity of her work. But there's more to Watase than simply playing around in the boys' club. Watase is one of the few shojo and shonen mangaka—Hiroyuki Takei is another—whose work seems to express a personal philosophy beyond just the desire to keep the story going.
Ceres: Celestial Legend,Watase's best work, is her take on the psychic manga genre, that blanket category of manga about people with odd powers who usually use them to blow things up. (Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga identified the #1 rule of psychic manga as the "No…BOOM!" scene, in which the heroine is traumatized, cries out "Nooooo!", and conveniently blows up whatever is bothering her.) Its primary inspiration is Japanese myths of tennyo, aka celestial maidens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennin) and Western myths of selkies, crane wives and swan-women (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_maiden). Despite being separated by thousands of miles, the myths are similar in outline: a supernatural woman takes human form by taking off a magic vestment or skin (which contains her powers), and a sneaky man steals the skin and hides it, forcing the woman to remain in human form and become his wife. Watase's version begins in the modern day, as the story of two twins, Aya and Aki Mikage, who are the heirs of the wealthy Mikage family. On their 16th birthday, they are invited to a family gathering during which they are told a bizarre secret: the Mikages are descended from a mortal who mated with a tennyo thousands of years ago. The blessing of the tennyo has made the Mikages rich and powerful—but the spirit of the original tennyo still lives in their DNA, and some of the female members of the family are possessed by the spirit of the tennyo when they come of age. The sight of an ancient tennyo artifact triggers a strange transformation in Aya, who morphs into a beautiful black-haired woman, Ceres, a near-perfect recreation of the ancestral tennyo. But the tennyo is a vengeful spirit which still wants revenge for the way it was wronged 5,000 years ago, and the Mikages…Aya's very own family…must kill her to protect the stability of the clan.
Then comes the "No…BOOM!" moment. Ceres has powers of telekinesis (in contrast to the real tennyo myths where, as Watase notes, "celestial powers are rooted in domesticity, such as producing infinite amounts of rice from a single grain, secret sake-making knowledge, or how to ensure a good harvest"). She ruthlessly blasts the Mikage to pieces and goes on the run, taking her alter ego, the bewildered Aya, along with her. Soon, Aya learns that the Mikage Group is involved in a global conspiracy to create a superior race of human-tennyo crossbreeds, to save the planet from overpopulation and environmental disaster. Worst of all, the same atavistic response that transformed Aya into Ceres has also transformed her brother, Aki, subsuming his personality and turning him into the Progenitor, the man who married and dominated the tennyo thousands of years ago. Reborn in the modern world, the Progenitor has just one desire, to get his wife back. Since his wife has been reborn in his sister's body, this means incest, but the Progenitor cares nothing for such modern taboos. Pursued by her lust-crazed, possessed brother and by other assassins and henchmen, Aya takes refuge with Suzumi, a distant relative who also has some tennyo blood in her. But one of her family's henchmen, the handsome hitman Tôya, captures Aya's heart and lures her back into danger. Caught in a love triangle between her fiery alter ego, her own brother, and a hot assassin with amnesia, Aya must travel Japan in search of other tennyo, gathering allies for the fight against the Mikage Group, and preventing her dark, chthonic evil side from going on a rampage and killing everybody.
Unimpressed by the bland art and the dull-sounding English title ("Ceres: Celestial Legend" instead of Ayashi no Ceres, "Mysterious/Sinister Ceres"), I resisted reading Ceres a long time, only to find out it's a great melodrama which shows Watase's ability to juggle romance, action, comedy and horror. Watase's art is flat, the faces don't match the bodies; to me, her best artwork is her earliest and crudest, like at the beginning of Fushigi Yûgi, before she acquired the cold, over-detailed look of someone who uses too many assistants. But she still draws better action scenes than any shojo artist I can think of, with gunfights, stabbings, car chases, blood and motorcycles crashing into helicopters. She draws good sex scenes too, the kind with flowers and conveniently placed word balloons covering everything, but sexy nonetheless. Combine these elements, and you get scenes like the one when Aya is being sexually menaced by her brother in a hotel room for something like 100 pages, and after driving halfway across Japan, Tôya smashes through the window on a motorcycle and saves her. The art is never quite as scary as the dark mood calls for, and the beginning of the manga, which has an episodic "psychic menace of the week" feeling, rambles on a bit. But it's fun and dramatic, and it's also got lots of silly humor, particularly in the beginning before things get too serious. (The English rewrite is also a little silly—it's mostly straightforward, but it's hard to take the manga seriously when people start calling each other "misbegotten slime" and "foul, stinking beast.")
But the really interesting thing about Ceres is its vision of gender politics. (WARNING: massive spoilers!) From the very beginning of the series, Ceres is a revisionist fairytale, casting the swan maiden/tennyo legend not just a tale of a man "tricking" a supernatural being into becoming his wife, but as a tale of rape and marriage-as-imprisonment. The main antagonist, the Progenitor, represents (in Watase's words) "everything negative about men and humanity in general." His attempts to seduce or rape Aya are just part of his old school, like 5,000-years-old hunter-gatherer old school, view of gender roles ("Hunting has always been a *man's* job, and *nothing* compares to the euphoria of cornering one's prey." "I'm a man doing my duty! To take care of you, keep me safe…by my own strength! From now on, you will stay indoors! You will be seen by no other man!") The other main villain, the Mikage Group chairman Kagami, is more suave and modern but equally sexist. Rather than fiery and jealously abusive, he is cold and calculating, gathering a technocratic harem of imprisoned tennyo to pursue his dream of saving the world, while caring nothing for mortal women. ("Humans insist on casting sex in such silly, romantic terms. I just had sex earlier today…was it for love, or to procreate? No. It was simply to satisfy a biological urge, without thought to anything other than the fleeting pleasure it provides.") "How can men be such swine?" Aya thinks. The enemies' warped views of love and sex clash with Aya's idealistic, pure love for Toya—a solid formula for a shojo manga.
But Ceres isn't that perfect either. When the origin of the tennyo is finally revealed (as much as it ever is; Watase leaves a lot unexplained), Ceres scornfully puts down Aya's dreams of love as well. "Celestial maidens exist only to procreate! Men are beasts, only good for their seed!" Ceres, too, is an embodiment of gendered evil, of a woman's revenge against the cruelty of men. And yet, as the series goes on, we find out that even the victim narrative might not be so straightforward: was Ceres raped by the Progenitor, or did she become his wife willingly? How could a relationship which started lovingly turn so wrong?
Aya's attitude towards Ceres and the Progenitor, towards their twisted relationship, is the same as that of an idealistic young person towards cynical, love-embittered adults. But Aya doesn't just sit on the sidelines of love; instead, she rushes into a relationship with Tôya, the hot ex-assassin who betrays his masters to protect her, and midway through the series, they have sex. Their sex is presented as an outgrowth of their love, of course, but more than that, it's also a stage in becoming "adults." Aya and Tôya run off together and move far away, settling down and getting jobs, trying to support one another and get out of reach of the Mikage Group. Of course, they can't run away from trouble forever, and they are dragged back into the science fiction part of the story. But their sex life, and their developing relationship, isn't just fanservice, it's an important part of the plot. Contrast this to the kind of relationships depicted in the magazine Hana to Yume, manga like Hana-Kimi where the characters go 23 volumes without doing more than kissing. My best guess is that it's because Hana to Yume is aimed at introverted nerds, teenage girls who can barely even imagine being in a relationship (unless it's projected onto the bodies of hot boys in yaoi), whereas Shōjo Comic is aimed at more mainstream readers, women who may have been in a relationship, or at least want to be in one. Sex is important in Ceres. Even the ultimate power source of the series, the hagoromo ("celestial robes") of the tennyo, is not some sword or crystal or mechanical object, but a fleshy, sexual-looking blob of tissue.
What's interesting about this is that Watase seems to really be trying to deliver a message about relationships to her readers, not just telling them "what they want to hear." In contrast to mangaka like Nobuhiro Watsuki who spend most of their author's notes explaining how their editors made them change this or that, Watase spends her notes explaining how personally important the story is to her ("It would make me happy if you guys would keep thinking this over. It's important stuff") and how she had to go out on a limb to include such brutal material in a shojo manga, violent tragic scenes which infuriated her readers and forced the anime adaptation to air on cable TV instead of broadcast television, so that it wouldn't have to be excessively censored. She lectures her readers, cautioning them about the pitfalls of love and the differences between men and women. A scene in which Yûhi, one of the boys in Ceres, almost takes advantage of an emotionally defenseless Aya to have sex with her, but does the right thing and holds himself back, apparently was of great concern to Shōjo Comic readers. In her notes, Watase tries to put it in perspective. "During their teen years, boys don't understand if it's love or lust that they feel…and you may not believe this, but most boys do *that* every day!"
Gender differences are the main theme of Ceres, and even though it depicts a monogamous relationship as the greatest bliss, the message is that women have the ultimate power. All the power in the series comes from women; the Progenitor is the only man with any psychic ability, and it's simply stolen from Ceres. Another message of the series, even more shockingly, is that real men are better than fantasy men. Tôya, the amnesiac love interest, has various strange abilities, such as the power to produce a fleshy dagger out of his palm. He loves Aya passionately, without even knowing why, and Aya loves him back, finding Tôya's coolness much sexier than the fiery, loudmouthed goofiness of Yûhi, the martial artist who is the secondary love interest of the series. (Again, I'm reminded of Hana-Kimi, where Nakatsu, the dude who confesses his love to our heroine, can't hold a candle to inscrutable, sexy Izumi.) Then Aya discovers the truth of who Tôya really is: he is not human at all, but a sort of homunculus created by the hagoromo to protect her…in essence, created by Aya herself. This revelation does not stop Aya and Tôya from pursuing their love, but it does leave a bittersweet feeling, knowing the 'perfect man' is nothing but a self-created illusion with a phallic symbol at his core. (Does that make their sex masturbation? And what does it mean when Tôya leaves Aya the, uh, dagger to remember him by?)
At the end of the series, Tôya reveals that he does not have long to live—he's just an illusion created from a blob of flesh, after all—and the manga strongly implies that Aya will end up with Yûhi after Tôya is gone. After the end of the series, when all is said and done, the "impossibly cool guy" of her dreams will fade away, and Aya will find love with another guy, a more realistic guy, who is occasionally hotheaded and horny and awkward but is, after all, a kung fu master and an expert cook, which makes him pretty good as real guys go. It's a daring ending to a daring series. Ceres: Celestial Legend is sometimes too talky, the art isn't great, and it's about four volumes too long, but it's an excellent shojo manga, one which really grapples with difficult themes, and gives a glimpse of the artist's personal feelings, instead of just dosing the reader with romantic eye-candy. I wish all shojo and shonen manga were this good.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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