Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Pilgrim Jägerby Jason Thompson, May 13th 2010
Last week's column on Rose of Versailles got me thinking about another one of my favorite manga set in historical Europe. It's not a great manga, but it's a glorious mess, a mess with a prominent place on my bookshelf. (You didn't think they were all going to be classics, did you?)
Episode 2: Pilgrim Jäger
I love manga about the West. Maybe it's just cultural narcissism, but I love manga set in America, such as Banana Fish, Bakune Young, Candy Candy and Kazuo Koike's exploitation-fests. (Such manga were particularly common in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, perhaps reflecting America's then-dominance of the world stage.) I also love weird manga about Western religion and mythology, such as Saint Seiya, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and countless others. At their worst, these manga are unbelievably shallow, but at their best, they show me familiar things through a strange mirror, with a different perspective that creators raised in the culture just can't fake. And it's only proper payback for the distorted representations of Japanese culture churned out by Americans—everyone gets to exoticize everyone else, and we're all happy!
In this spirit I present Pilgrim Jäger, an occult action-adventure set in 1521 Europe, drawn by Mami Itoh and written by Tow Ubukata (Fafner in the Azure, Le Chevalier D'Eon). The time is the early Renaissance, the uneasy dawn of the Protestant Reformation, a time of corruption and oppression. To quote the manga, “Glory and darkness…reason and blind faith…God and the devil…it was a world of prejudice and discrimination…” It's a time when most of the population was powerless, when being burned at the stake was a common punishment, when ordinary peasants weren't allowed to read the Bible even if they did somehow know Latin.
In this dark world live two women, Karin, a traveling fortune-teller, and Adele, a traveling acrobat. Both of them have incredible powers which they themselves barely understand: Karin can tell the future and produce nails and knives from her hands (reverse stigmata!), while Adele seems to just be a great acrobat but has secret powers connected to the spear she wields. Not just any spear—it's the holy Spear of Longinus which a Roman centurion used to pierce Jesus. Using their powers, they make a living as traveling exorcists, putting down the invisible demons which possess the hapless and condemned. The invisible demons people into something like zombies, quoting Bible verses (““Thrice you denied me before the cock crowed that night!”) as severed rooster's heads spill out of their orifices.
But there's more going on in this world than just possession by evil spirits. As Ubukuta continually reminds us (mainly in the full-page historical essays between each chapter), the tide of history is changing. A mysterious religious sect is roaming the land, tempting the peasants with notions of human freedom and equality. Even more dramatically, Karin and Adele are two of the “Thirty Silver Coins,” a group of superpowered religious warriors destined to protect Rome from a forthcoming apocalypse led by the “Seven Great Sinners.” The other Silver Coins include Michaelangelo (a hot, bare-chested stonecarver), Saint Francis Xavier (a reluctantly crossdressing bishonen) and a bunch of other historical and semi-historical figures. Each one has a power named after the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Together, they are gathered to save the world…or is it just to protect the status quo? Something is about to happen, but what is it? (I mean, in reality it's the Renaissance, but what is happening in the context of the manga?) Are the Seven Great Sinners good or evil?
Pilgrim Jäger: a big sloppy Famous Bowl of European religion and history. I find all this fascinating, and I respect Ubukata's attempt to evoke a foreign time and place within the format of an action manga, but unfortunately, as a manga it fails on several levels. Every character is continually making portentous, general statements about religion, but it's extremely unclear who stands for what— I doubt that Saint Ignatius of Loyola, co-founder of the Jesuits, would have said “God and Dio and Deus and Allah and Yaweh—they are all the same!” much more than I doubt that he had magic powers. (Though the manga does show the importance of religion in everyday life—Karin and Adele are both pious and spend a lot of time praying and worrying about God, unlike the typical atheistic/agnostic reader stand-in who is usually the protagonist of these sorts of stories.) Furthermore, the narrative is excruciatingly slow, with too many random snippets of pre-Renaissance life, and way too many attacks by rooster-spouting, blank-eyed, demon-possessed pseudo-zombies. Also, there's way too much teeny-tiny dialogue, like the work of a prose novelist who doesn't quite know how to write manga.
Ultimately, what hurts this manga the most is what I call the X/1999 effect: Ubukata spends too much time introducing the giant cast of characters for his forthcoming ultimate battle, and not enough actually moving the plot along. 37 characters is a huge cast, and by the end of volume 3 (the last volume translated in English) Karin and Adele are still wandering off on their own, having barely even met any of the other 35 characters. Agggh! Like CLAMP's failed masterpiece X/1999, the series starts too ambitiously and can't sustain reader interest long enough to tie together all the countless plot threads it haphazardly introduces; even in Japan, the story was canceled after six volumes. I interviewed Tow Ubukata for the first issue of Otaku USA magazine (www.otakuusamagazine.com), and he expressed a desire to finish Pilgrim Jäger someday. I wish him luck, but I'm not holding my breath.
But there is one thing that really makes Pilgrim Jäger worth reading, and that is Mami Itoh's art. I first encountered Itoh's artwork when I was working for Game On! USA, Viz's short-lived video game manga magazine. I knew her as “the good Darkstalkers artist,” since she had some stories in Darkstalkers anthologies, as well as a one-volume collection, Maleficarum. She also drew Japan, an untranslated science fiction manga written by Eiji Ohtsuka, and she has some work in the translated anthology Robot.
In Pilgrim Jäger, Itoh is right at home transforming historical figures into fighting game characters. Itoh excels as a character designer and draftswoman, with characters that are attractive, unique, and realistic-looking. Her anatomy is dead-on, and she almost loves the human body too much, spending too much time showing Adele jumping and leaping and otherwise in motion. The backgrounds, the world which is so important to the story, are also beautifully drawn. Perhaps she is more of an illustrator than a manga artist; one great detailed drawing can be the cornerstone of a manga page, but 10,000 great detailed drawings is overwhelming and actually makes it harder to follow the story. Nonetheless, the over-sumptuousness of her art matches Ubukata's overambitious script, and Itoh succeeds in one essential way: her art is so interesting, she makes me want to see what happens next so I can see how she'll draw it. (As long as it's not more dang mooks spitting up rooster heads!) The flavor of Pilgrim Jäger is a broth I've tasted before, like the first time I watched Revolutionary Girl Utena—the rich broth of too many influences and ideas bubbling around, which might produce something delicious, or might produce a meaningless, showy clash of flavors. In its present state, it's an incomplete manga which doesn't quite work, but whose story and art are both enjoyable in their own weird way. Ubukata's cooking isn't perfect, but luckily for him, Mami Itoh is the spice.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs.
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