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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XIX: Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac

Shonen competition manga in the 1960s was at least vaguely grounded in reality. Sure, the things that happened might be ridiculous, but the method of fighting was usually some sort of real-world competition like boxing, wrestling, kendo, judo, etc. By the '70s things were getting really weird, like Masami Kurumada's boxing manga Ring ni Kakero, or Norihiro Nakajima and Shiro Tozaki's baseball manga Astro Kyudan, but they were still nominally based on real sports. Then in the '80s, science fiction and fantasy took over the mainstream, and to this day, shonen manga is dominated by vampires, cyborgs, ninjas and psychics. Yet buried in the heart of this sleek, modern, distant-from-reality battle manga is the oldschool sweaty moeru moeru shonen fiery spirit.

Masami Kurumada's Saint Seiya, possibly the ultimate '80s Shonen Jump fighting manga, is right on the borderline between these two worlds. It was never  a big hit in America, but it is an influence on countless manga, among them Bleach and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Saint Seiya begins with the story of its hero, Seiya, a determined young boy whose life consists of climbing cliffs, lifting boulders and being beaten within an inch of his life. Seiya is one of 100 orphan Japanese boys raised in boot-camp-like conditions by the mysterious Grande Corporation. Once they reach the proper age, each orphan is separated from his fellows and sent to remote part of the globe to be trained in the martial arts. Seiya goes to Greece, where he is trained by Marin, a mysterious woman in a mask.

Seiya has a grudge against the Grande Corporation and just wants to be freed from their oppressive clutches so he can search for his long-lost sister Seika. But before too long, Seiya and the reader learns the truth: his trainers are members of the Saints of Athena ("Knights" in the Viz version and the English anime), a legendary group of warriors dedicated to fighting hand-to-hand in the name of the ancient Greek warrior goddess of good and justice! Furthermore, Saori ("Princess Sienna" in the English editions), the spoiled daughter of the Grande Corporation, is actually the wise and noble incarnation of the goddess Athena! Seiya is the Pegasus Knight, and he soon befriends Dragon Shiryu, Andromeda Shun, Cygnus (Swan) Hyoga and the most antiheroic of the initial group, Phoenix Ikki. All the torment the knights underwent as children was just part of their training, to groom them for the ultimate responsibility.

But of course, the training is just the prelude to…THE FIGHTING! In addition to their awesome physical abilities, the Knights/Saints have two powers at their command. One is the power within them, the "cosmo." (This word was translated by many old fansubbers as "cosmos," until Kurumada himself picked "cosmo" for the English edition, presumably unaware that to every American who has looked at a magazine rack at a supermarket checkstand, the word makes them think of articles on weight loss and sex tips.) "Cosmo" is basically like chakra or ki, but it is based on an elegantly understandable idea: just as the cosmos is full of stars, the human body is full of atoms, and so it should be possible to release the subatomic energy of these atoms to perform incredible feats. But that's not all. The knights also have the Cloths, enchanted armor which can only be worn by the chosen few of Athena! Dazzlingly shiny and covered in screentone, the Cloths protect the knights from just about anything, and when you take them off, you can assemble them into cool statues of monsters and animals. (Each Cloth is graded according to its power—Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc.—and is based on one of the Greek constellations, just like the knights themselves.) Outfitted in sparkly armor, the Knights wade boldly into battle…but since they (mostly) have sworn to not use weapons, their fights take the form of bare-knuckle wrasslin' over the fate of the universe!

Martial arts, mythology, tragic backstory and a built-in toy line…it's got all the elements of success! And yet, more than any other manga I can think of, Saint Seiya is almost pure battle. When I first heard the concept, I thought "Wow! Greek mythology mixed with  martial arts in the modern world! I bet there'll be all sorts of scenes with Greek mythological monsters on the rampage, and cities getting blown up, and crazy backstory between the Gods, and this and that!" But instead, the manga consists almost completely of scenes of jewel-eyed, silky-haired boys hurting each other and punching each other so hard they fly into the air (something which happens so often here it is known as the Kurumada-futtobi, or "Kurumada launch"). There are a few pages here and there where you see some sort of backstory or non-combat exposition, particularly in volume 1, but this boring stuff is rapidly pruned away in favor of a streamlined aesthetic of 100% battle. Western superhero comics always have some kind of frame story or superfluous scenes in between the scenes of people fighting each other (maybe it's because superheroes used to be the only game in town so bored writers would include subplots about politics or romance), but Saint Seiya has none of this. It is a manga that you can pick up at pretty much any volume and see lots of cool fights and it will make just about as much sense as if you'd read it from the beginning.

Blasphemy! What am I saying? Of course it's true, but I'm also simplifying the insanely complex plot arcs of the 28 volumes of Saint Seiya. The first story arc, the Sanctuary arc, tells the story of Seiya's awakening and the gathering of the friends. Once they have met and fought one another, they discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work in the Sanctuary (the organization that controls the Knights), and they are branded as traitors and must fight all the other Knights to get to the shadow boss. Their quest, or string of fights really, takes them to Greece where they battle their way through the Sanctuary headquarters atop the Athenian Acropolis, trying to save Athena's life and defeat the traitor.

The second arc ups the stakes as the Knights face their first real opponent, i.e. not just a fellow Knight. Just as Sienna/Saori is the incarnation of Athena, it turns out there are other humans on Earth who are the reincarnations of other Greek gods, and they're not happy. Poseidon, the god of the seas and one of the three mightiest gods in the Greek pantheon (together with Zeus and Hades), possesses a Greek shipping magnate and launches his plan to sink the Earth beneath the waves and eliminate humanity! (He's doing it to punish humans for polluting the oceans, of course, like Namor the Sub-Mariner in the Marvel universe.) Water-themed battles ensue.

The third arc, the Hades arc, is the craziest of all. Hades, god of the dead, returns, and his army is made up of all the dead opponents the Knights faced earlier in the series. Hades' goal is the absolute elimination of all life, and to fight him, the heroes must descend into the Nine Circles of Hell! Of course, the Nine Circles of Hell were invented in Dante's Divine Comedy (not in Eiichiro Oda's One Piece as is popularly believed) and have nothing to do with Ancient Greece, but who cares! Hades' minions do include Ancient Greek underworld badasses like Rhadamanthys, Hypnos and Thanatos. In this arc, the Knights fight Cerberus, wind up in a musical battle with Orpheus from Greek myth, get possessed, and use their Cloths to summon sunlight in the land of the dead. Chaos reigns as the manga comes to its conclusion!

Saint Seiya was later spun off into several prequels and sequels, but these 28 volumes are the essential heart of the manga, and amazingly, they were all translated by Viz. I couldn't have written this article without the help of my friend Shaenon Garrity (www.shaenon.com), webcomics creator and the editor of Viz's edition of Saint Seiya. In the 28 volumes, a million things happen, and everyone dies and comes back from the dead at least once. But just like the ancient Greeks found meaning from the seemingly random arrangement of the stars, so Seiya, too, has its patterns.

For example, heroes shed blood and cry and are sincere even when they're mad; villains act like total dicks. (Another way to describe this visually is: villains can smile when they're  angry, but heroes have to look serious.) "Friendship…never heard of it. There is no one worth believing in! Cling to your friendship and die!" sneers one villain. "All this fuss over something as inconsequential as a life. You sentimental fool!" laughs another. On the other hand, sometimes the villains turn good. "I thought you put your life on the line purely for personal glory. I believed that all human beings fight only for themselves. I believed that those who had power, those who were victorious, were qualified to call themselves, just. Now I see that I was mistaken!" As for the heroes, of course, their philosophy is "No matter how much I suffer, to fight beside my valiant brother knights is my greatest wish!"

It's a man's man's man's manga. The cast of Saint Seiya is almost all-male, but there are some men who make almost a separate subspecies, since they are so gorgeously handsome they look like women. Andromeda Shun, one of the five heroes, is the most obvious example, but the manga's other glammy bishonen include the villainous Misty the Lizard and Pisces Aphrodites. The moral: a little androgyny is a good thing, but too much and you might turn evil. There's quite a few Ancient Greek statues of naked men in the story as well, and although no one ever makes out with anyone else (You want sex scenes? In Kurumada's art style? Are you serious?), it's no surprise to find out that Seiya was a popular dojinshi subject at the birth of yaoi in the '80s.

The plotting is haphazard. It's pretty obvious at times that Kurumada is making stuff up as he goes along. This isn't a mark against him, but it only works if readers don't notice you repeating yourself. Facing a deadly opponent, Dragon Shiryu has a flashback to his training and remembers the Rising Dragon Blow, which can kill anything, but at the cost of his own life. ("The rising dragon blow releases enough energy to make Rozan's great waterfall, which contains 3,000 shaku, flow back toward the heavens. For that, the full power of your cosmo must be unleashed…and an explosion like that would boil your blood and reverse its flow. Your capillaries will rupture and blood will burst from your whole body!") Later on, Shiryu has another flashback to his training and remembers another fatal super move, the Ascendant Dragon Blow, which takes him and his opponent flying into space out of Earth's orbit. ("The ascendant dragon blow is a sword that cuts both ways. It destroys any enemy, no matter how strong, at the price of the user's life…your own flesh could not withstand its power! Seal away the ascendant dragon blow and never use it!") Presumably Kurumada was thinking Worked once, might work twice. Or maybe he just forgot.

Saint Seiya is also one of the most masochistic shonen manga ever. If you can't hurt your opponent, you can at least prove your manliness and stoicism by hurting yourself (or your friends), and often you'll somehow kill your opponent in the process. After being defeated by Hyôga, Black Swan rips his own eye out and teleports it to his ally so his ally can see Hyôga's "Kholodyni Smerch" move imprinted in the retina of Black Swan's eye. When Seiya is poisoned by the Black Death Punch and left dying, his friend Shiryu starts stabbing his body with his finger, releasing gouts of blood. "It's okay, I'm opening his Star Life Points!" he tells a horrified onlooker. "The only way to save Seiya is by opening all 13 points and letting the contaminated blood escape!" Later, Shiryu gouges out his own eyes to resist the power of the Medusa Shield, which can turn people to stone even if they close their eyes. And in still another scene, as if he can't get enough, Shiryû slashes his own wrists with his bare hands so that his blood can pour over the Dragon and Pegasus Cloths to repair them. Of course, merely slashing your wrists seems like nothing in Saint Seiya terms, so another character has to deliver exposition to explain why this is actually dangerous ("It would take at least half of the blood in your body. A man cannot lose even a third of his blood and survive, and a knight is still fundamentally a mortal human!")

Pain is how heroes earn their heroism. ("Scars are badges of courage-- medals of manhood!") Is it tempting to think that there's some message about Japanese culture in this glorification of bloody self-sacrifice? "Obligation is heavier than the mountains but death is lighter than a feather," read part of Japan's 1882 Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, as quoted by Ian Buruma in his book Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. And there is the whole tradition of atoning for your shame or crimes by commiting seppuku and slicing your guts out, like Yukio Mishima did in the 1970s. But Ian Buruma goes on to say that Japanese kamikazes in World War II were influenced as much by 19th century European Romantic nationalism as by actual ancient Japanese ideas. And Kurumada is, above all else, a Romantic. In his author's notes, Kurumada expresses love for Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a German poet. ("I writhed and rolled in agony over my own ignorance of 'words,' and my lack of poetic soul. To create Heine-like poems that sing of love, is for this Kurumada absolutely impossible.") Heine was by no means a right-wing nationalist who glorified dying for your country (quite the opposite really), the love of old European stuff and flowery declarations and noble doomed youth may explain a lot about Saint Seiya. Of course, it's also possible that Kurumada is just joking. But if we take his words at face value, the blood and self-sacrificing heroism is all part of the romance, like the bittersweet memories of the faded marble glories of Ancient Greece.

In fact, despite the deaths and blood and dismemberments and people getting thrown into molten lava, Saint Seiya somehow doesn't even seem that violent. Hear me out. First off, almost all the fighting is just hands and fists, with nary a sword or gun or even a sharp object. Like trying to make the kamehameha, kids can imitate the fight scenes in Saint Seiya all they want, but their "meteor punch" is unlikely to kill anybody. No parent could possibly object. Secondly, you rarely see the characters' fists actually connecting with one another. Kurumada is not a great artist; even Wikipedia, which is not known for criticizing mangaka, points out "a constant flaw in his art is an inconsistent trace and proportion unbalance." The fight scenes are drawn in such a stylized, melodramatic way that characters usually look like they're punching the reader more than one another: someone is punching the air, and then blam, it's another panel, and someone else is flying through the air looking hurt! (This is a side effect of overdoing "cinematic storytelling.") The gouged-out eyes and ripped-out hearts are so overdone and unrealistic that the manga seems almost harmless; it's a manga written for 10-year-old boys who want to prove how tough they are by joining the wrestling team and getting Indian rope burns.
Just as real injuries aren't exciting enough for Saint Seiya, neither is real death. Merely being threatened with death is kind of bland, not to mention nonthreatening when your heroes have the ability to come back from the dead. The villains must either explain death in excruciating detail or threaten the heroes with the dreaded "fate worse than death." In either case, we must feel it. Mephisto sends his victims to the underworld. Phoenix Ikki's Phantom Demon Punch traps opponents in a world of illusion, so it can seem that they're winning a battle only for them to find out they're already dead. The Gemini Knight sends his victims into the "Dimension of Exile." Shaka, the unbelievably badass Buddhist-themed knight, hurls his opponents into one of the Six Buddhist Realms of Transmigration ("Jigokukai: the realm of the damned! Gakikai: the realm of hungry ghosts! Chikushokai: the realm of beasts! Jinkai: the realm of men! Tenkai: the realm of heaven! Shurakai: the realm of the demigods! Blood and carnage! You will be forced to fight without rest for eternity!") (Actually, the entire manga Saint Seiya probably takes place inside the realm of the demigods.) Indeed, a lot of Saint Seiya takes place in some kind of faraway metaphysical realm of transcendental power, pain and ass-kicking. These sorts of things are the spice of life for Saint Seiya, since the artistic and story content of the series is fairly simple, consisting really only of similar-looking dudes, shiny armor, and barren rocky places for them to fight in. (LikeAkira Toriyama in Dragon Ball Z, Masami Kurumada quickly realized that interesting backgrounds are irrelevant in fighting manga, although he draws nice Grecian statuary and columns.) Some of the characters have the powers of flight and teleportation, but distances are perhaps unimportant from volume 7 onward, when we discover that the Gold Knights can move at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. Now that's power escalation, and remember, at this point in the series there are still 20 volumes to go.

Lastly, there are two technological tools without which Saint Seiya couldn't have existed. One is the 8-bit video game. When Seiya came out in 1986, the Famicom (aka Nintendo Entertainment System) had been out for just a few years, but you can already see video game-inspired plotting in Seiya's "string of fights" plotlines. To defeat the secret lord of Sanctuary, Seiya and his friends must fight their way through 12 palaces, one after the other. Similarly, the way the characters "level up," with their Cloth armor transforming as they get stronger, is also obviously gaming-inspired.

Another one of Kurumada's most effective tools is the humble photocopier. Battles in Saint Seiya don't just take place in rooms; they take place on backgrounds of cosmic space, photocopied and traced images of planets and stars, of mind-bending patterns. When the heroes fight the Buddhist-themed villain Shaka, the background fills with photocopied artwork of Buddhist mandalas. It was probably done to save time, but it looks awesome, making it look like you're reading some underground comic or zine instead of a manga.

And lastly, the blasphemy! Few manga are so thoroughly and happily blasphemous. This wasn't a new thing for Kurumada: his 1977-1981 boxing manga Ring ni Kakero, which I haven't read, had Greek characters named after the Greek gods and also had a couple of European-themed characters, as described by Wikipedia:

"Kenzaki decides to pursue a Pro Boxing Career now that he is 17. Kenzaki fights the current world champion, Jesus J. Christ who uses the strongest technique in the World, the "Neo-Bible". But before this match happens, Kenzaki is confronted by Katori on the way to the title fight, whom is enraged because of Kenzaki acting distant toward Kiku as of late. Kenzaki manages to come out on top, but thanks Katori for giving him his fighting spirit. Despite his injuries, Kenzaki manages to come out on top against Jesus Christ."

Kurumada was by no means the first mangaka to do this sort of thing; in the even older Ikki Kajiwara wrestling manga Tiger Mask, the title wrestler fights an evil Christian wrestler, Golgotha Cross. (But more importantly, why hasn't Ring ni Kakero been translated? I don't get it! 4Kids would love it, right?) But Kurumada goes for it again and again. Throughout Seiya, he mixes up Ancient Greek mythology and Christianity. (To quote Shaenon again: "White-people religion is all the same, right?") To be fair, it isn't just these two cultures that get manga-fied—as previously mentioned, there are Buddhist-themed bad guys, and Hades' minions in the Hades arc are the 108 Specters, an important number from the ancient Chinese classic Suikoden - but Christianity and Greek Polytheism get it the most. Athena's Regent, the lord of "Sanctuary" and the bad guy of the first story arc, is pretty explicitly the pope (especially in the original Japanese version); he wears long robes and a huge cross around his neck and travels among the common people delivering extreme unctionto old people who are happy to die with their sins removed. Being crucified, or at least tied to a cross, is one of the tortures inflicted on Seiya and his fellow heroes. The Knights' father, who did the will of the Gods by being a cruel monster to his children so they could be strong (even though he was really a nice guy deep down), is a bit like the biblical Abraham sacrificing his children.

Finally, in the Hades arc, the Christian and Ancient Greek ideas of hell are inextricably mixed up. And when the chips are down, at the conclusion of the Hades arc, Seiya, the champion of Athena, makes a speech in which he blames the gods for all humanity's troubles and essentially declares his atheism or anti-theism. In other words, Saint Seiya is more like the 2010 Clash of the Titans, with its "humanity, f*ck yeah" message, rather than the 1981 Clash of the Titans in which (truer to actual Greek myths) the humans are the gods' hapless pawns. It's a pretty typical message in the super-secular world of manga and anime. (Incidentally, there are small groups in Greece today devoted to reviving the Ancient Greek religion, and some of them would probably hate Saint Seiya—one group protested the use of Athena as a mascot for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.)

I could spend years writing about Saint Seiya, but it would be pointless. A better way to spend that time is reading it. There are other shonen fighting manga which are more sophisticated, smarter, better drawn, but there might be no shonen fighting manga that's more sincere. Saint Seiya is a manufactured hit, but it's perfect at being what it is. Artists like Akira Toriyama and Yoshihiro Togashi had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing fighting manga, when all they really wanted to produce were gag manga (and in Togashi's case, horror manga), but Masami Kurumada loves the fighting and friendship, the tears and blood-splatters and screentone, with all his heart. 

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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