Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Genju no Seizaby Jason Thompson,
Episode CXIX: Genju no Seiza
Fuuto Kamishina dreams of being eaten by birds. He's torn to pieces as he lies on a rock somewhere in the mountains, wearing strange, ornate robes. When he starts seeing a bird-headed man flying through the sky, following him, he really gets worried. Then the birdman comes down to earth and bows before him. "At last I have found you, your holiness! You must come with me, to claim your throne!"
As the birdman explains, he is the holy Garuda, one of the Guardian Beasts of the faraway kingdom of Dhalashar, somewhere in Central Asia. And Fuuto is no ordinary high school student—he's the reincarnated king of Dhalashar, for whom Garuda has been searching for 15 years. Of course, Fuuto always knew he wasn't quite normal, because he has the power to talk to ghosts, and the power to see ki auras to read people's emotions (oddly, ki looks a lot like screentone). To everyone but Fuuto, Garuda looks like nothing more than a normal-sized, exotic bird. Fuuto's father was a Japanese photographer who married a Sherpa woman he met somewhere in the Himalayas, before vanishing several years ago, leaving his wife to raise their son alone.
Garuda wants Fuuto to come back to Dhalashar with him, but Fuuto isn't so thrilled with the idea. ("There's no way I want to be king of that desert wasteland! I bet they don't even have a single video game store!") Not the most adventurous protagonist, he tries to keep living a 'normal' life, while squabbling with Garuda, who follows him around politely reminding him that he's neglecting his duties. ("Shut up, Garuda! Want me to make you into a bird stew?") But unfortunately for Fuuto, Garuda isn't the only supernatural entity on his trail. Lord Naga, a dragon-god, has put the fake king Lord Atisha on the throne of Dhalashar in his place, and as long as Fuuto lives, he is a threat. One after the other, Lord Naga sends assassins to kill Fuuto. To survive, Fuuto must convince them that he, not Lord Atisha, is the one truly worthy to be king…
Genju no Seiza ("Constellation of the Enchanted Beast") is a manga I've always had a soft spot for. Maybe it's because I love Tibetan mythology. Maybe it's because Garuda is the coolest bird-headed character since Yagharek in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Matsuri Akino, the creator, is better known for Pet Shop of Horrors, a semi-classic shojo horror manga about a mysterious bishonen who runs a pet shop which sells mythological monsters. But Pet Shop of Horrors is an episodic manga with no ongoing plot (although it does have a pretty good ending in the final volume), and Genju no Seiza is more ambitious. It's a premise that could be the start of an epic modern-day shojo fantasy.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way, but it's an interesting ride. For starters, despite its epic frame story, Genju no Seiza actually is a very episodic manga. Maybe it was an editorial requirement in Suspiria Mystery and Mystery Bonita, the monthly magazines where the manga ran, that each chapter be more or less self-contained. The backstory that "Fuuto is the reincarnated king of Dhalashar" is a lead-in to many shorter stories, mostly involving Fuuto's mystic powers, which he uses to help people with their problems as a psychic healer/exorcist. Everywhere he goes, he encounters ghosts and spirits and troubled people: bullied kids, abused kids, hikikomori, old people with a final wish before they die. And, seemingly in every chapter, Fuuto develops new supernatural powers: healing, psychometry, mind-reading, and psychic energy blasts. "Don't tell me I've developed another weird power?!" he cries out, exasperated. He shows up on psychic TV shows, where skeptical scientists and bored media stars investigate his powers. ("Can't he, like, bend a spoon for us or something?") He travels back in time, to ancient Persia and Heian-era Japan, where he encounters other supernatural beings from the mythology of different cultures. Even Count D from Pet Shop of Horrors shows up. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Fuuto is also the grandson of a yakuza boss? Everything that you can imagine happening in this manga, does.
Of course, all of these new powers aren't just wish-fulfillment, they also prove Fuuto's qualifications to be the true king. And if Fuuto is really a reincarnated tulku, or perhaps a Bodhisattva, it makes sense that he's badass. Lord Naga keeps sending enemies to kill Fuuto, but one after another, they switch sides and become Fuuto's allies: Hanuman the monkey spirit, Genro the wolf spirit, Yamantaka the bull. Lamia the snake spirit is one of the toughest opponents, but even Ohko, the warlike tiger spirit with a Worf-like personality, gets tamed and turned into a kitty-cat so damn cute I wish he had his own spin-off manga. None of these characters have any experience with modern technology or modern Japan, leading to many attempts at fish-out-of-water comedy ("So…what is this 'Valentine's Day'?") Soon, Fuuto is surrounded by allies, but the people closest to him are Garuda, Professor Ichijo the parapsychological researcher, and Mayu, a mysterious, emotionless girl in a wheelchair. Out of these three characters, two have dark secrets. In volume 4, Fuuto learns out-of-body projection, and finally travels to Dhalashar where he meets the false king, Lord Atisha himself. But to Fuuto's surprise, Atisha turns out not to be an evil final boss, but a fairly sympathetic person not too unlike Fuuto himself, and gifted with equally awesome powers. Could Atisha be the true king after all? And is being the king of Dhalashar, forever meditating behind the walls of a remote castle, a gift or a curse?
In passing, Akino covers all kinds of interesting themes. The parallels between Dhalashar and Tibet are obvious (although the manga establishes that they're not actually the same country); in a political twist, the Chinese government supports Lord Atisha as the 'true' king of Dhalashar, and calls Fuuto an impostor, just like the Panchen Lama controversy. Matsuri Akino doesn't really go deep into politics, though, preferring to focus on mythology and religion and psychology and how they're connected. "This, too, might be the cycle of rebirth," Garuda says when he and Fuuto discover an abused child who has grown up to be an abuser. "The true sacrifices in the demon slaying tales are the monsters slain," Fuuto thinks at another point, considering the similarities between stories of monster-slaying heroes throughout time; like in Petshop of Horrors, Akino's sympathies are with the poor monsters. In another chapter, the Buddhist gods whisper to Fuuto, telling him how they changed as their worship spread from India to Japan: "To the west…to the east…traveling on people's prayers. As we went, we changed our names and appearances…" ("Gods and demons have superpowers! How can they let humans change them like that?" Fuuto wonders.) One of the many themes of Genju no Seiza is the purpose of religion, and whether it's best to worship privately and discover the inner truths, or to go out in the world and help people. ("Even if I help someone near me, there are millions of people in miserable situations on the other side of the Earth and I'm ignoring them, so…if it's that unfair, why do anything at all?") If it's no surprise which side Akino supports, although typically, 'going out in the world and helping people' also involves trying to convert them to your own religion. I can't help but think this manga would be more interesting if it ended with people in nicely pressed suits going from door to door, asking people "Excuse me, may we tell you about the gospel of Fuuto Kamishina?"
Genju no Seiza is part horror, part fantasy, part time-travel, part psychic manga, part comedy, and unfortunately, I think it'd be a better manga if it didn't try to be so many things. Like Pet Shop of Horrors, one of the things that makes it interesting to read is that you never know where it will go (a girl slitting her throat with a dagger? Birds plucking people's eyes out? Cute puppies?), but it wanders all over the map so much that eventually I got impatient. There's a zillion manga about supernatural problem-solvers who can see spirits and only one manga (that I know of) about the reincarnation of a thinly disguised Dalai Lama, but it's got a lot more of the former than the latter. Sadly, Tokyopop only managed to print 8 out of the 14 volumes, ending on a huge cliffhanger, and I have never managed to pick up the remaining volumes in Japanese. There's a good story here somewhere, buried under all the filler, and I still like reading it just to look at Garuda's head.
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