Myth and Matsumoto (Part I of II)
Yesterday I sat down and read the first 25 pages of Leiji Matsumoto’s Millennial Queen manga. Considering how many pages I’ve read and how many frames I’ve watched from this man, my reaction might seem odd but I must confess it nonetheless: I was shocked at how similar the story was to others in the Matsumoto oeuvre. You’d think I’d be used to this repetition by now.
The reason is that I’ve just finished reading Miraizer Ban and the beginning of both stories is practically the same:
The protagonist is a young boy, both of whose parents are scientists. The action begins when an experiment (the purpose of which is completely unknown to the boy) goes wrong and the laboratory explodes, instantly making the protagonist an orphan. The boy ends in the care of his uncle, and we soon find he is not the best of students, as he has a tendency to fall asleep in class.
This got me thinking about the purpose of repetition in Matsumoto. It’s something a fan of his has to deal with, especially as it’s one of the big factors that turn people off of Leiji’s work. A lot of people that were in love with the Galaxy Express story, were stunned, baffled and ultimately disgusted by its repetition in Space Symphony Maetel. Accusations went flying to the effect that the master had run out of ideas. But if this is true then this happened much earlier than Symphony (Miraizer Ban ran from 1976-7, Millennial Queen from 1980-3).
One possible purpose of repetition might be highlighting different aspects of the same story. For example, Miraizer Ban includes a mini-story (literally 5 pages or so) on a catastrophic crash between two celestial bodies. The Millennial Queen story, on the other hand, revolves around this exact motif, in this specific case the two bodies being Earth and LaMetal. If you put the two stories together the material grows into a larger, polyfaceted myth.
That said, I think it’s probably wrong to think of repetition as a tool of Matsumoto’s, and then try to understand its purpose or role. The man has a very precise set of ideas or myths in his head, and his creative mind pushes him to keep recasting them. Repetition is then a byproduct of the main process of creation. Repetition in the Leijiverse is not a creative cause but an effect (of Matsumoto’s psychology).
I think something parallel happens in the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Here we have a great number of stories with pretty much the same framework: the narrator has seen something horrible and has just gathered up enough courage to write down what he saw. The vision may involve witchcraft and devilry, dreams or bizarre alien influences.
However, these three types are really linked, because the dreams (in e.g. “The Shadow Out of Time”) and the demonic powers (in e.g. “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”) share a trans-dimensional alien source in Lovecraft’s Trinity of Gods: Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath. In the real world, Lovecraft’s stories were primarily derived from actual dreams: this was his framework. This might be a bit complicated if you haven’t read his stuff so let me rephrase it:
Lovecraft’s myriad stories have one source with two faces, the ficitional and the real. The fictional aspect is alien beings of inmense power. The real one is dreams the author had througout his entire life. The faces themselves are intertwined, because in his own fiction one of the main tools that the aliens have of communicating with Earthlings is through dreams. [Some would argue that Lovecraft was unconsciously telling us the real source was alien all along…]
The end result is that you can accuse Lovecraft of being repetitive, but you can’t really accuse him of “running out of ideas”. It’d be like complaining to a basketball player of missing an opportunity to kick the ball over to his teamate, and then saying he’s not creative enough. Basketball players don’t kick balls…
In the same way Matsumoto works within a certain framework of ideas. While this framework is not as abstract or “alien” as Lovecraft’s dreaming, it’s just as sturdy. So what’s the point, what’s at the heart of this framework??
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous ethnologist, broke down individual myths into mythemes (analogous to morphemes in language), his contention being that these mythemes were pretty much universal. This was used to explain the similarity between myths across different cultures. More importantly for this post, Lévi-Strauss argued that each of these mythemes was a binary opposition (e.g. light vs darkness, life vs death, nature vs culture) and that the main role of a myth was to break through these sort of oppositions which preoccupied mankind through its history.
We can see Matsumoto’s stories as myths. The initial myth shared by Miraizer Ban and Millennial Queen can be seen as a binary opposition of the life vs death kind. Parents have just died, boy must live. But of course, in order to truly live the boy must continue his parents’ work (otherwise he is hiding from his past). The problem is his acceptance of this inheritance / quest puts his own life at risk, as a after all his parents were killed because of pursuing this very goal. The parents’ death gives the boy’s life a meaning it didn’t have before (this is why in both works the protagonist is seen as sleeping through classes in school; before he becomes a hero he is really half-dead). And then the hero’s actions may lead to his death, and a repetition of the cycle. Matsumoto emphasizes genealogy and friendship across generations because this is his own solution to the life vs death opposition.
SPOILER FOR THE LIFE CAREER OF ONE MIRAIZER BAN
Take Ban. His parents are scientists but he doesn’t have a clue about their work and is just a bored, mediocre little boy. His parents die. He takes over their work and begins to really live. At the same time, he is constantly persecuted. At some point he meets a immensely powerful and fearsome evil. The only way to destroy it is to join it [marry her, actually] and eventually have his daughter [the product of that union] help him sacrifice himself to destroy the evil. His daughter, a languid princess before this struggle, herself comes to life and continues Ban’s work…
What’s twisted is the origin of this evil. Earlier on I commented on how Millennial Queen featured a boy just like Ban lose his own parents and embark on a quest. The woman who helps him in this endeavor begins as saint and ends turning into a devil. Her name is Promethium, and she is the evil that Ban himself must end!!!
END OF SPOILER
I don’t believe that’s the main mytheme / opposition in Matsumoto, though. There’s another one, very specific to Matsumoto, that I’ll bring up next time…