Matsumoto, Wagner and the Ring (200th Leijiverse Post!!)
[I drafted this post in 2011, and since I wanted to go deeper into it and never did, it never got published. This will be my 200th Leijiverse post. I’m publishing it now pretty much as I wrote it back then. Thanks to all the Leiji fans for their support.]
I just started rereading Leiji Matsumoto’s manga The Ring of the Nibelung (part of which was animated as Harlock Saga) but this time I’m doing something different: I’m reading it alongside Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle libretto. The main point of this post will be to recommend paying attention to Wagner while you read the manga (available in Japanese and French) and to point out a nice little aid that Matsumoto has given us to uncover the convergences and divergences between both tales of the Ring.
I am huge fan of the Siegfried/Nibelung/Ring cycle of legends, so much so that I even made a pilgrimage to the legendary site where Gunther [I will use the Wagnerian form of characters’ names throughout for consistency’s sake] and his brothers ruled and were annihilated by the curse of the Ring. But I’ve never ever watched Wagner’s operatic cycle or read the libretto!! All of my knowledge is from reading the Eddas, the Volsung Saga and the Nibelungenlied, plus the historical accounts that lie at the foundations (e.g. the rise and fall of the Burgundians, Attila the Hun’s sudden death etc.). I might as well add that I’m also a big fan of Tolkien’s version of the tale of the Ring.
But here’s the thing: in terms of both form/structure and content/plot, Leiji’s manga is wholly indebted to Wagner’s particular version of the tale. The mangaka loves Wagner and has been listening to him for forever, to the point of promoting Wagner CDs in Japan. So while it might be awesome to compare Matsumoto’s work with Norse myths and the such, you’re bound to get quite confused unless you engage with Wagner in the process. This is the primary reason behind my decision to reread this now.
Wagner’s work is composed of four operas. Matsumoto’s manga follows the same pattern and his volumes share Wagner’s titles.
Wagner’s Ring Operas: Matsumoto’s The Ring of the Nibelung:
Das Rheingold Das Rheingold 1 and 2 (manga volumes 1-2)
Die Walküre Die Walküre 1, 2 and 3 (manga volumes 3-5)
Siegfried Siegfried 1, 2 and 3 (manga volumes 6-8)
Götterdämmerung Götterdämmerung 1, 2 and 3 (manga volumes 9-11)
[NOTE: Leiji published the first two volumes of Götterdämmerung (ie. volumes 9 and 10) online, the idea being that once the third volume was complete, the whole thing would be published on paper. For some reason this last volume has not seen the light of day, the website hosting the first two volumes disappeared and none of Götterdämmerung has ever been published on paper.]
Just before the beginning of every volume, the Ring of the Nibelung manga shows a page with pictures of all the main characters. On the top you see lots from the legends and Wagner: the Ringmaidens, Wotan, Loge (=Loki), Fricka, Freia, Alberich… But then toward the bottom you see plenty of Leiji characters: Harlock, Maetel, Yattaran, Tori, Tadashi Daiba… Miime, the link between the two casts (the Arcadia crewmember is Alberich’s sibling, equivalent to Wagner’s Mime) is at the bottom. Clearly, any manga that features Yattaran is not going to be a straightforward close interpretation of Wagner’s work…but Leiji does something really cool. Every chapter in the manga has its own title and most but not all of them begin with a quote from Wagner’s Ring Cycle! By inspecting the dynamic between each chapter’s title and its Wagnerian quote you can see how Leiji works with, alludes to and diverges from the operas. To emphasize this point, I should note that the quotes are not in a linear order. For example, Wagner’s Das Rheingold has four scenes. Matsumoto’s Das Rheingold has 13 chapters. Just looking at the first five chapters we see the following:
Matsumoto Chapter: Scene in Das Rheingold from which Quote is taken:
Chapter 01 gets a quote from Scene 3, chapter 02 gets a quote from Scene 1 etc etc. This tells us that Matsumoto is choosing the quotes because of their deep significance, and not just because of their placement in the operas.
For example, Chapter 03 is titled “The Ring of the Nibelung”. If you’ve read this blog long enough my ranting about this incident will be familiar to you: it’s the chapter where Maetel meets up with Tadashi Daiba and implores him not to make a Ring if ever asked to, but before the chapter is over he’s done just that for the power-hungry Alberich. The quote is Alberich’s from Scene 3:
as I commanded!”
[trans. with German original from here]
If you’re Wagnerless you will assume that the quote here is basically a boast by Alberich that one of the characters in the opera has forged the Ring for him. This assumption is quite reasonable, especially considering the chapter title. It is wrong, however. Alberich has had his Ring for a while by the time Scene 3 rolls along. The quote occurs because Alberich has forced his brother Mime to forge an invisibility helm, and this is the object at stake. [Tolkien for his part conflates the power of this magical helm with the Ring itself in LOTR] In Leiji there is no helm, and what we come to understand here is that whereas Wagner’s Alberich corresponds quite neatly with Matsumoto’s Alberich, Wagner’s Mime becomes split into two people in Leiji’s manga: Miime (the sibling) on the one hand and Tadashi Daiba (the enslaved forger) on the other.
The splitting of the Wagnerian Mime serves at least two purposes: 1) it allows Tadashi Daiba to show up in the manga (Matsumoto loves him, we can be sure of that!), and more importantly 2) it allows Leiji to set up the Nibelungs as a noble race that is, however, subject to corruption. Let me explain. Wagner’s Nibelungs are contemptible creatures. Alberich is mad, and his brother Mime is weak, servile and scheming (even as he forges the helm like a slave he plots to use it to topple his dreaded brother). Leiji’s Nibelungs are different. Miime is a Nibelung just like Alberich, but she is pure and wise and she doesn’t submit to her depraved brother [precisely because, as we have seen, Matsumoto deflects that act of submission onto Tadashi Daiba, who becomes the person referred to by Alberich as “commanded” in the quote]. Later on we find out that Alberich himself has pretty good reasons to hate the gods, far better ones that Wagner gives his Alberich. And so on…
We have seen how the quote reveals both similarities and differences between Wagner’s and Leiji’s stories. Leiji titles his chapter “The Ring of the Nibelung” and yet the quote he uses originally referred to a helm and not the Ring. The point is not to confuse the reader, but to open up communication with his predecessor Wagner and point to the relationship between the two works.
C. THE MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
I bet most readers come to this thinking the same way I did: Leiji’s manga is a futuristic version of the Ring legend and/or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There’s a very fundamental sense in which this perspective is very, very wrong.
The manga doesn’t present a universe where the Ring saga is real and occurs in a futuristic setting. The manga presents our own universe in the future. Our own universe. This means the Ring legends and myths exist within this universe. It means Wagner exists and is known in this manga as a historical figure in the past.
You might then ask how this amazing coincidence (that a series of events remarkably similar to the Ring legend would take place again in the 30th century, which is the present of the manga) can ever be accounted for. The answer is clear: Matsumoto’s Ring of Time concept. Matsumoto believes that events and personalities repeat themselves with variations. If you read carefully, you can see that already in chapter two (!) the correct perspective the reader must take is laid out in a conversation between Tochiro and Miime.
This makes the manga much deeper and its interaction with our past (Viking legend, Wagner) much more interesting and complicated. At the risk of sounding cryptic if you haven’t read enough of the manga, let me give one example: Harlock’s father Great Harlock is Siegfried, not just in the shallow sense that Harlock’s father is the Leijiverse equivalent of Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring and the sagas, but in the deeper sense that he is Siegfried reborn, ever being born, ever fighting and ever going down heroically. Valhalla.
D. MORE ON THE MANGA
o. Notice that the correct translation of Wagner’s title is The Ring of the Nibelung and NOT The Ring of the Nibelungs. The mistake is very common, and it gives one the impression that the Ring is somehow the ancestral property of the Nibelung race, who are its creators. The truth is that the Ring belongs to one particular Nibelung (i.e. Alberich) who obtained the Rhinegold with which to forge the Ring by deceit. Alberich enslaved his people with the Ring, then lost it.
1. On this blog’s sidebar you can find Harlock Saga – a very rough Survey, which I wrote last year as I read the 8 paper volumes. There’s more stuff through this link [here], including reviews of volumes 9 and 10.
2. If you can read French, then go and read the review L’Anneau des Nibelungen [here]. The link I gave you is to the general review article, but you will see that the author has reviewed each volume separately as well. The reviews are detailed, accurate, devastating and brutal. I suspect the reviewer actually enjoyed the series [he read the whole thing for crying out loud!] but if you just stumble onto his review you might come out thinking Leiji Matsumoto is not only the worst mangaka, but the worst fiction writer in History!! As I’ve written before, a lot of Leiji’s writing is more mythical than fictional, and if one can accept that then a lot of the “flaws” begin to make sense. I dare say the same thing can happen with Wagner: if you open up his Ring libretto expecting it to read like a good mass paperback fantasy novel, you’ll be disappointed. Different aims, different methods.