mjj (flemmings) wrote,

In praise of Daisan no Teikoku

I give up. paleaswater's right. "Most westerners would have an impossible time trying to classify Third Reich." This westerner isn't even going to try. One can only watch in dumb admiration as the mangaka does whatever it is she's doing. Classification, that western obsession, is de trop in a series like this. (Apropos of that, Vice Fearless Leader also once noted disapprovingly that too many fans believe taxonomy constitutes discussion. She's right there too.)

Motohashi Keiko's sources of inspiration- if any- are known only to Motohashi Keiko. All *I* know are the echoes her series start up in my very western mind- all of them irritatingly amorphous and unpindownable. Her earlier series that I've looked at, the ones from the 80's, feature long-lashed dark-eyed feather-headed camp heroes with knowing smiles. This to me calls up the intersection of Decadence and Dandyism, evokes the Wilde/ Saki/ Beardsley ethos as background, and more pointedly references the later 1920's and 30's upper-class English homosocial and homoerotic society, one that starts at Eton and is thereafter full of country houses, trips to capri, and enticing Boys. I can't of course cite any particular work that exemplifies this notion, though I suppose Ronald Firbank captures the ethos.

But of course there's more than that. These Strawberry Blond guys are all Japanese shoujo manga characters, and there's a certain sunniness to them absent from any of their western counterparts I know of. This is the early series, remember.

Then we come to Daisan no Teikoku.

Which is... like French perfume, the good stuff. Sensual, resonant, creating its own subtle but overwhelming ambience that convinces utterly as long as you're exposed to it but is impossible to define when it's gone. What sets DnT apart from any other heavily-bishie shoujo I can think of is the solidity of its style. Later Motohashi isn't afraid of wasting ink. In fact she never was, but in DnT the blacks are more lustrous and ovewhelming, the minutia of hair and clothes more detailed, than ever before. Yes, everyone is kohl-eyed and long-lashed and changes outfits fifty times a story. The series is a hymn to the possibilities of male fashion- drapes and pleats and full-skirted coats and goring and asymmetrical fastenings and oh you name it. Meanwhile the plot is all about love and devotion and operatic tragedy in which nothing ends well- lovers betray you and die, the faithful who betray you for love die, everybody dies but the four main protagonists- and as I haven't finished the series, maybe they die too. The body count per tank is always in the five or six range figure, and amazingly you always care about the people who are so carelessly stabbed or shot or blown up or poisoned. True, they appear only to die, but they do it so *well*, psychically singing O terra addio.

And then we have our main protagonist, Motoba Fuyuhiko. With hair down to his knees, always tied up with flowing ribbons, and growing in a pattern I've never seen any Japanese person's hair grow in. "Is the uke another stand-in for the long-suffering female, or is he a gender-bender that turns all the stereotypes on their heads?" paleaswater asks, and the answer is most definitely the latter. I get annoyed when people try to apply the labels of gay, straight and bi to characters in manga, or indeed to anyone. Sexuality is such a continuum, and often so changeable even within a single person, that trying to confine it within the boundaries of a single label is like trying to stabilize water. But Fuyuhiko is the first character in how many years of reading manga? that makes me feel the same way about gender. He is a he, certainly. He does things and feels things that I feel would be different if he were a she. But at the same time he could just as easily be a she, just a particularly individualistic and unstereotyped she. He's both; he's too varied to be confined to one gender only, and so he calls into question the whole notion of gender itself. This makes him a kind of superman when compared to the other three protagonists who are, one way and the other, besotted with him. It's not that the others are conventional semes imprisoned in their masculinity: two of them at least suffer their own ambivalences and tragedies quite as much as Fuyuhiko does. (The third is the ironic Greek chorus to the action.) But Fuyuhiko has the greater range of expression; he's also the one who's deadliest with a weapon; he's also the one who's slowly being poisoned by that drug he was given back in vol 2 was it? which kind of ups anyone else's problems.

It helps that he belongs to a peculiar fantasy world, the secret organization Odessa whose rules and ambience have nothing to do with the real world and everything to do with, well, those homosocial homoerotic societies Motohashi invokes. Ordinary society doesn't exist in the DnT world; other secret (and criminal) associations run by other powerful dynastic families do. The closest to RL one comes here is the Mafia. Otherwise it's descendants of the Tsars determined to bring back the ancestral glory of the Russian Empire, or the Chinese clan that controlled the Manchu emperors for centuries determined to wipe out the Japanese-German competition. There's thus no 'normal' to measure Fuyuhiko's attitudes (and outfits) against. Everyone feels (and dresses) the way he does; everyone has flowing locks like his; he just does it better, or has more of it, than they do.
Tags: manga, music

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