Saber Marionette J and the Family

You know, its amazing how sometimes an anime can be based on a trite, fanservicey manga and yet contain a great high story.  This is precisely what happened in the case of Saber Marionette J.  (Don’t read the manga.)  I found myself surprised at the conservative tack it took in regard to the family.  As you know, the premise of this series describes a futuristic society on another planet which must survive by cloning.  Unfortunately, no women survived of the original settlers, which means that all clones are men.  In order to keep the memory of women alive, men make androids in the form of women, but these lack emotion–save in the case of our heroines and their opposites, anyway.  How miserable to be a man in a world without women!

A picture of our heroines' opponents for a change.

A picture of our heroines’ opponents for a change.

But, the shogun of Japoness has a plan for bringing women back into society through using the maiden circuits in Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry.  He tells Otaru very little of his overall plan save that this will be possible once their maiden circuits or hearts have grown.  However, the Shogun insists that the family is mankind’s original form and that man must regain it.  This view diverges greatly from a more popular science fiction anime, Crest of the Stars, which imagines that people can do without the family.  But, would people really be happy without belonging to a family?  Here’s what Theodore Roosevelt says about the importance of marriage, which I quote from the forward of his autobiography: “There is need to develop all the virtues that have the state for their sphere of action; but these virtues are as dust in a windy street unless back of them lie the strong and tender virtues of a family life based on the love of the one man for the one woman and on their joyous and fearless acceptance of their common obligation to the children that are theirs.”  The hardships inherent in forming a good character have their reward in love.  Without love, especially the nearly unconditional love found in the family, people cannot be happy.

Cherry, the most domestic of Otaru's harem.

Cherry, the most domestic of Otaru’s harem.

But, most people follow the Crest of the Stars view that families are not necessary.  People place economic success as the goal of life, marriage and children are accessories rather than what makes for happiness.  But, happiness is an end, and work is obviously a means.  One cannot find happiness in means.  Because work and generating money are not the locus of happiness, Max Scheler, a famous Catholic philosopher of the turn of the twentieth century organizes the spheres of human activity thus, from least to greatest:

  1. Economic
  2. Vital
  3. Aesthetic
  4. Spiritual

The term vital refers to those activities which sustain humanity, especially the family.  Most thinkers nowadays refer to community and family without using the term vital, but we see the use of this term in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, who happens to be one writer to forget that all things are not a matter of utility.  Basically, modern man–or post-modern man, whichever term you think more accurate–places the economic sphere above the rest and does his best to eliminate or infringe upon the value of the rest.

Faust, actually does make the mistake of placing utility over personality--creating a monster android because it is better at battle than his original marionettes.

Faust (pictured in the upper left), actually does make the mistake of placing utility over personality–creating a monster android because it is better at battle than his original marionettes.

The problem with such a reversal lies in that such a mindset never finds happiness.  And our protagonists, poor as they are, would never be happy if it all depended on their economic situation.  Instead, the people of Japoness seek happiness in community, friendship, or art.  But most people would feel incomplete without families.  Saber Marionette J displays this best in the case of Otaru’s sensei, who has a marionette, with whom he has fallen in love despite the fact that she doesn’t have a personality.  Of course, he sees this deficiency and tricks Lime into giving up her heart.  He intends to erase the data on it and install the maiden circuit into his own marionette so that they can essentially live together as husband and wife–as the two haves of humanity should.  Most people need this kind of love.  If this were not the case, marriage would not have been called the ordinary vocation.

SMJ the gang

And so, I shall end my remarks on the surprising conservatism of Saber Marionette J by referencing the Holy Father’s thoughts on the family.  The shogun of Japoness would surely agree: “We were created to love, as a reflection of God and His Love.  And in matrimonial union, the man and woman realize this vocation as a sign of reciprocity and the full and definitive communion of life.”  Would that modern man learn both that happiness is the goal of life and that marriage is integral to happiness unless God has called a person to a life of service–especially as a priest or religious.  No one was created for the sake of merely making money and enjoying pleasurable goods!

Shiki’s Post-Modern Myth of Cain and Abel

Before I begin this article, I should like to relate an amusing story with Professor Justin Jackson, whom I mentioned in my prior post.  Once, he walked into a classroom to find that another professor had written “Grendel rocks” on the board.  Seeing which, Professor Jackson reacted by saying, “Grendel rocks!  Seriously?  Don’t you know what Grendel means?  Evil.  A professor of Hillsdale College wrote “Evil rocks” on the board.  He should be ashamed of himself!”

Beowulf defeats Grendel

Nothing so sums up post-modernism as the phrase “evil rocks.”  Shiki contains sections which convey the idea “Grendel rocks,” but I think that the anime ultimately undermines any such ideas.  It certainly avoids the diabolic imagination, despite featuring scenes of pure horror, and the events serve to test the viewer’s ability to make moral decisions amidst attempts to make situations less black and white than they are.  But, Seishin’s treatment of the Cain and Abel myth did make me worry about the author’s intent.

It’s spoilers galore from here on, but the way.

shiki_seishin and sunako

In my prior article, I argued that Seishin is like the scop in Beowulf.  In Seishin’s version of the Cain and Abel myth, the elder brother still kills the younger, but the younger rises as a vampire to haunt the elder.  (That’s a neat twist.)  More divergences from the original myth come when the younger brother thanks the elder for freeing him from the odious service of God by killing him, and the reason adduced for the elder killing the younger was hatred of self.


I consider this tale self-referential to Seishin, who feels abandoned by God and feels pained by having to serve Him as a priest.  It fails when applied to Vampires vs. Homo Sapiens.  Abel, while living, hates himself in the same way that the villagers hate themselves–as shown by their refusal to take steps to preserve their own lives and defend their village until the very end.  Even people that know about the vampires allow themselves to get sucked dry–like Natsuno.  Yet, many vampires come to hate their vampire lifestyle, like Nao and Tooru.  The chief vampire, Sunako, also seems not to relish it much, but she wants to live.  On the other hand, we have Ritsuko who clings to her humanity and service to the sick even after being changed.  These facts indicate that the allegory is imperfect or even wrong.


The problems in applying the allegory beyond Seishin himself serve to test the audience.  Do we really believe that one is least free by becoming a slave of God?  How can a perfect slave of the Freest Being not also become perfectly free?  The person who seemed most free in the story is Ritsuko.  She refuses to succumb to external pressures directing her life: she stays in the village because she wants to, she serves the sick because she wants to, and not even her rising up as a vampire can turn her from her desire to be human.  In a beautiful death, she chooses starvation rather than betraying her friend in order to sate her appetite for blood.  Neither the vampires who make excuses for their killing and kinslaughter nor human beings who refuse to face reality strike one as free.

Post-modern Seishun

The fact that Seishin is a priest appears to make him the epitome of a servant of God, but I would argue that the real epitome of a servant of God is Ritsuko.  Look at what we know of Seishin’s stories.  He writes novels about people who feel abandoned by God and omnipresent divine silence.  He advances the cause of atheism rather than the cause of God!  He certainly has no words of comfort for Kaori, a frightened teenage girl who feels like Megumi is coming to kill her.  His consolations were so pathetic that I wished someone to give him a good thrashing.

Shiki Megumi

On the other hand, Ritsuko tirelessly helps her patients as a nurse and loves doing it.  The Christian faith has ever considered caring for the sick as a preeminent good work.  One desert father told a colleague that a monk who merely fasted and prayed–holy  though this style of life is–could not equal a monk who cared for the sick even if he hung himself up by the nose.  The sick and suffering have ever been identified with Our Lord.  For example, a certain saint, while caring for a patient, was told that the bishop was here to see him.  He responded that he would “see his grace once he had finished attending the Lord.”  At any rate, Ritsuko so loves her God-given talent for caring for the sick that she chooses to die rather than to live as a monster.  A perfect example of a martyr or a friend of God.

Ritsuko and Freedom

Well played, noitaminA, well played.  Even as the case is being set forth for the monsters of the story, it undercuts their philosophy.  It probes the viewers on whether we should accept the dark imagination over the light.  In giving us a post-modern Cain and Abel, it then reveals its falsity.  Of course, I’d love to read an article or a comment which claims that the post-modern view wins out in the story.

Shiki: The Beowulf Connection

I intend this to be the first of three articles on Shiki, a profoundly interesting vampire anime released in 2010.  In this article, I’m going to argue that its author retold the medieval epic Beowulf, or at least, that it derives much of its subject matter from this epic.  Before some of you decide this idea to be unlikely, don’t forget than the Japanese love drawing from Norse mythology and sagas.  Why not also peruse the contemporaneous literature of medieval England?  Of perhaps they can arrive at the epic through knowledge of another famous post-modern treatment, John Gardner’s Grendel.  But one feature of Shiki makes me feel like they must have read the epic of the middle ages: the prevalence of the most shocking crime to medieval ears–kinslaughter.

tatsumi & megumi

The esteemed Professor Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale college, an avid student of medieval English literature, once lamented that people read Beowulf for the beginning and the end–the slaying of Grendel and the slaying of the dragon.  People think of this as a monster slaying story, but this understanding does not go far enough.  The prodigious fiends of the beginning and end point to the monsters in human form of the middle: kinslayers.  Grendel’s line itself is shown to be descended from the first kinslayer, Cain.  Also, Beowulf declaims this baleful rebuke–or rather, smack down–of the quibbling Ulferth:

…I have never heard

such struggle, sword terror, told about you.

Never in the din and play of battle

did Breca or you show such courage

with shining blades–not to boast about it–

though you were a manslayer, killed your brothers,

closest kinsmen, for which you will suffer

damnation in hell, clever though you are. (581-589)

The vampires in Shiki actually go after their closest family members as their first targets.  One person even sucks dry her entire family, though none of them rise up.


Another link to Beowulf is the curious mixture of paganism and Christianity.  In Beowulf, we are led to initially believe the characters are pagan; yet, once Beowulf arrives, they speak like Christians and care not a wit for pagan gods.  Examine the Church in Shiki.  We know that it cannot be Christian.  There are neither masses nor services, neither Catholic priests nor Protestant ministers.  And yet, one window a depicts the martyrdom of a Japanese saint!  But a post-modern twist comes in the form of people blaming God for the trouble which comes to their village rather than praising God for freeing them from evil.  Indeed, the characters only speak about God–even if Shinto and Buddhist artifacts can ward off vampires.

Sunako and Seishun

“Alright then,” you say.  “Who is Hrothgar, Beowulf, Ulferth, the scop, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother?  There must be some connection to the characters if this is indeed a retelling.”


Beowulf = Tomio Ookawa

At first, I thought that there was no Beowulf.  This would go along with the theme of divine abandonment in the show.  After all, Beowulf’s entrance into Denmark is shown as coming about through divine providence.  But, here is an example of them borrowing from Gardner’s Grendel.  Mr. Ookawa fits the idea of Gardner’s Beowulf through his inexorable sense of justice, crazed single-mindedness, and strength.  He is certainly of heroic stature!


Hrothgar = Dr. Ozaki

One of the neatest twists in the story is Dr. Ozaki.  We originally think him to be a kind of Van Helsing, á la Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  But, events make it clear that Dr. Ozaki is not a courageous vigilante against the vampires, but more of a leader.  He is helpless at stopping the vampire outbreak, but he can lead others to successfully squash it–the good old Jason-esque  hero.  As the chief man in the village, he fits the bill for Hrothgar.

Ulferth = Masao Murasako

Ulferth is a blabbering loudmouth just like Masao.  Helpless to do anything but complain.  No picture for him!

Seishin's the one on the left.  Behind him is the stain glass window with the martyrdom.

Seishin’s the one on the left. Behind him is the stain glass window with the martyrdom.

the Scop = Seishin

As a novelist, Seishin approximates a scop, but instead of reciting songs of glory and valor, he writes stories of misery.  This fits the post-modern twist I mentioned.

Mrs. Kirishiki

Grendel’s mother = Mrs. Kirishiki

Like the hag of Beowulf, she’s a very powerful vampire.  I know Grendel’s mother is pictured as ugly, but witches in continental Europe were also imagined to be beautiful blond women like Mrs. Kirishiki.  And this is not the first time Grendel’s mother has been portrayed as a seductress.  It was also done in the 2007 Beowulf movie with Angelina Jolie playing this role.

Megumi on right.  I felt very sorry for this character.

Megumi on right. I felt very sorry for this character.

Grendel = Megumi

Surprised?  The Sunako Kirishiki would be the obvious choice for Grendel, especially with her attachment to Mrs. Kirishiki.  But, I believe that Megumi fits the bill more perfectly.  She feels completely ostracized by the village because they mock her predilection for fancy clothing, and she thinks little of Kaori’s attempts to befriend her.  Hence she, like Grendel, is already an outsider when the story begins.  She dreams of one day leaving for the big city because she hates everyone in the village and everything about that place.  Grendel means evil in Old English.  The essence of evil is envy or ill-will.  What could be more invidious than her cheer, uttered while turning pirouettes: “I love making people I hate suffer!”  Amusingly, she does not engage in kinslaughter, but she had already killed the relationship between her and her parents through envy.


But, she also has connections to Gardner’s Grendel in that both the anime and this work attempt to make Grendel a sympathetic character.  (At least, I think the former did.  The story is told from Grendel’s point of view.  But I wanted Grendel to die from page one.)  The anime succeeded much better than Grendel in creating a sympathetic monster, and we wish to see Megumi escape at the end–quite unjustly of us, I should think!  *BIG BIG BIG Spoiler Alert!*  The manner in which Megumi dies, with her first losing her left arm and then being finished off while helpless is reminiscent of Grendel’s demise in the epic poem.

Tatsumi and Natsuno

Actually, the story even has a Wiglaf and a dragon in the persons of Natsuno and Tatsumi respectively.  Just like Beowulf telling his thanes and Wiglaf that their help is not needed to defeat the dragon, the Dr. Ozaki does not enlist Natsuno’s aid until the end of the story.  Yet, he defeats the strongest of the vampires, Tatsumi, who–for his ability to walk under the sun–is considered more than a regular vampire.  Natsuno slays Tatsumi when no one had expected it of him.

There you have it!  My case for Shiki being a post-modern retelling of Beowulf!  What do you think?  Has anyone else perceived the connections between ShikiBeowulf, and Grendel?  And be sure to watch the video of the opening lines of Beowulf recited in Old English.  It’s pure awesomeness!