Authorial Intent, That Elusive Foe

Hi again all.
The last few months have been difficult in real life, hence my protracted absence. In the meantime, I’ve been reading, I’ve been writing, yes. But I haven’t been publishing. It’s almost a year since I got the e-mail that offered me a blogging position here at Girl-Wonder, and it’s about time this blog saw action once again. My promise to you, is that I will be posting more. Perhaps shorter articles, but the show will go on.
This post, however, has taken me a long while. And I’ve chipped away at it again and again. Because it just wouldn’t come out right, and I’d just save the draft and close the window. Only to add, substract a bit more, and then close the window off again, leaving this unpublished for a ridiculous amount of time.
I also missed a few little deadlines I’d set for myself. I wanted this post to be around the time of Coming Out Day, for example. You’ll see why it’s been so difficult for me to write this, and why it’s been so important that it comes out properly. Without further ado…)
In this article I want to discuss authorial intent, and a rather ironic way in which this has intertwined between one of my favourite manga/anime, Saint Seiya, and a very personal process that 2008 saw the beginning of.
Time for full disclosure. I am a card-carrying Saint Seiya fan. A littering of shiny Myth Cloth figures, and a number of comics and DVDs sit in my shelves silently, bearing witness to this fact. Back in 1995, Saint Seiya is what got me started into the whole Anime/Manga mess, along with Sailor Moon and, later, Dragon Ball.
Intent is a rather fascinating creature. Robert Heinlein may have intended for Starship Troopers to show a militarist utopia, but this didn’t prevent its large-screen adaptation from being, basically, a parody of his views.
The author’s intent is always up for debate. Do we dismiss the intent, focusing instead on the impact a work has on the world? Do we focus only on the intent, disregarding the alternate readings and meanings that can be made on the work? Or do we synthesize these, taking all of them into account when analysing said work?
I feel the latter works better sometimes. Because, while I don’t think that Naoko Takeuchi is a queer woman, Sailor Moon is, regardless, a queer icon. Yet there are themes there that are obviously put in the story because of the author’s own intent and interests, that is to say, the story she wants to tell. But today I’m not talking about Sailor Moon. Instead, I’m going to be completely uncharacteristic and talk about… well, I’ll talk about Saint Seiya (known as Knights of the Zodiac in the US and pretty much everywhere else).
With that out of the way, let’s talk Shounen, shall we? Saint Seiya became a worldwide phenomenon adhering, as it did, to a number of staples within entertainment aimed at men. The novelty being, it was in cartoon form. It featured epic wars between men, violence, very little romance, themes of friendship, honour and heroism, and a nice backdrop of somewhat misrepresented Greek mythology to justify it all.
Watching or reading Saint Seiya, the modern, well-informed viewer or reader of the Internet age will, of course, wince. Even for the time, in Japan it was considered a very retro manga. And this shows. It’s simple, in parts I’d say simplistic, and particularly in its manga incarnation, it is very, very macho. Then how come I loved it, never having adhered to that kind of masculinity? How come my friends, girls, queers and other people who were very far from chauvinism, didn’t miss a single episode?
Here is where authorial intent, that elusive foe, comes into play. Masami Kurumada, the manga’s creator, focuses on the theme of the ‘true man’ in most of his stories, and Saint Seiya is no exception. For it is really the story of Seiya, his trials and sacrifices towards becoming a ‘true’ man: honourable, strong, fearless, with no doubt in his heart about his duty to save the world. Kurumada places such an emphasis on the men of his manga, that the few women in it are mostly secondary, relatively weak, and/or ultimately of little relevance to the main action. I’d like to say you could count the female characters in Saint Seiya with one hand, but sadly there’s a grand total of six female characters. And even writing strong characters like the female warrior Shaina, Kurumada stumbles: her resolution as a character is to fall in love with Seiya, and thusly fade non-threateningly into the background.
Now, I’ll admit that many people loved the anime so much, they went to the source material. But it was in the richness of the animated version that many, dare I say most of us founded our fabulous fandom. The manga-to-anime adaptation is more common in Japan than book-to-film would be in the west, and it’s an interesting process. Just like all adaptations, there are jewels and true stinkers. There are times when a manga and an anime are created concurrently, and as such aren’t adaptations of each other but rather different visions (Evangelion, Utena, Brain Powerd, Nadesico, the list goes on). Saint Seiya followed the more traditional route of being adapted into animation with little input from the author (at least until the recent Chapter: Inferno arc, but I won’t go into such detail).
It fell to the anime staff to make something out of Kurumada’s often sparse, blunt manga. His interesting character designs were updated and stylised, in the process mixing shounen sensitivities with shoujo ones. This was both the influence of Michi Himeno, as well as Shingo Araki’s experience in adapting the Shoujo classic, The Rose of Versailles, for animation.
Here’s where I come in. I’ll preface by saying I don’t know how much of an influence Shingo Araki had on the actual writing of the TV show, and the way it handled characterisation. It is also unknown what the input was from Michi Himeno, Araki’s wife and fellow animator, who would take over lead animation duties, giving the characters greater Shoujo stylings.
So, in the anime the characters’ personalities are a bit more strongly delineated than their manga counterparts. Seiya is more headstrong and the butt of many jokes, Hyoga tends to be the foil, the serious angsty one. Shiryu becomes a closer friend of Seiya, and Ikki is… well, he’s still Ikki. Which leaves us with Shun.
The five leads are, indeed, tropelicious. Seiya is the shounen protagonist with a heart of justice, Hyoga is the strong silent one, Shiryu is the mystical one, Ikki is the bad boy, and Shun, who is meant to be the total opposite of his brother, is the girly one.
Shun, the Saint of Andromeda, is a paradox. He represents the constellation of Andromeda, a Goddess. His armour, at the beginning, is pink and female-shaped, which led many early viewers to think Shun was female. He’s depicted as possessing more traditionally ‘female’ traits than some of the female characters, such as the vicious Shaina and the tutoress Marin. He is often chastised by his partners for not being strong enough, for being too merciful, too ‘pure’.
The fact is Shun is simply part of a Japanese stereotype of the strong, feminine male warrior, who is somehow possessed of the female ‘mystique’ while still being deadly (another example would be the villain Seta Soujirou in Rurouni Kenshin). Kurumada’s audience, back then, was the Japanese public, unlike today (when Saint Seiya is primarily a product for export). Shun follows this role down to a tee, where his femininity is, in fact, part of his strength.
And this is all well and good. But when I was 12 years old and delving into this world for the first time, I had little analysis of Japanese culture to inform me of this. And I saw something else.
I saw a character that reflected a part of my reality. While I never looked like a girl, nor tried to, as a kid I tended to shy away from ‘masculine’ activities, mainly meaning sports. Insults about not being ‘man enough’ abounded, which in meaning, if not in tone, were not too dissimilar to the comments made by Shun’s friends about him.
But in Saint Seiya, Shun is not a loser. He is presented as a relatively pathetic character, up until he actually defeats an incredibly powerful enemy all by himself: Pisces Aphrodite, another gender-transgressing warrior. A man who wears lipstick and whose salient features are his cruelty and unparallelled beauty, it is doubtlessly a metaphor for another path that Shun could have chosen. At the last minute, the pacifistic Shun does defeat Aphrodite, and it is revealed that he has had secret powers all along -powers that surpass those of his peers, but which he has never felt compelled to use.
I think I saw a spark there.
There was a place for a boy, who was not a boy. Who had something different about him, which made him stand apart from his peers. But since Shun was in a fantasy, he was accepted for this, because in the end he does wield the male power of violence to defeat an enemy. He just does it differently.
Fast forward to October 2008, then, thirteen years after I first laid eyes on that green haired boy with the chains. And there’s this thing that I know about myself. That I’m certain, and that I want to share with my parents. Because I have a good relationship with them, because I’ve built up my confidence through a series of incredible events I experienced in 2008. Because I love them and I want them to know about a very important part of my life.
So there I was, by sheer coincidence, on Coming Out Day, and I told my parents I was a transsexual girl.
What’s going to happen from now on, I’m not sure. I’m happy that I know who I am. I’m confident in this person who seemed to be buried underneath, occasionally peeking through. And certainly there’s been a lot of things that have helped me get to where I am. But seeing Shun, seeing the boy who was not constrained by what a ‘man’ was, despite being surrounded by a very narrow masculinity, did have something to do with giving me a little spark of confidence.
I’m sure Masami Kurumada never thought of that.