Friday, August 15, 2008

Sleep in Light, Saints of Athena

Today is August 15th, 2008. If you care enough to remember about the schedules of the Elysion-Hen release, then you know that the last two OVAs have been aired on Skyperfect TV in Japan. The end of Saint Seiya has been reached. Now that it's all over, I find myself haunted by a question that refuses to let me be.

How do you say good bye?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to answer that question in a manner that satisfied me. It’s hard to say good bye. It hurts, even more so when you say good bye to people you love, and no matter that they may be fictional characters. Endings are things full of a bitter-sweet sensation, a feeling that engulfs you and overwhelms you in a heartbeat.

So it has been for me on numerous occasions, and so it was once again, when I watched the sixth and last episode of Saint Seiya, Elysion-hen. The last episode of The Hades Chapter. The last page of Saint Seiya. True, the story is over, has been over for over fifteen years, when the manga ended. Still, while the anime wasn’t complete, didn’t cover the whole manga story, there remained pieces of the Saint Seiya universe to explore. There remained stories to tell, characters to depict, characters to watch while they struggled through the harsh lives destiny, or rather the whims and inspiration of an author put them through.

In the middle of the usual, virulent criticism branding these OVAs to the worst hell, claiming them to be garbage, an utter waste of time and attention, I have to once again stand apart from those who probably consider themselves better able to judge, more connoisseurs than I. I know, my opinion isn't the fashionable one, it's a really unseemly view of those OVAs, but then I was never one for conformism. While I will readily acknowledge that the OVAs stick to the manga as close as it’s possible to do so, with very little in the way of creation, of inspiration to add threads where they were lacking—the manga is extremely frustrating in the way it deals with Hypnos and Thanatos, and in the way it completely forgets about the whole relationship between Hades and Shun once the Andromeda Saint wins free of the god of death’s soul—it doesn’t turn these OVAs into a complete and utter waste.

Those who claim it’s so prove their own words wrong, as they’re always the first to jump on the first dirty quality release to hit the web, usually through yucky videos on youtube. Again, they prove themselves wrong when they explain that they’ll forget about the OVAs and go back to the manga, which they’ll reread with pleasure. That’s bullshit. The manga holds all the flaws they hate in the OVAs. The OVAs are so faithful to it that everything these people loathe is there, comes from there in the first place.

And anyway, there are beautiful moments in these OVAs. Scenes that are precious, shining jewels, however short. Like the one depicting Ikki’s Houyoku Tenshou, or the one showing his despair at being unable to deploy all his strength, bereft of a Cloth as he is, next to the urn imprisoning the dying Athena.

Seiya’s death? Why, yes, it’s short. It’s brutal. It doesn’t linger, it doesn’t leave time for anguished and despaired farewells. It strikes when you don’t expect it. It strikes when you’re not watching. You focus on Hades sprawled against the tower of his tomb, and when you realize something’s terribly wrong and refocus on the Pegasus Saint, it’s too late. His heart pierced through by Hades’ sword, every heartbeat bleeds his life away, and it’s already almost completely gone. Seiya’s death isn’t Shion’s. It doesn’t linger. It can’t linger. It’s brutal, harsh and unfair, as death in combat is. It’s over and done before you can really feel it and dwell on it. And it’s irrevocable. And the depiction made of it is a good one, it’s realistic, and correct. That’s one thing nobody who knows the tiniest bit about writing can’t deny.

As to Hades himself, well there’s no question about it. The god of Death is magnificent. The eerie look in his eyes, the alienness, detachment and sadness lighting his gaze are haunting. You watch this strange, cruel and yet sorrowful god, this merciless figure, and you wonder: what made him so? What pushed him to the course of action he has chosen? What happened in the past, in the times when the gods and goddesses freely walked the Earth, shook mountains and sent oceans raging with each step? (*)

And then there’s the confrontation between Hades and Athena. At last, the two divinities face each other in battle. Yes, it lacks animation. Yes, it’s too short. But the art, the auras rising from the two are splendid. There may not be enough brutality and violence, the slipping of Athena’s helmet may be a bit stupid (as stupid as in the manga, mind you), but there is something undeniably noble and unearthly coming from the two divinities. That isn’t a failure. The art of Athena’s Cloth, the way it’s worn by Saori Kido are unmistakable winners in my eyes. There’s only one occasion when she has been drawn and made so regal: in the Tenkai-Hen movie.

Contrary to the claims of the OVAs being completely unable to show anything other than what’s been drawn in the manga, we also see nice shots of Earth, and a reminder of those who have a personal interest in the war’s issue. The Sanctuary and Marin, Shaina and Seika, Miho in Japan and Shunrei in China. Those are in the manga, but what’s not and is being offered is the short scene with Julian Solo/Poseidon and Sorento. Waiting at the edge of the cliffs of Cape Sounio, the God of the Oceans and the human being he shares a soul with watch, wait, guarded by his closest friend and servant. In the falling darkness, despair grips the heart of Sorento. Uncertainty…

As to the rest of the critics, they follow the usual complains of lack of animation and fluidity. As stated before, nobody in their right mind would have expected that to change. The lack of a true staffing for the later chapters of the Hades were known. The lack of budget as well. There was no reason for a miracle to happen in the last two episodes. But besides that, what those who have retained the magic of Saint Seiya in their hearts were given the beautiful art of Michi Himeno and Kyoko Chino, and the inspired music of Seiji Yokoyama. We were given a long awaited closure. We were given the occasion to say goodbye to characters, to a universe which has been with us for more than twenty years.

A universe and characters I have no intention of ever letting go.

And so, contrary to many people who now watch Saint Seiya with detachment, with a critical and analytic eye, and find in the series flaws that revolt them, contrary to people who have grown up and grown out of the magic, I am happy to report that I am still as firmly hooked today as I was on the first day when I switched channels and stumbled on the combat between Shun and Jabu in the Galaxian Wars. My heart has been captured by that series ever since that day, and it’s never going to change. It lives on, its characters live on.

It may be that Saint Seiya is some strange kind of a youth fountain, because I’m still the adolescent I was when I first discovered it. The child in my soul is still here, and it’s a good thing. What’s another good thing, is that this child inside me, this part of me is still as stubborn and mean-tempered as it was. So I’m finding that my answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this page is very simple:

You don’t.

You don’t say goodbye.

You keep on cherishing the characters and the universe.

In spite of all the true flaws, you say thank you to all those who made the Hades possible. You say thank you to Shigeyasu Yamauchi for making the Sanctuary chapter the jewel that it is. You say thank you to all the staff that remained after Masami Kurumada drank too much beer and decided to crack down on creativity and inspiration to add new things and complete the holes the mangaka had left in his storyline.

You say thank you to Shingo Araki, Michi Himeno and Kyoko Chino for sticking with Saint Seiya to the end, in spite of weariness, exhaustion, lack of staffing, of means, of time, and of acknowledgment. You say thank you to Seiji Yokoyama for hauntingly beautiful and inspiring music that are at one with the universe they were created for.

You watch the realm of Hades crumble into dust.

You watch the Saints of Athena, battered and hurt, grieving, stumble down the stairs leading away from Hades’ temple, lost in an ocean of desolation. And while you wonder whether they’re also going to die here, to forever lie in the dust, in a realm of darkness, forgotten and alone, you watch the goddess Athena come behind them, and you watch the light radiate from her to enfold them all.

In the sky, the sun shines again over the world.

Over the Sanctuary.

Over Cape Sounio.

And the gods aren’t gone.

The magic isn’t done. It’s not dried up.

It’s there.

It’s here.

With us, inside our hearts, if only we’ll acknowledge it and believe in it.

I do.

Saint Seiya, I love you.

As usual, you can find this review with beautiful images from the episodes on my web home, here.

(*) After thinking long and hard about that, and trying to find coherence, I did come up with an answer. Read Thieves of Light, and tell me what you think, if you manage to read it to its end.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Spin, Tragedy, Spin !

As the whole world now knows, there’s a state of war between Georgia and the Russian Federation. The Bush Administration, unsurprisingly, is calling upon Russia to stop its unwarranted, savage aggression of a sovereign country. And of course, most of the western capitals are following suit. Of course.

The Big Bad Russian Bear is on a rampage. What are free, democratic and civilized countries to do, but rally to the defense of the poor, gentle David being trampled under evil Goliath’s mighty foot?

What else can we do, when evil Russian Commies^H^H^H^H^H^H ooops, erm, bad guys are threatening the free world? What, I ask you? Parallels with the cold war are drawn, with the invasion of Czechoslovakia…a general recasting of the cold war and its “Communist menace upon the free world”(*) is being re-enacted before our eyes, courtesy of the TV networks, kindly fed by governmental agencies.

One thing is true in all this: there’s a war going on there, and as in all wars, those who’re paying the price are the innocent, the civilians, played as pawns on the chessboards by people who have no soul, no heart, and no dignity. No honor.

As for the rest…if you read the newspapers, if you listen for dissonant voices, you’ll get quite another story. And if you strain your memory, and focus on remembering news that are now around 4 years old, you’ll start wondering.

So, let’s go back 4 years. In Georgia, the elections renew the presidential mandate of Mr. Saakashvili. However, his election was a very close thing, instead of the plebiscite he’d been hoping for. Who’s Mr. Saakashvili? Well, again, focus on the past, and you’ll remember this man came straight from the US, so closely intertwined with the US interests that there was no hiding he was a US creature. He was first elected because people believed his American connections would help rebuild their country, depleted by generations of USSR rule. But this didn’t happen. Saakashvili used his contacts and connections to get American and Israeli instructors for his military…oh, and weapons and equipment as well, of course.

In the meantime, as these things go, and went in the Balkans, regions of Georgia where a majority of Russian population lived started wanting out of Georgia, for many reasons: growing intolerance toward them, toward their language, etc. Obviously, there’s oil in there somewhere as well. If there wasn’t, you’d never have had the US send military instructors and waste time on such a “backwater” place as Georgia. So, Abkhazia and South Ossetia severed themselves from Georgia. South Ossetia declared independence. There was strife, there were battles. The UNO settled the matter, and Russian peace soldiers were sent to the South Ossetia region under UNO mandate.

Time passed. The promises of riches of Mr. Saakashvili didn’t happen. People started grumbling, discontent flared. To be re-elected in 2004, Mr. Saakashvili promised he’d retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He played on nationalism. And he won. Narrowly. We were now almost to the end of his presidential term. None of the promises of regaining lost territory had been kept. People’s discontent caused this “democratic leader” to start taking authoritarian measures, to turn democratic Georgia into an autocratic state. Still, it wasn’t enough to crack down on freedom there. Promises had to be kept, at least one of them. Abkhazia was too difficult to retake. South Ossetia, on the other hand….

And then came the Olympics, and the opening ceremony. And the world’s eyes turned toward China. And Mr. Saakashvili decided to play his card: he sent his army to retake South Ossetia. His hope was that the world’s attention being focused elsewhere, Vladimir Putin being in Beijing, by the time Russia would react, it would be too late: he’d have retaken enough of the South Ossetia region to force negotiations, truce, and to haggle his way into regaining South Ossetia as a whole.

But there were two mistakes in Mr. Saakashvili’s plan (never mind that it would imply the deaths of innocent civilians, after all, martyrs are good things for a cause):
  • he underestimated Russia’s capacity to react quickly, and the fact that even though Putin was in Beijing, his right arm was in Moscow.
  • Mr. Saakashvili’s army was stupid enough to kill Russian peace soldiers, there under a UNO mandate, thus forcing the hand of Russia. Even if Russia had wished to delay its reaction, the death of its soldiers forced it to react at once as it has done.

And so here we are. We’re watching a war unfold. We’re watching innocent being murdered, because a man, pawn of the US and “champion of democracy”, is a dictator like all the others, and will not relinquish power. Because his own people are nothing but chess pieces, because Mr. Saakashvili knew that once he started the mess, the bloodshed in South Ossetia, all his western allies would rally, the US first and foremost among them, to call off the Big Bad Russian Bear. There’s too much at stake:
  • appearances, first. After all, Mr. Saakashvili is the US champion and a very tainted flag of democracy (but it doesn’t matter, as long as the American citizens remain ignorant of the truth of what’s happening in South Ossetia).
  • oil, second. Because the Caspian sea is to Georgia’s East, while the Black sea is to Georgia’s West. And it’s a crucial path to get oil from the Caspian sea to the Mediterranean sea and the West, through the Black sea. A path that avoids Russia.

There, now you have the whole picture. People are dying, innocent people, for the power of a dictator hiding between a veneer of democracy that’s so ripped and stained everyone can see through it, and also for oil. And Mr. Saakashvili and his goons started it, Russia continued it. And people are dying. As always, the innocent pay the price for war. As always, none of the two sides are innocent. There’s no black and white. Everyone is at fault.

And now that a power-hungry autocrat named Saakashvili has foolishly rattled the Big Bad Russian Bear, and given a it the perfect pretext to come playing in Georgia, where will it stop? Where will Russia stop, now that it's been invited in to play, and that it's standing inches away from gaining not only South Ossetia but also Abkhazia? and what if Ukraine starts wanting to play as well, and starts rattling the Big Bad Bear some more by threatening to prevent the return of its warships to Sebastopol? Where does it stop, Mr. Saakashvili? Where? When? How many deaths for your ambition? It's oh, so very nice to shout that you're ready to negotiate a cease-fire, and that your troops are withdrawing out of Ossetia. It's too late. And you knew it would be. You knew, and yet you gambled. You played with your pawns, with people's lives. And you might as well have killed them all yourself. And all that happens from now on, all the pain, all the damage, all the sorrow, all that will be on your bill, Mr. Saakashvili. I hope you'll be ready when they come to collect.

But then, maybe this isn’t important. After all, the Olympics have started, and what matters is the number of gold medals we get, right? Not the dead. Not the maimed. Not the raped. Not the freedom of Chinese people. Not the respect of Chinese people who were put to work to build the Olympics facilities for wages so low you wouldn’t live a day off them, and then chased away because they’d stain the games if the tourists or the athletes, or the world laid eyes upon them. The Earth’s damned. We had them in the 19th century. China has them now, and it keeps them fettered, in close control. After all, they’re the key of its economic miracle. Slaves, serfs, are the key of capitalism’ success. But then, there’s nothing new here.

Good night, and good luck.

(*) when you compare the harm, grief, sorrow, deaths caused by the “Communist menace” and those caused by the overwhelming, crushing rise of unfettered capitalism and neo-liberalism, I find myself hard put to get a winner in terms of damage, pain and evil. One (the “Communist” thingy) was openly dictatorial, sent its people to gulags and tortured or killed them if they didn’t comply. The other (capitalism) has selected a few nations to be on top, happy, free and rich thanks to the sweat, blood, pain and death of billions of other people. These other people aren’t deported to gulags. They’re starved in their own countryside, until they’re forced to march to where factories are, than forced to accept labor conditions only slaves and serfs of the middle-ages knew. Those other people die before they reach retirement (and anyway there’s no pension for them, no doctors, no health care, nothing). Their kids are put to work as well, be it in factories or brothels. And we prosper. So, really, when comparing, I don’t know which is worse between the two evils that are Communist dictatorships and triumphant capitalism—wait, no I think I know what’s worse: a power that combines both.

That’s China.