Listening In

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Death gods and fashion victim ninja

3rd-4th March 2007

Kyou nite mo
Kyou natsukashii ya

(Even in Kyoto,
I long for Kyoto...
The cuckoo cries)

I don't know what prompted Basho to write that all those years ago in the 17th century but there is much in Kyoto - stage of an era, a mood, a dream - that draws out natsukashii.

It is a word heard a great deal elsewhere in Japan too. You say it when you see something that brings back memories; you say it when you long for something in the past.

But even though I'm now in a city thick with memory, my first natsukashii moment had nothing to do with it. It did, however, have everything to do with a young ninja in an orange jumpsuit.

The name's Naruto; the premise, a wildly popular manga and anime series that drives a merchandising juggernaut. Sorry - the premise, a wildly popular manga and anime series about a boy who, despite terrible skills and unfortunate fashion choices, wants to become the head honcho of his ninja village.

The series, also called Naruto, runs on adventure, friendship and fights that sprawl over a couple of chapters (or episodes). In other words, it's a typical shounen work. Here's the plot in a peanut shell: hero goes on adventure to save friend. He fights. A lot. He makes friends. They fight too. A lot.

Shounen, or boy, is the tag usually stuck on stories like these because they're seen as male-oriented. Who cares if some of the most popular series are written by women or if a large chunk of the audience is female? The tag saves us from thinking and that's all that matters.

I suppose I should use the freed-up brain cells to think about exactly why I spent so much time watching Naruto. After all, I like only one character, I'm not amused by most of the humour and the heavyhandedness makes me wince ('This Is The Moral Of The Story! Look, We've Done It In Neon CGI!').

But I followed the series for about 145 episodes, stopping only because it had descended into filler hell. Fillers are what happens when the anime storyline catches up with the manga's and to stall for time, the anime team comes up with its own material.

Despite their F-word reputation, fillers aren't always bad. Naruto's, on the other hand, sparked outrage on a scale not seen since the ending of Evangelion was aired (Evangelion: mind-bending anime classic with giant robots and a penguin. Evangelion ending: controversy and viewer screams heard all the way over on the Korean peninsula).

After more than a year of fillers, Naruto: The Return Of The Manga Storyline was aired. More widely known as Naruto: Shippuuden, it started running last month and I went warily over to see if I should give the relationship one more try or move on.

And they were all there - the hooks that had kept me watching for so long. The action, the occasional humour that works so well you hang about hoping for more, and plenty of screen time for my favourite character: a top-ranking ninja who teaches while reading racy books.

Natsukashii naa...

But happy and hooked as I am, I can't help doing what I always did whenever I watched Naruto: compare it with Bleach.

According to the Bleach author, heaven is a place called Soul Society and the ones regulating the flow of souls between heaven and earth are the shinigami - death gods. One of them ends up transferring her powers to a 15-year-old boy while on a mission to earth (as will happen when you're out in the field) and the two have to work together to function as one death god without attracting the attention of the head office.

You don't have to look hard to find the similarities with Naruto. For starters, both are long-running series built on familiar shounen lines. In Naruto, the hero goes on an adventure to find and save a friend who's embraced the dark side of the Force. Fights ensue. In Bleach, the hero goes on an adventure to save a friend who's been jailed by the dark side of the head office. Fights ensue.

Both manga are also animated by the same studio and share voice actors ('Naruto, I've found Sasuke! He's in Bleach!').

Even though I watched close to 150 episodes of Naruto before giving up, I knew within 10 episodes that if it came down to a fight between the ninja and the shinigami, I was squarely in the camp of the men (and women and giant furry beastie) in black.

They're dressed so much better in Bleach - the death gods wear black kimono and hakama (traditional Japanese pleated trousers). It's a look which fits the job; you certainly wouldn't confuse a shinigami with the postman.

Naruto, on the other hand, is togged out in orange while his female sidekick has opted for red. It'd work if they were supposed to be two thirds of a traffic light but they need to hand out sunglasses if they want to make it as masters of stealth. (Another ninja in Naruto goes about with a giant gourd of sand on his back. How inconspicuous can you be if you keep toting a mini beach?)

Bleach also scores because the jokes are actually funny. And because I'd rather spend time hanging out with the death gods than the ninja.

Besides, the shinigami all carry swords. Known as zanpakutou, the swords reflect their owners' personalities. For example, a character so regal he makes the Queen look like a fishwife has a zanpakutou that scatters into sharp fragments which encompass the enemy. Because the fragments look like a shower of cherry blossoms, the zanpakutou is called Senbon Zakura - a thousand cherry trees. Impossibly elegant and very, very cool.

Yet the zanpakutou are more than extensions of personality; they are personalities in their own right and the shinigami can unlock their powers only if they can hear the names of their swords.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I spent ages playing 'If I had a zanpakutou, what would it be like?'* even though it was time I had set aside to work on my first novel.

But then, the stories I want to tell are like Bleach. There are no swords in my novel and the ideas about salvation are very different but it aims for a world which, like Bleach's, makes the reader want to hold on even after the last word on the last page says, let go.

Some books I admire for language, others for ideas or technical pyrotechnics but a work becomes a story only if it makes me want to stay.

It's stories I want to tell.

That's all.

Not quite all - make that stories which find their way to an agent and a publisher because rejection slips are like death by a thousand paper cuts.

I have made a zanpakutou of a story - a zanpakutou waiting to see if its name will be heard.

If, after the last word lets you go, would you stay a little longer? If, after you leave as you will eventually have to, would you return?

- I hope -

A bird of mine calls; you know its name, memory gives you wings back and -

Natsukashii naa...

* What is my zanpakutou like? I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

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