‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’ Ulysses 31 and other Japanese adventures in classical reception

This is the basis of a short talk I’m giving at UNE this week, for our Asian Studies Symposium, organised by my colleague, John C. Ryan. It’s a nice opportunity to reflect on some of the findings that have come my way through working on the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

For some reason, Ulysses 31, a Franco-Japanese animated space opera passed me by as a kid watching tv in 1980s New Zealand. But working on the Our Mythical Childhood project has caught me up on this wonderfully wacky version of Homer’s Odyssey in which a space-warrior, Ulysses, with majestic bearing and amazing hair, is trapped in Olympus with his son, Telemachus, Telemachus’s timid robot Nono, and Yumi, a blue-skinned alien girl (who is trying to revive her brother, Numinor who is in suspended animation following an unfortunate encounter with some Cyclops). They travel through the space known as Olympus, and try to make their way home, visiting strange planets, and having adventures loosely based on the adventures of the original Ulysses.

Ulysses 31

Hot pool time machine? Thermae Romae

Japanese adaptation of classical material is a fascinating field, especially because of its vivid visuals, and its unusual combination of imagination and humour. My first encounter with it was probably Mari Yamizaki’s amazing manga series, Thermae Romae (2012). This series, which has been adapted into an animated series, and two films, features the adventures of Lucius, a Roman bath-designer who is stuck for ideas, and is magically transported to modern-day Japan, where he is struck with awe (as we all are) by Japanese bathroom facilities. Travelling back to his own time and place, he adapts what he has seen into his designs, and becomes an in-demand designer, favoured by the Emperor, Hadrian. Being in-demand in Ancient Rome, of course, can be quite a precarious situation, and adventures, and mayhem, ensue.

Apart from its potty scenario, what I like so much about Therumae Romae is the way Yamazaki exploits the similarities and differences of Roman and Japanese societies. Both are known for their love of baths, both countries are known for their hot springs, and perhaps less obviously both cultures are polytheistic, and full of interesting and unusual superstitions, gods, and mythical creatures.

Mythical Creatures and Romantic Comedy:A Centaur’s Life

Mythical creatures appear in all sorts of Japanese films and manga. I think of Hayao Miyazaki’s well-known animations, such as the marvellous Spirited Away, in which the heroine, Chihiro, has to work at a mysterious bath-house (another bath house!) where the myriad spirits of Japanese culture come to relax. The variety of spirits, who represent aspects of air and water, land and sky, and different kinds of emotions, is not so far removed from the symbolism of the Greek and Roman myths, gods, and metamorphoses.

A Centaur’s Life (2011- present) by Kei Murayama, is a popular coming-of-age romance-oriented comedy-soap-opera manga about the life and worries (the original Japanese translates literally as ‘A Centaur’s Worries’) of a teenage centaur, Himeno Kimihara. Dating, career, friends, growing up, overcoming fears, learning new skills, these are the focus of this amusing (and sometimes racy) series. Himeno is not the only mythical creature in this story, featuring satyrs, mermaids, and demons, and suggesting that adolescence is a metamorphic and mythical state, to be viewed with caution.

Boy Bands and Classical Busts: Sekkou Boys

I’ve written before about Sekkou Boys, a short comedy anime series that sends up the boy band industry and the Japanese obsession with pop idols. It features a quartet of classical gypsum busts (Mars, Hermes, St Giorgio, and Medici) who are trying to become more than one-hit wonders, in company with their rookie manager Miki.  Like A Centaur’s Life, Sekkou Boys doesn’t labour the classical angle, but occasionally draws on the busts’ history and character, such as when the cheeky Hermes operates a side-line, selling health supplements. The supplements are called ‘Trismegistus,’ in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the thrice-great Hermes, associated with healing and wisdom.

Getting Serious: Historical Manga

Other instances of Japanese classical reception are more serious. In Plinius, Mari Yamazaki teams up with another manga-great, Miki Tori, to retell the life of the great Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny. Another historical biography is called Historie, by Hitoshi Iwaaki: it tells the imagined life of Eumenes, a secretary to Alexander the Great, and later a General himself. These works provide lavish illustrations of the ancient world, and allow readers entry into them through vivid characters with interesting lives.

Metamorphosis and Invention: Kid Icarus, Persona, Ludere Deorum

Invention, imagination, filling in gaps, and adapting and modifying material for new contexts is a part of Classical Reception, in Japan and elsewhere as well. Classical material finds its way into games as well as stories and films, such as the hit Nintendo game, Kid Icarus, in which a flying boy leaps up platforms propped by classical columns, and shoots arrows to collect hearts as currency. Sequels, such as Kid Icarus: Myths and Monsters and Kid Icarus: Uprising are popular, and extend the figure into an elaborate mythical-verse, involving goodies, baddies, battles, metamorphoses and more.

Metamorphosis is a vital part in other games, such as Persona, by Atlus games, in which players transform into heroic figures from Greek and Roman myth, such as Orpheus the great poet and singer, and Nyx, the goddess of the night. In this game, which the Belarussian students in the Our Mythical Childhood project have written about, players explore their characters’ emotions even as they work on strategy and gamesmanship, showing the increasing sophistication and reach of games, and the power of myth to connect to young people’s emotions.

Ludere Deorum

Ludere Deorum, a story about humans transported to the school of the gods, in order to increase the bonds between gods and humans, further crosses over between visual novel and game. In it, readers/viewers/players travel with a Japanese schoolgirl, Yui, from Japan to the godly realm, to romance different gods (Apollon, Hades, Tsukito, Takeru, Balder, Loki, Anubis, and Thoth), in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story/game.

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’

One of the many wonderful things about visual storytelling is that anything is possible in what the artists choose to show us, even the gods of the 31st century. And yet within them all, certain themes emerge: the writers, artists, animators and more, are using Greek and Roman myths and history to think about invention, and adaptation, about choices and options, about emotions and growth, about what it means to be a human–in Greece, in Rome, in Japan, and even in the 31st Century.

–Elizabeth Hale

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Finding Icarus … Our Mythical Childhood Turns Two

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (1991). Used under Creative Commons License (accessed: May 24, 2018).

A very Mythical anniversary

On 1 October, 2 years ago, we began work on the Our Mythical Childhood project, and so, we are now two!  It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve found out.  Look here, at the Our Mythical Childhood website, and here, at the Our Mythical Childhood facebook, twitter, and blog pages, for summaries and updates.  There’s always something happening.

In honour of our second birthday, I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of the findings from the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  Because Miriam Riverlea and I are writing a guide to the field, we scour the site often, looking for inspiration, ideas, and illuminations among the entries that we, and our colleagues, have written.

If our project has turned two, that means we are two years into the five years of the project.  Which means we’ve come through our adolescence, and are into our adult years.  It means we’re striving, we’re growing wings, we’re hoping to fly.  I therefore looked up the term ‘Icarus.’

Who among us doesn’t wish to fly?

The myth of Icarus is often used to think about the adolescent years, years that are often depicted as times of striving, questing, struggling, failing, and falling to earth with a bump.  How many adolescents, and children for that matter, don’t listen to their parents?  How many children, it might be noted, find themselves in difficult situations because of their parents’ actions? (Icarus isn’t necessarily flying by his own choice.)  The complex of emotions and interactions in the Icarus myth map well onto children’s and young adult literature –adolescent enjoyment of risk-taking; the power, and peril, of invention and creativity, child-parent conflict and love.

'The_Fall_of_Icarus',_17th_century,_Musée_Antoine_Vivenel

Looking for Icarus

Searching Icarus in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey brought up 34 entries, from the literary, oral, electronic, and audiovisual categories.  I’ve selected a few, ones in which the Icarus myth features.

Icarus and the Sages

This 1976 Russian animation directed and written by Fyodor Khitruk shows Icarus living in the clouds with the philosophers, who have all found their places in history.  Determined to be known for something, he makes a machine and attempts to fly. Hanna Paulouskaya points out in entry 43 on Icarus and the Sages, that although he falls, the moral of the story (which conflates Icarus’s famous fall, with his father Daedalus’s invention),is to take a leap, to explore the freedom of ideas and inventions.  You can watch the film here on the Soyuz Multifilm youtube site:

Melting Point

Australian writer, Nadia Wheatley, is best-known for her book My Place which chronicles the history of one part of Sydney from 1788 to 1988.  Her sensitivity to history and cultural changes appears again in ‘Melting Point,’ a 1994 short story about a Greek-Australian teenager, Xenia, who meditates on her heritage while translating Ovid’s version of the fall of Icarus, in class.  In entry 132 on ‘Melting Point’, Miriam Riverlea notes ‘Melting Point is a unique and complex retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and an important text for the study of reception of myth itself.’

Be Careful, Icarus!

American writer Joan Holub is the co-author of the Goddess Girls series of popular tween fiction.  In Be Careful, Icarus! (2015) she teams up with illustrator Leslie Patricelli, to take on the challenge of telling myths for babies.  As Sonya Nevin notes in entry 229, Be Careful, Icarus! is ‘a beautifully-illustrated series that creatively transposes ancient myths into real-life scenarios faced by pre-school-aged children.’

Icarus Swinebuckle

Another American picture book is this lovely one, Icarus Swinebuckle (entry 300), written and illustrated by Michael Garland in the year 2000.  Icarus Swinebuckle is a pig who wants to fly, and though his friends and neighbours think it’s impossible, he perserveres.  Garland sets this version in the American age of invention–his Icarus dresses rather like Benjamin Franklin, to humorous and moving effect.

Harry and Hortense at Hormone High

In this intense young adult novel by a third American, Paul Zindel (1984), a boy who believes he is the reincarnation of Icarus, and has the power to change the world, falls to a tragic end, observed by his friends who are unable to help or save him.  Here, the myth’s tragic qualities are highlighted, in a meditation on mental illness, coming of age, and adolescent agency.  See entry 133 on Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, by Miriam Riverlea.

Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus is a popular video game produced by Japanese games-maker, Nintendo.  It appeared first in 1986, and was rebooted in 2012.  Here, a boy called Pit, a boy angel, leader of the ‘Icarus’ army, breaks free from the underworld where Medusa has trapped his leader, Palutena. Using his special skills, he fights to overcome Medusa and restore light to the darkness.  As Nanci Santos notes in entry 338, Kid Icarus works with a basic good vs evil format, and draws on a range of mythologies to create its worldview.

How Lunga Went to the Sky Alive

For entry 161, Divine Che Neba collected this myth, How Lunga Went to the Sky Alivefrom a storyteller in Ndu, in the North West of Cameroon. It’s about Lunga, a man with mythical properties, who visits the heavens to consult the gods about a problem.  But the gods are not there, and to return, the servants tie him to some ropes, for him to jump safely back to earth.  On his journey downwards, the winds disconnect him, and he falls to earth.  Because of his mythic properties, he does not die, but his footprints can still be seen in the rocks where he landed.

 

Icarus is everywhere

These are just a few examples, and I’ve only chosen items that feature Icarus or have parallels to his story.  He appears as a supporting character in many other texts.

The appeal of the myth is clear: the gift, and the curse, of flight features throughout, and the story’s ready adaptation to cautionary tales, morality fables, emotional dilemmas, and more.  And Icarus appears in many places, well beyond children’s literature.  The Icarus Project, for instance, is a mental health organisation; Icarus is the title of a documentary about doping in competitive cycling; it’s also the title of a Journal of Solar System Studies, and the name given to drones, to devices to hack and hijack drones, and also to insure drones.  The Icarus Deception is a how-to book to help you unleash your creativity.  The Icarus Factor is a very strange episode of Star Trek: Next Generation;  Codename Icarus is a creepy kid’s spy show from the 1970s. And so on…

Resonances of flight, of falling, of frailty, of creativity and invention, of hubris, of love and fear of the sun, and an ambiguous relation to authority and agency abound. . .   It won’t be long before there are well more than 34 entries on Icarus in the Our Mythical Survey.

Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quaerite et Invenietis: Surveying Classics in Children’s Literature

Hot tip for researchers in classical reception!  In Warsaw this month, the OurMythicalChildhood team launched its wonderful survey of Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture Inspired by Classical Antiquity  Read on to find out more . . . .

I’m writing this from Chopin airport, waiting for my plane to take me away from the magic that is OurMythicalChildhood’s Warsaw team.  It was a wonderful visit: exciting and challenging.  I’ll be posting more about it in the next weeks, as I’m hoping to share some of what the students in the project have been up to.  At The Present Meets the Past they gave excellent presentations about their discoveries while working on the survey, sharing their findings from literature, film, games, and toys: they’re sending me information for a posting later in June.

In the meantime, some information about the survey.  It represents the work of the past year, in which our teams have been gathering entries from around the world.  Currently there are 450 entries, and we’re committed to producing over 1000 more during the project.  See the OurMythicalChildhood website for more information about the project as a whole.

The survey is truly a team effort.  Each entry is written by a researcher, identifying and uncovering the classical elements in books, films, games, toys, and ephemera from children’s culture around the world.  It is peer-reviewed twice by senior members of the team, checking for accuracy and insights.  Each entry contains a summary and analysis of the item, providing scholarly insights from different angles (classics, reception, children’s literature, film…).  Each entry is also tagged with markers from different fields of knowledge–classics, children’s literature, genre, more . ., throwing up interesting combinations and providing surprising results.

This survey will be a useful tool for researchers and teachers of classical antiquity and children’s literature alike.  It reveals the ongoing power of classics in popular culture day, the care and enjoyment with which children’s writers draw on ancient motifs, and the sheer fun that is to be had in finding one’s way through a labyrinth of curious texts.

Katarzyna Marciniak launched the survey during the Present Meets the Past workshop, and it is open for use, as a living work of scholarly inquiry.  So we invite you, please, to use it and to join with us in our mythical explorations.  The motto at the base of the site reads: Quaerite et invenietis (seek, and ye shall find), and we hope you will find what you’re looking for, and more, and that you will also share with us your discoveries and insights along the way.

Screenshot 20http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey18-05-31 17.21.26

–Elizabeth Hale

Lego, Legere . . . the Brickman Wonders of the World at Te Papa

Let’s go Build: A Festival for LEGO Lovers – and Lovers of Antiquity!

Babette Pütz is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.  She has a love of children’s literature alongside her expertise in classics, and has been contributing mightily to the forthcoming Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  Over the summer she took her children to see the Brickman Wonders of the World exhibition at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.  Here’s her report on an event that unites play, learning, classical knowledge, and of course Lego!

On one of those rainy Wellington summer afternoons, we took our kids to the Brickman Wonders of the World LEGO exhibition at Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand). This was lots of fun for the whole family from pre-schoolers to school kids to grown-ups, as you could not just look at the large collection of iconic world landmarks built of LEGO bricks by Brickman Ryan McNaught and his team, but there were thousands of Lego bricks available to build your own (though smaller) versions of the structures.

Version 2

I was delighted to see how many of the fifty buildings and machines on display were ancient. Shown were the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Egyptian Pyramids plus Sphinx and a Sarcophagus. My favourite was the Trojan Horse which had just been pulled into the citadel of Troy, represented by a piece of wall and a gate. It even included a little flap through which a Greek soldier was peeking out. I would not be surprised if the horse had been vaguely modelled on the Mykonos vase, as the playful style of the horse on the pithos is ideal to be copied in LEGO.

One side of the LEGO horse showed the outside of the horse, the other side was open to reveal what was going on inside. My 9 and 10 year olds, who fancy themselves experts in ancient Mythology after reading and re-reading the Percy Jackson books, had lots of fun finding little jokes, such as a little LEGO soldier inside the horse, sitting at a table and munching a pie and croissant.

Version 2

Such fun elements aside, clearly much research had gone into planning these models and even more creativity was needed to represent them as closely as possible to the original in LEGO. Signs gave brief explanations about the original ancient structures, how many hours and bricks it took to build each model (the Trojan horse was one of the smaller and faster models, having been built in 53 hours out of 9 500 LEGO bricks) and which difficulties the builder faced, such as having to simplify parts of the decoration of buildings or statues in order to make them LEGO compatible, what to do about the lack of golden LEGO bricks, or having to use metal wire inside the model to keep it standing up.

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If you live in Wellington or if the exhibition comes to where you live, make sure not to miss it and plan in several hours, especially if you are accompanied by young LEGO building enthusiasts!

Babette Pütz

Classics beneath the waves . . . the monsters and mythology of The Deep

Some of the best children’s products are those that entrance adults too, and I am not ashamed to say that I fell, hook line and sinker, for The Deep, an animated adventure series about a family of underwater explorers.

The Deep

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 1.00.40 pm
The Deep began life as a graphic novel, by Melbourne writer Tom Taylor and Brisbane artist James Brouwer, and published by Perth comics publisher, Gestalt.  It concerns the Nektons, a family of aquanauts who explore the oceans in their amazing submarine, the Arronax.  As they journey, they encounter mythical beasts and creatures, usually (but not always) finding a scientific explanation.  They also have some very cool gadgets, including the ‘knights,’ elaborate ‘extra-vehicular activity suits’ which enable them to do some serious discovery work.
Fontaine Nekton in the White Knight EVA suit
Fontaine Nekton in the White Knight EVA suit (image courtesy of The Deep Wikia
At the heart of the story is the Nektons’ possible connection to a lost ancient civilisation, called Lemuria (similar to Atlantis). And in its adaptation for TV by an international collaboration between Australia and Canada, this story  runs delightfully through episodes.  It’s got it all, in fact: a good-hearted set of heroes, including the boy wonder, Antaeus (named for the son of Gaia and Poseidon) and his best friend Jeffrey, a tropical fish with a mysterious past; his sarcastic older sister Fontaine and her possible love-interest, the piratical Finn; and a pair of scientist parents, Will and Kaiko.
The name Nekton comes from a scientific term for the ‘aggregate of actively swimming aquatic organisms in a body of water.’  It turns out the Nekton family, who are all magnificent swimmers, are also descendants of the Lemurians. Together with some mysterious guardians, named after Greek and Roman sea gods (Tethys, Glaucus, Proteus), they search for the lost continent.  As they do, the find mysterious underwater temples, disappearing islands, ancient shipwrecks, and a curious labyrinth in which lurks a pair of seahorse-like Minotaurs.
As January slips away, this is our final Saturnalian surprise.  So where better to conclude than my  own favourite discovery from the first year of researching Our Mythical Childhood.  The Deep was a surprise to me because of its elegant interweaving of mythical and scientific matters, in a wholesome show for children that is engrossing for adult viewers too.  It’s also absolutely gorgeous to look at.

 The Deep Trailer

If you like underwater scenery, beautifully realised, with myth, monsters, and more, then take the time to watch The Deep.  There are 2 series already airing, with a third in the works, and I hope there’ll be many more . . .
— Elizabeth Hale