‘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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The Fall of Troy as Space Opera Graphic Novel

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“Who would think that such a disaster could be started by something as small as an apple? Yet it could have been just one of those instances where small things can lead to larger things.  Take the right circumstances, the right events, and the right kind of people, and a carefully line of dominoes can be knocked over with just a flick of the finger . . .” Ash Hulme– ‘Troy’

One of the best things about the Our Mythical Childhood project is discovering the incredible creativity that exists in the community.  I think of it as home-made classics.  

When I was in Dunedin last year, I met Ash Hulme, who showed me “Troy,” the graphic novel she has been working on.  It’s a space opera version of the Iliad, and I was blown away by its clarity and inventiveness.  I’ve asked Ash if I can share some pages from it, and included a short written interview with her.  — Elizabeth Hale.

Why Classical Myths?

It may be a cliché, but I think it is in my genes to be drawn to stories and storytelling. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I’m a huge fan of many (what we might call) modern “myths” – Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and other such incredibly complex creations that have wormed their way into our consciousness, becoming almost independent of their original settings or creators.

What has always amazed me, and perhaps even drew me to the Classical myths to begin with, is how incredibly complex and “alive” they seem, even without an identifiable author (in the sense that we know that George Lucas is primarily responsible for Star Wars). Who created these things? The answer is (simultaneously) nobody, and everybody, and that to me is fascinating. At the same time, the much simpler and probably more powerful attraction is that these are genuinely ripping tales.

If I had to point to a singular reason why younger audiences connect so readily with the Classical period, this would have to be it. Children and young adults love the Greek myths for the same reason that such authors as Paul Jennings and Roald Dahl (and modern tales like Captain Underpants) are as popular as they are: because young people are naturally drawn to the absurd, unsettling, amusing, and even mildly gross. The idea of a man chopping up his nephews and feeding them to his brother would horrify us were it to happen in reality. But we are also fixated and titillated for the same reason that we so enjoy tales of “true crime”, and this is equally if not especially true of kids. They’re dark little beings – which is something that most popular children’s authors understand only too well.

***

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copyright Ash Hulme, ‘Troy,’ p 4. 2018

Adaptations

The most surprising thing (to me) about my graphic novel, Troy, is how easy it was to adapt to a space opera setting. Possibly the only indicator that this isn’t taking place in the ancient Mediterranean is the art. Chariots are more like floating scooters; “ships” are spaceships; Olympus is a space station; and there may occasionally be a robot in the background. But the sci-fi elements haven’t really done much to change the essential script, and occasionally I even forget that this isn’t taking place in the original (ancient) setting. Still, this may be because so much speculative fiction is heavily based on the same mythic archetypes.

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copyright Ash Hulme, ‘Troy,’ p 19. 2018

I had the plays of the Greek tragedians as source material, and Homer of course, but most of my research was to sit in the library for hours and copy out some sections from an encyclopaedia of classical myth (my apologies; I forget which one). My process for selecting material (which I may come to regret!) was to include everything that I could get my hands on to do with the Trojan War, while still retaining something close to a cohesive narrative. In particular, I made a note of anything that I thought was funny. This is important, I think, because any war narrative can get quite dark and violent, and there needs to be a lighter side to balance it out.

The Future?

As for future projects, who knows? Most of my prose draws on the Classical tradition in some respect, but more in the sense of fantasy tropes, which do draw heavily from mythology. I have written a couple of fanfics, but nothing very serious. I guess it’s a question of “never say never”, except that I do want to continue working on Troy. The myths are nothing if not engaging. I always had an idea in my head that I would one day write a graphic novel, but I’m a novelist by inclination. I like art, although I can be a bit of a lazy artist, and none of my comic book ideas ever seemed to “stick” before I started on this one.

I honestly didn’t put much initial thought into how it would be received by others, not until my friends and family started to respond as well as they did. If anything, it was an outlet for my own obsession, when other people (especially my mother) got annoyed that I was talking about mythology all the time. That said, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stick with it as long as I have without other people’s positive responses. But my main purpose for engaging with this material is still largely because I enjoy the artistic process, and to find a way to express my interest without annoying the pants off everyone around me.

— Ash Hulme*

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Ash Hulme in the ‘belly’ of the Trojan Horse . . . author’s photo.

*Queries about Troy can be sent to antipodeanodyssey@gmail.com

Oh those Olympians! George O’Connor’s gorgeous graphic novels….

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–Sonya Nevin

ps,  Check out Olympians Rule here at their brilliant website.  http://olympiansrule.com/