MICHELLE: Hey, MJ! When two angels meet, what do they say to each other?
MJ: Well, judging from the title we’re reading this week, something like, “Die, die, DIE!”?
MICHELLE: The punchline is technically “Halo!,” but I admit that your suggestion is much more appropriate!
I can’t remember whose turn it is to summarize, but I have a feeling you’ll do a great job with Angel Sanctuary, so want to give it a go?
MJ: I’ll do my best!
So, this month’s Manga Moveable Feast is dedicated to the works of Kaori Yuki, an artist whose work I’d had essentially no exposure to at all before the past few days. Though most of her existing work in English was published before I became a manga fan, Viz Media’s new practice of re-releasing older shoujo series in digital form has suddenly made one of them easily available. As Michelle has already indicated, that series is Angel Sanctuary, currently being released at VizManga.com.
Angel Sanctuary begins with the story of Setsuna Mudo, a scrappy high school student with a reputation for fighting, though his weakness as a fighter is that he falls asleep at the sight of blood. His other, greater weakness is that he harbors strong feelings of romantic love for his younger sister, Sara—feelings that she unfortunately returns in kind, which is a source of deep shame for them both.
As it turns out, Setsuna is actually the reincarnation of Alexiel, a powerful angel who long ago rebelled against the growing cruelty of the angelic realm, following the disappearance of God. Alexiel was ultimately defeated and sentenced to be reincarnated into misery, over and over again, but not before sealing away her twin brother, Rosiel, who had led the fight against her.
Though Alexiel has never retained memories from one reincarnation to the next, she’s been protected through all of them by a demon-like personage who makes agreements with humans to carry out their deepest wishes in return for taking control of their mortal bodies to keep himself in Alexiel’s company. In Setsuna’s lifetime, this demon lives in the body of Sakuya Kira, Setsuna’s oldest friend and protector.
Meanwhile, Rosiel’s faithful seek to awaken him from exile by way of a video game called “Angel Sanctuary,” which sacrifices the lives of the humans who play it in order to gather the power required to return Rosiel to corporeal form. This quest is led by Katan, a former lower being who was elevated to angelic status by Rosiel back during the height of his power.
MICHELLE: Nicely done! (Of course, the backstory doesn’t come out nearly as cleanly or clearly in the actual manga, but after a first volume that is, frankly, somewhat of a mess, the pacing for these revelations improves a good deal.)
After tainting himself by taking innocent human life, Katan is dismayed to find that Rosiel, whom he had hoped would end an ongoing power struggle in Heaven, is insane (and probably always has been) and obsessed with tormenting Setsuna to the point that Alexiel awakens, so that he might kill her.
Meanwhile, Kurai and Arachne—two demon survivors formerly protected by Alexiel—also seek the awakening, but for different reasons. This is complicated when Kurai falls in love with Setsuna, since he would cease to exist if Alexiel were to return.
MJ: I’d actually like to return to your parenthetical point up there, because this is really a pretty big deal. After all, I think we both originally thought we’d simply stop after the first excruciating volume, and it was only duty that pushed me on further, at which point I discovered that the story really does get going at long last. Before that, Angel Sanctuary is, to use your words at the time, “quite the slog.”
Unfortunately, some fairly crucial revelations (in terms of making this story work at all) are withheld until the third volume—I’m thinking particularly of the truth about Alexiel’s painful reincarnations. Up until that point, Setsuna and Sara’s agonizing love story feels more like some kind of authorial fetish rather than a meaningful plot point, and given that this is one of the most important relationships in the series, I think this contributed greatly to the “slog” impression, at least on my part. Admittedly, I’m also vastly more interested in the relationships and general character development than I am in the series’ complicated angel mythology, so perhaps this affected me more strongly than it might others, but damn. A little explanation earlier on would have gone a long way towards compelling me forward with something approaching enthusiasm. As it is, I crawled my way to volume three with hands and knees increasingly bloodied. It was not pleasant.
MICHELLE: My experience was quite the same. I don’t have exact quotes to hand, but something about Yuki-sensei’s author-talk columns gave me the feeling that she was congratulating herself for her audaciousness for tackling the subject of incest, so that put me off somewhat. And I have almost no interest in angel power struggles at any time, so hard-to-decipher angel power struggles are even less compelling. This ties in with what I think is the chief flaw of Angel Sanctuary in the early chapters—information overload, before we’ve had time to get to know or care about these characters.
There’s a telling note at the end of volume two, actually, where Yuki-sensei writes:
When someone says, “If you take this part slowly, there’ll be more feeling.” I have to reply, “But this chapter needs to go up to this part of the storyline.” And so, I cut out some, but it’s not enough, so I end up taking out sappy dialogue.
I think she should’ve listened to those people a bit more! Not that I necessarily want more sappy dialogue, but taking things more slowly might’ve, for example, allowed readers to be able to see Sara as her own person—someone who turns out to be stronger and more interesting than I initially expected—before focusing on how she and Setsuna are in love with each other.
MJ: Yes, exactly. I was surprised to find that, by the end of the third volume, I was actually beginning to care about their relationship. And that in itself should be surprising, because it’s the kind of relationship I normally would find compelling from the start, if I cared about the characters in the slightest. It’s worth noting that amidst the recent spate of fanservice-laden, incest-themed moe titles we’ve been seeing, Satsuna and Sara’s plight reads as particularly poignant. It’s never played for laughs, it’s genuinely heartbreaking—it’s got classic romantic tragedy written all over it. It’s more Flowers in the Attic than I Don’t Like You At All, Big Brother!! and I’ll admit I ate that series up with a spoon when I was a teen.
MICHELLE: And though it may be tragic, it’s not as if the characters are playing at a bit of drama. One of the first scenes that got me interested in Sara occurs early in volume two, when Rosiel’s flunky has distributed pictures that look as if Setsuna and Sara are kissing, and she’s been called in to the office at her school. The nun lectures, “Feelings of love between brother and sister belong only to silly, spoiled girls who have fantasies of being some tragic heroine.” Sara’s internal denials of this were what, for the first time, made me realize that she truly was equally serious in her love for Setsuna.
And thankfully, despite the shaky start, I did come to care about other relationships in the series, too. I have a great deal of sympathy for Katan, for example, who sacrificed much for Rosiel’s sake, only to be cast aside for not being obedient enough. And then there’s Kira, who was the one bright spot early on and who continues to be fascinating, as he at first denies that he could possess any affection for Setsuna the “mere human,” but eventually must acknowledge that the merger with his human host has rendered him capable of love.
MJ: I agree—both the relationships you mention here end up being very compelling, and I’d like to discuss them both, too. Let’s start with Katan and Rosiel, because it’s one that gets fleshed out a bit earlier than the others, I think. What I find most heartbreaking here are Katan’s realizations over the course of the first few volumes, because he really is so loyal. He sees Rosiel as a true savior, and is utterly devastated when he finally realizes that, with the exception of himself, Rosiel has acquired all his devoted followers by using some kind of magic capsule to turn them into mind-controlled puppets. I found it particularly interesting that it wasn’t just the discovery of Rosiel’s means that horrified Katan, but specifically that Rosiel resorted to this method when many of his puppets actually had been truly loyal to Rosiel before they were turned. The fact that Rosiel was unwilling to trust that he could lead by appealing to others’ free will seemed to be what really upset Katan.
Then, of course, when Rosiel reveals that he’s not even willing to trust Katan‘s long-proven loyalty, it’s like a dagger to the heart.
MICHELLE: I genuinely loved that reveal about Rosiel’s army, both for the emotional impact on Katan but because it also sparked a tiny glimmer of interest in the angel power struggle. Katan’s dismissal made me wonder—and you’ve read farther than I have, so you might know the answer to this—whether he might eventually defect to the other side and help to defeat Rosiel.
MJ: You are *so* right. After endless pages of wordy exposition filled with names like “Raziel,” “Zaphikel,” and “Sandalphon,” and who’s who in the angelic hierarchy, having a little genuine intrigue and, for lack of a better word, humanity thrown in the mix was a lifesaver. I think this whole thing, including the realization that Rosiel has genuinely gone mad, also helps to make all the characters sympathetic in some way, which is a big deal for me, honestly. I’ve never really been interested in epic stories of good vs. evil (because I don’t really believe in the purity of either one), so the more Yuki grays things up, the better. I like things messy, in every way possible.
It’s this kind of nuance that really makes Kira’s story shine as well. We’re only just beginning to understand his true nature, but one thing that has become central to the story in volumes three and four is his own realization that he’s developed human attachments, and what that means for everyone involved. I was incredibly moved by scenes featuring Kira’s human father, who could not learn to hate his son, even after finding out that the Kira he’d raised from age eleven on wasn’t even his son at all. Some of this may come after the point you’ve read to, but oh, Michelle, it’s some of the best writing in the whole series so far.
MICHELLE: I agree entirely about the scenes between Kira and his father, in which we learn that Kira has been behaving awfully in an attempt to cause this man to abandon his love for his son in preparation of a time when Kira no longer needs that body, and he ends up dying for real, this time. (All of which is at the request of the original Sakuya, with whom demon!Kira is seemingly able to hold conversations.)
Honestly, with supporting characters like Katan and Kira around, I pretty much don’t give a flying flip about Rosiel and Alexiel’s conflict and drama. Perhaps Yuki-sensei will be able to make me care about that, as she was eventually able to do with some other plot elements.
MJ: It’s true, the whole Rosiel vs. Alexiel story is the least interesting thing to me in this entire series, at least by the end of volume four. Which is not to say that I have no interest in them as characters, but despite the fact that they are holding on to this old rivalry so tightly, it’s really their relationships with the other characters that make them who they are in the present. I suppose this is the real tragedy that only the reader can see, and perhaps that’s even something Yuki-sensei is trying to show us—that if Rosiel, especially, could put aside the thirst for power that drove him mad in the first place, and actually recognize the real love and loyalty available to him, vengeance might lose its urgency. I suppose this really is just a lesson for Rosiel, as it seems clear that Alexiel actually prefers to be Setsuna than herself. An early scene that caught my attention is one between Alexiel and Kurai, in which Alexiel admits she’d like to be reborn as a man.
Actually, gender, and particularly unhappiness with one’s biological gender, is an ongoing theme in this series. And while there are some fairly problematic elements in Yuki’s discussion of the subject, there’s so much discussion that it’s difficult to dismiss it all as the usual heteronormative manga gender-bending. It’s difficult to smash the gender binary in English, because we’re so dependent on gender-specific pronouns, but at least one character refers to herself as a “third gender,” and Kurai, for example, manages to be much more nuanced than the typical “tom boy” characterization. So as weary as I get with the endless statements about women only needing to be beautiful and to be protected, there seems to be some deeper thought behind it all.
MICHELLE: Oh, yes, I meant to bring up those statements. I thought it was interesting that most of the lines like “A girl needs to be protected; only then will she be beautiful and gentle” and “Find yourself a guy who’ll protect you” come from one character: Alexiel. That made them a little easier to stomach, like these are her opinions for some reason—she also implies that if she had a man’s love, she might never have conflicted with the other angels—and not necessarily the mangaka’s. True, Setsuna idealizes Sara and believes she must be protected, but then Yuki-sensei shows us that Sara’s not so weak or oblivious, after all. So, I wasn’t as irked by those comments as I otherwise might have been. (But, y’know, still a little irked.)
MJ: I’ll be interested to see where that line of thinking goes as the series continues. I’d like to think that these are beliefs that Yuki-sensei is interested in proving wrong, but it would be foolish to get my hopes up too high on that point.
As I flip through the first few volumes, looking for accompanying artwork, I realize that there are a whole host of characters we haven’t brought up at all, and I have to believe that this is mainly because, so far, they’re really just a part of the whole angelic political turmoil, in which neither of us has the slightest interest. I think it’s quite telling that the characters we have discussed are the ones who have become important in other ways.
MICHELLE: I feel like probably we should talk about Ruri, Sara’s friend, but I really don’t have much to say about her, since we see her as her actual self only briefly. Really, her fate just falls under the “Rosiel schemes to torment Setsuna” heading. And we haven’t even mentioned the super supreme angelic being everyone’s so in awe of, because he simply has no impact on the story as a character. He just appears once and, like, reattaches Setsuna’s arm. (Sidebar: there is a fair amount of arm reattachment in this series.)
MJ: I’d actually be interested in reconvening our discussion sometime after you’ve read volume four, because that’s when the “super supreme angelic being” (aka “Adam Kadamon”) finally becomes something truly significant in the story. The beginning of volume four offers up revelations on most of the topics we have discussed as well, including Kira and his father, Rosiel and Katan, and even Setsuna and Sara, whose story only becomes more poignant as Setsuna finds that he must force himself awake from a dreamworld in which he and Sara are a run-of-the-mill high school boyfriend and girlfriend (no familial ties at all), coexisting happily with all of their friends. Everything comes to a head in the beginning of volume four, leading to the beginning of a new arc just a chapter or so in that I’m hoping will finally make the story’s supernatural politics into something meaningful.
MICHELLE: For all its stumbling at the beginning, I think I’m invested in Angel Sanctuary enough to continue with it, so I am amenable to that suggestion!
MJ: I look forward to it!