In Japan, there is a popular saying, “If a man retains his virginity until he is thirty, he will become a wizard.” So, instead of making anime series about magical schoolgirls, production companies should make series about magical middle-aged men.
Historical fiction has always been a very popular genre in Japan, from the early days of Japanese cinema with Akira Kurosawa to the period dramas currently aired on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Granted, because they’re fiction, some of the events or figures may be skewed to present an interesting narrative. For example, in 2008 when NHK aired their widely popular period drama Atsuhime, while I’m sure many of the set pieces and major events were accurate, the smaller details of dialog were written to add drama to the series. However, it’s the writing that helped the series retain its high viewership, so I have very little qualms about the practice. Even the online series Extra History, which talks about historical events, adds a narrative to the historical content, making it compelling to watch. Thus, adding a narrative can make learning about history far more interesting, in my mind, as it enhances the experience of memorizing dates and the names of historical figures.
The anime and manga industries also have a large swath of series centered on historical events and figures. While some definitely try to educate people about historical facts, many simply tell a captivating story using the historical events as a backdrop. Fans of the medium might instantly think of such series as Sengoku Basara, Hetalia: Axis Powers, The Rose of Versailles, and Berserk, among others. I have very few opinions about each of these series considering I hardly paid the first and second any attention, am in the process of watching the third, and have little familiarity with the fourth. Nevertheless, I will say they each retain the core of what makes historical fiction interesting. Then there is historical fiction that is heavy on fantasy as well. One such series is Masayuki Ishikawa’s Maria the Virgin Witch (純潔のマリア Jyunketsu no Maria) and his subsequent one volume collection of short stories, Maria the Virgin Witch Exhibition (純潔のマリア Exhibition Jyunketsu no Maria Exhibition). While the series is light on historical facts, it managed to present a fascinating narrative throughout. This was partially achieved by creating a nice parallel between the protagonist, on the one hand, and Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, on the other, despite Christ being an overused trope in modern media. The series being sparse on historical facts is not much of a problem. However, one needs to have a relatively strong understanding of figures from the Bible as well as some ancient Greek gods to fully appreciate the themes of the different characters.
Learning history can be a daunting task at times. The dates and people one has to remember can become overwhelming and the literature is hardly engaging. This doesn’t mean history isn’t interesting, but rather how it’s presented is more often than not dry. The historical fiction genre is important in this regard as it can make history more appealing by presenting a narrative of the events we learn about. Historical fantasies are similar in this regard, and though they place less emphasis on historical events, it can inspire readers or viewers to seek out information about the subject matter.
While Maria the Virgin Witch is rather light on historical facts, as readers we can still glean the era in which the story takes place. By looking at the character designs, more specifically the male character designs, we understand the setting is during Europe’s feudal period, between the fifth and fifteenth century CE. However, by examining the text we come to find the story is set in France after 1431, but before 1453. The catch copy of the series clearly states it’s set during the Hundred Years’ War, yet the reason we can infer those specific dates comes in the first chapter of the series. Here we see the protagonist, Maria, speaking to her familiar, Artemis, about how a woman, referred to as La Pucelle, was burned at the stake after serving in the French King’s legions. What this ultimately does is force a reader to ask who La Pucelle is. Considering the fact that there are numerous accounts of witch burnings from the feudal era of European history, this woman could have simply been another poor soul caught up in the fervor of a witch hunt. But, with a little research one will find the simple answer is: she is Joan of Arc.
This is about the extent of historical context we receive from Maria the Virgin Witch. Some may say this is too little for a work of historical fiction, but I feel the information provided could generate enough interest in readers to research the history surrounding the Hundred Years’ War and the feudal period itself. Though I have a general interest in history, I can say prior to reading the series the image I held about battles during the feudal era in Europe was of knights clad in armor charging at each other. Yet, in the series I saw that many of the combatants consisted of peasant troops and even some mercenaries. By doing so, this deconstructed my notions of fighters being noble lords. Instead, I learned combatants from this time period were ruffians since there were depictions of looting, rape, general wanton murdering of civilians after a mass engagement, implications of clergymen engaging in homosexual acts, soldiers finding comfort in prostitutes, and extramarital affairs—almost a mirror image of war today. Thus, in a sense, while historical events may have been skewed in the series, I feel it illustrated a better reality of the era.
It’s not the historical accuracy that made the series interesting, though. Had there been a weak narrative, no amount of facts or presentations of life from the time period would have been enough to engage readers. Instead, readers will be drawn in by the interesting dilemma created for Maria: finding happiness for herself or for those around her. It’s a very difficult question for her and the readers to answer, but it also places her in a position similar to Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Maria clearly disavows any form of mass violence and wants to bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Yet, because she is a witch and thus seen as a heretic by those she chooses to help, doing so could rob her of her life. There are a handful of examples, mostly in the second volume, where we see how Maria copes with this dilemma, but at the same time there are far more examples of people who have benefitted from her interventions and hold her up as a reverent figure. Thus, like Christ, despite being a heretic, the people who occupy Maria’s world find solace in her compassion. One of the best examples comes late in the second volume when an English knight is seeking Maria’s help.
Despite Maria being French, she is more than willing to aid the Englishman. Her compassionate nature pushes her to accept the pleas of the Englishman, but in doing so she places herself in a position that is at odds with the will of Yahweh, or God. As she was warned by the Archangel Michael once to not interfere with the dealings of men under penalty of death, this places Maria in a precarious position. She feels her involvement in conflicts helps bring peace on earth more so than Yahweh and his angels as they only observe the barbarism of humans and never intervene. So, by answering the Englishman’s call for help, it could potentially end Maria’s life, but save hundreds more. Thus, in forcing the choice of peace and happiness for others as opposed to for herself, Maria must decide if she would be willing to sacrifice herself to preserve the lives of others. Therefore, when we see her deemed a heretic and almost ostracized by the larger community despite being willing to forgo any peace for herself, we see how Maria resembles a Christ-like figure.
Yet, it goes much deeper than Christ. With a title like Maria the Virgin Witch, we see hints of the Virgin Mary in Maria as well. The most obvious clue comes from her name and her virginity, but it is also evident in how she is like a mother figure to so many around her. She takes great care of those she is close to, and when she intervenes in a conflict she says how the men should go home and end their silly bickering, just as a mother caring for a group of boisterous children might do. There are also purity issues involving her notions of the world as well, not just in how she views sex, but in how people can go about finding happiness, too. For example, in regards to the former, when she creates her incubus familiar Priapus, she conveniently forgoes creating a phallus for him. While this is partially based on the fact Maria has never seen one, the issue goes deeper than that. All throughout the series, she can be found saying things such as intercourse is undignified and when she is presented with even the slightest hint of romantic intentions, she misunderstands it. It’s as though she entertains the idea of love and sex, but doesn’t quit understand how to act upon those notions. The latter concern, that is, how we achieve happiness, is far simpler. If we can manage to not fight with each other, we can find peace, which will lead to our mutual happiness. These innocent notions are rather childish, but it’s the purity of Maria’s heart that leads her to salvation.
Thematically, Maria the Virgin Witch is far more interesting than many other young adult manga series I’ve read. Yet, if I had a better understanding of four characters before reading the series, I would have found much more delight in it. The four characters I’m referring to are the Archangel Michael and the author of the Book of Ezekiel from the Bible and the Greek gods, Artemis and Priapus. With the first two, the Archangel Michael and Ezekiel, I knew both appeared in the Old Testament of the Bible, but I was unsure of their function in the text. For example, many of us are familiar with the term Archangel, but I’m not sure how many of us know the meaning behind it, let alone the Archangel Michael’s position. The same is true with Ezekiel as well. I had heard of the name, but the Biblical reference was beyond me. Artemis and Priapus, though, were far beyond my knowledge of mythical beings.
So, to address each one in turn, the Archangel Michael is one of the highest-ranking angels in Christendom, with his name meaning “He who is like God.” Thus, it’s appropriate in the series that Michael delivers the edicts of Yahweh and takes offence when those same edicts are not followed. Yet, as the chief arbiter of Yahweh’s will, we also see that no matter how much it may pain him to see the suffering of humans, he lacks the agency to stop the cycle of violence. Thus, this adherence to Yahweh’s orders made the Archangel Michal a good antithesis to Maria’s lack of obedience to God’s will. Taken from the author of the Book of Ezekiel, the name Ezekiel is important for the theme of the series. Meaning, “May God strength him” or “Strong is God,” we see her—yes in Maria the Virgin Witch Ezekiel is a girl—trying to enact the will of the Archangel Michael, who we know is like God. Yet, though she attempts this at first, there is distinct shift in her attitudes towards Maria that ultimately forces her to question her role as the will of the Archangel Michael. Thus, we see her ponder the question: if God truly is almighty, then why doesn’t He help men find peace in the same way Maria does?
In contrast to the Christian themes of the Archangel Michael and Ezekiel, Artemis and Priapus find their roots in their respective Greek gods. However, I feel it’s their representation of sexuality that is the most striking. For example, as an incubus, it’s no wonder Priapus is named after the Greek god of male genitalia. But, Artemis is by far more interesting. In the ancient Greek pantheon, Artemis served as the goddess of virginity. So, it’s odd a succubus would be named after such as goddess. One would think the goddess Peitho, the Greek goddess and personification of persuasion and seduction, would have been a better choice for a creature of sexual desire. However, there is one instance early in the final volume that exemplifies why the name Artemis was chosen. To put it simply, Artemis protects her master’s virginity from a hoard of sexually depraved soldiers. It’s a very short scene, but it conveys the theme of Artemis’s name exceptionally well.
While Maria the Virgin Witch may not be heavy on historical facts, it gives readers just enough to be interested in the events that led to the beginning and end of the Hundred Years’ War. However, the main focus of the series is not on being historically accurate, but rather on creating a compelling narrative surrounding the witch Maria. Though Maria may be just another allegory for Christ, I feel Masayuki Ishikawa did a better job with the allegory than most authors by not making it overt. There was also a nice mix of fantasy interspersed within depictions of the wretched living conditions of fifteenth century France. So, while there was a lack of major figures and events from the Hundred Years’ War, we were treated to a grounded representation of the era. As a side note, the translator in me questions the translation of the title. True, it’s a literal translation, but as I said, I feel Maria is far more pure than she is virginal, thus I feel the translator missed the opportunity to better convey the narrative of the series. With the anime series having aired in Winter 2015, Maria the Virgin Witch shouldn’t be too difficult to come across. If you do, it is well worth reading.
Title: Maria the Virgin Witch (純潔のマリア Jyunketsu no Maria)
By: Masayuki Ishikawa
Under: Kodansha, Good! Afternoon
Official Site: http://afternoon.moae.jp/lineup/229
More Info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_the_Virgin_Witch