Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ushio & Tora: The Truth of the Superversive

Following up on my last anime post, I wanted to expand a bit on what I meant about a show based on a 25 year old manga being better than most of what is being put out now.

This might be very easy to misconstrue as an old man longing for the "good old days" who can't understand that things are different now, consarnit, we are a more evolved people and therefore the stories we see now are better because they are newer and therefore more true than those icky old things.

To the first point: Watch your mouth, kid. I ain't that old! To the second: Well, no. You're wrong. Not even a little wrong, you're so wrong that you wouldn't know right unless it sliced apart your cinderblock heart into tiny cubes to wake you from your lucid dream of "realism" and despair.

Stories are meant to be Superversive. To lift up. To brighten someone's day. To give them hope. To show them that the dark can be fought against and driven back. These are what stories used to be before the 20th century began to upturn that tradition which fully toppled the cart over in these early years of the 21st. Good is evil, bad is good, true is false, and . . . is it no wonder we're so messed up we have to take pills to sleep through the night?

But not everyone is sitting tight letting the darkness overtake the world any more than it already has.

The goal of the Superversive Movement has always been for those who refuse to take this lying down. We all have this inkling that things are not as they should be, we live in a broken world that will not be fixed, and stories are made to reflect this drive we have to live to brighter times and in a wider world. Not only to live to those dreams, but to show they exist at all. To prove they are real.

From Mrs. L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright's post on the blog:

"Why give a book like this to children to read? What are we trying to teach them? That life is difficult and meaningless? That sometimes its okay to kill something we love for a “good reason”? That life is pointless? That dreams and hopes are a sham? That no matter how you try, you cannot improve upon your circumstance, so it’s better not to even hope? (That was what The Pearl was about.)
What possible good is such a message doing our children?"

 She then goes on to end with this:

"This is what the Superversive Literary Movement is for—to whisper to the future Trisha’s, Don’s, and Andrea’s that miracles are possible. 
That hope is not a cheat. 
The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested. 
The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world. 
The goal of the Superversive is:

To tell the truth.

Though a term invented by writer and master essayist Tom Simon, "Superversive" has taken a life of its own for those tired of all the pointless subversion pulling the world down into the muck with stories about nothing but pointless negativity and stories that poison the soul blacker and blacker. The world is not getting any better, but we don't have to sink with it.

I bring up Ushio & Tora as an example of a Superversive story, as it is indicative of a story that seeks to rise up. This does not mean author and artist, Kazuhiro Fujita, set out to make a story to highlight attributes like friendship, heroism, and the greatness of being good, just that those are the features that underpin his story. His is an action/adventure story, yet it manages to be more than that for telling truths we all know beneath its action-packed exterior.

Ushio & Tora is about a boy named Ushio Aotsuki who lives in a shrine run by his father, who is the priest of the place they live in as their home. Ushio is a normal rough-housing teenager who gets into arguments with his dad and his crush, and lives a relatively average life that he enjoys very much. He's just an average boy.

But his father tries to warn him of something else. He tells Ushio there are spirits and monsters in the world and he must take care to watch out for them, but Ushio, being a teenager, doesn't believe in things he can't see. He thinks his dad is full of it, and isn't afraid to tell him. This all changes one day when his dad has to head out on business and leaves Ushio to clean up the storehouse. Ushio begrudgingly complies, but stumbles upon an opening cellar to a basement he never knew about under his home.

He finds his way down into the basement and into the dark where he finds his whole world changed in an instant. There he meets a creature called a Youkai, a monster, colored like a tiger, who has been pinned to the rock of the basement for hundreds of years by a mystical spear called the Beast Spear which chooses its wielder and has not been removed since the Youkai was pinned there. His dad's stories were true after all.

Ushio removes the spear and is granted immense strength, speed, and agility, as the Beast Spear has chosen him to wield it for whatever duty he will have fulfill. Now since he has come in contact with supernatural, he can see spirits and monsters, and pledges that he will not let them hurt anyone. He quickly tames the formerly trapped Youkai and takes responsibility for letting him go by keeping watch that he does no evil.

He names this orange Youkai "Tora" and takes him in as the two fight among each other over who will eventually get to destroy the other. This pair forms an unlikely duo that is destined to save the world from a terrible evil.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins as we get to know the characters through monster-of-the-week scenarios for the first six episodes before we finally learn that everything we have seen has a purpose. Events that didn't seem to mean much, come matter a lot in the long run, as do characters you wouldn't first think would have much prominence eventually have quite a bit.

Ushio's character is established as a good-hearted kid that never gives up, but unlike modern anime heroes like Naruto, he isn't just good-hearted, but determined to do what is right. He aspires to do what is right, not for personal glory or recognition.

Tora is shown to be a monster who doesn't care about anyone other than himself, but as he spends time with Ushio he begins to understand that being good isn't all that bad. Unlike most modern stories, he does believe there is good and evil and he is proud to be evil. But Ushio and those he meets on his journey begin to change him slowly but surely.

Around the seventh episode is where the main story begins and Ushio & Tora comes into its own. This is where Ushio and Tora head out on a journey that ends up shaping their destiny and those around them.

You see, there is black and white in Ushio & Tora, but that doesn't mean there aren't flawed individuals doing the right thing for wrong reasons, or those on the borderline before choosing one or the other. And when you meet the main villain, you will believe that there are only two choices and eventually we all have to make a choice as to whether we choose to be on the side of angels or demons.

One of the things I have always liked classic anime and manga, especially the shonen genre, is how the main characters never mope, never whine, and never give up. They have a resolution and they stick with it even in the face of impossible odds. The cliche for this genre is called "Hot-blooded shonen" for a reason.

Ushio and Tora have a complex relationship

But Ushio Aotsuki is on another level for most of these series. He believes in good as a force (an early episode where he saves a cursed soul and sends it to Heaven is particularly touching) and sacrifices everything he has in order to save even complete strangers. And what is it that makes Ushio so strong and powerful? Well, it isn't just the Beast Spear. The weapon might choose its wielder, but the real strength of Ushio is that he is at heart a fundamentally good kid who always gets up again even when he screws up.

It is this good heart that slowly changes Tora into thinking there might be more to humans than what he knows, and it is that strong moral compass that draws others to him. His strength and spear is not what makes him special, though it does reinforce his inner strength to match.

This is anime at its best. It's inspiring, hopeful, exciting, truthful, funny, and a blast to watch. It is why I ever got into anime and manga in the first place.

So why am I saying that most anime and manga are not like this anymore.

Well, because they're not.

Can you name the last anime that had a main character that wasn't starring:

A) An anti-hero who is treated as being "cool" despite having no redeeming qualities
B) A dimwit who does things for personal reasons and nothing else
C) A coward weakling boy that doesn't change one iota to become better
D) A busty (or very young) girl that has no definable personality besides how attractive she is

Whoever you might be thinking of to dispute this, I doubt the examples are very plentiful, especially over the last ten years. There are a few I can personally think of, such as Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia, and Osamu Mikumo from World Trigger, but they are fairly obviously in the minority. There are certainly not as many like Vash the Stampede, Kenshin Himura, or Ushio Aotsuki as there used to be.

And don't think I'm mocking "rogue" characters. Gene Starwind, Spike Spiegal, or Gungrave, might have been more on the anti-hero side, but they were never treated as infallible or always right about everything and they did have good underneath the muck. They were outliers even back when their shows came out.

But if you want to use those as counter-examples, Outlaw Star has the crew essentially meeting God in a machine. Cowboy Bebop's ending is a classic for a reason. Gungrave is about rejection of Ultimate Good and the dead end it leaves you in. Shows and manga like Gantz, Attack on Titan, or Tokyo Ghoul, do not aspire to even things like that. Though they are fine for what they are, they are not aspiring to anything above themselves like those classics did.

Ushio & Tora was written in 1990 and ended in 1996. The world is supposed to be a different place now than it was then, but you wouldn't know it from watching this anime made in 2015/16. The good that Ushio inspires in us is as real in 2016 as it was back in 1990. The conflicted nature of Tora to choose between what he was and what he could be hasn't dated a bit in over 25 years. The story's adamant refusal to say good and evil are a matter of perspective, and it's insistence that one choose a side or else one will be chosen for you, is timeless.

While flashy anime with edgy plots and super cool protagonists with angry backstories fill the mainstream airwaves and shelves in Japan to decreasing market shares, stories like Ushio & Tora still float to the top to show that what is true will never truly stay down no matter how much we want to look away from it or pretend it is irrelevant.

Just like Ushio's insistence on the good, Truth always wins in the end.

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