The following article has been written (after many threats and blackmails) by Raistlin , a wizard who loves books and good stories. Regarding Angel Sanctuary, Raistlin believes in the supremacy of Michael. If you haven’t read the manga yet, dive right into it. Beautiful pictures await you in every page.
The recounting of a tale is, in fact, nothing more than the narration of its hero’s adventures. His trials, his victories and his failures, his visitation of lands both mystic and wonderful, the fable’s moral lessons – dictated by what the hero decides to do – are the heart of the story and take roots deep within us.
Whether it’s the polymechanus King of Ithaca, besting the waves and the sea god’s anger, or the Ringbearer, carrying his evil burden in order to gift Middle-Earth with salvation, heroes exist in numbers beyond imagining. The human fantasy has created them and continues to do so. Thus, it is but logical for certain similarities to exist. When hearing tales, we anticipate magic to be wielded, iniquitous monsters to be confronted and slain, valorous acts to be committed and, all in all, we expect the hero to win the day.
This pattern of the ”Hero’s Journey”, verified by the structure of countless stories, according to writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell, consists of seventeen stages, which the hero undertakes in order to emerge triumphant, although not all of them are always present – or even needed.
Once in a while, however, thanks to some master storytellers, those stages are subjected to a twist. And something unique is brewed.
”Angel Sanctuary”, a fantasy manga series rife with the theme of love, created by Kaori Yuki, is one of those tales. The Japanese artist manages to swallow the fantasy genre whole, then mixes it with wide alterations of the stereotypical main character’s adventuring journey as well as with elements borrowed from religions and mythologies of the world, and spits it out new. Undoubtedly, the result is extraordinary.
The male protagonist, Setsuna Mudou, simply a high school student, is a human being easy for someone to understand. At least, that appears to be the case in the beginning. Jovial, protective, always speaking his mind and always eager for a fight. The immoral lustre that can be applied to him due to the feelings he hides for his sister, Sarah, turns out later on to be something else entirely.
It is difficult to decide which moment constitutes the beginning of the adventure, Setsuna’s shoving into the mythical world. Kaori Yuki succeeds in convincingly blending Campbell’s stages with each other so instead of a linear plot we have a constant friction of the real world with the supernatural planes.
The first four volumes are used to set the stage. Setsuna is stalked by demons and hunted by angels because – unknowingly to him – he’s the reincarnation of the organic angel Alexiel. We learn that from early on and we see how he refuses to accept the existence of magic, monsters and divine beings. His love interest and his efforts to subdue what he feels remain a top priority for him.
Instead of having a mentor appear to Setsuna (in order to help and assist him), as is usually the case in every tale, Kaori Yuki implements two guides. The first is Kira, his best friend from school and the second is a blind priest. Of course, nothing is as it seems. Both characters are much more than one-sided caricatures. Kira is a ”victim” of reincarnation too while Zaphkiel, the priest, is a high-ranking angel who hides a tragic past of his own.
The crossing of the first threshold is, without doubt, Setsuna’s succumb to anger and hatred. When an angel kills Sarah – in the eighteenth chapter – Alexiel awakens inside Setsuna and the terrible unleashing of that vast energy destroys Tokyo.
A short time after that, before the readers manage to draw breath, Setsuna is transferred into what Campbell describes as ”Belly of the Whale”. With his world destroyed and Sarah dead, he’s asked to embrace his destiny as Alexiel, become the Messiah, murder Kira and confront God and his angelic armies, thus saving Earth from certain destruction. Setsuna’s answer is true to his beliefs. His personality – pure and unchanged – will continue to guide him forth, till the last drop of ink falls upon the final page of the manga. Like a modern Orpheus, he decides to descend to Hades and there find Sarah. The barriers are down. The adventure begins.
During the main adventure, Kaori Yuki blurs everything, throwing the different stages of her epic tale into a flux. There’s a constant barrage of trials and sojourns. We watch as Setsuna travels from Hades to Yggdrasil and from Hell to Heaven while in the same time the stories of many other characters are presented to us. A complex dance this is. One whose main tempo is none other than the hero’s efforts to reunite with Sara.
He grows. Colossally. Facing the consequences of his actions, past and present, he remains adamant to his goal. Up against enemies and traitors, demons and angels, monsters and spirits, he wins them over, turning them into friends and allies. What better proof of the human soul’s glory and what better sign of victory?
Kaori Yuki plays strongly with the theme of rebirth and reincarnation. She builds on these themes and creates further trials for Setsuna. The finest example is when Setsuna’s spirit is transferred in the body of Alexiel (of whose he’s one more reincarnation) and sets forth to reacquire his own flesh.
And Sara is always just out of reach.
The stages called ”Woman as Temptress” and ”Atonement with the Father” simply do not exist. They have been replaced by the aforementioned interactions. Even when he travels to Heaven and all the different factions try to use him – the Messiah – in their politics, he shows them his mettle. And the circle of persons believing in him constantly grows. Yue Katou, Kurai, Uriel, Voice, Noise, Raphael, Michael, Zaphkiel.
The seventy eighth chapter is theoretically the end of the story, albeit it’s a short-lived one. Setsuna and Sara finally reunite but they fall into an ambush. The same compassion that was driving Setsuna forward now holds Sara back. She must stay behind and be captured in order to save a little angel she put in fatal danger. Zaphkiel, one of his ”magical guides” also gets captured in that moment.
Leaving Zaphkiel and Sara behind, they accuse him of irresponsibility. Stricken but grief and despair he chooses isolation and he’s ready to quit.
This is what Campbell means by ”Apotheosis”. The biggest trial turns out to be one of self-doubt. Kaori Yuki orchestrates not a quest, not a confrontation, not even a bloodbath, but a moment of profound kindness, an act of pure friendship, laid bare for us to see. Having saved his friends countless times in the near past, now his friends remind him who he is. Kira and Yue Katou put him back to track, in a way that is both humorous and violent.
Finally, after a hundred chapters, the reunion takes place. This appears to be ”The Ultimate Boon” that Campbell mentions, achieving that which initiated this adventure. Kaori Yuki however, once again doesn’t play fair. Sara is dominated by Sandalphon, an evil angel. It may sound repetitive but the real hit comes when Heaven and Hell collide. War begins. The love story cannot but retreat to the backstage as we turn page after page.
Along with his small army, the hero aims for the garden of Eden and Etemenanki, God’s Residence; to stop the war, protect Earth, release Adam Kadmon and save his Sara once and for all.
The meeting in the Tower of God is the final, grand convergence. Many different aspects fall under scrutiny. Good and evil. Ugliness and beauty, free will and brainwashed mind, mercy and cruelty. Setsuna proves one final time who he is and what he fights for. What had begun as a quest for love grows out to be mankind’s hymn to free will – through Setsuna’s mouth.
The hero ultimately triumphs – as we knew he would.
Angel Sanctuary’s finale is as far away from Campbell’s pattern as a manga is from a book.
The quest is completed, the goal achieved. After throwing her hero in the midst of the ultimate challenge – confronting God who desires nothing less than to ”restart” the world he had created – Kaori Yuki understands she can’t deflate her story in a slow way. No suitors exist around Penelope, no Sharkey governs Shire. It isn’t possible to create more trials because the biggest has just been won. So, she sums everything up. Subtly. Smoothly.
Thus, we are not presented with an end. Rather, Kaori Yuki shows us a continuation. With the catastrophe averted, the hero – and, of course, his friends – are granted with happiness. Life goes on. This may well be the ”The Crossing of the Return Threshold”. Setsuna returns to Earth having acquired vast wisdom. He may not have his astral powers any more but certainly he has everything he ever wished for. Love, trust, friends, strong beliefs.
Appropriately, the last phrases of the manga are ”This is not the end. Rather, it is a delusion. For time will always flow. Have confidence in your beliefs.”
In this angelic tale’s aftermath we can safely conclude that Setsuna Mudou is a somewhat conventional character surrounded by a host of probably more entertaining individuals. It’s his decisions, though, based on compassionate logic and singed by love which give him the edge he most certainly has. It’s also his actions – ever heroic and selfless – inside a plot stubbornly refusing to remain stagnant – which speak tomes about Setsuna’s resolve. It’s finally his ability to never betray his own-made rules.
Indubitably, Angel Sanctuary delivers. And while you may have seen its kind of hero before, in other authors’ words and thoughts, you cannot but walk wide-eyed stupid into its protagonist’s epic adventure. Besides, it’s walking around the traditional patterns – and not in them – that causes the birth of heroes.
1. For more information regarding ”The Hero’s Journey” read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth