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Yani: Earlier, we were talking about prophecies. All those magi, fortune tellers, they’re so powerless in The Guin Saga. Like Gandalf in Tolkien, there are powerful wizards in other fantasy series, but in The Guin Saga they tend to be powerless. Kurimoto made a decision to have magic be a less powerful part of the series. In the side stories magic plays a strong part, but not in the saga proper. So instead you have a leader like Guin devising plans, which becomes more important when you can’t just do magic. The teleportation mechanism is not understood for a long time.
Erin: The powerful sorcerer with no skin on his face, Cal Moru, he clearly has powerful magic but doesn’t actually use it for anything.
Serdar: There are two things. One is that in a lot of fantasy, magic tends to be de-powered by definition because it tends to distract you from the central premises. The whole thing is about the people, what they can accomplish with their bare hands. Magic is like a cheat. Another thing is, Guin is a hero because he gets along with everyone else while bending his back muscles, and does everything with his own hands pretty much.
Noah: It’s tough to comment on The Guin Saga, in terms of overarching themes, because we’ve only had the first five books. But there’s definitely a dichotomy between Guin and Lady Amnelis, where she is very aristocratic.
Erin: Oh, that’s right, you said we haven’t seen her fight.
Noah: Yeah, she’s got these armies well commanded.
Serdar: And then you have Guin putting things together as he goes.
Noah: And I love that contrast. She leads, but not how Guin leads. Guin is in the trenches.
Serdar: A perfect example of this is when Guin is in the trenches and they’re crossing the valley of yidoh. Guin says I’m going to go across too, and everyone is like, What? But that’s just the way Guin does things. You risk your neck with everybody else. If they can’t see him do it, they’re not going to follow him.
Yani: He takes the biggest risk.
Serdar: And that’s the hero, the guy that sticks his neck out and inspires everyone else to do the same.
Noah: It’s truly the case, as opposed to superheroes, whose heroism is to the extent of what their powers are. But real heroism is more a question of what are you willing to risk? How great a sacrifice can you make?
Serdar: Something else came to me. When we first meet him he’s basically an empty shell. He doesn’t remember anything, he just has this body and this head. And maybe he has some trivia about the way his world works, which comes to him at random times. And what I see happening in these first five books is him trying to put an identity together for himself, a persona. And a lot of that is in how other people see him. These kids see him and are scared at first but then see him as just as helpless as themselves. And he sees these kids and knows he needs to be there for them, and from that something starts to build. His whole identity starts to come out of there too.
Noah: What a great character to be put into.
Serdar: What everybody wants to wake up with: no history and has to start from scratch and has dangers to face.
Noah: That’s part of all fantasy though.
Yani: For Tezuka’s Dororo we used the tag line “Nobody Is Born Whole” because the protagonist is born missing body parts. In the same light you can say for Guin, “Nobody Is Born Maskless” because we’re all trying to figure out who we are to the world.
Serdar: And to have this kind of stuff in rip-roaring fantasy is just wonderful because neither side is being compromised. They’re both engaging each other. When you have something with a lot of adventure in it, psychology, if there is any, is just pitched out the window but here one drives the other and vice versa. I don’t see that enough.
Yani: You know there’s going to be a big climatic battle at the end, but even then the execution is so fantastic.
Erin: I was really left hanging until the very end.
Serdar: I love how she pulls these totally off-the-table ideas out of nowhere.
Erin: I was going to ask if there are RPGs, tabletop game books? Like Dungeons and Dragons modules?
Serdar: There are record albums.
Yani: Those are Kurimoto’s. She composed a whole Guin musical and it’s been staged in Tokyo.
Another fascinating thing, we all know the series started in 1979. And we started publishing these in 2003, right when America was going into Iraq. If this series had actually been written and not just translated then, people would be saying it’s a critique of the Iraq war. I like that this was written before the Iraq war but that it actually came out after the war started.
Serdar: If it’s good it’s always going to be good. It’s timeless. You know I was reading this thinking I could see us picking it up again in another 100 years and just ripping right through it in the same way. It does not feel like a particular product of any one particular moment in time. And that’s a great thing, it’s really hard to do.
Noah: Tolkien comes right out of World War II. It’s unquestionably there, it’s there the whole time. You feel it.
Yani: And of course with Tolkien, it’s a battle between good and evil. With Kurimoto, no one is really evil. Mongaul isn’t really evil, they’re just misguided, imperialistic. Parros has its problems too. They’re not the good guys. And Guin, he goes into berserk mode. When he first comes forth, he seems like this evil horror creature. The Sem, when you first seem them—
Erin: They’re slaughtering humans.
Serdar: There’s a nice sense of things are morally in flux. We are not going to see the same divisions. When you see a friendship forged, it’s not guaranteed to continue, or on what terms. It takes a lot of courage to put together something with these dimensions, without those kinds of safeties. You’re going to get more surprises than comfort.
Yani: Here’s a sign of how massive this epic is: even though the basic theme is that no one is totally good or totally evil, we do get an evil, Sauron-type character, too! It even has that.
Serdar: It’s not totally ignorable, it gets brought in, in a way that compliments everything else that’s going on.
Yani: In the first side story, you get that “absolute evil” Sauron-type of character, and he will appear in the saga proper too.
Erin: In the first five books, the villains are more like the villains in a Miyazaki film.
Serdar: That’s a beautiful comparison. That’s exactly what I love about the Miyazaki movies: when you see a character you see them whole. It takes a lot of work to have that kind of perspective. It’s easy to cast someone as a bad guy. To look at it and see what is this character doing that makes it bad? How can we dig under that and really see what’s going on?
Yani: And to make that ambivalence something that’s fun instead of your teacher telling you “not to see things in absolutes.” Final Fantasy also does a good job of that. You can make a story more fun by making the story ambivalent. People turning from good and evil.
Serdar: There is that emotional weight with everything going on. They know how to build and sustain that. So much of their pop culture centers around doing that. That’s why I dig it so much, it’s something I’m not getting anywhere else.
Erin: In western literature or film you get the sense that they’re building towards a theme or some kind of moral. At the end of Book Five there’s a lot of slaughtering, and I’m like, “What am I supposed to walk away with here—might makes right?” but not really because neither side was winning at any time.
Yani: I think in the west, literary fiction is not supposed to deal with absolutes, and that’s why it’s better regarded, whereas genre fiction deals with absolutes. There’s such a divide. Meanwhile Japan does not do that even with genre fiction, and you don’t have the same divisions.
Erin: Any final thoughts?
Noah: Buy the books.
Yani: Buy the books, even if there’s no movie. If people buy the books, we’ll do more books. Just 3,000. Preferably 5,000.
Serdar: If you have read the entire session, there should be enough to at least make you feel as though it’s worth a try, it’s worth a chance.
Yani: When I first discovered the series there were twenty-plus volumes, I read three or four a day. I did nothing else for a week.
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