Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Journey of Shuna (anniversary re-post)

I'm re-posting this piece (with a couple of additional images) for two reasons: because I've just been leafing through my copy of The Journey of Shuna, which remains as beautiful and mysterious as ever, and because I notice that my original post is now exactly ten years old.

This delicate watercolor manga by Hayao Miyazaki has never been officially translated into English, which is a bit of a surprise, given the increasing popularity of Miyazaki's films worldwide and the ready availability here of his multi-volume manga epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Perhaps the production cost of doing it in full color would be prohibitive — I don't really know (but see bottom of page).

The following is a brief outline of the story, as I can follow it and based on some available page-by-page fan translations.

Shuna is a young man living in a small village in what looks like some high-altitude country in Asia. (When this story takes place is deliberately unclear; the art and technology seem very old, but on the other hand there are a few primitive guns.) The country is windswept and the land barren; the villagers survive, but barely, on sparse harvests of grain.

One day a stranger, an old man, is found by the wayside and brought back to the village, barely alive. Before he expires he tells Shuna that he is a prince from a distant country. Long ago he, like Shuna, had encountered a lone traveler. The latter had given him a purse full of grain — grain so rich that it could bring plenty even to a harsh land. The old man still has the purse of grain, but after so many years it is useless. He has searched for years for the land where the grain is grown, somewhere far to the west, but he has never found it and now can go on no longer.

Shuna, of course, soon decides to leave the village and seek the land of the golden grain. He mounts his yakkul (an elk-like creature) and rides off. Like every good quest-hero, he travels through a wasteland; then he comes upon a derelict ship half-buried in the sand. There are shrouded inhabitants inside, who beckon him in, but, spooked by the sight of a pile of human bones, he steers away and camps a little ways off. During the night he is attacked by several shrouded figures (they are all apparently women), but he fights them off, severing the hand of one with a gunshot. (She later creeps back and silently retrieves the hand).

On the road he is passed by a large cart, drawn by several blue beasts and surmounted by several gunmen. They treat him rudely and continue on their way.

Soon afterwards, Shuna comes to an enormous bustling city. In the marketplace he finds a pile of the grain he seeks, but it is already threshed and dead; he is told that it comes from a distant place. He also learns of the city's flourishing trade in slaves. He sees a girl roughly his own age in chains, with a younger girl alongside. He tries to purchase their freedom but fails, and leaves the city.

He meets a hermit monk, who tells him that he can find what he seeks further west, in “the place of the god men, where the moon is born and returns to die,” a place from which no man has ever returned. The next morning Shuna wakes up and finds the hermit has gone.

He again encounters the cart with the gunmen. Inside are slaves, among them the two sisters he had met in the marketplace. He shoots the gunmen and releases the girls. Together they flee, as more armed men are seen coming from the city. They are followed to the top of a high cliff, the very precipice which overlooks the land of the god-men. Shuna sends the girls and his mount away to safety in the north, then evades his pursuers by sending them to their deaths over the precipice.

An enormous luminous face swifly crosses the sky above him and disappears over the edge of the precipice. Knowing that he has come to the place he seeks, Shuna begins to descend the cliffs. His descent seems to be, as well, a descent through time; he climbs over ancient monuments and the skeletons of antediluvian creatures and eventually reaches a sea in which enormous prehistoric beasts are swimming. He wades across to a dense and fertile land, populated by a variety of creatures, all of them, fortunately, benign.

The next few pages are strange and eventful, and I'm not sure I completely understand them — but here goes: an enormous green figure strides through the forest, then collapses, and is immediately consumed by a horde of beasts. More giants stride through the forest; Shuna passes them and comes to a clearing, where there is a vast tower which appears to be some kind of living being. He discovers that it is hollow. Just then the moonlike face crosses the sky and arrives at the top of the tower. It disgorges from its mouth a stream of human figures, slaves, apparently, acquired from the slave-traders. As they fall into the tower they are transformed into green giants; they emerge and spread out, spewing seeds from their mouths as they travel. Within hours the land becomes green — this, then, is the source of the golden grain.

Shuna grabs hold of several stalks of ripe grain. The giants howl with pain; Shuna flees, leaping into the sea.

We are now shown the two sisters. They have arrived in a village in the north, where they and the yakkul are ploughing a plot of land belonging to an old woman who has taken them in. One night they find a ragged traveler outside; it is Shuna. He is haggard and has lost his ability to speak, but around his neck he carries the precious golden grain.

The girls and Shuna plant the grain in a small plot; it sprouts. The old woman tells the older girl she is now of age and must marry one of the villagers. There is a bride-contest: the girl says that she will marry the suitor who can master the yakkul. Of course all the young men fail, until finally the mute Shuna succeeds.

The sprouted grain eventually bears fruit, after being protected by Shuna and the girls from a terrible hailstorm. Shuna recovers his speech. The three stay another year, harvesting another crop and fending off an attack from slave-traders, then depart for Shuna's native village, leaving half the grain behind for their hosts. The story ends there.

There's a lot that could be said about The Journey of Shuna, but I'm not going to try to interpret it, because, as with all great mythological stories, there seem to be so many different angles from which it can be approached. Despite the different setting, the affinities with the legend of Perceval and the grail seem very strong to me; there are also echoes of the Odyssey (the bride-contest, if nothing else), and, in the green men, similarities with Central American myths. It's also very much a Miyazaki story; other observers have commented on its connections with both the manga and film versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but the beginning of the tale, the departure of the hero, resembles the opening of Princess Mononoke.

There are some fascinating visual elements as well: in the background of the panels where the old traveler is dying there appear first a large upside-down female figure, then a pair of outstretched hands, as if a deity were carrying him away. This is not commented on in the text, and it has been suggested (I don't agree) that the apparent “deity” is just a painted decoration in the interior of the room where the man lies dying — in any case the effect is quite odd. The old woman who shelters the sisters reminds me, in one panel, of some of Sendak's old crones. Overall it's very rich and distinctive both visually and as story; I hope that American audiences will eventually get a full chance to appreciate it.

Update: An authorized English-language edition is now available.


Michael Leddy said...

I think I hear an echo of the GIlgamesh story too: the journey through Mashu, which seems to be a journey through all space and time. The mountains (often associated with the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges) reach up to heaven and down to the underworld and guard the rising and setting sun. The journey is a matter of going through darkness, and it brings Gilgamesh to the garden of the gods.

Chris said...

That's interesting, Michael. Do you have a preferred edition of Gilgamesh, by the way?

Michael Leddy said...

I like the N. K. (Nancy) Sandars prose version, which makes the story more accessible than more scholarly translations with lacunae and heavy apparatus. (I taught this version for years and students loved it.) David Ferry is great too. He uses literal translations, the Sandars text, and other sources for his version (he’s not a reader of cuneiform).