More history lessons, wrapped in a spoilerific discussion of Gilgamesh

Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how the anime Gilgamesh ends.

There is a relatively unknown anime called Gilgamesh that I like. I bought it way back when (okay, only a few years ago), but I just wasn’t getting around to the end of it. Over the mass of holiday days (off work, that is) around Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s I finally got up the necessary impetus to finish it off in an orgy of about twelve episodes over a long weekend. I know that that doesn’t sound that hard – I mean, I’ve seen twelve episodes of different things in single days, and then gone back for more – but this series has a few things working against marathon viewing. For one thing, it’s bleak. The ending of the series is “gather the main dozen-or-so characters in one place, kill them off one by one except for the last two, then bring on the apocalypse”. Seriously, that is an exact description of it. The rest of the series, well, is in line with the ending.

The other factor against watching this one in marathons is the animation. They either put a lot of money into it, or not much at all, and I honestly can’t tell. At first I thought it was rather well funded, but when I started marathoning the end, I was struck by what looked like cheap animation. Did they run out after spending most of their budget on the earlier episodes? Was mediocre animation covered by cool character/world designs from the start? Was I just rushing to the point where everything became a blur in my eyes? All are equally possible.

I finished the series a few weeks ago now, but it still haunts my mind. I had trouble figuring out why, until I finally made the connection with history/the past. One of the things that attracts me most about anime is the way it serves as a sort of gateway drug for students. You like the cartoons? You would understand them better if you spoke Japanese. You adore Rurouni Kenshin but have no idea who these ishin shishi and shinsengumi are? Why not try a little history? That’s how I got into it all, and even the most casual fans are often interested in hearing someone explain juuuust a bit of Japanese language/culture/history/et cetera if it makes them understand their favorite series more.

So, what’s the connection with Gilgamesh? Gilgamesh takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. (I know – I said that the show ends with an apocalypse. It does; there are TWO apocalypses. As I said, it’s dark.) We find out the reason for the apocalypse in the last episode, and it is…

A woman’s jealousy.

Seriously.

We can call down apocalypses now.

(You know, for all that I’m outraged as a feminist, I’m rather attracted by the thought of having that power. Perhaps it’s for the best that this is a load of hogwash.)

Anyway, when I first heard this, I was appalled. I mean, seriously!?! In this day and age, we’re supposed to believe that a brilliant, beautiful young scientist can be so consumed with suppressed jealousy that it takes on a life of its own and destroys most of the world? And then goes on, some years later, to destroy the rest of it? Naaah, I don’t think so.

But then I got to thinking. That’s what we scholars are supposed to do, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long, but there you go. Woman+jealousy=death. Where have I heard that before? Lady Rokujou, perhaps? Tale of Genji, anyone?

In the Tale of Genji, Lady Rokujou becomes so jealous of Genji’s other women that her spirit leaves her body – without Lady Rokujou’s knowing – and kills one of them. The other woman in question is below Genji, class-wise. This parallels Gilgamesh fairly closely. The Countess (Lady R-) becomes jealous of the brilliant Terumichi Madoka’s wife. In this case, class isn’t the issue so much as intelligence. Both the Countess and Madoka are brilliant scientists, the wife is simply a sweet girl – a photographer. In addition, though I said earlier that the Countess’ spirit causes the apocalypses, it’s more complicated. The Countess’ jealous spirit enters into and then is embodied by an ancient power called Tear. The Countess knows nothing of this for years afterward. So you could say that the Countess’ spirit went wandering just like Lady Rokujou’s.

I’m not really sure what to do with this, though. So the story riffs on the preeminent work of classical Japanese fiction, so what? It’s still horribly sexist. But this one bit of history gives us a handle on the rest of the series.

Leave out the ending; simply consider the rest of the series. Do bad things happen to women? Yes. Do bad things happen to men? Yes. Are they comparable? Often, or at least that appears to be the intention. (I’m thinking here of some characters’ issues with finding out that they are clones. Wouldn’t bother me, but it was presented as horribly scarring to those characters.) And there appears to have been some editing. From the copious material that came with my DVD’s, I learned that one scene was originally intended to be a rape scene. I also learned that that episode was given to a female director and suddenly it was consensual sex. That’s not definitive proof of anything, but I’ll still cheer a little for involving women in the industry at decision-making levels.

There’s also the issue of history/legends in the story overall. As you might guess from the title, Gilgamesh is a new take on the legend of Gilgamesh. The legend of Gilgamesh doesn’t have female characters that I know of, but Gilgamesh has them in spades, and in important positions too. The anime isn’t a direct take on the legend, but builds off of it. So I can see tying the question of arrogance in Gilgamesh to the issue of jealousy in Gilgamesh. After all, what is jealousy if not the arrogance to argue that you are better for your beloved than anyone else? The past runs through Gilgamesh like water in Kyoto. Understand that past and new meanings open up for you. But I don’t think that that denies the previous meanings; jealous-women-end-the-world just doesn’t sound right to me.

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