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Pet Sins September 2005

Ura Katana no Kami no Ki (The Latter Sword God Chronicles)

The "Latter Sword God Chronicles" is a two-book manga series of seemingly separate stories surrounding a magic sword, the 'Kaneyori'. The sword was crafted by a medieval swordsmith by the name of Kaneyori, who imbued it with the spirit of the Hindu god Shiva. Japanese warriors of later eras came into posession of this enchanted sword and found their lives irrevocably changed by the blade and its guardian god.

As to why an Indian god came to reside in a Japanese sword, the tale of the Kaneyori's creation and origin is told in "The Sword God Chronicles", which is contained in the second book of the "Latter Sword God Chronicles" series. "The Sword God Chronicles" deals with the issues of racism, nationalism, child exploitation, and homoerotic love, which is pretty impressive for a short graphic novel.

The key character in the Chronicles, is Amaraka, a South Asian boy whose country was invaded by other South Asians. He and his older brother are nearly identical in appearance, except that his older brother is fair-skinned and light-haired, while Amaraka is dark-skinned and black-haired. The story's first reference to colorism among Asians comes when the brothers are taken as war captives and one of their captors says, "We can sell the white one for a higher price."

The dark-skinned child Amaraka was sold into a life of sexual slavery on a Chinese junk. (The period was the Song dynasty, and Chinese mariners in old times believed it was unlucky to have women on the ship. They used boys for sexual release.) Unwilling to live any longer as a sex toy, Amaraka casts himself overboard and washes up on the shores of Japan, where he is found by a slightly older boy, Tsukitoshi. Tsukitoshi initially mistakes the Indian boy for a "demon child" (oni no ko). In Japanese tradition, oni (demons) appear human except for their skin color, which is either red or blue. Amaraku was dark brown, and his alien color caused the Japanese boy to think he is a demon.

Tsukitoshi's teacher, a swordsmith by the name of Kaneyori, takes Amaraka as his second disciple and gives him the Japanese name Amaraku. Amaraku grows up to be quintessentially Japanese in demeanor, and becomes Kaneyori's favored student. Tsukitoshi is not jealous of his fellow disciple and in fact finds himself drawn to the flawlessly handsome Amaraku. The foreign-born Amaraku cuts a graceful, dashing figure in medieval Japanese garb. It is rare for a dark-skinned manga character to be the hero of the story and even rarer for him to be portrayed as hyper-attractive.

Despite these concessions to Amaraku, Tsukitoshi gets a little more page space than Amaraku, and takes the "active" role in their relationship. It should be noted that Amaraku makes the first move, though. Tsukitoshi calls Amaruku by his original name Amaraka, which no other character does. Perhaps this is a sign of their unique relationship - Tsukitoshi is the only Japanese who knew Amaraka before he was Amaraku. The tender regard in which the two young men hold each other is the only respite for a reader seeking some traces of untainted kindness in this otherwise violent and twisted fable.

Amaraku crafts a masterpiece of a sword, and carves the image of Shiva, god of his native land, into the blade. The master smith recognizes his talent and passes his name to Amaraku, making him Kaneyori the Second. Amaraku's masterpiece would be known to later generations as the 'Kaneyori', after its creator.

Unfortunately, making a 'foreigner' the rightful heir to the famed name of Kaneyori leads to unexpected consequences for the master and his disciples. The master swordsmith sends his heir to the capital as his representative. Unfortunately, other segments of Japanese society did not share Kaneyori's color-blindness. The emperor is offended when he finds out that Kaneyori the Second, heir to the great swordsmith, is a 'foreigner'. Amaraku is sentenced to imprisonment for 'insulting the national honor of Japan'.

Not knowing what had happened, Kaneyori sends Tsukitoshi to the capital to seek news of Amaraku. Tsukitoshi carries Amaraku's magic sword with him. At the same time, the deity of Amaraku's sword appears to a travelling Buddhist monk. Following divine direction, the monk joins Tsukitoshi in his quest even though the two men were previously total strangers. They find Amaraku, caged and chained, under the watchful eyes of the emperor's men. Tsukitoshi embraces his lover through the bars, and was horrified to find that Amaraku's right sleeve is empty - his arm had been amputated as part of his punishment for 'stealing' indigenous swordcraft.

The doomed lovers die young, but they are resurrected together as immortals because of the strength of their bond and the spiritual intervention of the sword god. In the moving epilogue, the old swordsmith, who has "lived past the normal human lifespan of the era", labors alone at the forge one snowy night. "Suddenly, two inari (rice deities), one black and one white, appear", bearing swordsmith's tools. They pound away at the forge, finishing the work on the precious heirloom sword for the surprised old man before disappearing into the night. The swordsmith dies of old age sometime later, presumably in peace, after finishing his life's work. The reader guesses, rightly, that the black and white inari are Amaraku and Tsukitoshi. Flip the page to the last frame and you'll see the two young man, with their inari fox masks pushed up over their heads, running hand in hand, still carrying the tools of their trade.

The author's notes follow the last page, and Uki leaves us with a picture of Amaraka and Tsukitoshi in modern garb, placing flowers on a snowy shrine. This gentle ending wraps up the rather violent Latter Sword God anthology rather nicely. After pages of torture and gore, it is nice to be reminded of noble passions - an immortal love between two people which spans boyhood and manhood, life and death, and their undying love and respect for their benefactor.

Katana no Kami no Ki is a rather complex work which presents an interracial relationship without romanticizing the participants or connecting the exotic with the erotic. Tsukitoshi initially thought Amaraka was a 'demon' because of his dark skin, hardly a paragon of political correct racial open-mindedness. He falls in love with Amaraka ten years later, not because Amaraka is a sexy, exotic foreigner, but because they had had been sharing the same house and the same work from boyhood to manhood. The mangaka also does not take the easy way out by demonizing Japanese society as uniformly racist. Neither does the author avoid hard issues by sweeping all potential race-based conflicts under the carpet. The Japanese swordsmith Kaneyori is strictly meritocratic - he promotes Amaraku over Tsukitoshi because Amaraku works harder. Amaraku's non-Japanese status had no bearing on his decision. However, lest the reader thinks that a dark man can live in Japan unmolested, we see the Emperor's men chaining and caging Amaraku like a dog, and referring to him as the 'demon' - once again because of his foreign appearance. Despite Amaraku's horrible betrayal by his adopted country, we are reminded that not all Japanese share the Emperor's values. The travelling Buddhist monk who joined Tsukitoshi on his quest reacts in genuine horror when he learns the reason for which Amaraku's arm had been cut off. Tsukitohi pays the ultimate price for standing up for his dark lover, but the Japanese monk safeguards Amaraku's sword and its story, passing them on to later generations.

Note: The "Ura Katana no Kami no Ki" two-book series is adult fiction and not suitable for readers under 18.