The Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero

Yesterday, unable to get my brain to calm down before heading out to a rehearsal, I was looking at fan art pictures of SailorMoon. I will admit I still love that series, love that love is the greatest weapon in the universe, love the adorable outfits that no living human being will ever be able to carry off (physics says “no!”) simply for their beauty and frivolity.

Going back and looking at the things that had inspired me in my childhood helps me to reconnect with the emotional, visceral feelings I had when I first loved them. I rewatch Forever Knight, and SailorMoon, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek to remind myself why I love story telling and what it meant to be a kid enamored with a narrative for the first time, not just the pretty bright colours on the television and the flashbang of distraction. I reread Peter and Wendy, The Tale of the Body Thief, and the Howl’s Moving Castle books for the same reason. It wasn’t reading a story because the teacher told me I had to read a book, but because I loved the story and wanted to feel that same surge of connection over and over again.

When my writer brain won’t shut off, I go and watch music videos or clips on YouTube, or peruse fanfiction and fan art of childhood shows, in order to unplug and just revel in comfort consumption.

(I sound like an addict going back to her drug of choice. I guess I am.)

The image that really struck me was this one, by SpaceWeaver:


SailorMoon FanArt by SpaceWeaver (found on DeviantArt)

As I often do, I paused to tweet about it. I said:

@scifrey: I think what I liked best about #SailorMoon was this: the more powerful Usagi/Serena got, the less human she looked. Emphasized her alienness


Now, I was talking about how inhuman Usagi/Serena got – the emphasis of the fact that she is, actually, not from Earth. She was reborn after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom into a human vessel, they all were, but the human flesh that she wears seems to barely be able to contain the power of her Star Seed, the Silver Crystal, and the vast powers she possesses as the Princess of the Moon.


At the start of the series she is happy go lucky, oblivious to what is hibernating inside of her, and totally human. As the series progresses and she unlocks more and more of her “true” self, i.e. her powers, she becomes more wraith-like, less intimately connected to her friends and family, less of a human and more of an abstract concept of compassion and love.


The “Serena-ness” of her was burned away and replaced by a serene, human-shaped creature who loved passionately but who forgot how much she enjoyed teasing her little brother.


I actually always felt sorry for her human family – how would they deal with the fact that their sister/daughter was not really human at all, had this double life replete with so much sorrow, and that in the end everyone knew that she was destined to die, to give up all that she is, with no thanks for it from the world she has sacrificed so much to protect? That she engages so fully with a life that is past – a melencoly thing in itself because she is living with the dead – and all but divorces herself from her human friends and family. 


Anything that is not “Sailor Business” or people who are not heroes/villains eventually fall away, cease to be a motivating factor in Serena/Usagi’s life and that, I think, is the saddest thing about the show of all. That she becomes alienated from the very people she has sworn to protect.


Though, by the end, she’s not SailorMoon to be a superhero and save the people of Tokyo/the Earth, is she? She’s become the lynchpin in a struggle for power encompassing the whole galaxy, and Earth becomes little more than a staging ground for their wars, humans not much more than cannon fodder and energy sources. That’s sad, too.


And that is some damn gorgeous storytelling.


And then this happened:

@AdamShaftoe: Same sort of thing happened in Tekkaman Blade – The more D-Boy/Tekkaman tapped his power, the more of his sense of self was lost


@scifrey: Never thought of that. You’re right. Same thing again in Eva – the more the kids around Shinji succumbed the less human they became


@scifrey: Is this a predominant theme in anime? Correlation between tapping into a supernatural power, sometimes bestowed scientifically…


@scifrey:…and the loss of humanity? Are there any Japanese myths or legends where this is the moral/theme? Theme of fear of power?


@scifrey: Lots of examples springing to mind – “X”, “Tokyo Babylon”, “Inu Yasha”, “Naruto”, “Bleach” Power is a force for good, or evil.


@scifrey: Seems the pattern says it doesn’t matter that the one gaining power is good or bad. Humanity is in jeopardy regardless.


@scifrey:  Even the loss of humanity isn’t positioned as good or evil. It just it. However, it does come tinged with melancholy.


@scifrey: Like it’s sad that the person has evolved away from more intimate emotion and a vibrant personality, only has abstract emotion.


@scifrey: Sure EternalSailorMoon has compassion for humankind and love for her family/friends, but she seems dimished in her “real” life.


@scifrey: And we’re positioned to hate Seichirou in “Tokyo Babylon”, but can’t help pity him his inability to feel beyond lust and hate.


@Adamshaftoe: Anime writers don’t seem content to let people do good but to show that heroism requires more and more self-sacrifice

@Adamshaftoe: I think it’s an interesting take on Superhero mythology, skipping the Uncle Ben BS for something more tangible.

@scifrey: YES

@AdamShaftoe: D-Boy/Tekkaman is left in a lobotomised cripple not from the combat of his final battle but from his final transformation.


@AdamShaftoe: Of course in his case this ultimate sacrifice comes after watching his brother and mentor murder his twin sister and…


@scifrey: Same thing happens in both “Tokyo Babylon” and “X” – mentor/brother/lover kills sister/lover to emotionally cripple the hero.


@AdamShaftoe: … eventually fighting them to the death to save the Earth. First he gives up his family, then his sanity, then his body.


@AdamShaftoe: And I’m not even touching the biopolitcal aspect of the Radamians colonizing child D-Boy via the TekSet system.


@AdamShaftoe: If we really wanted to melt our brains we could chart this phenomenon through Neon Genesis Evangelion.


@scifrey: It’s def. there.


@AdamShaftoe: Wow, impromptu twitter discussion of the heroic sacrifice in anime with @scifrey #awesome


@scifrey: Yes, I love this stuff…!


@AdamShaftoe: Though I think NGE takes it a step farther with Shinji/Gendo’s transhuman agenda.


@scifrey: I think one of the more fascinating visual cues that this process is happening is the removal of pupil in the character design


@AdamShaftoe: In the sense that the hero is fully formed without a “Yoda” to guide them through their powers? #animechat


@scifrey: And in having no mentor, they somehow fail to retain their humanity and become little more than an abstract emotion embodied?

The conversation petered out there, but feel free to continue in the comments!

(Dude, I am an aca-geek and proud of it!)

JM FreyThe Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero


Join the conversation
  • Wendy B - September 1, 2011

    Fantastic conversation! Bubblegum Crisis was the first anime that truly captured me and made me part of that world. It fits this concept.

    It is perhaps disturbing that so many of the anime heroes that lose their humanity are children. It reminds me though, of a quote from The Outer Limits which, paraphrased, basically states that the greatest tragedy of war is turning our children into heroes.

    I am also led to think about Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. At the end of the hero’s journey, they are no longer a part of the community they went forth to save. With children, this is even more tragic, because not only do they lose their community and family, but their entire childhood…

  • JM Frey - September 2, 2011

    What a beautiful saying! “The greatest tragedy of war is turning our children into heroes.”

    That is heartbreaking.

    I really wonder if this is a very asian-centric concept. I mean, you mention Campbell, and I agree that part of what Adam and I are discussing above does tie into the Hero’s Journey/cannot rejoin the community… but is the concept that is should be children who become the heroes and thus lose their humanity uniquely Japanese?

    I am trying to think of any traditional Japanese myths and stories that involve a human child becoming a diety or loosing their humanity, and honestly all I can think of is “Peach Boy” and the “The Bamboo Princess”.

    I am also trying to think of Western myths, folk stories, or legends. Any ideas?

    Maybe that I can’t think of any is telling in and of itself. That perhaps this “children as warriors” theme ties in with the other themes that seem to crop up in anime a lot, too: colonization, feminization of the nation, apocolyptic aftermaths, atomic warfare, the colonized body as concealed weapon, etc.

  • Wendy B - September 3, 2011

    I don’t think the ‘children as warriors’ is an archetypal theme in any mythology/culture that comes to mind, but perhaps it has become so for Japan, now. Anime/manga is also a medium where death is not hidden away from children (note that in the American Sailor Moon, Nephlite’s death was omitted at first, I believe?).

    In contrast, we try so hard to maintain the innocence of our children in North America by hiding them from the realities of life and taking for granted what they are capable of learning and understanding. Of course I don’t want to turn my children into warriors, but I don’t have issue with teaching them about war and how it affects us.

    There is an overseas degree in Manga Studies available now. Perhaps we need to take it to better understand these themes and how they reflect Japanese culture!

    PS. I sent you an invite to Google+ if you are not already on there. I adore discussions like these and that’s where I find them. It’s also a great place to promote your works.

  • Corrina - September 5, 2011

    I don’t do much anime/manga other than a little Sailor Moon, but in terms of Western stories I’ve been on a Supernatural kick lately, and I’ve noticed that as Sam Winchester becomes more powerful, he keeps becoming much less human than he was in the beginning. Also, he becomes more of a jerk. Though he’s not a child, he is the younger brother. I could probably argue something about River Tam being forced to become more powerful and less human, but it is only when she reclaims her sanity and in a way her humanity that she can fully master her power, but it’s late.

    Also, did you know that they’re rereleasing the original Sailor Moon and Sailor V manga starting this month?

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