How about a little theology along with your Nisio Isin manga?
I. The Fascination of Medaka Kurokami as Divine
Medaka Box, although I don’t really know how, was one of the first dozen or so anime I ever watched. Of course, back then I didn’t know that the Medaka Box anime was rather poorly considered (especially by fans of the manga), but because I didn’t know I didn’t have time to worry about that. All I really cared about was Medaka Kurokami herself, the forceful, seemingly omnipotent and omniscient high schooler who believed absolutely in people and wanted to lift them up.
Having recently read the Medaka Box manga, though, I feel I understand a bit better the lack of enthusiasm for Gainax’s 2012 two-season anime adaptation. The anime, after all, only adapts the manga up through the end of the Thirteen Party arc (and the “Good Loser Kumagawa” episode), which only just begins to introduce some of the concepts that will later be used to systematically deconstruct the nature of Medaka’s invincibility. After all, in retrospect this seems to me (thoroughly enjoyable character interactions aside), the main charm point for the manga—perhaps as one might expect by a Nisio Isin-penned story.
Even so, Medaka remains an object of fascination for me (sheranked #2 in an early and very poorly done blog post here on top female characters in anime), particularly as she exists through the end of the Kumagawa Incident arc. Not just because she is powerful; such an adjective can be assigned to many anime and manga character. Rather, it’s due to the quality of her power, the overpowering strength that asserts itself not only physically but also in moral terms. As the Medaka Kurokami’s Successor arc later directly deals with and breaks down, her “rightness,” to use Zenkichi’s words, (“main character-ness,” to use Anshin’in’s) is woven into the narrative-universal fabric of the initial arcs of the show. Medaka is right not because she is the strongest physically, but because she’s right.
This is of particular interest to me as a theist because the synchronization of early Medaka’s rightness as a character with what the narrative endorses as correct more or less makes her a divine being. If you were to put it in terms of Catholic theology, Medaka constantly winning and reforming others is due not just to the fact that she is “All-Powerful” but also “All-Good.” And while this might open a door one might take later arcs of Medaka Box to inspect Nisio Isin’s commentary on the relationship between an all-powerful, all-good god and humanity, what I’m most interested in is the interplay between the non-deconstructed Medaka and her greatest antithesis, Misogi Kumagawa—and how that dynamic relates to a very specific subsection of Catholic theology.
II. A Brief Primer on Descent Theology
By way of introduction, here’s a quote from the Apostle’s Creed, which every Catholic child learns before receiving first communion:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead […]
The bolded part of this part of the Creed has been the subject of much theological study, debate, and conversation over the centuries: Christ’s descent into Hell on Holy Saturday. There are conflicting interpretations within the Catholic tradition regarding this Descent theology, but my personal introduction to the topic came through the work of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (who I’ve quote before here on the blog). von Balthasar’s thoughts on the subject are controversial within Catholic circles to say the least—although it’s worth noting he was more or less endorsed by the notoriously conservative Pope Benedict XVI.
The controversy around von Balthasar’s interpretation is mainly concerned with the mode of Christ’s descent, perhaps best summed up through this quote from von Balthasar’s poetic work, Heart of the World:
[…] and as a dead of his supreme strength, this weakness would be so great that it would far surpass and sustain in itself the world’s pitiful feebleness. He alone would henceforth be the measure and thus all the meaning of all impotence. He wanted to sink so low that in the future all falling would be a falling into him […]
No fighter is more divine than one who can achieve victory through defeat. In the instant when he receives the deadly wound, his opponent falls to the ground, himself struck a final blow. For he strikes love and is thus himself struck by love. And by letting itself be struck, love proves what had to be proven: that it is indeed love. Once stuck, the hate-filled opponent recognizes his bounders and understands: behave as he pleases, nevertheless he is bounded on every side by a love that is greater than he.
To sum this up quickly, at least as far as I understand it, von Balthasar’s meaning is that after dying on the cross Christ appropriated death unto Himself. God, who had humbled himself to become like humans, would embrace the all-consuming weakness of ultimate defeat so that even in the darkest pit of despair humanity might find Him (I swear, we’re getting back to Medaka Box soon now).
It’s rather lovely theological sentiment, I think, and it parallels nicely with a certain understanding of the nature of Love: that Love in its truest, most divine sense is profound weakness, the willingness to completely empty oneself for the sake of another. Paradoxically, then, because God is True Love, He is also True Weakness, which is True Strength.
III. Medaka Descends
With this, we return to Medaka Kurokami and Misogi Kumagawa.
To my mind, what is most compelling about Medaka and Kumagawa is how they are fundamentally opposed to one another. If Kumagawa’s Minus is All Fiction, one might call Medaka’s “All Reality,” for, as already discussed, all reality is subject to her. In terms of power, Medaka is True Strength (ominpotent), while Kumagawa is True Weakness (omniimpotent, I guess). The girl who will always win versus the boy who will always lose. God and Satan, in a sense.
The climax of Medaka and Kumagawa’s battle is not one of reversal, but of equalization. Out of her own benevolence and magnanimity, Medaka accepts Kumagawa’s request to allow him to inflict his original Minus, Book Maker, on her. Although she does not know the exact nature of Book Maker, she willingly allows herself to be dragged down to Kumagawa’s level, forsaking all of her godly powers to face him on even terms. She allows herself to be stuck, thus proving her strength by an act of profound weakness.
As far as Kumagawa’s redemption goes, then, it is only by Medaka descending to his level that she can finally reach him. To truly save the weakest Minus she must understand him fully and in essence; she must become like him in order to lift him up.
At this point, the parallels between Medaka and Kumagawa’s fight and von Balthasar’s conception of the Harrowing of Hell should be clear. In the middle of the fight, as Medaka and Kumagawa exchanges declarations of mutual love, Kumagawa thinks to himself that it is not him personally who Medaka loves, but “humanity” in general—of which he is but a single member. But whether Kumagawa is representative of a single human or humanity’s collective darkest self doesn’t really matter because Medaka meets him there.
IV. Understanding Christological Power through Manga
Whether or not the specifics of von Balthasar’s interpretation of the descent into hell are theologically sound or not, it does provide a clear framework for understanding divine power. When it comes to Catholic teaching, “love is the greatest power of all,” is not simply a cheesy and charming cliche, but an expression of universal Truth. And yet, the paradox of love is that it is also weakness because it requires submitting oneself to another (see, for example, Philippians 2:8).
Christ’s love empowered him to embrace the ultimate weakness of death. Likewise, Medaka’s love enables her to embrace the ultimate weakness of being a Minus.
Unlike later chapters, in which Medaka’s powers are interrogated by metatextual (the Successor arc) or comparative (the Unknown Shiranui arc) means, the Kumagawa Incident arc asks what the true nature of her power is. Already Medaka’s power has been shown to be greater than the apparently invincible power of Oudo Miyakonojou’s perfectly self-centered strength, and so her conflict with Kumagawa ultimately validates her power as being not one of physical or magical or abnormal strength, but of self-giving flexibility.
And so, here we see Medaka Kurokami as a sort of Christ figure…
Sadly, I’m not bold enough to claim that there is any sort of clear theological parallel here, but at the very least the ending of the Kumagawa Incident arc provides an interesting fictional structure by which a certain understanding of divine power and the descent into hell can be illustrated. Of course, there are elements of Medaka Kurokami’s character which I perceive as being somewhat Christ-like, but on the whole it’s an imperfect reflection at best—as might be expected of a fictional story like Medaka Box.
That said, this was still an enjoyable exercise for me, as it’s not often that I feel anime or mange provide such easy frameworks for unraveling relatively obscure corners of theological pondering. Whether or not there’s any theological or scholarly merit to this I can’t say (and I suspect there have been other aspects of the relationship between Kumagawa and Medaka that I failed to recall and consider against this interpretation of the arc’s events), but it was an entertaining way to blend together faith and hobby for a little bit.
Until next time~