Welcome once again to Entering Carcosa! Today, in our sixth instalment, we will be talking about the epic in a very unusual medium, that of Japanese anime. Anime is very much a polarising art form; you either love it or hate it. I know many people who absolutely cannot stand to be in the same room as a TV with anime blasting from it. For others, it is one of the few art-forms that can truly strike a resonating emotional chord. I, personally, love anime and find it incredibly rewarding viewing, in part because the storytelling is often so detailed, convoluted, and rich. One of the greatest animes I have seen in recent years is Seven Deadly Sins, or, Nanatsu no Taizai. It is based on a manga of the same name and follows the adventures of an elite team of seven knights, each one a ‘sinner’, in the ancient kingdom of Britannia. The show reworks numerous Biblical and Arthurian myths into its own re-imagined mythic tapestry.
In terms of subject, Seven Deadly Sins has picked a fertile field, but also one that has already been well trodden. The Arthurian legends are a rich, rich tapestry for the epic, as many novelists and poets attest. Two of the most notable epics using the Arthurian legends include: La Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (published in 1485) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (published circa 1300s). Both of these, whilst written in more challenging phonetic Middle English, are worth reading for any enthusiast of Fantasy or writer attempting to pen their own epic. In addition, Edmund Spenser used many elements of the Arthurian mythos to create his epic The Faerie Queene in 1590 (Arthur is actually a recurring character in the six volumes). John Milton, when deciding on the subject for his epic, contemplated the Arthurian legends, but in the end settled on the Fall of Mankind as a more fitting topic. More recently, in the 20th century, Robert Holdstock penned several novels, including Mythago Wood and Merlin’s Wood, which re-imagined the Arthurian myths in darker ways. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is a staggering re-imagining of the Arthurian epic for children (though the pathos of the end is far from easy reading). Now, we also have numerous television and film adaptations, including most recently Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). This is merely scratching the surface of the canon.
There is a risk here of over-saturation, but the Seven Deadly Sins sidesteps this effortlessly by shifting the focus from Arthur himself onto the knights of a kingdom called Liones (a state that exists contemporaneously with Camelot). These knights, members of a Holy Order, are drafted to serve the king as penance for their sins. Each one is modelled on one of the deadly sins of Christian philosophy. The deadly sins themselves are also well-trodden ground, with plays like Dr Faustus from the 16th century right through to modern cinematic masterpieces like David Fincher’s Seven exploring them in detail. However, amazingly, the creators of Seven Deadly Sins have found new ground to tread with them, subverting our expectations of the sins. Ban, the ‘Fox Sin of Greed’, for example, already has the thing he so hungered for, which is the elixir of eternal life. However, he no longer wants this gift, as it has become a curse. He is known as ‘Undead Ban’ and can never die, which is his great tragedy, because it means he can never be re-united with the one he loves: Elaine. Diane is the ‘Snake Sin of Envy’: she is of the Giant race but wishes she could be human, because she is a constant outsider to society due to her height and power.
Gowther, the ‘Goat Sin of Lust’ is an even more dramatic subversion. Gowther ‘has no heart’ and in fact does not understand people or emotions in the slightest, behaving like a mechanical robot. Yet, his magical power is that he can influence other’s thoughts and feelings (making him a deadly loose canon). Gowther is virtually non-binary and a-sexual – frequently dressing in female clothes and sometimes changing his appearance. His lack of empathy and emotional intelligence (misreading social cues) can be considered a subtextual representation of autism in many regards. He is fully accepted in the group despite his struggle to interpret social settings. For example, he witnesses Meliodas drunkenly groping Elizabeth. Later, then repeats the action himself, believing it to be a form of social etiquette, groping Ban who explains, through embarrassment, that that is not how friends behave to one another or how anyone should behave for that matter. Gowther does not understand, but he wants so badly to learn. Gowther’s ‘lust’ is not sexual, it is a lust to obtain a heart and become a fully rounded person. It represents the desire of many autistic people to understand connect with others. After all, the belief autistic individuals are ‘anti-social’ is a harmful misconception, and in many ways it can often be the case that individuals desire more socialisation than neuro-typical individuals, they simply find it harder to achieve. Gowther’s ‘lust’ is so strong that he at one point he contemplates killing all of his friends in order to be granted his wish by a demon – that he be given a heart – so he can cry over their remains. He does not perceive the contradiction or irony in this, a moment of tragic comedy.
The Seven Deadly Sins find themselves pitted against many outrageous and powerful foes. First, demonically possessed traitors to the Holy Order. Later, footsoldiers of the demon realm. Finally, against the Ten Commandments, the elite warriors of the Demon King himself. The Ten Commandments are a brilliant re-imagining of the Biblical Commandments. Each demon is bound by their own cosmic law. For example, Galand of the Truth cannot utter a lie, and any who utter a lie in his presence (including himself) are instantly turned to stone. Estarossa of Benevolence is bound by good-will, therefore no one can lift a weapon against him if they have hate or anger in their hearts. The way these Commandments combat and interact with the Deadly Sins is a stroke of storytelling genius, especially as we move toward a cataclysmic conflict between two of the most powerful individuals in the story.
But, each of the Deadly Sins is an epic hero in their own right. Though arguably Meliodas, the ‘Dragon Sin of Wrath’ is the protagonist of this story, and the one on whom we spend the most time, all of the heroes have their own rich and detailed backstory that is revealed as we progress through the narrative. We discover why Gowther has no empathy. We discover why Ban cannot trust anyone when we dive into his traumatising past and the dark story of how he became immortal. We discover why Meliodas is so powerful (and why he has to hold back his ‘wrath’) and why Diane left her own people, the Giants, in order to become a Deadly Sin. The relationships between the Deadly Sins are similarly complex. Diane clearly has feelings for Meliodas, as he was the first person to accept her as she was. Yet King, the ‘Grizzly Sin of Sloth’, has feelings for Diane, and transpired that he nurtured her when she first fled from her people (though she has forgotten this due to other circumstances). Meliodas himself is missing memories, and we later discover one of the other deadly sins, Merlin the ‘Boar Sin of Gluttony’, is the one responsible for removing them. This is part of the tremendous scope of the epic, which demands rich casts of characters and fleshed out stories behind the story itself. One of the greatest epics, that of Jason and the Argonauts (which sadly does not exist in an entirely cogent form as the original was possibly lost) depicts a team of elite epic heroes on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece in a similar vein, giving us characters that individually have their own rich history, such as Herakles and Orpheus, as well as belonging to a whole. Similarly, the interplay of seven heroes specifically invokes something of a grand tradition in East and West, such as the Seven Against Thebes – a Greek epic of seven warriors who fought an entire city – Seven Samurai, and of course the American remake: The Magnificent Seven.
Each one of the Deadly Sins is from an unusual place or land, particularly Diane who hails from the realm of Giants, Megadoza. They each have an unusual power, such as Meliodas’ ability to ‘counter’ enemy attacks, reflecting their own strength back at them. They are united by their sense of justice. Each has a sacred artefact (magical equipment) which increases their power, such a Escanor, the Lion Sin of Pride, who possess Rhitta, an axe forged from the power of the sun. They are all royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them – especially King who is, as his name suggests, the exiled King of the Fairy Kingdom. All of them are orphaned or not raised by their true parents, particularly Ban, who is raised by a Beast-Man and thief, Zhivago. In a heart-rending and cathartic scene, he re-unites with his foster father, who is now an old man (whereas Ban has not aged a day). The tragic circumstances of their parting are resolved and they share a powerful reunion before Zhivago succumbs to old age. It is one of the most breath-taking scenes in the series so far. Lastly, each hero possesses a tragic flaw, a weakness. In some ways, this is their sin itself, which is a psychological flaw they must battle against, but many also possess physical weaknesses. Escanor, for example, draws his power from the sun. At midday, he is practically invincible, a god, but at night he is diminutive and cowardly, having less strength than even an ordinary human being. Escanor’s fluctuating power is, however, more than a simple plot device. Escanor’s shifts between two linked yet dispirit personalities as the day changes seem, like Gowther’s autism, to be a subtle sub-textual commentary on mental health issues. From the manic, over-confident sun-self, at night he regresses into an overly polite, submissive depressive. It is a kind of bi-polarism. Instead of Jekyll and Hyde, however, where one self is a true monster, Escanor’s selves relate to one another. They share a love of poetry, of Merlin, of life and friendship, but one cripplingly doubts themselves, one thinks himself a god. Both are truly Escanor. He simply has to live with these two selves.
Seven Deadly Sins plays with this concept of a tragic flaw, however, delivering some of the most emotive scenes I’ve seen in modern television. One of the most striking scenes to me occurs in the season 2 mini-series (which is only 4 episodes long). In this series, Gowther bumps into a small boy who mistakes Gowther momentarily for his mother (who died some years ago). Once again Gowther’s gender neutrality, or his trans-genderism, is called to the fore. In his attempts to understand human emotion, Gowther asks the young boy, Pelio, about his mother. Pelio recounts to Gowther how his mother used to ask him to come inside for dinner. He describes to Gowther her beautiful blonde hair, her soft voice, her smile. When Pelio turns around, standing before him is his mother. Gowther has magically altered his appearance to exactly resemble her. In a soft, gentle voice, he repeats to Pelio his mother’s words: ‘Come in, Pelio, your dinner is ready.’ Pelio bursts into tears, overcome with emotion. His father arrives and asks his son why he is crying, but Gowther has already disappeared. He thought that imitating the boy’s mother would bring him joy, he doesn’t understand what he has done wrong. It is one of the most affecting scenes in the whole series.
Anime is epic in style, though often in a self-aware and parodic way. It is over-the-top, with fight sequences spanning multiple episodes, lengthy speeches that expound the ideology of the characters, and intense overwrought music scoring. However, the best animes, such as Attack on Titan and Seven Deadly Sins itself, play with the audience’s expectations of those ‘epic’ conventions. They set heroes up as epic warriors, only to casually hack them down and throw them aside (in a similar vein to Game of Thrones). They break real tension and horror with a bathetic moment of humour and light-heartedness. And, when they are firing on all cylinders, they deliver true and genuine epic, which is often a moment of understated deliverance or where fate truly does seem to intervene. No moment in Seven Deadly Sins is a better example of this than the confrontation between the Ten Commandments’ Estarossa and Escanor of the Deadly Sins. Estarossa, with his power of ‘benevolence’, easily cuts a swathe through the heroes and even seems to kill a member of the Deadly Sins. We see some of the best and brightest helpless before him, unable to even raise their weapons let alone put up a struggle. They are powerless against his Commandment. Suddenly, we see a golden armoured figure walking through the ranks of helpless heroes. The figure is Escanor, the Lion. He raises his axe. Estarossa is flabbergasted. ‘How?’ he asks. ‘Why isn’t my power working on you?’ Escanor smiles and simply says: ‘How could I hate someone who is so much weaker than I am?’ It is then we remember Escanor’s sin is Pride. In this genius moment the entire meaning of the show is laid bare; his sin becomes the ultimate salvation of the human race. Escanor bears no hatred within him because he is so arrogant that he deems no one to be worthy.
It is a stunning moment of eucatastrophe: eucatastrophe being the ‘sudden delivery’ where the heroes are saved at the very last minute. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in The Lord of the Rings, where Pippin suddenly cries: ‘The eagles are coming!’ The arrival of the eagles, the unexpected reprieve, is a heart-singing revelation. Similarly, the arrival of the Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelenor Fields is another eucatastrophe moment. Tolkien was a master at it. Here, Seven Deadly Sins uses it to turn the myths on their heads. Escanor’s fault and weakness becomes the only way that evil can be triumphed against.
All epic heroes need a guide. Whilst there are several oracles within Seven Deadly Sins who provide wisdom, Merlin, the Sin of Gluttony, is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable and useful. She elucidates many parts of the plot, including Gowther’s real nature, Meliodas’ past, Escanor’s power, and the nature of demons themselves. Merlin is also, simultaneously, a kind of Muse. All epics require an invocation to the Muse and it is intriguing that Escanor directly refers to Merlin as a Muse for his poetry. Each of the heroes seems to have one. Ban has Elaine, the sacred ‘sleeping beauty’ he has dedicated his life to pursuing a cure for. Meliodas has Elizabeth, the escaped princess of Liones who reunites the Deadly Sins. All are integral to the narrative. However, Merlin seems to stand at the pinnacle of Muse-hood, wisdom, and woman-hood for that matter, with even Meliodas, Ban and many other characters (including women) forced to admit to her supreme beauty and power. Merlin is, of course, one of the most important characters from Arthurian myth and therefore directly ties Seven Deadly Sins to the literature of the past. She is, however, also a radical re-imagining of that past.
Heroes are defined most often by their descent into hell, and while there are many hellish descents in Seven Deadly Sins, none are more Dante-esque or emotionally powerful than the scene in which Meliodas undergoes the Druid trial. The context is that Meliodas has had a portion of his power locked away by Merlin as a safeguarding measure. Meliodas, after the death of his first love Liz, went berserk and destroyed an entire city, completely losing control of his powers. This is also why some of his memories have been tampered with. However, with the threat of the Ten Commandments and their vast power, Merlin recognises that Meliodas’ strength must be restored. The Druids who have locked away Meliodas’ power agree that he can be allowed to have it, but they must ascertain whether he has learned the self control to keep himself in check. So, they propose a trial. Meliodas enters a mystical tree and is put into a trance. In this trance he experiences visions, visions in which he loses Liz, and many other loved ones, over and over again. Each time, he tries to control his anger, and each time he fails and obliterates the city, killing thousands in the collateral damage. The harder Meliodas tries to hold in his emotions, the worse it gets. His very soul is being torn apart at the seams. It is a trial that is beyond any he has previously undergone because it challenges him at a spiritual rather than physical level. The longer he remains in the trance, the more damaging each repetition is.
It is a truly heart-rending scene, one that ties into Milton’s ideology that hell is as much a psychological place as a physical one, one in which we are tormented by our minds and emotions more than any demon. Yuki Kaji, the Japanese voice-actor behind Meliodas, is to be praised for his immense performance, allowing the audience to sense the wealth of terrible emotion beneath his attempts to control it. This is the moment that we truly understand why Meliodas has earned the title of Wrath. It goes to show how hard it is for someone to re-define themselves and separate their new, better self from their past. Must we always be held to our sins, or can we move beyond them? These are some of the most pertinent and searching questions Seven Deadly Sins asks, and it asks them at a near perfect point in history. With the internet and advent of digital technology, never has it been easier to resurrect past mistakes.
The manga has reached, as of writing this article, 35 volumes, and the show seems to be increasing exponentially in popularity, so I’m sure we will certainly be getting more Seven Deadly Sins in the future. As of now, there are three seasons for consumption, and I can hardly recommend them enough.
It has been a pleasure to bring you a sixth part of this series. I am always looking for more examples of modern epics, and while I have some thoughts myself, I quite enjoy taking your suggestions, as it introduces me to new material! Please, feel free to leave a comment with your suggestions for further epics or thoughts about Seven Deadly Sins.
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Until next time, my friends!