Glass no Kamen (2005), one of the adaptations of Suzue Miuchi’s 1976 manga, has recently brought me back to the joys of my time as an amateur theater actor at university. The anime gets it right—the audience, the lights, the bonding and the rivalries, the last minute changes, the unexpected accidents which require fast improvisation, the struggles of rehearsing, and that glorious, unique feeling of getting the role right at last.
And even more, it gets the experience of beauty, of mature, of the body and the soul, of the richness, and of the multiplicity of the human condition that acting at its best can bring you. Of course, the trials and tribulations of Maya Kitajima, the Girl of a Thousand Masks, and her rival Ayumi Himekawa, go well beyond theater into an epic, Dickensesque story of family drama, love, ascent and descent, friends, and rivals and foes, all against the bright background of the sound of trumpets and a Tokyo looked at with eyes of hope—the eyes of a young actress.
Under the surface, I found it to also be a quite deep, interesting, ambivalent show. After all, the “great theatre of the world,” the notion that the struggles of the actor are often akin to those of love, of maturity and adulthood, of heroism, of the human condition, and even of life in God, has a lot of truth to it, and Glass no Kamen manages to strike many powerful chords. Theatre is dual: There is the actor, and there is the character. Life is also full of duality: growing into your role (or failing to) while you try to discover and keep who you are; learning how to live and act inside your story, and what kind of story it is; trying to be both what others need of you right now and yourself; discovering the truth outside you and trying to make sense of it inside you; conveying your inner self, your love, your suffering, so that they somehow reach the other side; and living a story which is to be both temporary and eternal, both human and divine.
I don´t think this show is as wise as, say, Toradora, Princess Tutu or Haibane Renmei concerning these matters (more on this later), but it’s still great. And, if you have read stories like Little Women, Hellen Keller, Wuthering Heights or A Midsummer’s Night Dream, it is even more enjoyable to see how they put them to life. Episodes 34 to 38, though, deal with a fictional in-piece. They tell us (spoilers ahead) how Maya and Ayumi are cast by Maya’s mentor, the retired diva Chigusa Tsukikage, as Aldis and Orgeld, the half-sister protagonists of the fictional piece, The Two Princesses.
Maya, born in poverty, clumsy at work and school and despised or hated by most, is known as “the stage storm” due to her passionate interpretations, which lead the public to forget about every other actor. Even so, she has to embody the Princess of Spring, the joy of her people, a radiant young girl whose compassion knows no bounds and who inspires others with every word, every gesture. On the other hand, Ayumi, the prodigy child of a theatre star and a successful director, who has had a career of triumphs, has to turn herself into the despised, tormented and treasonous Princess of Winter, raised in captivity and full of unrest and hellish thoughts. But her specialty is precisely projecting an aura with her flawless acting. Have they been miscast?
No. As it turns out, the old actress wants them to grow, to develop as part of their training for the mythic role of The Scarlet Angel. She also thinks that Maya’s Aldis and Ayumi’s Orgeld, when they reach them, will be much more interesting than the opposite arrangement. Knowing that despite the appearances, Maya is at heart a kind, passionate soul, and the determined Ayumi has an obsessive Orgeld-like side to her, I think she is right. But the girls themselves don’t know this, and they are troubled to no end with the casting and the gossip of the rest of the cast. They don’t understand their characters and, whatever they do, can’t seem to get them right.
And so begins a crazy, Stanislavski method search in which Maya lives in Ayumi’s luxurious house and Ayumi in a dark, solitary cell. But to no avail. Aldis and Orgeld remain out of reach, which incidentally also points out how Maya and Ayumi, despite their budding friendship, beneficial rivalry, and love for acting, cannot really understand each other. Their experiences are just too different. It is often like that. Be we in spring or winter, we keep trying to recreate the external, to put ourselves in the position of the other, be it out of the deep thirst for something others have or out of the desire to help, while our different experiences—time, circumstances, sin, wounds, misunderstandings, life itself, and the unfathomable depth of every human being—remain in the way. We are so close, yet so far.
But what are spring and winter? My least favorite character, Miss Tsukigage, is nevertheless the one who provides the key metaphor by locking the two actresses in a cold room for meat storage. She doesn’t tell them for how long are they going to be kept there, and doesn’t respond to their cries of help. There, Ayumi nearly collapses as Maya takes care of her. When they are finally let out, the scarred diva tells them that the cold and helplessness that they felt inside are the essence of Orgeld, while the warmth after the cold is the essence of Aldis. Both girls grasp the essential concept, and although a lot of search and work is still ahead, now they know what they are looking for.
I found this fascinating. We are all born for love, meaning, and true acceptance. We are all wounded by pain, loss, and thirst for what we lack. We need to receive life and love, so we can give them later. This is the warmth of the love, appreciation and affirmation that surrounds Aldis, and that she brings to everyone without distinction. And cold, of course, is not something in itself, but the absence of warmth. Evil, lies, suffering, abuse, and isolation may all be defined in these negative terms. That is the essential architecture of our very different stories, the reason all the plays, all the masks, have nevertheless so much in common. We all feel the warmth, and we all feel the cold. Of course, this duality is also related to our life in Christ and the church. There are Christians of spring and of Winter: those who are feeling surrounded by the love of God right now, and those who, for various reasons, are not.
But the parallels are even more specific. The fictional piece is set in a fantasy world which resembles the Western Europe of the Middle Ages, and the church is present, both in the imaginary and in practice, giving aid and comfort to Princess Aldis, telling her that God will always be with her, and that she has a mission. See:
And so, aided by the church, the joy of Princess Aldis transcends what her father, her mother, and her people have given her, and goes from there to a higher place. “I´m with God,” she says, determined, when she serves the needy, when she works for peace, and even when she loses everything else. Seeing her beauty and goodness, her people acknowledge: “The glory of God is with our Princess.” Meanwhile Princess Orgeld explicitly equates her experience with that of Hell, a Hell into which she is consciously sinking by gaining power at the price of doing what was done to her, and worse. “Just as you have violently taken the throne,” as Miss Tsukigage’s character reminds her, “it may be taken violently from you.” When Cain kills Abel, the world suddenly becomes murderous in his eyes. Sin is the seed of what culminates in Hell.
So Ayumi and Maya now know who their characters are. The first consciously seeks the experience of being rejected, expelled, threatened, alone, and in danger, while muttering to herself the lines of her scarred character. After that, she is ready to embody someone capable of utter monstrosity, ready to set the world in flames, to strike and scoff time after time. And the second’s search takes her to the last person who interpreted Aldis, an old lady who now sings in a choir, and who tells her about how, even without being the prettiest, her Spring Princess was nevertheless convincing. Why? The answer leads Maya to a church, in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose face she examines. Then, she is prepared.
She will play the Princess of Spring, modeling her acting on the one who was told by the angel, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you,” who said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” and who prophesied that “From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me,” becoming a sign of everlasting hope and joy for the Christian people. And just as St. Mary´s experience of being chosen by God such in a magnificent way led her to depart immediately and humbly help her pregnant cousin, Princess Aldis longs to make her long-lost sister happy.
We have seen isolated scenes of more known pieces, but in the episodes that follow we are given The Two Princesses in full. Orgeld’s mother was cruelly executed for a crime of which she was innocent. Her young daughter was raised in a cold, remote prison, while the conspirators, the new queen and her father, enjoyed their triumph in the palace. There, Aldis was born and raised, surrounded by love and admiration. So Orgeld escapes, betrays her allies, conspires, infiltrates the court, gets recognition, instigates a war, and then poisons the king and is crowned. She will execute the killers of her mother, the mother and the grandfather of the Spring Princess, putting Aldis in the very prison that hold her. She hopes to break her spirit, to prove a point.
Although her upbringing may have been more like that of Aldis, the truth is that, like her character, Ayumi is in fact trapped on an endless climb, trying to reach the role of the Crimson Angel, to surpass Maya and to show the world that she deserves recognition for reasons other than being the daughter of her parents. She is envious of the natural talent of Maya, envious to an extent not even she herself knows. But, providentially, Maya may be a sign of hope for her, as Aldis is called to be a sign of hope for Orgeld. She desired to make her happy, and Providence is granting her that wish. The path is rough, but she is aided by grace.
Even the betrayal of Orgeld, the revelation of the evil deeds of her family, and the confinement are not enough to break her spirit, as much as she suffers and doubts. She will love the needy, love her guards, love Orgeld, because she thinks of her as a child of God, because she knows that nothing is more powerful than love. “The Lord told us to love our enemies.” she says, “because there lies the true strength.”
Meanwhile, Orgeld experiences the vertigo, the horror, the disgust, the fear, the self-absorption of the rebellion against the light, the evil which could result in the choice of eternal Hell. As in C. S. Lewis´s The Great Divorce, whose characters keep talking to themselves in a never-ending play of self-glorification, evil is a negative, hollow reality, born from the rejection of love and growth, retaining partial aspects of the good which may look “pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,” but whose fruits are pain of body and soul, despair and death, temporary and eternal. And yet, we choose again and again to be like gods and in misery. “Orgeld, are you prepared to live in Hell?” I will have this, no matter what. That is the structure of sin. No matter if love, meaning, or truth are sacrificed. No matter if the world is deformed. No matter the consequences. No matter if it’s not true.
In my view, the main flaw of Glass Mask as a whole is the complacency with this duality. The Scarlet Angel, that mysterious piece which fascinates everyone who sees it, seems to represent that every human story is an aspect, a glass mask, of nature or being. Harmony is found only in acceptance, a Buddhist idea, and good and evil are understood as equals. I see it mostly in the connection between the piece and Maya;s mentor, Chigusa Tsukikage, a character with echoes of Sunset Boulevard and the Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, who embodies the idolatrous obsession with the stage. When the Queen, her character, asks Orgeld if she would live in Hell, Chigusa Tsukikage is asking the same to Ayumi.
Miss Tsukigage takes her dream to the point of manipulating and repeatedly abusing Maya and everyone else around her in a perfectly plotted, insidious, destructive way. Of trying to control a human life for an extrinsic purpose. Of cutting the contact between her and her mother, of isolating her, of consciously conditioning any show of love or affection on her good performance in the theater. She could have destroyed her a là Perfect Blue, which the show never quite acknowledges, or at least does not as I would have liked. Daito Industries and Masumi Hayami, guilty of the same crime, are indicted. But what they do to Maya is not half as bad as what Mrs. Tsukigage does.
Back to the Winter Princess now. When Orgeld visits her half-sister, she finds something she cannot quite understand. Aldis still loves her. Putting her love to the most extreme test, that of life and death, it remains steady. Acknowledging the strength and the goodness of her half-sister, she lets her escape. She thinks her world is the world of darkness, and she will still reject the light to hold power. Aldis will be rescued by a prince, and they will think about the other, but they are separated. And so it ends. For now, at least.
By defeating Ayumi, an actress so committed that she will date a boy just to perfect her acting, with her natural talent, Maya will likewise become a sign of hope, a crack through which light can pass. Christ often fights this way in our lives, so we can be saved of the prisons we create for ourselves, so we can rescue others who suffer in theirs. In Glass no Kamen, we don´t get to see anything beyond the start. But imagine that the Princess of Winter may come to the other side, embrace the light, and follow her sister. We know that her pain, experiences, and failures are not going to disappear. She will still feel, quite often, as if she was living in Hell. The world will still be marked by an ambiguous, sometimes painful duality. Because the Christian life has both springs and winters, the experience of love and the experience of exile.
Let the curtain down. As I write this it is February, between winter and spring. It is Lent now, and Lent and Easter, the desert and the restored Eden, are in tension. Sometimes the faith feels close to our heart, and we can feel its power. Sometimes, due to various circumstances, be it trauma, depression, doubt, sin, ignorance, error, things we cannot understand or accept, the power of attraction of things that are incompatible with our Lord, all of the above or something else entirely, we just cannot. Faith becomes difficult. And sometimes, the experience of exile may last for days, weeks, years. St. Mary, Maya’s inspiration for playing Aldis, was told that a sword would pierce her soul. Therese of Calcutta remained in the dark for decades, while giving light and warmth to those in need. The world is full of mysteries. In our path, we Christians will meet Christ in Bethlehem, Christ in the Transfiguration, Christ on the Cross, Christ on Easter.
As Aldis and Orgeld, as Maya and Ayumi, we are all connected. We are a church, the body of Christ. The gifts for any of us are gifts for all, and when a member suffers, the whole body suffers. In Christ, we share a true communion of gifts and sorrows. So those in spring are to share their light with their brothers and sisters in winter, one step at a time, in the prisons and the slums, but also the mansions and the dangerous obsessions. To try to understand. To be patient. To be witnesses of hope for them, and share their struggles. And to remember that self-enclosure, indifference, avarice, and self-satisfaction are a poison that must be combated by repentance and penance. These days of Lent are traditionally days of penance, of almsgiving, of fasting, of reflection. They are a path.
And those in winter are to remain open, to embrace He who put Himself in our position and shared our pains, to face the resentment and the envy, to fight the difficult fight, to resist somehow, as Christ in the desert, as Christ in Gethsemane, and believe that things will be better, that they have a role, that their thirst will be sated. That, after the cross, the resurrection will come. One day, the play will end, and we will go towards the applause and the embrace of Christ, or will stay on the desert stage, the lights out, performing to ourselves. Our Lord, the unseen, loving spectator, will fight for each of us to the end, and will intervene. Meanwhile, may we play each of our roles with committed hope, together, and sometimes look beyond the scenery.
Glass no Kamen (2005) is available through Amazon Prime Video.