Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition

Maria the Virgin Witch: ExhibitionCreator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632361905
Released: August 2015
Original release: 2015

I rather enjoyed Masayuki Ishikawa’s short, three-volume manga series Maria the Virgin Witch. Although it was a bit uneven in places, possibly because the series ended sooner than was initially planned (granted, that is my own speculation rather than something that I know for a fact), I liked the series’ quirky characters, historical fantasy, and peculiar mix of humor and more serious philosophical and theological musings. Because Maria the Virgin Witch wrapped up so quickly and left many questions unanswered, I was happy to learn that Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition had also been licensed for an English-language release. Originally published in Japan in 2015, Exhibition is a collection of sides stories, a mix of prequels and sequels to the main series. Kodansha Comics released the English-language edition in 2015 as well. It is a relatively slim volume, but I was looking forward to spending a little more time with Maria the Virgin Witch and its characters.

Each of the short manga in Exhibition focuses on a different character of Maria the Virgin Witch: Viv, Maria, Joseph, and Ezekiel. Viv’s story is the only multi-chapter manga in the volume. It follows the English witch from when she first arrived on France’s shores, traveling on a ship filled with soldiers and other witches sent to reinforce England’ armies in the Hundred Years War. This is long before she befriends Maria, but Viv’s enthusiastic and reckless approach to battle, in addition to wreaking havoc, becomes a source of inspiration for Maria’s own efforts. The next story is just as much about Maria’s familiars as it is about Maria herself, taking place during the main series and showing a typical day away from the battlefield after Ezekiel joins their small group. Josephs’ story, like Viv’s, is a prequel to Maria the Virgin Witch, recounting Joseph and Maria’s first adorably awkward meeting as he seeks her aid for France’s war efforts. The volume ends with a story about Ezekiel, not as an angel, but as the human child of Maria and Joseph, providing a nice epilogue for the series as a whole.

Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition, page 44The stories in Exhibition are obviously intended for readers who are already familiar with Maria the Virgin Witch and who have already read the entire series. Although the short manga in Exhibition aren’t necessarily directly connected to the main narrative of Maria the Virgin Witch, by their very nature there are some spoilers involved and the collection relies on the reader having previous knowledge of the series’ characters. Exhibition is less devoted to expanding the world and plot of Maria the Virgin Witch and more focused on further developing the manga’s characters and their personal stories. And by telling the stories of the individual characters in Exhibition, more about Maria herself is revealed. Even when she isn’t immediately involved or present, Maria plays an important role in all of the short manga. Exhibition shows many of her different sides: Maria the friend, Maria the master, Maria the lover, Maria the mother, and so on.

Whereas the main Maria the Virgin Witch series had a rather serious story that was accompanied and punctuated with humor, overall Exhibition consistently tends to be much more lighthearted and comedic in nature. It’s a fun collection for fans of the series even if the stories are generally fairly inconsequential. None of the hard questions raised by the main series or the lingering plot threads are really addressed. Maria’s lineage and backstory still remain obscure. (If anything, I’m left wondering even more about her origins and who she really is.) Not much in the way of additional worldbulding is present in the volume either. Instead, Exhibition offers readers the opportunity to enjoy a collection of stories that are charming, funny, and even a little touching as they celebrate the characters of Maria the Virgin Witch. And because the characters are such a large part of what makes Maria the Virgin Witch so appealing, Exhibition is a perfect send-off for the series.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 3

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 3Creator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632360823
Released: June 2015
Original release: 2013

Maria the Virgin Witch is a three-volume manga series (four volumes if counting the sequel Exhibition) created by Masayuki Ishikawa. It was actually because the series was by Ishikawa, who is also the creator of Moyasimon (which I enjoy), that it first came to my attention. The first volume of Maria the Virgin Witch intrigued me, and the second ends with the heroine in a rather dire-looking situation, so I was very curious to see how the story would continue to play out in the third. Happily, Kodansha Comics was kind enough to send a review copy along to me. Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 3 was originally published in Japan in 2013. Kodansha’s English-language edition of the volume was released in 2015. Despite being a short series, the narrative of Maria the Virgin Witch has the tendency to be a little unfocused, but I still find the manga to be consistently engaging. I especially appreciate the quirkiness of the series in general as well as the quirkiness of its characters specifically.

Maria had been warned by the Archangel Michael: If the young witch continued to interfere with the natural order of the world she would be struck down. However, so devoted to ending the long-lasting war between France and England, Maria continued to flaunt her powers, even while in the presence of Michael’s messenger Ezekiel. Now the time has come for her to face the consequences of her actions. She was, however, somehow able to survive what was intended to be a fatal blow from Michael’s spear. But she’s still vulnerable and must rely on the protection of her two owl familiars and the kindness of her fellow witches who don’t necessarily approve of her efforts to force a peace. Maria was at one point alone in the world—the Heavens, other witches, and even some of the humans she was trying to save all standing against her—but over time her earnestness and innocence has earned her some friends, a few of whom could have at one time been counted among her enemies. But even with their support Maria is beginning to lose her naiveté, realizing that bringing happiness to humanity may be more complicated than she initially considered.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 3, page 154Maria the Virgin Witch has always been a peculiar mix of quirky humor and more serious philosophical and theological reflection. There are a lot of ideas that Ishikawa was able to work into such a short series, although at the same time it’s difficult to thoroughly explore all of them in only three volumes. (It actually makes me wonder if Maria the Virgin Witch was originally intended to be a longer story.) The third volume brings up questions about Maria’s family and backstory without really answering them. Also, apparently many if not all witches are loners, something that wasn’t clearly established until now. Maria’s close friendship with the English witch Viv develops suddenly, and their discussions about the true meaning of happiness and love come across as a little forced. It was as if Ishikawa needed to rush in order to make sure that the heart of the series was addressed and made absolutely clear, paring down the seemingly extraneous elements introduced earlier in the manga.

Although overall the narrative of Maria the Virgin With is somewhat uneven, in the end I did largely enjoy the series and I would like to read Exhibition as well. Since the very beginning of the manga, I’ve been particularly fond of Maria herself. While she and the other witches feel more contemporary in thought and appearance than the rest of the series’ setting, I do appreciated her struggle to come to terms with not only her own position in the world, but also the role of the higher powers of Heaven. It’s a debate that humankind has been wrestling with for ages and is one more link between the manga’s historical backdrop and the present day. Ishikawa explores the answer to this timeless question through Maria’s growth as a character. She begins as a young, determined woman seeking to right the wrongs of the world, becoming wiser and more mature as she is confronted with the often brutal realities of life. But importantly, Maria never loses her ideals or succumbs to despair, which is why so many people come to love her so dearly.

Thank you to Kodansha for providing a copy of Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 3 for review.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 2

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 2Creator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632360816
Released: April 2015
Original release: 2011

I was somewhat wary when I picked up Masayuki Ishikawa’s manga series Maria the Virgin Witch to read. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it, especially considering part of the story is explicitly focused on the heroine’s virginity and sexuality. No that that is necessarily a bad thing, it just has the potential to go very wrong, very quickly. But because the series is by Ishikawa, whose Moyasimon I enjoy immensely, in the end I decided to give Maria the Virgin Witch a try. (At some point, I’ll likely take the time to watch the manga’s recent anime adaptation as well.) Although there were a few things that bothered me about the series’ first volume, by and large I was intrigued and enjoyed the manga, certainly more so than I had initially anticipated that I would. I liked the basic premise of the manga, particularly the quirky characters, and so I wanted to see what Ishikawa would do with the rest of the series. Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 2 was first released in Japan in 2011. The English-language edition of the volume was published by Kodansha Comics in 2015.

Having drawn too much attention to herself by dramatically interfering with the affairs and wars of humankind, the young, idealistic witch Maria has been given an ultimatum by the Archangel Michael. Maria as been forbidden to display her powerful magic in front of humans or else forfeit her life. Additionally, should she ever lose her virginity she will lose her powers as a witch, putting her in a position where she must either choose her own happiness or the happiness of others. Since Michael has better things to do than spend all his time watching over a rogue witch, he leaves his messenger Ezekiel behind to ensure that Maria follows the rules. Whether Ezekiel is actually successful is another matter entirely. Maria still feels very strongly about aiding those who ask for her help and bringing an end to the war between England and France. With some assistance from her familiars Artemis and Priapus, she is able to take advantage of a few loopholes in Ezekiel’s charge, but it’s likely only a matter of time before Michael puts a stop to that, too.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 2, page 74Maria the Virgin Witch continues to be a strange combination of crude humor largely revolving around sex (or the lack thereof) and more serious philosophical and theological questioning. The introduction of Ezekiel allows Ishikawa to more fully explore Maria’s motivations and her view of the world and all that she believe is wrong with it. If God and his angels won’t step in to put an end to humanity’s wars and violence—even when people are praying for just that—Maria sees it as her responsibility to fulfill that role since it is within her power, albeit in a much more limited fashion. She acknowledges that she is no god; she is not omnipotent, neither is she omniscient. She can only do what she can. The second volume of Maria the Virgin Witch reveals that Maria is very much an outlier in her way of thinking. Other people and other witches who have the ability to influence the course of the war actually want to drag it out as long as possible. To do so is to their advantage. They believe the position held by Maria to be incomprehensible and incredibly naive. But some, including Ezekiel, find that their assumptions and beliefs are challenged by Maria’s idealism and earnestness and are forced to reexamine them.

Although the series is set during the Hundred Years War and references actual events and people, the second volume of Maria the Virgin Witch makes it very clear that the manga is less historical fiction and more fantasy fiction. While interesting, the worldbuilding of the series is actually a little confused, or at least not thoroughly explained. Magic has always been a large part of Maria the Virgin Witch, as have demons, monsters, angels, and other divine beings (including Valkyries for some reason), but the second volume introduces a mythical and mortal non-human race to the mix. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it seems to come out of nowhere and means that the manga loses some if its focus, which is something that is particularly important for a short series like Maria the Virgin Witch to maintain. With only one volume in the main series remaining, I’m afraid that Ishikawa may not be able to fully develop all of the elements and themes that he is trying to incorporate. Even so, I still find Maria the Virgin Witch to be an intriguing although somewhat uneven series; I’m very curious to see how it ends.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1Creator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632360809
Released: February 2015
Original release: 2010

I’ll admit, when I first heard about the manga series Maria the Virgin Witch, I was more than a little skeptical. I’m not particularly interested in witches, which seem to be nearly as common as vampires in translated manga these days, and the emphasis placed on the heroine’s virginity seemed like it could be a little suspect. But then I realized that Maria the Virgin Witch was by Masayuki Ishikawa, the creator of Moyasimon, a quirky manga about microbes and fermentation that I enjoyed immensely. (Sadly, only two volumes of Moyasimon were ever released in English.) If for no other reason, I wanted to give Maria the Virgin Witch a chance because of my love for Moyasimon. I’m very glad that I did; the first volume turned out to be a very promising and intriguing start to the short series. Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1 was initially published in Japan in 2010 while the English-language edition was released by Kodansha Comics in 2015.

During the first half of the fifteenth century, England and France were still locked in the Hundred Years War, many of the battles being waged on French soil. Maria is a powerful but young witch living in France. She abhors the killing and senseless violence and so does what she can to disrupt the conflict and protect the villages and people who live near her woods. She has discovered one particularly effective method: by sending an owl familiar in the form of a succubus among the leaders of the armies on the eve of major battles, they often lose their will to fight or their interest in the impending confrontation. However, sometimes more direct action is required and Maria will summon great beasts to wreak havoc and chaos on the battlefield. But causing such a spectacle carries with it the danger of drawing the attention of Heaven and the risk of incurring the wrath of the Archangel Michael. There is a proper order to the world, and Maria poses a threat to it.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1, page 118 Maria’s outlook on life (as well as her and her familiars’ character designs) does tend to be more contemporary than the rest of the manga’s setting, but I really like her as a character. She has strong convictions, and she is prepared to act on them, doing what she can to right the injustices she sees in the world. Michael and others criticize her for her interference and audacity; Maria is very forthright with her feelings and opinions. She is young, and perhaps a little naive, but I admire her earnestness. Despite her anger and frustration, she has yet to become embittered by the world.  Maria honestly and wholeheartedly cares about people, especially those who are powerless or taken advantage of. Though some of her methods might not be considered to be particularly respectable by most, she and the people she protects believe her to be a force for good. Even so, Maria is considered to be a heretic by the Catholic Church, an institution for which she quite obviously holds no love.

Although Maria the Virgin Witch explores some fairly serious subjects—religion, morality, power dynamics, sexuality—the manga also includes a good deal of humor. Much of the comedy has to do with sex in one way or another, but some of it simply relies of the quirkiness of the characters. Maria, for example, is old enough to be curious about sex, but is still completely embarrassed at even the mere thought of seeing a man naked. As a result Priapus, the incubus she creates, is rather indistinct where it counts and is generally just put in charge of cooking and running errands. The first volume of Maria the Virgin Witch can be a bit crass at times (personally, I could have done without the repeated “cry for me like a little whore”-type comments), but overall the manga is a surprisingly layered work. The more I think about it, the more it grows on me, and the more I want to read the rest of the series. So far, Maria the Virgin Witch is a very interesting mix of historical fiction and fantasy that can be both entertaining and sobering.

Random Musings: Cultures of Japanese Sake

Cultures of SakeI enjoy sake. I don’t have the opportunity to drink it very often, and I don’t really know much about it, but I do enjoy it and have an interest in it. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to hear Natsuki Kikuya, the founder of Museum of Sake, give her presentation “World of Sake: How It’s Created, and Where It’s Going.” Kikuya is from a family of sake brewers which is part of a collective in the Tōhoku region of northern Honshū. She currently works with chefs in the United Kingdom as a sake sommelier and is in the process of developing a sake documentary; her personal mission is to introduce and promote sake across Europe and the rest of the world. The craft and culture surrounding sake and sake brewing is broad and deep. A comparison can easily be made with wine culture, but Kikuya has found that in the West a “translator” is often needed for sake. Whereas wine has an extensive vocabulary already established to describe it, traditionally sake has had only two descriptors: dry and sweet.

SakeSo, what is sake? In Japanese, “sake” is a word that simply means “alcoholic beverage.” However, when the term is used in English, generally it is specifically referring to what is known in Japan as nihonshu. Sake is a fermented and filtered alcoholic beverage that is no more than 22% alcohol by volume. Typically, sake is brewed using only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji. Approximately 1% of Japan’s total rice production is devoted specifically to the brewing of sake. Though still edible, the rice used in sake is very different from table rice meant for consumption. When making sake the outside of the grains of rice is polished away, leaving behind the starches. In the highest quality sake, more than half of the rice is polished away. (In one exceptional case, only 7% of the rice remained after polishing.) Water is a particularly important ingredient as sake is made up of around 80% water. Water from different sources can significantly change the taste of the sake; generally water with softer qualities is desired. Up until the 20th century, sake production primarily relied on wild yeast, however more than 90% of sake fermentation now uses cultivated yeast. Koji is sake’s “magical ingredient”—a type of mold spore that transforms the starches in the rice into sugars for the yeast to ferment. Sake is often described as being “grown in breweries”; its quality very much depends on the human techniques involved and there is less emphasis placed on vintage as a result.

During her talk, Kikuya outlined a brief history of sake and its development in Japan. Sake had its beginnings over 2,500 years ago, originating as the “drink of the gods” and was associated with Shinto shrines. Between the 7th and 12th centuries, sake came under control of the court. During that time there were thirteen different grades of sake appropriate for the different ranks of nobility. In the Middle Ages the center of sake production moved to Kōfuku-ji in Nara and other Buddhist temples. At this point in history distilled spirits from abroad began to be introduced to Japan as well. The Edo period saw the rise of brewing specialists and the center of sake production once again moved, this time to Itami and Edo. Previously sake had been made year-round, but as the brewing techniques were refined during the Edo period it became a winter-specific process. The Edo period also saw the establishment of izakaya and the culture of eating outside of the home; sake was no longer just for nobles. Homebrewing was prohibited in 1899, mostly for tax reasons, and so sake brewing became more of a corporate affair during the Meiji era.

Sake Aisle

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake

The 20th century brought the “era of synthetic sake.” When rice was not readily available (during times of war, for example), techniques were developed to compensate for this lack, such as the introduction of syrups. The quality of the results were not always particularly good. And then there is sake industry today, which is focusing on modernization, localization, and globalization. This includes the creation of “new gen” sake, such as sparkling sake and sake with low alcohol content, as well as the use of sake in mixed drinks. At one point there were over 4,000 breweries in Japan. Sadly, the industry is dying and only around 1,200 breweries currently remain. Of those, the top twenty account for 80% of the sake production in Japan, however local breweries are beginning to gain increased support. There are several theories as to why interest in sake is declining in Japan: the continued Westernization of the country, the aging and shrinking of the population, and the fact that younger generations simply don’t seem to be drinking sake. Although the sake industry is still dominated by men, Kikuya knows of at least ten women heads of breweries. Interestingly enough, in addition to Japan, the United States is also a leading producer of sake and currently has seven to eight breweries of its own.

Prior to the Kikuya’s talk, my knowledge of sake had primarily been gleaned from what I myself had tasted as well as from manga like Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo (especially the volume Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake) and Masayuki Ishikawa’s Moyasimon. I was quite happy to discover that those series have actually provided me with a fairly strong introduction to and basic understanding of sake and the sake industry, including some of the more unusual and interesting historical tidbits. So, even if you don’t have the chance to take advantage of the knowledge of a sake expert, picking up a copy of Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake and following it up with a bit of Moyasimon (the manga or the anime) is not a bad place to start. (Toko Kawai’s short boys’ love series The Scent of Apple Blossoms also features a sake brewer, though I haven’t read it yet to be able to say how educational the manga might be.) For those interested in learning more about sake, Kikuya’s Museum of Sake is also worth a look, as is Discovery UK’s series Discovering Sake. And sometimes the best way to learn about something is to simply experience it for yourself. Have a taste!