Monday, August 15, 2011

All is Vanity

I read a lot of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction growing up. The manga series was slapstick martial arts hilarity with terrific representations of impossible fighting poses, horrified expressions, and cute animals. Its creator, Rumiko Takahashi, was revered for her zany creativity, and her protracted production schedule was similarly almost legendary. Every single issue of Ranma is a laugh-a-minute; every time you think characters are being serious, they do or say something utterly moronic, or are bashed over the head with a mallet.

Hello, Nabiki! Goodbye, wallet!
I had a special place in my heart for Nabiki Tendo, the most cunning character in the series. In a family of martial artists, Nabiki had zero fighting skills. However, she was excellent at exploiting people and situations, a skill she uses to extort or blackmail the other characters, usually Ranma. Nabiki is a sociopath (according to Takahashi), and the comedy of her character is that she keeps getting away with every single one of her cruel, black-hearted schemes. Again, played for laughs.

I adored the original series, and even more so when I discovered fanfiction. The ones that stood out were those that completely turned the series on its head: Ill Met by Starlight, where Ranma is a high-functioning psychotic murderer, and Relentless, where Ranma and gang are being pursued by an enemy that resurrects itself after every defeat. But the best one for me is Alan Harnum's Waters Under Earth, an epic Lovecraftian saga of ancient demons, even more ancient dragons, and the coming of the Lord of Waters. It was compelling because the writing is so good that you completely forget that Ranma is a goofy, socially awkward teenage boy, and that all of his friends are similarly sweet-natured, if prone to martial arts violence. Waters Under Earth makes these characters you know and love into different people who remain true to their core, to what Takahashi wrote and drew for years and years. The story takes readers from Japan to the remote mountains of the Phoenix Tribe in China, to the territory of the secret Musk Dynasty, and to the rivers under the earth, with its terrible and beautiful guardians.

By Charles Allan Gilbert, 1892.
Harnum's writing gets better as the series goes on, and the strongest chapter for me was "The Voice of the Rain," where I first encountered these lines: "Then said I in my heart, as it happens to the fool, so it happens even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this is also is vanity...Vanity of vanities; all was vanity."

And that's something to think about: vanity, and what it means to overcome it. So let's ruminate. Vanity is defined as "the excessive belief in one's own abilities or attractiveness to others" (wikipedia). These are the people who, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time gazing admiringly at themselves in the mirror. The character Ranma is vain: he knows he's easy on the eyes, and more importantly, that he's a brilliant martial artist. His vanity is what gets him in trouble with the ladies -- he never considers that martial arts has no defense against the feminine imagination. His fiancee, Akane, seems to constantly be having arguments with him in her head, so the first time he says something wrong she boots him through the roof (literally). His ardent admirer, Shampoo, resorts to underhanded tricks when she discovers she can't outfight him (which is the way to get a man, where she's from). His insane stalker, Kodachi "Black Rose" Kuno, goes straight for the date rape drugs. And Ranma falls for it every time, because he's so confident in his good looks and martial arts ability.

Ranma, male and female forms.
It's when Ranma sets aside his vanity that he improves his fighting skills (but not his social skills). Every time he's defeated by a new technique or a superior opponent, he doesn't whine about being the best and how could this happen. Nope. Ranma will put aside his pride and train like a crazy person and even forge alliances with rivals and enemies to get what he needs to win the next fight. For example, he lets his dad hurl nests of angry bees at him, for speed training (he had to catch all the bees before they stung him). And when he has to use acupressure on a female opponent, he overcomes his inability to fight girls by transforming into a girl (and naturally, it looked like he/she was groping the opponent). And then Ranma wins and it's back to being a clueless, vain bruiser.

Now, this lack of forward development in personality helped keep the series going. Real life doesn't work that way. In some ways, the process of being slowly crushed by a world composed mostly of indifferent people -- that is, they're indifferent to you because they don't know you, unless you're talking about a Boston driver, in which case they hate you because you exist and you're not walking/biking/driving properly/fast enough/in a way that suits them -- where was I? Oh yes, in my experience, the process of being slowly crushed by an unfeeling world tends to shave off vanity. Case in point 1: grad school in the humanities, where nothing you do is up to par, or even relevant to the outside world. Case in point 2: your job, where you're a replaceable cog (except me, obviously -- who else will update this blog if I'm not working here? Huh? Huh? Ooohh, lunch time).

So, dear readers, what I'm really trying to say is that all is not vanity; there is plenty of opportunity for you to be crushed by your fellow human beings, and molded into something different. Something better, perhaps. Vanity brings with it feelings of superiority and invincibility. Its opposite, humility, usually goes hand in hand with kindness and tolerance. The former was me in high school; the latter is what I'm going for at this point in my life. This means I will still mentally bitch-slap you if you say something retarded -- like, "My parents owe me money because they didn't raise me to earn $70,000 right out of college, how dare they." Because I am kind, I will just stare at you and acknowledge that there are some things reason can't fix, and that's self-delusion. Which, in its own way, is more dangerous than vanity. You have been warned.