29 May 2016

Some Thoughts About Manga 20

My Name s Nero v1:   Mega
My Name is Nero v2:   Mega
My Mega folder

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of historical manga. Yokoyama Mitsuteru is one mangaka near and dear to my heart for his works in this genre. As I've noted before, he has a dry, almost laconic, narrative style where the actions speak louder than words, and the driving motives of characters are only shown a few times in the story. And then there's Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. He too, like Yokoyama, is a man who has decided to specialize in historically-themed works in the latter half of his career. However in style, he's the polar opposite of Yokoyama. Yasuhiko's characters are extremely expressive and flowery dialogue is not uncommon. And unlike Yokoyama's preference for an orthodox approach to telling history, Yasuhiko prefers to tell history in ways it often is not.

Even these LQ raws are 1000 times better than the English scans for Joan and Jesus.
Somebody reeaaallly needs to redo them.
In Alexandros, we read not a historical epic of a legendary conqueror that fills the reader with awe, but rather a character study in which we see how a boy who idolizes Achilles becomes a controversial despot self-assured in his divinity and capable of doing great evil. In Joan, we read not the account of how a peasant French girl during the Hundred Years' War became the famous Maid of Orleans, but that of a parallel fictional character whose deeds in the aftermath of Joan's death may shed for the reader a light into understanding Joan's life and impact. In Jesus, as well, the traditional account of Jesus is mixed with a very modern depiction of his disciples, detractors, and society around him, not to mention the surprising(ly heretical) ending in which Jesus' resurrection is dramatically modified.
My Name is Nero, too, is not a typical account of the infamous Roman emperor. However, this may not be so easily apparent if one is not familiar with the history behind Nero. So let me lay down some basic history first. Rome had a lot of bad or ineffective emperors throughout its long history. So to be remembered in infamy even thousands of years later is a feat that only an "elite" few have achieved. But Nero is arguably the best known of them all, because of the many memorable crimes he was supposedly guilty of. He was the emperor who killed his step-brother and step-sister/first wife. He was the emperor who had sexual relations with his mother before relations ran sour and he had her assassinated. He was the emperor who set fire to Rome, and then fiddled on the terrace of his palace singing the Sack of Troy as his own city burned down to the ground before him. He was the emperor who fed Christians to wild beasts at the circus and made human torches out of their corpses to light up the streets. He was the emperor who killed his second wife and her unborn child by kicking her when enraged. He was the emperor who became the bride of one man, and then later a husband to another man. For these sins, later generations even believed he would return as the Antichrist and referenced him with the number 666 in the Book of Revelations.
Thus, Nero has traditionally been remembered as an evil, tyrannical, and insane megalomaniac deserving our contempt. But historians are ever-willing to find new approaches and perspectives to the same old subjects and the case of Nero is no different. Over the last century, there have been many efforts to tug Nero towards one end or the other in the line of good/evil and effective/ineffective emperor. Despite this ongoing evolution towards a more sophisticated image of Nero and other bad emperors, there remains a popular fascination with Roman decadence. "The more scandalous, the more interest," seems to be the logic in popular media. Hence, we get the outrageous Caligula from Guccione's Caligula or the Commodus from Ridley Scott's Gladiator, who both live up to the image of the mad tyrant painted by history and legend.
On the other hand, Yasuhiko's Nero, despite drawing heavily from the account described by historians Tacitus (and a touch of Suetonius), is cut from a different cloth called tragedy. Although far from being an Aristotelian tragic hero, Yasuhiko's Nero is still a pitiable figure as he is a tyrant made not by vindictiveness and greed, but by lack of self-esteem and fear. He kills his mother because he's too insecure to withstand rumours of him being a puppet-ruler. He forces Octavia to commit suicide because he fears the growing sympathy and popularity she garners from the public. He vigorously persecutes Christians in fear that the public will unjustly make him the scapegoat for the fire. Even his obsession with the arts, at the cost of his concern for government, is rooted in his lack of self-esteem. Nero the emperor may be the most powerful man alive, but Nero the person is an out-shadowed identity that hardly anyone around him values. He craves respect and admiration for qualities he can truly call his own, not because of a throne given to him by his mother. Hence, he is weak to flattery and longs to prove himself in competitions, yet is too insecure to compete against legitimate contestants before impartial judges and an honest audience. The end result is that the Nero who emerges in Yasuhiko's work is no 2-dimensional villain, but a very human tyrant of many paradoxes. A weak man lacking in self-esteem yet invested with absolute power. An ardent artist seeking eternal glory yet too insecure to truly test himself. A lonely man who wants to be genuinely loved, but prefers to live in the safety of his constructed reality populated by self-serving flatterers.
"Romam eo iterum crucifigi."
While this portrayal of Nero is firmly within the revisionist spirit of Nero's historiography, I would argue that's not what really makes this manga an unusual biography. What makes this manga stand out from other fictional tales about Nero is Yasuhiko's usage of Remus. In case it wasn't obvious from the ending, Remus, the Chauci gladiator, is an entirely fictional character. In fact, he is the only fictional character in this manga. So why did Yasuhiko feel the need to create Remus and change the story's ending so radically from history? My interpretation for those of you who did not know what to make of the surprise ending is that My Name is Nero is less a biography of Nero than it is a Christian parable. Seen in this light, it's quite obvious what Remus is. He is the Christian following in Christ's footsteps. While he states he is no believer in the God of the Jews nor the messiah, his actions make it clear that functionally with respect to the story, he is a Christian. A man who abandons a life of revenge and a hatred of the Romans who exterminated his tribe. A man who sacrifices his own self to atone for the sin of another, so that Nero can be resurrected. The lengthy scenes with St. Peter and Paul were not inserted simply to provide a more interesting backdrop to Nero's reign. Their presence and lines preaching themes of love, redemption, and resurrection serves to make overt the manga's nature as a Christian parable. In a way, My Name is Nero has many similarities with stories like Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ or Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of the Nero. These stories are all set in the Roman empire and feature characters who sin or are consumed by revenge, yet through the influence of the giants in early Christianity (Jesus, Peter, or Paul), let go of their hatred and find redemption. That Yasuhiko managed to take a historical figure remembered by some as the Antichrist and turn him into a pitiable tragic hero redeemed by a Christ-like figure is certainly a memorable feat, and why I translated this manga.

I initially intended to write more about the historical Nero and how Yasuhiko's Nero compares to him, but I later decided it was better sticking to analyzing the manga. If you are, however, interested in what the historical Nero may have been like, I will recommend Miriam Griffin's Nero: The End of a Dynasty and Edward Champlin's Nero. Both books presume familiarity with Nero and early imperial Rome, but honestly, even reading this manga alone will be enough of an introduction to understand their main arguments.


  1. thanks again hox, it was a good read, can we expect more Yasuhiko Yoshikazu from you?

    1. Yeah, I'll be doing Nomi no Ou with illuminati this summer. After that (thought not right away), I'll finally end up tackling his longer series like Nijiiro no Trotsky or Oudou no Inu.

  2. Thanks for bringing us more Yas awesomeness Hox.

  3. thank you for translating this, i really enjoyed it, and i would definitely check yasuhiko's work later

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  5. I'm probably wrong, but I slightly feel that this Nero's story is mishandled as a tragedy, or to be interpreted such. Comedy is more fitting for him. His story doesn't evoke any pathos whatsoever, but more like a farcical characterization of the monarch trapped inside his own safe island, something that Remus thought too. In some segments, it felt like it's a parody of (typical depictions and accounts of) Pre-Christian Roman vices, except now it's not because of greed (like you said).

    Perhaps the duality of Nero/Remus must be brought into light here. Perhaps Yasuhiko portrayed the interplay between comical and tragic elements as a duality in accordance to the two figures. Is it even a tragic end for Remus though? I doubt it. He wins the girl in the end.

    What do you think?

    1. I don't think, nor did I write, that Remus' end is a tragedy. Not because he "wins" the girl, which I think is a trivial matter, because he was able to finally give his life some meaning (by redeeming Nero).

      As for the comedy angle, I really can't agree. Certain scenes, like the whole party with Nero dressing up as a leopard, is meant to portray the wild Roman decadence. But as comical as one might find the idea of making a man ejaculate through fear alone, I don't think Yasuhiko is drawing it for comic effect, but merely to make a more fitting stage when Paul appears and talks about Christian sins.

      It's a strange thing, pathos, isn't it? Whereas you find comical the paradoxes in Nero's life (ex. an artist who's serious but doesn't want to compete seriously), I find pitiful that fate handed the throne to him of all people, as he would never have been capable of the evils as a normal person.

      If we want to theorize Yasuhiko's intention with the story, the afterword in volume 1 is a good place to look. The key ideas he brings up there is that he doesn't believe Nero to have been such a heinous person. He was simply a person with a few flaws, and those few flaws consumed the whole of his character until he became thoroughly reviled. He then rejects the idea that these few flaws were rooted in Roman culture, and were rather something intrinsic in human nature. Hence, he ends the afterword by saying his drama is as much a story about the modern-day as it is about Ancient Rome.

      With these points in mind, I don't think it's too radical of an interpretation to say that Yasuhiko wanted to depict the downfall of not a person evil through and through, but a sympathizable character who is undone by a few flaws many people have (self-esteem issues). As for why he decided to save Nero in the twist ending, I can only guess that was because Yasuhiko himself took pity on the tyrant.

  6. here a idea for next projects, looks like its about sword making and just 2 volumes.