Angel Sanctuary by Kaori Yuki is a biblically-inspired fantasy manga from the 90s. It’s the story of Alexiel, a Luciferian angel hidden in a human’s body, being hounded by Rosiel, her twin arch-nemesis seeking to finally destroy her. It’s also a shōjo manga built around incestous love of that human and his little sister.
By Kaori Yuki
Why is Setsuna so mixed up? Despite his attempts to be noble, he’ll fight anyone anytime; he ignores all authority; and he harbors feelings for his sister that can only be described as “incestuous.” Why is he such a mess? The reason may be found with two demons from the underworld and their enemy, an insane angel who is distributing an insidious computer game called Angel Sanctuary.
Angel Sanctuary ran for 20 volumes, from 1994 to 2000. I’ll be reviewing two volumes at a time for ten weeks. I won’t read ahead, so I won’t be able to write about how elements are setting up for their conclusion, but I’ll be free with spoilers for what I do know. Reader beware.
I love biblical stories generally, and biblical-mashup stories like Angel Sanctuary have a special place in my heart. It’s a cultural appropriation of Judea-Christian mythology by a Japanese manga author, and the result is just glorious. At one point a human is infected by an angelic techno-virus, to make him utterly subservient to the chief villain, Rosiel, and then, in the heat of battle, he transforms in a golem. We’re later told, in effect, yeah that happens sometimes. It’s a supernatural screwball adventure. Someone with a high degree of respect for the source cultures could not have come up with that. My rabbi would not approve. I do.
The Lucifer of this divine shōjo, Alexial, is sympathetic, which is a requirement for anyone writing about the devil these days. But Yuki turns it up to 11. Alexial’s rebellion isn’t just understandable, it’s just. Alexial rebels against senseless violence and murder being committed by angels. And the antagonist, an angel who fought on the side of god, is represented as tyrannical, willing to control and murder anyone to bring about the end times. It’s as deliciously overwrought as the 90s can be. The fact that this manga was coming out the same time as the biblically-infused action comic Spawn makes absolute sense to me.
I don’t have much to say about the incest. The author says, in a sidebar, “it’s a theme that I like, so I want to do it right. I don’t have a brother, so I can write about it,” which doesn’t leave a lot of room for those of us with siblings. Later, a nun identifies incest with the devil, and since we know the devil is actually Alexiel the Good Protector of Humanity, the author isn’t leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
(One sidetone about manga: Manga writers have gotten around that pesky Death of the Author by embedding small journal entries directly in their manga. Now when we see a scene that could be read as sexual, the writer gets the last word by telling us directly that it’s “not sexual.” It really cuts down on the freeform interpretive paths that makes modern lit crit so fun.)
The art isn’t great. It looks like it was done quickly, with rough shading and little attention given to backgrounds, even in slow scenes. There were a few pages in volume two where it looks like the artist temporarily forgot how to draw eyes correctly when the head is at 3/4 view. It’s unintentionally disquieting.
Kaori Yuki moves fast. In only two volumes, Angel Sanctuary moves further along its narrative arc than more manga move in ten. There are a dozen characters moving through the story, and they’re changing and dying and coming resurrecting as quickly as they’re introduced. Yuki is trying to do so much that scenes will change twice in a single page something I’ve just don’t see in manga. It’s exciting.