I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Remastered Nostalgia: Ulysses 31 and the Eternal Return

by Gabriella Arrigoni
Aug. 21, 2011

The word nostalgia is a Greek compound consisting of nóstos (returning home), and álgos (pain). And this could be a good word to introduce the space epic adventure in japanimation that is Ulysses 31. A journey towards the unknown, a displacement of limits, the human thirst for knowledge and the eternal desire to come back home. With its astonishing richness in themes, characters and symbols, the Odyssey is one of the most foundational cultural references for Western civilisation and it is not surprising to see how its protagonist, Ulysses, is endlessly and repeatedly reincarnated throughout the centuries of Western literature. That’s one of the reasons it is exceptionally interesting to investigate what happened when the myth was reinterpreted by a Japanese studio, dramatically exposed to Eastern contemporary culture and turned into animation, even though originally aimed at a French audience.

Besides the classic, conventional and universal conflict between good and evil, the greatest part of the manga-anime production focuses on the idea of evolution (or devolution) of human civilisation and on the process of hybridisation between body and technology (including the whole ‘super robots’ strand from Tetsujin onwards). What is certainly unusual for Japanese culture is the notion of divine punishment, as well as the image of anthropomorphous gods possessed of human feelings such as jealousy, envy, rage, which is instead typical of the Western tradition. Both Buddhism and Shinto mythology are in fact based on the belief in a spiritual essence that doesn’t intervene in human affairs, and that certainly doesn’t have what we call a ‘temper’. Seemingly, whenever mythology is dragged into popular culture, gods and humans tend to become indistinguishable, both endowed with passions, fallibility and super-powers to the point that even humans, occasionally, can aspire to immortality. It is only when gods don’t show up that they manage to keep their aura, and that makes me think of another popular pantheon worshipped by people in spacesuits...

Similarly to Ulysses 31, in Battlestar Galactica we could say that the human fleet wondering across the space is somehow ‘guided’ by the divine entities. Of course, the commander of the Odyssey struggles against the Gods of Olympus, angered with him after his killing of the Cyclops: his peregrination is a curse and a punishment as well as an ordeal and only after having reached the Kingdom of Hades will he be able to come back to Earth. Kobol divinities, also inspired by the Greek ones, appear as benign (though totally absent) guides towards the promised land, Earth (or a new Earth), the final destination. In a word, home. Moreover, according to their imaginary sacred set of writings (the Sacred Scroll), the Lords of Kobol had already led the human populations in an exodus from their original planet to the 12 colonies and Earth, as a consequence of the behaviour of a jealous god who wanted to be elevated above all other gods. Being adrift across space, lost and trapped in a myriad of encounters and battles, isn’t a reassuring condition. If it is the will of the gods, at least, it seems easier to believe that not only is wandering not meaningless, but also that there will be an end: homecoming, the re-establishment of an initial, familiar condition.

In episode 9 the enemy of the day is Chronos. The god of time castrated and deposed his father Uranus to set free his mother Gaia together with his brothers and sisters, and assumed his role as ruler of the universe. He was not exactly a fun guy to be with, even by the standards of ancient mythology. Tormented by the prediction of being overthrown by his own sons conceived with his sister Rhea, he tries to prevent it by devouring them as soon as they are born. However, Zeus is saved by Rhea and accomplishes his fate. He forces Chronos to disgorge the other children and imprisons him in the pit of Tartarus. Chronos is, however, a much more complex figure than it seems. True, he was an evil destroyer, but it is also true that the period in which he ruled was called the Golden Age, when everyone was doing the right thing and immorality simply didn’t occur. The opponent of Ulysses in the 31st Century doesn’t improve his score over his ancient counterpart but embodies the traits of a simplified, traditional enemy, and seems to recover his original ambiguity only thanks to his double-faced physical appearance, modeled on the figure of another god, Janus. This exclusively Roman deity of beginning and transitions was in fact depicted with his two heads symbolically facing simultaneously the past and the future: an ideal icon for a representation of time.

What is striking while watching the 26 episodes of the anime is also how easily the authors managed to turn a hero of the ancient times into the commander of a spaceship, equipped with laser sword and energy shield, and surrounded by friendly aliens and funny robots. If the passage was so smooth though, it might be worth remembering that in the meanwhile, between Homer and the 1981 anime version, Kubrick realised that masterpiece of exceptional significance, basically a universe in itself, which is 2001 Space Odyssey. Kubrick moves the topos of the journey right into the space age, a post-technological era where the best outcome of human progress and craving for knowledge, the machine, can slip out of the human hand and conquer its (dangerous) independence (on a collateral note, the Odyssey of the 31 Century is controlled by a central computer, Shirka, but unlike its colleague Hal, it’s careful and reliable like a Great Dane).

Science fiction might as well be considered the mythology of the modern age for its capacity to embody archetypes and its ability to fluctuate across history, outside time, and to connect cosmic and human dimensions. The astronaut is the ultimate traveller, symbol of a civilisation longing for the infinite, suspended in a journey with no boundaries, where the push towards the unknown overlaps nostalgia, the awareness of an impossible return as well as a source of hope.

Gabriella Arrigoni is an independent curator and writer; former editor
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.