Maya Kitajima would love nothing more than to be someone else. At the opening of Glass Mask, though, her options for escape are quite limited. She works in the same Chinese restaurant where her mother slaves away, lives with her in a single-room apartment, and with her lousy grades and unfocused work habits she’s most likely headed for a life of minimum-wage drudgery — just like Mom. Small wonder Mom’s an embittered woman with no expectations for her daughter other than mediocrity at best and abject failure at worst.
The only thing Maya can do is dream. When she does, she dreams vicariously — through the characters she watches longingly on her favorite TV dramas and on the big screen. Like someone afflicted with Stendhal Syndrome, the mere sight of acting sends her into a rapture. This is the way out. Small wonder she delivers a ridiculous number of meals over the course of an evening for the chance to snag a spare ticket to a stage play. (When said ticket blows out into the bay, she throws herself into freezing water to rescue it.) She doesn’t just want to watch such a performance, either: she wants to do it, to step out in front of an audience and become someone else again and again.
The original Glass Mask was, and still is, a shojo manga series that’s been running non-stop (44 volumes and counting) since 1976. It has a kind of mythic status among the old-school manga fans, and if this adaptation of the story is any evidence it’s not just because it’s been kicking around for three decades. It’s soap opera, to be sure, but it’s the kind where the right buttons are pushed at the right times, and the vast majority of your emotional investment in what’s going on is paid back. Just be warned that Mask rather casually includes story elements which might have flown by without anyone batting an eye in 1976 but will almost certainly test people’s acceptance today.
One day Maya is given a chance to stop merely dreaming about acting, and actually do it. She’s spied by Chigusa Tsukikage, a former actress with a legendary reputation, a stentorian attitude and a career that was cut short years ago when her face was horribly scarred by a falling light. She senses great potential in Maya, and is willing to take the girl under her own wing and groom her — but Chigusa is even harsher and more unforgiving than Maya’s own mother, and pushes the girl relentlessly to play that much more over her head.
This leads right into one of the biggest issues most any viewer, shojo fan or not, will have with Glass Mask, since what would once have been described (in 1970-something) as “stern discipline” would now be seen as flat-out violence. Consider a scene how Chigusa hits the normally reticent Maya across the face — not just once, but many times — to produce the needed amount of loathing and resentment from her for a performance. Or another scene where Chigusa locks Maya in an unheated shack overnight. Or any number of other moments where the relationship between them borders on being downright abusive.
The fact this material was left in actually brings up all kinds of tough questions — the differences between what American and Japanese audiences find troubling or offensive; whether it would have been better to stick with the uncensored original, or make it more palatable to modern audiences but run the risk of being accused of Comstockery; and so on. It’s hard to judge how much meddling might have already taken place since the original manga isn’t available in English. It’s also hard to judge how much of this material is going to derail the whole thing for viewers today. In some ways it’s even more troubling than the explicit violence you see in a series like Gantz or Berserk, because at least there you know they’re not sugarcoating anything.
What’s gratifying, though, is how the series moves past these things, both because the characters themselves grow past it and the story moves into larger and more ambitious territory. No secrets are made of Chigusa being controlling and monomaniacal, and we learn why and to what end. Earlier in her career, she played a character named the “Crimson Goddess”, a role which she was identified with so strongly that she refuses to allow anyone else to play the character unless she gives her explicit permission. Think of how Marlon Brando completely monopolized the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, so much so that everyone cast in the role since has the thankless task of fighting comparison with one of the greatest of all screen actors (and in his prime, no less). Chigusa wants nothing less than to hand-pick a successor, and has become convinced — perhaps against all possible evidence to the contrary — that Maya is it. Note that these things make her behavior that much more comprehensible, but they don’t make it any less disturbing.
Maya has competition for that role, and many others. Thing is, it’s healthy competition: Ayumi Himekawa, the privileged daughter of another famous actress. She’s as serene and confident in her skills as Maya is self-doubting and questing. What’s interesting, and not wholly expected, is how Himekawa sees Maya as a rival but not as some enemy to be destroyed at all costs (a sentiment reserved for other, more duplicitous people in the cast, about which the less said here the better). She respects Maya not just for her meteoric rise but for her good sportsmanship, her sense of fair play, her perpetual striving for what’s next in her. Maya’s flattered by the attention, but in the right way: every time Himekawa steps onto the same stage she is compelled to play that much further over her head, and not just bask in the other woman’s presence.
Most any shojo or shonen series revolving around a profession or a skill demonstrates at least some degree of research by the creator into the topic at hand. Glass Mask creator Suzue Miuchi did her homework, since the show rings truest when Maya and her cohorts prepare for a role by turning the rest of their lives into an actor’s workshop. The best examples of this come when both Maya and Himekawa are chosen to play Helen Keller in a production of The Miracle Worker, the casting alternating with each performance. Each girl throws herself headlong into trying to figure out how someone without sight, hearing or speech would encounter and react to the world, and they come away with performances that are as different as they are similar. Both actresses come to a key realization — how to express Helen’s understanding of water with the word W-A-T-E-R spelled into her hand — in wholly different ways. The way the show demonstrates these emotional discoveries, and how they’re later acted out on stage, is exhilarating; we want to cheer both of them on for being as talented and fearless as they are.
That’s actually one of the tougher things the show pulls off, not just once but many times: how to show the quality of everyone’s acting. The show accomplishes this by focusing on key moments and individual quirks of the performances (e.g., the way Maya bashfully pushes her toe around when she’s in the role of a lovestruck girl about her age) — although it does try to prop this up more than it needs to by the hoary device of using audiences or other cast members as Greek choruses to comment on those things. But there are moments when we’re just invited to stand back and watch, as in the scenes where Maya plays Helen Keller as a feral, nigh-untamable creature with her thumb perpetually jammed in her mouth and her eyes staring out at nothing.
The disc set itself is rudimentary. This is the first DVD release I’ve seen from the newly-minted Sentai Filmworks, the company John Ledford created after the collapse of ADV Films, and it’s the sort of basic, no-frills treatment I’d expect from a company like Media Blasters. Japanese 2.0 audio, English subs, 16:9 widescreen — but no bonuses and no English dubbing. The most annoying thing about the set is actually not the presentation of the series on the discs but the packaging — all four discs are mounted on a single spindle in a double-width DVD case, which makes getting at any one disc in the set a real pain. (The marketing cynic in me thinks they chose this particular packaging to use more shelf space in the store — not a bad idea, actually, when you’ve just booted up the company and you want your product noticed at all costs.)
Shows like this often end up stuck in a ghetto of sorts — not appreciated by anime fans generally, and not crossing over to a bigger audience outside of fandom. A fate like that would be downright unfair for Glass Mask. It’s refreshing to see a show that doesn’t depend on mecha, T&A or absurd fighting techniques to be interesting, but instead puts its faith in its characters and their ambitions.
This is not the first time Glass Mask has been adapted for TV, either — the first 23-episode version aired back in 1984, and a 3-episode OVA appeared in the late Nineties — but given that Miuchi is planning to bring the series to a conclusion soon, it might well be adapted end-to-end this time if the market’s there for it. What we have in this set is only the first half of the show; there’s another 25 or so episodes more to come. I look forward to them — although I also hope they don’t make me wince.