Always a curious feeling, coming back to a formative experience you haven't taken a renewed look at recently. It's not that Kosuke Fujishima's Oh My Goddess! doesn't hold up for me — it's as bubbly and amusing as it was when I first ran into it — but that because of re-reading it, it's become all the clearer for me how something can endure because of what it brings most immediately to an audience, no matter what generation they hail from. The series has stuck around and been reissued for a couple of decades now because it's so direct and unassuming, not because it has any of the usual critic's-darling qualities. Those who described it as a manga take on I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched have the right idea; it's a sitcom, not groundbreaking or transcendent or a major rethink of the art form. But it has a good-heartedness that most any generation of readers can find appealing, and it seems they do.
A common temptation, when you're a critic, is to deal only with the things that you think most need stumping for — the hidden gems, the misunderstood works of genius, the odds-and-sods. But critical work is also at least as much about looking at the things that have audiences outside of what your own curiosity lead you to. Goddess! might have been a formative title from when I first discovered manga, but I never felt like it carried enough weight to be worthy of a closer second look. Now Dark Horse is reissuing the whole series in a line of three-in-one omnibus editions, and after the first two landed in my lap, I ended up revisiting it and even smiling over it. Never dismiss the staying power of something that just plain puts a smile on people's faces, my own included.
A love from up above
Goddess! is routinely credited with being one of the first "harem" franchises. The premise remains unspoiled by progress: A young man, typically a hapless sort, finds himself surrounded by women of exotic and often untouchable mien, and with one among them designated at least provisionally as his True Love. Here, the hapless male is Keiichi Morisato, engineering student at Nekomi Tech, ranking low on the totem pole amongst his more burly, greasemonkey fraternity brethren. One night when he's stuck in the dorm taking everyone else's phone calls (the lack of an answering machine or voicemail dates the material all by itself), he misdials the phone, connects to the "Goddess Technical Support Line", and ends up with an honest-to-high-heaven goddess manifesting in his room.
The goddess in question, Belldandy (theory has it her name's a mangling of the Norse Verthandi), can grant wishes and work wonders. Keiichi's been granted a single wish, and there's little to no limit on what he can ask for. Without thinking he'll ever have his wishes fulfilled, Keiichi asks for what he imagines to be the impossible: for a goddess like Belldandy to be with him always. He gets his wish ... although maybe a little too completely for his own good.
Once granted, wishes have a way of persisting, like contamination in groundwater. Keiichi and Belldandy, now apparently a couple for life, are summarily pitched out of the dorm for breaking the "no women allowed" rule, and the two of them end up bumming about in search of a home. A stay with an otaku friend quickly gets ugly, but a stint in a Buddhist temple ends with them managing to inherit the place and become its caretakers. It's also hard for Belldandy's goddess-nature to be explained away when she's capable of doing the flagrantly impossible six times before breakfast — and when she's incapable of lying. (Running gag: when she does own up to being a goddess in front of the uninitiated, they laugh it off. Surely she could come up with a better story than that!)
Still, with some judicious use of Belldandy's powers, the two of them are able to keep not only Keiichi's macho meathead frat buddies at bay, but any potential romantic competition as well — e.g., the haughty Sayoko Mishima, who takes one look at Belldandy and becomes convinced there must be something to Keiichi if a woman like that is hanging around him. Most of her life is measured not by what she already has, but what she can take from others. Too bad trying to take Keiichi from Belldandy causes the universe itself to backlash against both of them.
More women enter Keiichi's life, each making things complicated in their own way. Kei's little sister Megumi comes to stay while studying for her own college entrance exams, and to goad her older brother into finally doing something with that exotic beauty who's entered his life. Bell's older sister, the sultry Urd, as flirtatious and devil-may-care as Bell is not, attempts to kick-start things between Bell and Kei by hook, crook, or sorcery. Kei will need all the help he can get: he's too bashful and uncertain of himself to ever make the first move, while Belldandy's purity and sincerity means she's never likely to do so either, a perpetual motion machine of nicey-nice that never turns fully lovey-dovey.
The girl can't help it
Most of the plotting for the first couple of dozen chapters is lightweight stuff. Challenges arise with the school's auto club where Keiichi is a member, with Keiichi's unwanted rivals, or with Keiichi himself; and Belldandy or one of the other goddesses (Urd, or bratty-little-sister Skuld) use their powers to try and make all a-right once more; but it's ultimately their personalities that make the most difference. Being a nice person matters more than having the powers of a goddess in this universe, especially since Belldandy's little red needle ends up pointing to "E" if she tries to do too much at once.
Eventually, longer and more involved plotlines accrue. A major one that spans most of the second anthology involves Mara, a demoness who uses treachery and deceit to make the lives of Keiichi and the goddesses miserable. Since Urd's the one with the lowest threshold of resistance to temptation, she winds up becoming Mara's accomplice in a plot to unbottle an evil spirit with an appetite both for destruction and body-hopping. It's bad enough when said spirit takes the form of a giant wolf that destroys an auditorium; it's even worse when it infects Keiichi, and the goddesses have to choose between destroying him or allowing the entire universe to be eradicated.
Raise the stakes to that much of a fever pitch too often, and you run the risk of burning the audience out. That was the problem I always had with 24: the show's reactionary-mercenary politics aside, there's only so many times you can threaten to blow up the White House/Madison Square Garden/the eastern seaboard before it becomes faintly silly. Goddess! works around such obstacles in big part by simply not being all that serious to begin with, even when the Fate Of The Universe is allegedly hanging in the balance. The one thing you're asked to take most seriously is the depth of affection between the main characters, not the trouble they get into. Always there's a wink held in reserve for the audience to let us know things will work out fine, even if we don't know how.
A similar mechanic is employed for how the story distinguishes the "good" characters from the "bad". The latter are depicted with all the mustache-twirling subtlety of silent film villains, but they're more incompetent and self-absorbed than actually evil. Even an antagonist of Mara's power and capacity, despite what she unleashes, is ultimately comedic rather than dramatic. The more she and Sayoko and the others try to be vile, the more we feel like they just need a hug. If they had a clue, they'd really be dangerous.
All this keys into one of the story's not-so-unspoken premises, that everyone has some kernel of nascent good within them, or at the very least serves some palpably positive purpose in the grand scheme of things. It's not just a paragon like Belldandy who earns good things and deserves them; it's everyone, provided they have the wherewithal to be not a jerk. What the story loses in gravitas, it gains back in geniality and accessibility, and that goes some ways towards explaining how Goddess! has been resurrected for successive generations of audiences.
I suspect people coming into this series cold will be most put off by, of all things, Fujishima's art style, especially if they're manga fans without much exposure to anything older than a decade or so. The early episodes of Goddess! are not just oh-so-1980s in their look, but also clearly that much more a product of an artist with more of an eye for gadgets, machinery, and backgrounds than people. Most of the art complaints I've seen center around the odd, stubby, squared-off way Fujishima draws legs and toes. That said, even across the course of just these two omnibus volumes, it's easy to see how drastically Fujishima's art changes, growing all the sleeker and with his welter of gorgeous detail becoming more controlled. (For a hint at how things culminate, look no further than the front cover art for the omnibus volumes, drawn by Fujishima in his current style — although I wonder if that could be considered false advertising of a sort. Well, the back cover art style is true to form for this volume, anyway.)
Form factors follow function
Oh My Goddess! was among the very first manga I read in English translation, along with Blade of the Immortal and Masamune Shirow's Orion — no coincidence that all of them were and are offered in the U.S. by Dark Horse, one of the first companies to bring manga to an English-speaking audience. Viz, another early entrant, had titles like Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura. Both companies put their titles on comics racks in the U.S., not just by way of anthology editions but in the monthly "floppy" editions that still constituted the majority of comics sales in the 1990s. A wise move, since it gave those comics visibility with the audiences for the smaller and more adventurous indies that seemed like the best point of entry for how manga could take root outside of Japan.
It seemed to work — for a while, anyway. I recall running into many folks with alt-comics tastes who counted Immortal as just another one of the great titles they'd managed to uncover, not something special because it sported a specific taxonomic label ("manga"). What I also found was that, much as we don't like to admit it, not all titles lend themselves to being brought to a wide audience; some are best presented directly to the folks who self-consciously identify as fans of something with a given label. I suspect Goddess! is stuck being mainly a manga-audience property, if only because romance in comics, even those with SF/fantasy trappings, seem to find audiences more readily amongst manga readers than elsewhere. That doesn't mean I think it has nothing to offer anyone else; how something is marketed often has little to do with what it is, and more about how a publisher can get a quick return on its investment.
Manga fans also have differently attuned expectations about how material is packaged than Western comics fans. The former are used to the idea that something will run to dozens of volumes, no matter what its genre or target audience. For a Western comics fan, the idea of a light romantic comedy that runs for forty-eight paperback volumes (sixteen for the omnibus, if my math holds true) must seem outlandish.
I am of the belief that readers of most any stripe, comics readers included, can be persuaded to engage with most anything regardless of where it comes from, provided they're prepared to put aside their preconceptions. Most people don't consciously train themselves to do that, and I think the way many people are introduced to popular culture (comics and manga, to be sure) further inhibits that — they're brought in by way of others, who often unthinkingly provide them not just with access to the material but a predefined way to think about it. With Goddess!, it seems most of the people who come to it come either by way of it being an example of a title from the early years of the explosion of Japanese pop culture in the West, or as an early example of the harem comedy genre. There's more outside of just those two possible approaches, I'm sure, but those are the two approaches that seem to have brought the majority of Goddess!'s audience to the title in the first place. For better or worse, they're the ones with the mindshare; they're the ones that matter.
Most of the harem comedies that followed in Goddess!'s wake seem to get one thing consistently wrong: the fact that Goddess! took the PG-to-PG-13 road with its romance wasn't a limitation, but a design decision. Making explicit what was left implied, or never touched on at all, doesn't make a story better, or even funnier, just raunchier — and raunch by itself quickly stops becoming funny. This isn't to say that being innocuous is by itself a defense against criticism of other kinds. Goddess! has always bugged me at the exact same time it's entertained me. I find myself less endeared as time goes on by the make-it-up-as-you-go worldbuilding, or the largely improvised plotting that results from it. Because the powers of Heaven and the goddesses are so freeform and elastic, they're more like random grab bags out of which any number of developments can be pulled, instead of functional constraints on the story. A world where anything can happen but nothing makes any difference is a boring one, but in this case what matters is not what the rules are, but how the situations that arise (however they do arise) affect everyone emotionally. As long as readers keep checking back in to find out how Keiichi and Belldandy cope with whatever fate throw at them next, Fujishima wins. Love conquers all, it seems — even flaky storytelling.