Most of us, at one point or another, experience a series that catches your heart upon picking up the first installment–a sort of “love at first sight” for story lovers–only to find ourselves disillusioned by the end. I have had my share of those over the years; sometimes, it was a result of growing up and maturing taste or simply the thrill of something once new and shiny fading away. The worst, however, are the cases of series that really have everything I could ask for–good plotting, interesting and three-dimensional characters, something unique, and that element that keeps me dying to get my hands on the next installment–but get tripped up and crash along the way. Unfortunately, this was my ultimate experience with the manga series Please Save My Earth or, 「ぼくの地球を守って」 by Saki Hiwatari.
Written in the late 80’s into the 90’s, Please Save My Earth started off like any other teen drama. Alice Sakaguchi is a 16-year-old who is having trouble adjusting to the recent move to Tokyo. Inhibited by her shyness and inadvertently intimidating her new classmates with her demure appearance, she just can’t seem to make any new friends. If that wasn’t bad enough, she has been getting harassed endlessly by the 7-year-old brat living in the apartment next door, Rin Kobayashi. Perhaps the only hint of something mysterious underneath the mundane is a mention of Alice’s ability to talk to plants, a secret only her family knows, and a story from two classmates, Jinpachi and Issei, about a strange dream they both seem to be experiencing that they believe has something to do with their past lives.
But things soon take a sharp turn when a job babysitting Rin goes terribly awry and Alice accidentally sends Rin tumbling over the edge of a 15th story balcony. While he miraculously survives, Rin begins to remember his dark past life. At the same time, Alice finds herself being drawn into Jinpachi and Issei’s story of their past lives: in the dreams, Jinpachi and Issei are two of six scientists from another plant sent to the moon on a mission. After she has a dream similar to theirs, it appears she too may be one of the group of scientists reincarnated and this spurs the three teens to look for the other reincarnated members. What starts as a mysterious yet fun reminiscing soon gives way to growing darkness as secrets of their past lives are gradually brought to light and Rin, unbeknownst to the others, sets up a carefully spun web of revenge for the wrongs done to him and manipulates the others for some unknown purpose.
Just as Rin masterfully manipulates those around him, Hiwatari is able to draw raw emotions from the readers with her excellent storytelling abilities. She moves the plot at the perfect pace, building anticipation as we watch the story morph from lighthearted fun into a tangled mess as the characters struggle to come to terms with what happened in their past lives. Intriguing questions confuse the reader as much as the characters. For example, are Jinpachi and the others living as their reincarnated selves or being absorbed by their past lives? Alice becomes stuck in passiveness, unsure if she really is the reincarnated form of a woman named Mokuren and afraid to find out. While she hesitates, the others jump right into the memories of their past lives and suddenly find themselves falling into the same traps their previous lives did; just as Jinpachi’s previous life fell in love with Mokuren, Jinpachi falls in love with Alice. But does he love Alice because she’s Alice or because she might be Mokuren? Issei, despite being reincarnated as a boy, can’t help but feel jealous at the sight of Jinpachi, the reincarnated form of the man he loved in his previous life as a woman, in love with Alice. Rin suffers from this the most, transforming from a bratty 7-year-old to someone utterly consumed with the anger and demons of his adult past life and in turn reminds the others of the demons of their own pasts. On top of that, nothing is what it at first seemed to be as Hiwatari skillfully turns things on their head with the simple switch of perception. Needless to say, it’s a multi-layered story with plenty of complications, but it’s artfully unraveled before our eyes.
If you haven’t read this series in its entirety and don’t want it spoiled, I strongly recommend you not to read the following paragraphs, since I will be diving into huge spoiler territory for the remainder of my discussion.
Perhaps Please Save My Earth‘s greatest strength as well as its greatest downfall lies in these terrifyingly complex characters and their unraveling. Throughout the series, readers are given a chance to experience events that happened in Alice and her friends’ past lives from different view points, the most in-depth and predominant being the perspectives of Shion, Rin’s past life, and Mokuren. Many times, it breathes life into otherwise two-dimensional characters as we get to see what one character was really thinking or how they got to be the way they are. One of the best examples of this occurs when readers get to at last see things from Mokuren’s perspective. Until this point, Mokuren is depicted as she was seen by the other characters: a perfect woman who was feminine, beautiful, saintly kind, and had all the men falling in love with her. This type of perfect yet dull female character appears fairly often in fiction so, I was pleased when Hiwatari ripped away this image like a veil hiding the not entirely pleasant truth beneath.
The saintly guise dropped, Mokuren is revealed to be a rather feisty young woman with a rebellious spirit who is tired of being made out as perfect. As one of a handful of people with a power considered holy, she has been idealized, idolized, and isolated, unable to get others to see past her image as a holy woman. In truth, she has problems and questions of her own and doesn’t always approach things in the right manner. Yes, Mokuren is a romance-obsessed young lady at times, but it’s shown as a quirk developed through her past experiences and her wish to reject constraints that dictate she cannot love someone as a holy woman. And indeed, Mokuren’s idea of romance is shown to be a bit simplistic and idealized. Shion’s character development is a lot more typical, showing his harsh exterior to hide someone desperately in need of love and comfort, but is nonetheless well done. His darkness alienates him from every chance of love that comes his way and we watch as he slowly pushes himself further into darkness by committing successively worse offenses to others.
Yet something that started so good slips into an extremely convoluted and repulsive development. Another huge shock rocks readers’ perception of the fairy tale-like romance that we are made to believe existed between Mokuren and Shion. The engagement of the ruthless Shion with the ultra nice Mokuren appears like any other formulaic romance nowadays, but as secrets of their past life come to light, it is revealed that Shion actually raped Mokuren. To the bewilderment of Shion, however, Mokuren lied and told the others it was their misunderstanding, that she and Shion are engaged. In other words, what the others thought was rape was not. This is perhaps the ultimate turn of events in the story and readers are left wondering what Mokuren was thinking for volumes. After all, her actions don’t make sense. But the final reveal ended up smashing this beautifully sculpted world to pieces for me.
Mokuren, who really did love Shion, is naturally crushed to think he didn’t actually love her. At first, we’re made to think she hates Shion for this, but this feeling is warped into devotion for a man who she not only thinks doesn’t love her, but who also has committed the greatest act of violation against her. At the same time, we’re told Shion used his hatred as an excuse to rape Mokuren, but really just wanted to love someone. Did Hiwatari run into a writer’s wall, in which she needed to make these two love each other despite the plot twist that suggests everything but love? I’ll likely never know, but what I do know is we’re left with a scenario that not only contradicts itself, but also supports a sick misconception about rape. Somehow, some people seem to be under the impression that a victim of rape can fall in love with the rapist, which is about as far from the truth as possible. In Mokuren and Shion’s case, Mokuren loved Shion before he raped her, but the idea that there is love in a relationship where one person rapes the other is simply preposterous.
While Mokuren does appear naturally confused at times, her love and devotion seems the strongest emotion even in the wake of the rape, which conflicts the other messages sent about how terrible an act the rape was. Yes, it is clear the rape hurt her, but the reaction Hitawari constructs for Mokuren undermines the crushing affect rape has on the victim. At the same time, Shion is almost excused for his unforgivable act by the end by the sympathetic yet highly flawed reasoning behind his actions. Did he rape her? Yes. Do we all agree this is bad? Yes. Oh, but by the way, he’s just a sad, empty guy who really did love Mokuren and thought in his selfish, twisted way that rape was the only way he could be loved by her. The reactions and reasoning seem forced and unnatural and send a horrible message about rape as excusable, forgivable, and above all, as something someone who really loved another could do to that person. To add insult to injury, when Mokuren lies about the engagement to save Shion from punishment for raping her, she acts as if she is in the wrong for forcing Shion to pretend to be engaged to and in love with her.
There are other issues such as Alice’s development later in the series and her relationship with Rin, a relationship in which she is constantly being manipulated, but Mokuren and Shion’s relationship was the biggest smack in the face for me. It’s quite unfortunate because there are plenty of wonderful things about Please Save My Earth. In fact, it was one of my favorite series up until I reached the rape incident and its subsequent handling of the issue. There are some things that can be overlooked, but presenting a rape and then essentially sweeping it under the rug just doesn’t cut it.