The Olympics come only every four years, but something even rarer came across the media waves this summer: Olympos, a shojo manga that features Olympic Pantheon characters almost exclusively. As a Greek mythology buff, when I saw this book on Yen Press’s manga blotter back in June, I instantly wanted it. Does it live up to expectations? Is it worth the space on your shelf? Yes, it does and is: Read on for a spoiler-free review as to why!
First of all, continuing a growing trend in manga sales of the last couple of years or so, Olympos is a two-volume “short” packed into one tome. At about 350 pages, you can feel the weight of the story in your hand. And you don’t have to wait months for the conclusion, so a win-win there. Picking it up, I felt like I was getting my money’s worth. There are color pages, too, of which I’m always a fan; the first few pages hold several striking character drawings, in full color, on glossy paper. Such details speak of a high-quality book — and indeed, I found quality throughout.
The art style drew me to the book as well: The cover is a beautiful red-and-orange scheme, featuring an androgynous figure with sweeping hair and, interestingly, simultaneous attitude and poise. I was hooked: The art is masterful in its grace, detail, and representation of form (no more shojo skeleton-fingers!) — just as it should be for conveying characters with a history of artistic perfection; it also made me want to draw. This was a book I wanted just for the art value. I didn’t care what story was in it, at this point, just because the art was so skilled. But it turns out the story is worthwhile too — though not, perhaps, for reasons one might immediately conjure up.
Many shojo tales in particular of late feature the classic “mythical creature man runs off with spiritually interesting girl” story trope, but this is often with Japanese mythological characters, such as the black-winged, crow-lords the Tengu. In Olympos, the story revolves around Ganymede and his captivity in a garden of the gods. Something I was unprepared for: That’s where the canonical myth stops. Unlike in traditional Greek myth, it is not Zeus who abducts Ganymede, but Apollo. And unlike typical shojo there is no romance; it is a bittersweet story of fear: how fear is held within us and spills out of us to determine our relationships, our ability to move forward, and our quality of life. Both Apollo and Ganymede struggle with the ever-looming fear of recognizing and accepting their utter loneliness.
If Olympos was a play, it could be a black-box one. Much of the story is Apollo and Ganymede talking or fighting, with a heavy dose of philosophy, which I loved. While it is a short story, and not an epic by ancient Greek standards or modern manga standards, even as a “novella,” it creates a sense of sweeping time and heavy emotions. The form of the story should be interesting for literature fans and those who want to cultivate writing skill, as well: it is introduced by a rather flaky (historical) human abducted by Apollo to be Ganymede’s companion, and the latter half is permeated by the presence of Hades.
There are other surprises that make this book quite interesting to the study of East-West literature. While taking on Greek gods, the story still is steeped in Japanese ideas. Coming back to the Tengu, Hades feels like a mix between a female ghost of Noh plays and those crow demons—a woman with high, short eyebrows, covered in black feathers. Another symbol one might notice through Artemis’s mirror, as in Inu Yasha, is the Shinto belief of mirrors as capturers and reflectors of souls. One of the major veins of torment Apollo aims at Ganymede throughout the story follows a Buddhist precept: Awareness of self as the key to escape from captivity. Yet Apollo, functioning almost as a bodhisattva in Ganymede’s garden, fights awareness himself, despite the fact that he is, in the story, god of Truth.
For seasoned veterans who have read every bit of Greek myth and get annoyed at all the terrible Hollywood movies using it, Olympos will not only keep your interest using lesser-seen characters, but also invite new ideas. There are several places in the book that offer new interpretations of various characters, such as Apollo as “Truth” rather than “light.” For the Japanophiles, literacists, religion majors, and art historians out there, there’s interest too: many of these interpretations come through a Buddhist lens; for example, “truth” and “light” are readily synonymous symbols in Buddhism. And for the reader that simply loves shojo romance, there’s still plenty of gorgeous shots of bishis, angst, and a magic world.