|Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe
|Original: Japanese, 2004
Translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2011
|Through a rite of passage, a refection on childhood
Miyuki Miyabe is a female Japanese writer spanning the genres of crime, thrillers, horror and fantasy. Of those genres, I tend to occasionally read horror but the ghostly horror stories, which her collection is about, aren’t my horror forte. This author should have remained unknown to me if it hadn’t had been for this book… a fantasy novel that I grudgingly picked up.
I don’t read fantasy. There are very few exceptions, like when the crossover with science fiction is subtle. I’m not at all into swords and sorcery, dragons and demons, elves and arrows, or kingdoms and castles—my tolerance for any of that is really low. With Ico, I made an exception for two reasons: 1) I loved the PlayStation game of the same title back in 2001 and 2) it’s a Japanese translation—quirky combination. Ico isn’t a Tolkien fantasy so dragons, elves, and dwarves are absent, but there still remain magic, swords, spells, a castle and its queen, and a warrior from a far away land.
In the countryside, life is simple. People toil under their labors of farm or trade, have a family, and continue their lines of work. One family, however, is disturbed by the birth of their son—a boy with the nubs of horns. He’s a generational birth whose destiny is sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist, which suffers “no one to challenge its authority” (19). Being the locus of spite from the village, duty demands that the local wizard raise the boy as his own, only to relinquish him to the Castle when the boy turns the age of thirteen.
Imprisoned prior to his sacrifice, Toto, his friend visits him and tells him that he’ll find a way to follow him to the Castle so that he’s not alone; however, the way is forbidden, it just as mysterious as the Castle itself. In a city built of nothing but ash—the buildings and even the people frozen in place—, Toto finds the glowing tome of light which he takes back to the village, only to suffer the fate of those in the city. The wizard, Ico’s caregiver, realizes that it’s the Book of Light, a powerful force which could repel the dark forces in the Castle. Within the tome, the wizard notices a certain design that may protect him, so his wife creates a cape with the same symbol for Ico to wear to his sacrifice.
Upon entering the Castle under supervision, Ico is placed in his sacrificial stone sarcophagus and left to the Castle’s wishes. But his cape’s symbol protects his from the dark force of the Castle, dumping him onto the floor. He gasps at the uninhabited expanse of the castle, which looks like it was once densely populated with royalty and servants, but now only dark windows stand where no life stirs. The only other soul to stir in the Castle is caged aloft in a tower, whom Ico releases from her imprisonment. Ico takes it upon himself to find a way out for the both of them. Though incommunicable, Ico takes Yorda’s, the Princess’s, hand and leads her toward an exit if one can be found.
But their escape is hindered by the labyrinthine layout of the Castle, oddly shapes statues that guard exits, and the boiling shadows that rise from the floor to whisk Yorda away, which Ico beats away with a wooden stick. But these pestering spirits aren’t the only entity to prevent their route to the outside; the nefarious Queen, mother of Yorda, manifests herself throughout the castle to haunt and intimidate Ico. The history of the Castle and Yorda come through his contact with the girl and through the words of the Queen.
The entire Castle is steeped in the murderous history of the Queen’s dark conquest. She’s the daughter of the Dark God and this God holds a complete and deathly reign over the land beyond the Castle. As Ico winds his way through the Castle, he begins to see its bloody history all throughout—in its walls, in its gardens, and even in its chandeliers:
Ico was struck by the similarity between the hanging crystals on the chandelier and the bodies hanging from the bridge below—a long, macabre chandelier stretching the length of the room. In place of candles, corpses. In place of light, blood, spilling on the floor of the great hall. (137)
Only two things compel Ico to find the way out: 1) his budding love for the girl in white and 2) his father’s words of prophecy—he’s destined to return home. Before he escapes, he must first confront his own history and its link to the Castle.
The story of Ico is one of transition—from child to adult. In Ico’s society for the horned boy, that transition occurs at the age of thirteen. Obviously, through his perilous adventure through the Castle, he is unaccustomed to such dangers with such repercussions. As he enters adulthood through his unwilling and unexpected rite of passage, he becomes involved with two metaphors of childhood: the Castle in and the Princess.
Adults are all too aware of the time: the minutes of routine, the amount of time spent in traffic, deadlines for work, due dates for bills, dates of important events, etc. In contrast, childhood can be seen a carefree time when, aside from education, a child should just be a child; a child should indulge in their nature of childhood. The essences of childhood is timelessness, unaware of their on physical growth or their own progress.
In relation to Ico, the kingdom of the queen and the Castle itself are timeless. Here, Ico explores the wonders of good and confronts the harmful nature of bad, all the while oblivious of passing time. Here, he is allowed to indulge in his childhood without feeling the presage of time: “[H]e reflected on how strange it was that since meeting the girl, he had felt neither hunger nor fatigue” (143). Yorda, too, experiences timelessness: “In exchange for the power to hold back time, she had lost the power to mark its passage …. A sea of forgetfulness, a barrier from the truth” (153).
In this timelessness, adults see childhood as innocence with minimal responsibility and with honest intentions. Yorda embodies this innocence through chastity and and cloth. White has always been a symbol of purity and Yorda continually dons this color throughout: “[A]ll the clothes she had been given were simple things of the purest white that loosely wrapped around her” (169). This modesty is reinforced by the queen: “The queen did not like to expose Yorda to strangers” (168) and she says to Yorda, “[T]hose who desire you desire also our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice them or enchant them” (167).
However, Ico’s imposed escape is anything but simple because he is now entering adulthood, a period fraught with timeliness and responsibility.