October 9, 2021
By Jeannette Ng.
To Your Eternity by Yoshitoki Oima is the sort of story where I at once want you to know nothing about the premise but also everything. The surprises are both profound and matter not at all. There is something deeply fatalistic about “To Your Eternity” but — cue warnings about all the spoilers — much like how trite motivational posters that paraphrase Buddhist wisdom puts it, it is all about the journey.
But to begin at the beginning, To Your Eternity is about an orb that has been sent down to experience the world as some sort of experiment by a mysterious entity. The manga is narrated by the entity, beholding these results, speculating on the growth of the orb as it takes on the form of a rock, some moss, then finally an injured wolf — and with that form, the orb gains consciousness, as well as a name, Joaan.
These early, quiet chapters are arguably the most memorable. The empty, snowy wastes provides a bleak and lonely backdrop to the boy who only has the uncomprehending eyes of the orb masquerading as his wolf as company. The boy is the sole survivor of his people and he dreams of heading south towards the mountains where he may one day meet people, see greenery and taste fruit. His yearning is palpable, his dreams are at once mundane and impossible. And it is those very dreams that come to define our immortal shapeshifting protagonist.
Many more characters and adventures follow as we trade the icy north for a lush and verdant forest. Where the boy and the wolf in the snow has the air of a parable in its simplicity, the later chapters and volumes interweave their characters into a complex landscape of intrigue. Instead of episodic, self-contained adventures, we have a sprawling saga where characters wander off and then return again in unexpected places, years later. In turn, we encounter: March, the little girl who has been chosen as her village’s sacrifice; Parona, who guards March with a ferocity born of tragedy; Hayase, an obsessive and calculating cult leader; Pioran, the pragmatic old woman with a streak of piracy; Gugu, the masked boy with fire in his belly; Rean, the poor little rich girl with an unfortunate scar; Booze Man, the eccentric brewer and harborer of misfits. Later still, as the world changes, the cast swells and we encounter descendants of some of the original characters. And we also come to be increasingly aware of all the things the seemingly omniscient narrating voice of the Beholder does not know and understand. The gaps in the narration become more apparent.
To Your Eternity draws together a number of familiar philosophical concepts from Japanese folklore and religion, remixing them and rendering them far more literal. Through its strange shapeshifting protagonist, To Your Eternity is a meditation on these themes of suffering and the self, death and inevitability, memory and identity. Reincarnation for the orb is a physical continuation of the body as well as the animating soul. And they learn through experience; the more painful the memory, the more deeply it is etched into their being. Existence is a form of suffering.
Japanese and wider East Asian folklore is replete with animals and plants that take human form, often as a cruel prank, but at other times as repayment for a kindness or to simply to observe and delight in humanity. There are echoes of these stories in To Your Eternity. But I am a nerd for classical Chinese literature, so I inclined to draw parallels between To Your Eternity and the metaplot of Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone (also known as “Dream of the Red Chamber”), both being stories about stones that incarnate into the mortal realm to learn about life through suffering. Despite an initial selfishness born largely out of ignorance, both stones come to love deeply and selflessly. They learn through human connections, especially with women, and over time, they believe that bookish learning and knowledge will be their salvation.
Differences are numerous, of course, given how Story of the Stone takes place almost entirely in the confines of an opulent, claustrophobic mansion both timeless and deeply rooted in the mores of 18th century Beijing. And it certainly has far, far fewer fight scenes, let alone viscerally gooey ones where the protagonist shapeshifts through all the forms they have ever known.
But if there is a thread that binds these stories — along with other fatalistic fables about the red dust of mortality, including that other famous rock-born shapeshifting battle-monkey, Sun Wukong (“Son Goku”) — it is that very Buddhist understanding of life as suffering and entanglement. This is not the Buddhism of chanting sutras or calculating merits, but a rather the philosophical meditation on the nature of impermanence, to be the being who can remember and learn and watch it all fade to dust.
At the death of each character, we are presented with a few pages of them finally achieving happiness, their lifelong dreams fulfilled before we are thrown back to the orb’s world and have to confront the physicality of their corpse. There is no explanation of what these visions mean. If they are literally happening or how. Perhaps they are the soul of that character finally wandering off into paradise whilst the orb is cursed to continue, to carry their memory and their ambitions forward, unceasingly.
In one of the early chapters, hopelessness catches up with the boy in the snow and he realises that how alone he is, how he has really just been talking to himself and his loyal wolf neither understands nor could speak back: “I guess… you can’t answer me, huh? Yeah… I guess not… Because I’ve only been talking to myself…”
It’s a painful scene because he is indeed very alone. He doesn’t really even have his wolf, Joaan, who really died weeks ago in the wilderness, as his companion is but an ignorant orb trying to make sense of the world. But at the same time, this scene is etched into the orb’s memory. It may not understand now, but it will in the future, forming the basis of its identity. These scenes are important because they are witnessed and remembered and from those memories are born a new being. In a strange, poignant way, it articulates how the future is always watching and listening, even if it cannot write back.
Like any lengthy manga, To Your Eternity does meander in its plot and there are decidedly some volumes that are stronger than others. It’s greatest weakness is arguably in the need to answer questions about the orb’s metaphysics and the limitations of its powers. The Nokkers appear at first to be introduced as a way of ratcheting up tension, the proverbial “and then ninjas attack” of filling out the quiet beats of a plot, but they slowly take over as the primary antagonist and a few of the later volumes become more action-centric than meditative. Nothing lasts and nothing is entirely eternal, I suppose.
Jeannette Ng is the author of Under the Pendulum Sun. To Your Eternity by Yoshitoki Oima is published by Kodansha Comics and also available through the Azuki digital manga café.