Glass Mask and Soap-Grade Melodrama

When I started on Glass Mask I remarked on Twitter that I was about to begin on a “good old fashioned telenovela”. In American terms, a soap opera. Where do you draw the line between an ordinary melodrama and a soap? As an observer, I have come to conclude that “soap” is a grade of melodrama. It’s a level of intensity.

(As such, here is your trigger warning. A young teen character endures emotional, psychological and physical abuse, as well as some age-inappropriate romantic attention)

It is one thing for a passionate 13-year-old heroine to work her butt off making ramen deliveries in order to afford her sole joy of watching live theater. It’s completely different when, all in the first episode, our heroine works herself to unconsciousness, dives into the ocean, and is assaulted by wild dogs. The episode closes with the narrator stating that our heroine cannot even imagine how much tougher things are going to get. She is not bluffing.

That’s soap, and that’s Glass Mask. I watched the 1984 22-episode adaptation of the classic 70s girls’ manga (which remains unfinished to this day!). This series’ speakers are stuck at 12. When faced with a decision, every character in the story does the biggest, wildest, most dangerous thing they can. It’s hard to think of Glass Mask getting remade any time soon, despite its popularity in Japan, because so much of what’s going on just does not fly today.

This is the story of a young girl who throws her crappy ordinary life — ramen delivery, hateful mother — away to train as an actress. It is an insane life Maya lives, full of abusive training, corporate intrigue, on-stage sabotage, and age-inappropriate romance.

Maya’s acting coach and surrogate mother is the maniac Chigusa Tsukikage, a former star who lost half her face in a lighting accident and moved on to coaching. It is really Tsukikage’s sociopath world that Maya enters, a cut-throat place where snakes are everywhere and only the very best make it anywhere at all.

As is common in anime/manga of this vintage, the only way to get Maya where she needs to be is Tsukikage’s specialty; pointlessly brutal training. Despite being perpetually about to die, this lady never misses a chance to abuse her star student. The *first* trial Maya faces involves being locked in a storage unit for several days, and it gets a lot worse. By the end it is Maya subjecting herself to intense suffering for the sake of the art. (If you can’t deal with abusive parental figures, I’d steer clear of this one.)

It’s all framed as extreme method acting and thus for her own good, and the powerfully empathetic Maya always “finds” her role in the depths. As the series progresses, Maya learns to devise her own insane training and grows into an actress with a reputation for crashing every production she’s in, so dedicated in her roles that she steals the spotlight even when placed in the background… playing an inanimate object, in one case.

This bonk is in fact a moment of heroism in context

Meanwhile Maya has to deal with constant industry sabotage and meddling, a rival — Ayumi Himekawa, an “ojousama” from before the blonde curls, haughty manner and practiced laugh were a nostalgic genre punchline — and a couple of awkward suitors.

My favorite case of somebody doing way too much in Glass Mask is when Maya’s high schooler boyfriend sees her on stage in a production of Wuthering Heights, and she just has so much chemistry with her Heathcliff that he can’t imagine they’re not dating (the guy playing Heathcliff also thinks this), so he runs out of the theater and the very next day becomes a high school playboy, taking four girls a day to the ice cream parlor, miserable because four girls at the ice cream parlor still won’t take away the pain.

Then there’s the other guy. Where to start. This is the main thing that wouldn’t fly today: hell, it wouldn’t fly in 1985. The 24-year-old head of evil arts conglomerate Daito Entertainment, Masumi Hayami, falls in love at first sight with Maya, who you will recall is an actual baby. Rather than openly pursuing a child, Masumi becomes her mysterious first fan, who leaves purple roses and notes of encouragement. Meanwhile, as a shady and powerful exec, Masumi is also the guy behind both the dirty tricks that get in Maya’s way and the mysterious windfalls that save her when things are bad.

Like this scene, you know?

My favorite thing about Masumi is when he’s given a hot, appropriately-aged secretary solely to illustrate how fixated he is on Maya. We watch her look on, and her knowing stare tells us everything we might not have wanted to believe. For Gundam nerds, I thought of Char Aznable with Nanai and Quess during Char’s Counterattack.

As I said, everything in Glass Mask is big, dramatic, unreal. That’s kind of the soap appeal: these people’s lives will never be yours, nor would you want them. They’re all totally bonkers.

To this effect, I really enjoyed the ’80s anime version directed by Gisaburo Sugii. It is not 100% accurate to the manga, but it’s also beautifully directed and goes all the way in on the 70s manga aesthetic. There is a 2000s Glass Mask anime that runs for two long seasons and gets a lot further into the story, but it’s not nearly as pretty, and a little more modernized to its time. I tried this one a long time ago, when Crunchyroll put it up, and it never really won me over the way the old version did. The manga itself is still running, so you won’t get closure on the fate of the Crimson Goddess regardless.

But don’t let that stop you. Glass Mask isn’t about the journey or the destination; it’s about the moment.

I watched Glass Mask (1984) on Blu-Ray. The set has been pretty cheap for a long time (I got mine for $12 in a sale!) but like most short-run low-priced US releases of anime, it will disappear off the face of the earth one day without warning. For streaming, you can see it on Hidive, a subscription service.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.