How D. Gray-man Challenges Readers to Look Deeper
In Katsura Hoshino’s D. Gray-man, nearly every character with a name is at some point misunderstood or underestimated. On one level, the akuma make it difficult to know who is the suspect and who is the victim, but on another, readers are likely to judge regular characters based off of a false premise.
The main conflict of D. Gray-man surrounds the Millennium Earl, a wicked entity who tricks the desperate into trapping their dead loved ones on the earth as akuma, weapons that easily pass for living humans. This conman is racing the exorcists of the Black Order in the collection of a powerful material called Innocence that will determine the fate of the world. Protagonist Allen Walker is devoted to bringing salvation to the akuma, who have no choice but to serve the Earl’s bidding. Because they reanimate corpses and blend in with the masses, the average person is deceived by the akuma, discovering the danger only when it is too late. Allen’s “curse” grants him the ability penetrate the disguise and see the tormented faces of chained spirits. When Allen’s unparalleled perception is missing from a scene, however, reality sets in: that no reader has his spiritual X-ray vision that can expose the truth about others. No one can look with their eyes to know the depths of another’s soul. The true message, then, is not that evil can be anywhere, but that people must be aware of their natural tendency to trust their conclusions, and to recognize that perception is anything but infallible.
I will focus on characters introduced within the first three books who are brilliantly drawn and brought to life as being grotesque, ridiculed, or self-loathing–characters who are more than what they first appear to be. D. Gray-man seems to purposefully mislead the reader in this regard, designing a repulsive or deceptive outer layer to test him or her and expose them to their own biases. Most errors of judgment are the direct result of drawing conclusion before hearing the other side of a story, while others are formed by following false assumptions. John, for instance, is too young to know what he is talking about. Allen is too scrawny to be a hero. Guzol is a doll that lures children like Lala from their homes. Miranda is an undesirable who can only bring bad luck. The akuma mislead with malicious intentions, but these others are the victims of prejudice. By disguising the goodness in people, D. Gray-man punishes assumption, and rewards the search for truth. Eventually, readers begin to anticipate the deeper dimensions beyond each character’s superficial qualities.
The classic case of “The Boy who Cried Wolf” is what comes to mind when adult men crowd around and shake their heads at the little kid screaming, “It’s an akuma! It’s an akuma! It’s going to kill us!” (Hoshino 68). The difference, however, is that this boy calls for help in a truly dire situation, and is dismissed as a prankster in the very presence of the wolf. The truth of the boy’s cries is overwritten by the low opinion of him. He looks like a nuisance, and the wolf looks like a sheep, so the problem would have been completely ignored had Allen not taken the cries seriously and come running.
Allen does not fit the picture of superhero. “Scrawny”, with a deformed arm, white hair, and a curse, Allen can’t seem to go anywhere without being judged and underestimated. Even though Allen exorcises the akuma that John reports, John turns around and subjects Allen to criticism. He isn’t impressed by his savior, because Allen Walker does not match the exorcist stereotype. Allen feels the pang of insult but his maturity allows him to quickly shake it off as unimportant. It’s true that he makes exorcism look easy, but the reader knows better than to underestimate his competency. It isn’t until Allen finally makes it to the Black Order Head Quarters that we see him vertically balancing himself on a tilting chair, supported by only his thumb until sunrise, and know the extent of his self-discipline. But strength isn’t about showing off to Allen. It’s about protecting people successfully.
Even gaining acceptance into the headquarters proves an ordeal for Allen. What should be a place of refuge, turns into the spawning ground of a deadly misunderstanding when he approaches the front gate. Allen’s curse inconveniently makes it impossible for the gatekeeper to see whether or not an akuma’s mechanical skeleton is lurking below his skin. The curse itself is enough to set off alarm bells. Right when the blade of a fellow exorcist Kanda is about to pierce Allen’s throat, the mistake is discovered. The gatekeeper replies to criticism helplessly with, “But well, you know! How am I supposed to tell (that he’s an exorcist) if I can’t see his insides?” (Hoshino 146). The protocol becomes, “when in doubt, attack,” rather than, “seek the truth by listening to the other side of the story.”
Guzol and Lala
Guzol is supposed to be an ugly doll that kidnaps stray children and has survived for 500+ years thanks to the power of the Innocence. This is the conclusion that Kanda and others have come to while reviewing the ghost story of Mater. Allen is new to the concept of Innocence, and the phenomena it can inspire. He accepts Kanda’s explanation as an interesting possibility but he does not commit himself to it. The reader, on the other hand, is in the obligatory position of accepting possibility as fact because, ever since reaching headquarters, Allen has not been the most experienced of the two exorcists featured in one panel.
When the reader first sees Guzol and Lala, Lala looks like the one who was lured, not the other way around. Since Lala says things like “you’re the only one who accepted me” the reader becomes more convinced still that she is the runaway with whom Guzol has bonded (Hoshino 228). This is all cleverly built upon the initial assumption that Guzol is the one who was abandoned in Mater. To protect Lala, Guzol even perpetuates this false premise. Allen and Kanda have come for the Innocence, and this they know to be in the heart of a doll. Kanda is surprised when Guzol can talk, as though he was hoping this would be a simple matter of removing apart from a toy, not a question of ethics.
Lala, the real doll, acts like a living being and speaks just as well as anyone else, but Kanda doesn’t want to listen. When Allen actually lets Lala open up to him, however, he discovers the truth— that Guzol was once a little boy, rejected by the world for his ugly face. He was the only one who accepted Lala, because everyone else was too afraid of her mangled hair and broken eye to listen to her sing. The frightening “Ghost of Mater” killed, but killed in self-defense. Guzol was not lured, but abandoned. They were misfits, forced to live isolated from the world because they could only find acceptance through each other.
Miranda Lotto is another rejected character who finds unlikely fellowship. The one in whom she sees herself, however, is not a person….it’s a clock. Like this clock, Miranda is no stranger to having others give up on her and being regarded as broken. Miranda is embarrassed when Allen’s partner during this mission, Lenalee, notices the charm dangling from Miranda’s necklace, as though she has been teased about it before. It is the clock spring with which she was able to coax a “useless” grandfather clock back to life. “Y…You must think it’s stupid of me to carry this around with me…” Miranda says, turning her back and blushing (Hoshino 449). She fears she will be judged again. It’s Lenalee’s open mind that allows Miranda to feel comfortable enough to be herself.
Miranda has allowed the negative opinions of others to define her. From the artwork alone, the reader is ready to judge her as being a crazy old maid. Heavy shadows fall under her eyes, and a variety of gloomy and frenetic expressions rule her face. She isn’t crazy though, even if she does have a tendency of talking to herself, because she is the only one in town who is aware that they are actually stuck in a Groundhog’s-Day-type time loop. She talks to herself because this awareness means that she is also the only one who understands what it is like to relive the same day thirty times. Miranda’s understanding of her pain is not the same as the knowledge of who she is, though. “I really don’t know anything…This city became strange on its own. Why should I be targeted? What have I done…? I hate this…I hate everything…” Miranda mumbles as she cleans her beloved clock (Hoshino 454). She has grown up with low self-esteem because no one acknowledges her effort or gives her a word of praise. Her peers ignored her when she was a child, and as an adult she is scorned by children and by adults alike, just because she is clumsy and nothing seems to come easily to her.
So, is it exactly as the townspeople have led her to think—that she can never do anything, no matter how hard she tries, and that she is a bringer of bad luck? Or, does it have something to do with her lack of confidence, and that failure has resulted in a never-ending cycle of discouragement? No one has ever looked deeper into her soul to acknowledge that her determination is admirable, or even had the decency to thank her for anything. In the end, she realizes that she is not different and weird, but that her connection with the clock is a special connection to Innocence. Like everyone, she has always had strengths lying dormant within her, and now she has found herself. On the last page of the third book, Miranda is hardly recognizable as the same dreary woman we met at the beginning. She has let her hair down, she is smiling, and she walks with her head held high. It’s not that she suddenly changes her mind, and decides to improve her outlook on life, it’s that Allen and Lenalee accepted her as herself and gave her the opportunity and fresh perspective she needed to make a difference.
Bringing Them all Together
The reader is more likely to side with John than the ignorant crowd of adults, but it is scary how tempting it is to judge characters based on popular opinion. When readers hear the Ghost of Mater legend from an informed and experienced exorcist like Kanda, we forget that he is simply interpreting an old story based on the hearsay of others’ superstitions. It is not enough to blame him for feeding the reader and Allen false information. After the truth comes out about Guzol and Lala, the reader is called upon to empathize with their tragedy and to withhold judgment in the future to avoid repeating this mistake. Lala and Guzol defended their right to live, but other characters, however, don’t even know their own worth. When Miranda opens up, for instance, she claims that she was so depressed she had considered suicide. Like anyone, she doesn’t know what the future holds, and she is still on the path of self-discovery. Her challenge was to move forward, hence the reason why she invoked the innocence to bring time to a halt and kept reliving the same day. These are only a few examples of how D. Grey-man sets us up to question our assumptions. Eventually, the scenarios in which characters are underestimated add up, and one begins to rightfully question the “obvious.”
Hoshino, Katsura. D. Gray-man. Omnibus ed. Vol. 1-2-3. San Francisco, CA: Viz Media, 2013. Print.
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