Matt Kamen is counting mystery numbers in Shikabane: Corpse Princess
In the complete collection of gothic action series Corpse Princess, undead teenage girls fight off rampaging monsters known as ‘shikabane’ – anguished spirits of the restless dead. Reluctant hero Makina Hoshino is one such warrior, resurrected in the wake of the slaughter of her family as a ‘Shikabane Hime’, unable to move on to her reward until she has vanquished 108 shikabane. The mystery of what exactly that ‘reward’ is forms a major subplot of the series – a promise of heaven, or is that too good to be true? But the oddly specific figure for Makina’s killcount is just as important.
If you’ve been a fan of Asian media for any length of time, you’ll probably have come across the number before. Water Margin, a classic of Chinese literature, features 108 outlaw heroes, while the game spin-off Suikoden sees you recruiting 108 ‘Stars of Destiny’ for your party. Even the most recent Digimon anime series, Xros Wars, includes reference to the number, with 108 digital zones for the latest batch of kids and pet monsters to battle through. It pops up in western entertainment, too – in Lost, the sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 must be entered into a console every 108 minutes, or the island’s plane crash survivors face dire consequences. And the total of those numbers, added together? 108.
So what’s the relevance? For one thing, the number occurs with almost eerie frequency in ancient cultures and languages, appearing around the world and throughout human history. In the Sanskrit alphabet, which dates back over 4000 years, there are masculine and feminine forms of each of the 54 letters – 108 total. Sanskrit also considers it a ‘harshad’ or ‘great joy’ number, because it is perfectly divisible by the sum of its digits.
In several eastern faiths 108 is a sacred number, and many of those faiths have, in turn, had profound social and cultural effects on various Asian countries. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, prayer garlands called Japa Mala should properly consist of 108 beads, with a daily mantra repeated on each one. Hinduism also has 108 deities, which some branches believe have 108 names each. Sikhs use a similar mala, though traditionally comprised of 108 knots rather than beads. In Hinduism, it’s believed that there were 108 hand maidens to Krishna himself.
For our purposes though, it’s the number’s prominence in Buddhism that’s most relevant. Shinto and Buddhist practises influence modern Japanese life on a cultural level, which penetrates the country’s art and media. One of the core principles of Mahayana Buddhism in particular is that there are 108 virtues and 108 vices that followers must aspire to or resist, and Buddhist temples typically have 108 steps for visitors to climb on their approach. At New Year, a temple bell is chimed 108 times, again symbolizing the temptations people must overcome.
It’s here that we find the closest link or reasoning to Corpse Princess, with the shikabane representing the temptations and vices of life. And, just as there’s no way of knowing if there’s a path to Nirvana by overcoming them in real life, Makina has no way of knowing if she’s really earning her afterlife or something far more terrifying.
Shikabane: Corpse Princess the Complete Series is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.