tabula rasa

The English title of the manga brings a certain philosophical perspective to mind: the tabula rasa, or blank slate. While it is not solely his, the theory is strongly associated with John Locke, who believed that humans were simply born blank, and that their experiences shape their identity.

I find the use of the term very fitting as a title for this manga, as the theme prevails throughout the series. Zen's search for his identity is supplemented by the question of his humanity: is he good or evil? Who was he, and who is he now? The answers to these questions are given in the manga, but the philosophical question remains.

Biggins: They're all like marionettes, aren't they?
Gia: Yeah. None of them have names or hometowns...
Biggins: We groomed them all for this unit... they don't have any connections... They've been cultivated since they were children. [...] Through hard, relentless training and physical enhancement they have acquired fighting skills that far surpass those of normal soldiers. They are human weapons that were made for the sole purpose of fighting.

Zen was taken to be a soldier early enough in life that all he knows is the black ops unit. He has no name other than Zero, and his identity is entirely what the military has drilled into him. With his history in mind, I would have to say that the idea of being born completely blank could fit. It would make it all the easier for the military to turn him into the exact soldier they wanted, with no respect to the person he might have become otherwise. Given a chance at a childhood outside of the military, he might have lived a peaceful life, free of violence. There's no way to ever know for sure, because his conditioning is the reality of his existence.

However, that theory only carries as far as Zero's escape from the military. After that point, he is a different blank slate: a grown man with no knowledge of his past. This time, he has the chance to live free — and what he chooses is violence.

At this point, I'd like to mention the Japanese title of the manga, Akusaga. It implies something else entirely different from the English title. It is written with the characters for "evil" and "nature" (the latter as it relates to an individual). It suggests that Zen was simply born evil to begin with, and his violent instincts were tempered by the military into controlled violence — that is, that he was a human weapon. This carries forward throughout the rest of his life: he seeks violence to a degree far beyond any normal human, and ultimately rejects all attempts by others to change that path.

So what's the answer? Did Zen have a truly blank slate, or was he born evil? I don't think there's any one answer. Hakka's hypnotism might have triggered violent instincts to run free in Zen, but if he was born with a blank slate then they come as the direct result of his conditioning. Or perhaps he never had a blank slate at all, and was simply violent from the beginning, but only in the military's view. I'm partial to the former, but I like that it's left up to interpretation. The second volume of the manga answers many of the questions asked in the first, but at the same time, it opens up so many more.

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