Today is Anosmia Awareness Day and I am anosmic, meaning I was born without a sense of smell. It hasn’t come up on this blog until now because anosmia is so underrepresented in fiction. There are minor characters here and there–Latula Pyrope in Homestuck, Aunt Selma in The Simpsons, etc.–and even then their anosmia is only briefly mentioned for humor or scent-related plot points. The penultimate episode of Futurama has close to a character arc about anosmia, in a parody of the 1931 film City Lights. In the episode, Zoidberg falls in love with an anosmic woman named Marianne who doesn’t realize he reeks. The episode doesn’t name Marianne’s condition as anosmia and she’s ultimately cured, but it does challenge the social construction of “bad” and “good” smells as she prefers Zoidberg’s odor to flowers. Even then, Marianne only gets one episode to herself. She’s only a parody of a blind character, not one envisioned as anosmic to begin with.
The story that’s spoken to me the most as an anosmiac is much longer, but more metaphorical. Kamen Rider OOO isn’t about anosmia per se, but does question what physical sensations have to do with making someone “complete.” In the 21st incarnation of the Kamen Rider tokusatsu television series, a young man named Eiji Hino transforms into the superhero Kamen Rider OOO with the ability to activate animal-themed medals. He was granted this power by Ankh, one of five ancient monsters known as the Greeed created by alchemists from experimentation with animal souls. The Greeed were designed as “incomplete” beings, made up of ten animal medals but “born” into consciousness through removal of the tenth. Four of them seek to recollect their core medals by creating monsters of the week, spurring battles with Kamen Rider OOO and Ankh.
This rest of this post contains spoilers for all of Kamen Rider OOO and related crossover films.
The Greeed exist as inert clusters of their core medals and auxiliary cell medals, but take the appearance of animal/human hybrids or modern humans if stable enough. Eiji eventually learns that the Greeed have limited, distorted, or nonexistent physical senses as part of their “incomplete” existence even in human form. Their vision is hazy, hearing is distorted, and smell and taste are nonexistent. It’s explained that because the Greeed can’t physically experience satisfaction through the five senses like humans can, they will never feel satisfied. From there, they aim to reclaim their nine core medals and reach a semblance of wholeness. Unfortunately, even nine medals aren’t enough to fill the psychological void.
The cause is fantastical, but the senses of the Greeed resemble blindness, deafness, tinnitus, anosmia, and ageusia in humans. Their circumstantial mobility and stability, dependent on their amount of core medals, resembles physical disabilities as well. With those in mind, the Greeed can be interpreted as a metaphor for disabled people. On a surface level, writing monsters akin to disabled people as “incomplete” or “unfulfilled” is offensive. However, the metaphor is worth a closer look as the Greeed become more sympathetic. Personally, I see myself in them the same way Elisa sees herself in the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water. Sometimes the closest reflection of your life is in a fictional monster and all the “inhuman” baggage that comes with it, as the Greeed are to my anosmia.
It would be one thing if they were simply irredeemable villains, but from the very beginning they can’t be reduced to evil as Ankh allies with Eiji. He’s rude and selfish, but at least he doesn’t torture and attack humans. Though the Greeed quartet of Kazari, Uva, Mezool, and Gamel kick off the series as antagonists; it’s actually a human scientist named Maki who emerges the final villain. Maki, disillusioned with humankind, gathers the Greeed to embed one of them with as many core medals from the others as possible. Medal overload will cause a Greeed to lose control, devouring humans and destroying the world in the process. In order to manipulate the Greeed, Maki dehumanizes them by reminding them of their inferiority as beings. He’s irredeemable in his treatment of them. The Greeed internalize the belief they’re not living people, only inanimate objects, making them resentful of humankind and primed to wreak havoc.
The Greeed are also said to be incapable of the same feelings as humans, including love. Their lack of senses is physically evident, but emotions can’t be measured the same way. They may assume with the former clearly true, so must be the latter. In actuality not only can the audience see the Greeed act with emotion, they know real people have feelings without physical senses. This results in a dramatic irony that the Greeed have feelings, but believe they don’t. At the very least, they may process emotions differently from humans. They’re antagonists, but there’s certainly sympathy for them there. For example: Gamel obviously can’t taste if he bites into a plastic ball and claims it delicious, but he loves Mezool as if a human. Gamel and Mezool care deeply for each other but tragically don’t see anything worthwhile or real in a relationship between Greeed, which leads to their downfall.
While the Greeed quartet keep to themselves, Ankh leaves them and forms unlikely friendships with humans. While the other Greeed manifest as entire humanoid bodies, Ankh only exists as a forearm as the result of botched preservation. Even with a substantial number of core medals, he can’t sustain his full Greeed form or human form. On top of impaired senses, this uniquely limits his capabilities. To compensate, he possess the body of a comatose detective named Shingo. Hina, Shingo’s orphaned younger sister, longs for her brother but comes to cherish Ankh as well. In Shingo’s body he experiences sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste for the first time. Being able to taste makes a world of a difference to Ankh, with popsicles being his favorite food. It makes sense he would appreciate food as he gets to know humans, since they’re the only animals that cook their food. What begins as a fun character quirk develops into a symbol of his motivation to keep Shingo’s body to himself. Of all the sensations he can experience now, taste comes up the most.
Sense of taste in Ankh’s character arc hits me close to home, because smell makes up the majority of sense of taste. A nose can detect a wide variety of flavors through food’s smell, while a tongue can detect the five tastes (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, umami). Together, both senses make up the experience of taste. My anosmia is congential, so I haven’t experienced the change in taste that someone with acquired anosmia would. I only know there’s significant difference by the way people react when I say I can’t smell: their first concern is always my sense of taste, followed by despair at what I’m apparently missing out on. It’s not unlike Eiji or Hina’s shock upon realizing being a Greeed means having no sense of taste. I have a smaller scope of taste I’m content with, but to others I may as well have nothing and that invokes pity.
Eiji realizes how Ankh lived before possessing Shingo as he, too, gradually becomes a Greeed through ingesting core medals. His vision and hearing only change in short bursts, but he loses smell and taste completely. For many people with acquired anosmia or ageusia, losing the ability to taste leads to depression. For Eiji, it makes him unable to enjoy food, including dinner kindly prepared by Hina. He now understands Ankh’s fascination with popsicles and his desperation to keep Shingo’s body. However, Eiji’s decline in humanity has more to do with emotional repression than loss of taste. The loss of taste is a symptom, but the cause of his transformation is his denial of any personal desires. It’s only when Eiji admits that he yearns for power–specifically power to save others with–that he can control himself and regain humanity.
While Eiji becomes more Greeed-like, Ankh becomes more “human” in his desires. More important than having senses, Shingo’s body allows Ankh to appear human. He occasionally detaches from Shingo, but spends most of the series in a human form more approachable than a Greeed arm. He’s not simply identical to Shingo either; but has his own haircut, makeup, and fashion that distinguish the two. It literally humanizes him in the eyes of Eiji, Hina, and more. After Ankh betrays Eiji and Hina to join Maki, he disparagingly refers to himself as simply a pile of medals. He may have Shingo’s body and the ability to taste, but he doesn’t feel like a person without his friends. Despite Ankh insisting he’s a Greed, Eiji imagines Ankh in human form in the distance when he thinks of him. Again, there’s a dramatic irony that Eiji clearly sees him as much more than an artificial monster.
Ankh gives up Shingo’s body to aid Eiji in the final battle against Maki, which reduces himself to three core medals. He becomes nothing but a small pile of core medals, just like he fears. His appearance is more inhuman and his capabilities more limited than ever, but Eiji still sees Ankh as a person. While in the Kamen Rider OOO form activated by Ankh’s medals, Eiji imagines human Ankh fighting alongside him. They destroy Maki and save the world, but Ankh’s broken core medal containing his consciousness means he’ll cease to exist. Ankh takes some comfort in Eiji’s grief as they plummet to Earth together, because considering his end a “death” means he was “alive” to begin with. Like Eiji, he achieves humanity by admitting his true desire: to “live” as a person, not as a higher being. Eiji doesn’t see him as an object, which fulfills him more than something material ever could. Ankh accepts life as a Greeed, unable to experience senses, as long as others treat him like a person.
As someone with congenital anosmia, it means a lot to me for Ankh to not be “cured” or “made whole” as is often the case with (metaphorically or otherwise) disabled characters. I admittedly relate to those characters, but the connection ends when we don’t have disability in common anymore. I’ll never have a sense of smell, and I’ve accepted that. It doesn’t upset me that I’ll never experience the world the way some other people do, because it’s not like I’ll ever know the difference. Being anosmic isn’t without its issues, from fear of unnoticed gas leaks to insecurity over my own scent, but it’s my life and I can’t imagine it any other way. What truly upsets me is when others suggest I’m somehow lacking because of my anosmia. It’s not that I dislike being treated differently, since I appreciate when people inform me of a smell knowing I’m unaware of it, but that people assume my life is inherently sad.
In the wrong hands, the treatment of the Greeed could have made me feel that way. Instead, Yasuko Kobayashi’s writing of the Greeed (and Ankh in particular) resonate with me. I had never seen a work of fiction so closely match my perspective of disability before, and never expected one to do so with sense of taste specifically. While some may not consider anosmia and ageusia to be disabilities, Kamen Rider OOO nonetheless uses sense of taste to tell a story that applies to many disabilities. It presents disabled life as worth living, and dehumanization as irredeemable.
With that said, it falls into another unfortunate conclusion for disabled characters as almost all the Greeed die. However, they may have all been capable of personal fulfillment if under the same circumstances as Ankh. As it is, Ankh survives by virtue of his bonds with orders. Even as a single remaining shattered coin, unrecognizable as human or even sentient, Eiji believes Ankh is still alive. After all they’ve been though, their love runs deep. He’s right, as the show closes on an apparition of Ankh’s arm–invisible to the human eye–following Eiji on his quest. The crossover film Movie War Mega Max goes as far to confirm that forty years in the future, Ankh can sustain human form again. It doesn’t matter that he can’t taste his favorite food anymore, because he has the company of loved ones. When Eiji and Ankh briefly reunite in Heisei Generations Final, Eiji offers a popsicle and Ankh accepts it before fading away. It’s the gesture that counts, not the taste. That’s what satisfaction means to me too. Thank you, Kobayashi.
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