AICN Anime-Astro Boy Creator Osamu Tezuka at His Most Vicious
By Osamu Tezuka
Released by Vertical Inc
Preview Available here
Many factors make Osamu Tezuka a complex, often contradictory storyteller. One of these is that he demonstrates affection for humanity and pessimism towards the human condition. Even in his children's oriented work like Astro Boy, Tezuka doesn't blink at portraying the sad, awful depth of the inhumane actions taken by dictators, rampaging governments, greedy individuals, or those acting as a proxy for those forces. And, he doesn't pretend that evil happens in a vacuum. Generally, the perpetrator at least attempts to rationalize their actions, and in most cases, Tezuka demonstrates why the reprehensible action is undertaken. Rarely, if ever, is evil committed simply for the sake of evil.
On one side, there is a reverence for surviving and aiding in the survival of others. On the other, there's a harsh criticism of superficial or malicious value systems. That dialectic between reconciliation and condemnation informs Mw. It's a comic that displays the "God of Manga" on the attack. For a jab, he's presenting a Highsmith anti-hero; after Death Note, the second in as many weeks for this column. For a cross, he's presenting his continuing ire over the Vietnam War. Tezuka may have demonstrated a reluctance to cross over from the abstract to the concrete in his public, political statements, but the war caused him to speak out and even the child oriented Astro Boy unambiguously offered its condemnation. In the case of Mw, Tezuka is presenting a Third Man, spawned by the literal fallout of Vietnam.
Mw sees Tezuka fired up on multiple fronts. The picaresque is a clear demonstration of the forces behind Tezuka's prolific output. Osamu Tezuka completed over 150,000 pages of manga in his life time. The spark of genius behind that tower of work is evident in how he conflates a Hitchockian thriller, the push towards more aggressive manga, along with that lingering anger at global politics, and makes the alloy uniquely his own.
No single individual is more responsible for shaping the forms of anime and manga than Osamu Tezuka, but along with innovation, he also reacted to the media around him.
As Frederik L. Schodt's Astro Boy Essays relates, from Bambi and classic Disney movies, through live action cinema, Tezuka was inspired by various artistic traditions. He was also competitive, wanting to best rather than simply re-create.
In this case, competition meant getting into fighting shape. Mw was published in 1976 as part of the gekiga anthology Big Comic. This was home to Golgo 13, a manga that was strictly sex and violence, and which took absurd shots at various historical hot-points. For example, Viz's best of Golgo 13 collections include the assassin taking out Saddam Hussein's super-gun ballistics program, killing Princess Diana's lover shortly before her real death, jumping into the 1981 assassination attempt against the pope, and the like. Later Big Comic manga included the works of Naoki Urasawa (Monster), Hideo Yamamoto (creator of Ichi the Killer), Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkon Kinkreet), Junji Ito (Tomie) and Ryoichi Ikegami (Sanctuary, Strain). Like his work on Ode to Kirihito, Mw engages the world in adult terms. As such, it's a dark, unrelenting vision haunted by the horrors of personal and global history.
In the confrontational tradition of gekiga, Mw is purposefully ugly. A decade after works like Yoshihiro Tatsumi's stories of men reacting to the indignities of the modern world with murder and multination, Tezuka enters the gun fight with a howitzer. Mw is structured around the escalating agenda of an entirely amoral criminal, and to capture that, Tezuka takes any safety out of his story.
When the anime being released in North America was dominantly brutal movies and OVAs, and the post-Akira highlights included the likes of Wicked City and MD Geist, the preponderance of sex, violence and sexual violence earned anime the dubious reputation of "violent pornography." From a detached, ratings board, count the thrusts, perspective, Tezuka does that triumvirate one better; Mw is full of sex, violence, sexual violence, and post mortem violence.
A problem in the above mentioned school of gristly anime is that the two faced expectation of how the viewer should relate to the crime being depicted is off putting. How should one relate to something like Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend when it frames brutal murder in a sexually suggestive fashion? That particular work might leave room for debate, but decades later, when "tentacle porn" has become a genre, the works themselves are clearly no longer ambivalent to their purpose.
Tezuka's command of the medium is such that he always maintains a mastery over his story. While there are multiple facets to the high stakes rampage being depicted in the manga, titillation is not one of them. Yet, Mw is intended to be a thriller and Tezuka does steer the work like a trailer barreling down a narrow mountain road.
Based on a cursory familiarity with Tezuka's work, it might seem against pigeon holed expectations, but Tezuka is someone who adapted Crime and Punishment early in his career. A buffeting suspense, as a cinematic thriller projected onto the manga page met with an angry, conflicted engagement of relevant issues is the perfect set of elements for Tezuka.
Mw opens with the crime equivalent of letting the nukes fly. Michio Yuki has kidnapped the son of a businessman. Ostensibly, because this doomed capitalist involved the cops, upon delivery of the ransom, the businessman finds his pre-adolescent son in the backseat of the car, strangled, eyes staring blankly. Yuki reveals the tail end of his MO when he guns down the boy's father, then speeds off to a catholic church, where he removes his false mustache, confesses to a priest who recognizes the young man, and walks past the police drag net disguised as a nun. Michio Yuki is the younger brother of the heir to kabuki theatre royalty, he's the promising up-and-comer at a bank with deep political influence, and he's an extortionist who frequently murders, then his impersonates victims.
The "rest of the story" is that in the 60's, Yuki's confessor Father Garai was part of a radical association known as The Crows. On the island of Kagoshima, near Okinawa, the Crows found a man and a boy on a yacht. Garai took the boy to the gang's hideout in a nearby cave, and while he was raping the young Yuki, an accident happened. "Nation X" had been housing the chemical weapon known as "Mw" nearby, and overnight, a leak killed everyone on the island except Garai and Yuki. As Garai explains to his bishop, since then, Yuki has been stripped of any moral limitation and Garai himself has been unable to resist Yuki's psychical allure.
The manga unfolds with Yuki's egomaniacal gambit to map his state of being onto the world. A conspiracy of foreign military, politicians and businessmen allowed Mw to be stored on the island, leak, and then be covered up....consequently, they will suffer, be ruined, and killed too. Yuki is going to die... the rest of humanity should accompany him.
Early in Tezuka's career, he recognized a stagy limitation placed on manga. Rather than maintain a simple, center framed perspective, he took his illustration in a more cinematic direction. Mw opens with a brilliant example of this. At 4:00am, a car speeds along a sea-cliff route. Hard faced, sweating men make their way out of the surrounding woods as the car screeches to a halt, with a round, business suit clad man emerging, grasping a suitcase. Tezuka has created the moment of coiled tension right before hell breaks loose. Sights have been set on a movie screen level of fury, and shortly, Tezuka delivers on that promise.
From the shape of the environment to the angle by which the car is viewed, Tezuka leverages every bit of the complete control that he has in the depiction of events. He furthers this by molding the shape of how events are depicted, such as setting loosely drawn human figures against hard backgrounds. This would be infuriating in any other medium, worse than any fast cut edited movie, but, in manga, there's a mediation between the reader's pacing and how the illustrator lays out the page. As complex as the range of elements that go onto a page might be, Tezuka always presents pages that are simple to read, with clear arrangement of the depicted action and intended visual message.
When this velocity is put behind Yuki's attacks, the viciousness is staggering. The character deserves a prominent seat in the pantheon of perversely respectable monsters. The line between ego and revenge in his motivation teases almost towards something justifiable, and in that abstract sense by which Hannibal Lector is an appealing character, there is something to Yuki's cleverness. He works the gambit from sympathetic victims, to vaguely sympathetic, to sharply unsympathetic, but the willful disregard for humanity is always the same. Given the credible limitations and human failings of the rest of the manga's cast, this characters ability to kill from an intimate embrace is bound to leave an indelible impression.
Mw doesn't wear out it's welcome, it's as exciting on page 500 as it is on page 50. But, it doesn't become anything either. This serialized manga works on a metronome beat: pendulum goes back: Garai starts recounting a situation or pulling his hair out in self reproach; pendulum goes forward, the moment of moral crisis strikes. Pendulum goes back, Yuki is embraced by an influential family; pendulum goes forward: Yuki goes Warren Zevon song on their young daughter. The amplitude of the swing might vary, but the serial format is design to dash-dash-dash from one suspenseful situation to the next, until it finally finds itself running, literally into thin air.
Norman Bates does not become psycho during the course of the movie, and Yuki does not become a mass murderer in the course of Mw. The trouble is that Yuki's motivations are explicitly laid out early in the manga. That serves a serialized work well, but it damages the manga when its collected form is read as a novel.
Previous Tezuka works released in North America have been comprised of short stories, or in a positive sense, they've been convoluted. In that latter case, these have been moving for their expansiveness and complex narrative. In the case of Mw, each situation is effecting, but the cumulative effects of Yuki’s endeavors are not as grandiose as the life's stories and transformations of Ode to Kirihito, Buddha or Phoenix. It's the difference between a tidal cycle versus breaking waves. In Mw, is simply a case of being battered by the breakers.
Anthology-based manga does not have the same sort of drafts and editing that cinema or novels do. Tezuka fully commits to a classic, if not unique, action set piece for the conclusion of Mw. At the same time, it encodes what looks to be displeasure directly into the manga. A character outright states "That's why I said it was a cartoonish plan. It may go against command sense, but we'll have to trust our luck." Mw hits a point where it has to conclude and it has to conclude in a certain way. Yet, in its inelegance and lack of cleverness, this conclusion is not entirely satisfying, apparently, least of all to Tezuka.
Even if Mw's main narrative does cycle pass its own ending, something interesting does happen in the manga's conclusion. Rather than the main, mouth of the river, Yuki plot, the place to look for Tezuka's final stamp might be in a a run-off stream.
Osamu Tezuka has a "star system" of reoccurring characters. He treats these re-used designs as type cast actors. Yuki is not one of his "stars." This is not because he was wary of damaging the stand-by's of his tool-belt. As Tezuka in English points out, Yuki is not unlike Tezuka's fallback young egotist, Rock, nor are his crimes ones that Tezuka would hesitate to apply to Rock, who has been portrayed as a rapist, murder, organ thief and more. Garai looks a bit like other Tezuka characters, but two real stars make appearances. Both are more cartoonish than the harsh tight lines generally used in Mw. Brick nosed stalwart Chikara Aritake takes an unexpected walk-on role. But, Astro Boy's famous moustache bearing ally Shunsuke Ban (Daddy Walrus or Mustachio in the American versions) has a small, significant place in Mw. He's a worker, who makes a regular living, who has seen the benefits and the repercussions of the system. The revelation of Mw might be that Yuki's plot took this everyman who was willing to keep quite about the poison gas and battered him to the breaking point. Rather than making a statement about a master of disguise, rapist, extortionist, the point of Mw might be that it takes Shunsuke Ban to the critical junction where the ambiguous, slightly greedy observer is willing to throw down the gauntlet.
There are a lot of pronouncements around the periphery of the main actors in the manga's conclusion. Masses take to the streets in protest, the political machinery kicks into gear, and the specific, dumpy, middle aged man declares war on the traitorous government. If the chronicled past is a clue to the future, it's hard to imagine anything positive coming of it. All for naught would certainly be an ugly ending and that would be gekiga.
Ideologically, there is a lot more to appreciate about Mw than there is to endorse. Sadly, progressives get old too and the manga betrays Tezuka's age at the time of its creation.
Tezuka followers who are critical of his portrayal of female characters will find plenty of ammunition in Mw's excruciatingly plot accommodating women.
More specific to the work, protesters and counter culture appear with a "them" halo. Some anime/manga creators, Mamoru Oshii has to come to mind, project a kinship on radicals. If it isn't a "that is us" or "that's where our hearts are", the attitude is "that's where we were in our younger, pre-professional days". Mw thrusts one of these figures into a moving side-story that repudiates violence, but, generally, rather than anything layered, this crew could be walking out of an exploitation film and Garai could have been a smuggler in his younger days.
Maybe it's due to the harsh nature of Mw's narrative, but Tezuka's attempts to apply his humanist sentiments to homosexuals feel forced and unconvincing. It's as if he couldn't wrap his head around the situation except through fictional tableaus. Yuki's ability to seduce and sleep with anyone, really, creepily anything is more a function of his fractured psychology. For him, sexuality is more about achieving a goal or inflicting cruelty than it is about men and women, age, or any other aspect of his partner's identity.
Garai is clearly playing the role of the conflicted priest, pulled in opposite directions by his moral dedication and his physical lust. Maybe intimate moments between Garai and Yuki are slightly daring, but the priest angle is too familiar and Yuki's accentuated femininity feels like a mitigating factor.
There is a chapter that does take a political, social commentary approach to gay rights. It probably worked more effectively in serialization than it does in a collected volume. As it stands, the issue and the relevant character come and go in the span of the chapter. Read as a novel rather than a serial, the situation feels shoe-horned in. Again, the characters feel like players in a story and not real people.
Through Tezuka's body of work, he's dealt with issues of identity that didn't mirror his own. For example, Adolf presented a Jewish boy and a half Japanese, half German boy from the days leading up to World War II through to the ends of their lives. At every point, Tezuka established an empathy with the characters. The failing in Tezuka's handling of homosexual characters in Mw is that he works with them intellectually, scripting them as characters rather than developing them as people. Add a thirty year divide, and it becomes more time capsule than profound.
During last year's holidays, I gave out a few copies of Ode to Kirihito, another Tezuka gekiga manga collected by Vertical. I don't plan on repeating that this year with Mw. Not because of the charged subject matter for because Mw is "lesser Tezuka." The decision was because Mw, especially its deflated conclusion, provokes ambivalence. Throughout, Tezuka ran at the story like hurtle race. At the end, there was no long jump at the end, and no final twist. It provokes a "yeah, I see what you did there" both in terms of plot and statement.
If an inconclusive boxing match goes to a judges' decision, it might not be the fight to show to a casual or non-fan, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worthy of appreciation. If anything, Mw is just as remarkable for its flaws. Tezuka manga are invariably very author driven works. Consequently, there are few that aren't fascinating. There's a wizardry in how he invents, pulls in familiar elements from unexpected venues and integrates his own notions. Tezuka isn't just the "God of Manga" because he did a lot of it first . Nor is it not an inflated reputation. Few creators have been able to employ the medium with Tezuka's powerful effectiveness. For what Tezuka tries to work into Mw and for the chilling moments he creates Mw warrants a spot on any manga or comic fan's bookshelf.
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Dec. 5, 2007, 6:16 a.m. CST
What a relief....
Dec. 5, 2007, 6:53 a.m. CST
by Napolean Solo
Dec. 5, 2007, 7:03 a.m. CST
I should never have doubted your abilities. Swanky review of a swanky book, Scott. ^_^ Seriously, this was the best graphic novel I've read all year. And one of the best I've ever read.
Dec. 5, 2007, 3:43 p.m. CST
not for everyone, but then that might be good.
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