Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tezuka's Dark Masterpieces

I recently stumbled upon this great article about two of Osamu Tezuka's darker, more adult works of manga, Apollo's Song and MW. It's a great introduction to who Tezuka was and to the nature of these mature stories, which have now become available in English.

The article is from last year and for some reason has only now popped up on my radar, so it's a little outdated. No matter because the information within it is a great read.

Check out "Dark Masterpieces: Classic Works by Tezuka Now Emerge in English" on or click the link below to read an archived version.

Dark Masterpieces: Classic Works by Tezuka Now Emerge in English

Osamu Tezuka played such a central role in Japanese comic books (manga) and animation (anime) that he is often called the Asian Walt Disney. Tezuka himself cited "Bambi" and other Disney works as inspiration, while his most famous creation, "Astro Boy" (1952-68), bears an uncanny resemblance to Mickey Mouse.

Fair enough. But if you pick up either "MW" or "Apollo's Song," both among this year's Eisner Award nominees, don't expect "Snow White" or "Little Mermaid" with a Japanese accent.

Instead, expect a revelation. Read separately or together, these graphic novels make a case for Tezuka as Disney's superior in producing page-turners that are also provocative morality tales.

Tezuka (1928-1989) died almost 20 years ago, but the bulk of this prolific artist's work has yet to be translated into English. His dozens of manga series ran the gamut from science fiction to historical epics, from works aimed at children to the risque "Cleopatra: Queen of Sex." His eight-volume "Buddha" is a triumphant master class in how to weave religious themes into a suspenseful, fast-moving biography. He could be a man of his times in the worst ways: The "African" characters in his early works are embarrassments — and in the best: His World War II childhood informs the five-volume "Adolf," a fierce critique of Japan in the 1930s and '40s.

But Tezuka could also be ahead of his time, as we see in "MW," written between 1976 and 1978, but only now published in English translation. Father Garai is a Tokyo-based Catholic priest with a male lover, Michio Yuki, a bank executive who moonlights as a mass murderer. Garai is guilt-stricken about betraying his vows of celibacy — but even more by his inability to halt his lover's crimes, which may be rooted in nerve damage caused when both men were exposed to a chemical weapon, MW.

"MW" is as melodramatic as a soap opera, but one told with Dickensian sweep. Chapters delve into office intrigue, party politics, Shinto ceremonies, Catholic theology and love affairs, both straight and gay. Garai, wavering between duty and desire, is a complex character, at once frustrating and sympathetic.

While Tezuka is often lauded for his universalism, "MW" also reflects the resurgent nationalism that led many to question Japan's subservience to the United States.
The chemical weapon of the title is stockpiled on Japanese soil by Nation X "to inflict mass casualties in Vietnam and Laos." At the story's climax, Yuki steals MW and hijacks a jet, intending to kill millions. Police track Yuki to Nation X's Japanese base, but are turned away by a general whose uniform looks suspiciously American.

"Forget it!" the general snarls. "The base is our jurisdiction! I can't let you enter!"

"Where's our sovereignty!" cries a Japanese detective.

While not as radical in its plot line or politics, "Apollo's Song" will never inspire a Disneyland ride. The book begins with millions of anthropomorphic sperm racing to reach "the queen." This 1970 work is about the long odds against perfect love — and the never-ending quest for the ideal partner.

The son of a bar girl and one of her casual liaisons, Shogo Chikaishi is a sadist who delights in tormenting couples. In a dream, a goddess reveals that Shogo will lose his heart to a woman, but death will prevent the consummation of their love — a fate they will suffer over and over, as they are reincarnated through the ages.

Shogo and his beloved, Hiromi, meet in a Nazi concentration camp. They are castaways on a remote island in present-day Tokyo, and in the not-too-distant future. When Shogo insists he cannot continue loving and losing, the goddess' words reveal that Tezuka sees his doomed characters as bittersweet stand-ins for all of us.

"Thou shalt see her again soon. In every era, in every world, she shall await you."

Vertical is the latest American publisher to sample Tezuka's wares (Dark Horse and Viz are other members in this fraternity). These are handsome editions, most featuring covers designed by Chip Kidd, a graphics guru for books. Earlier this year, Vertical expanded its Tezuka offerings with the first two volumes of "Dororo," a samurai-and-sorcery tale. The final "Dororo" is due next month, while "Black Jack," tales about a renegade doctor, will begin appearing in September.

Tezuka's work has some dated touches, and this may prevent "MW" or "Apollo's Song" from winning Eisners. But for crafting entertaining tales with strong, adult plots and characters, he deserves (and seems to have won) the ultimate prize: an enduring readership.

To find out more about Peter Rowe and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at