Most people think of an erotic story as something with explicit sex, or at least a great deal of skin. Apollo’s Song rarely shows anything more than a deep kiss (although it has plenty of skin) — but it’s one of the most profoundly erotic manga I’ve ever come across. It is not about sex alone, but love and lovelessness, and more importantly desire — about wanting to find that one other special person and melt into them and become one, whatever the cost or the challenge.
Books like this are why I read manga in the first place — to discover something as new and off the beaten path as possible, something that makes me want to rush out and collar all my friends and shout at them, “You must read this immediately!” Like Ode to Kirihito, another of Vertical, Inc.’s offerings from Tezuka’s back catalogue, Apollodefies easy comparison with other manga. It’s so fiercely and completely its own animal that I’m again tempted to tell people to just read it and catch up with me afterwards.
They called Tezuka the god of manga for many good reasons, and with each successive reissue of his work in English the evidence gets all the stronger. I doubt there’s any other one figure in manga who has created as many important and influential stories and characters — Astro-Boy, for one (or Tetsuwan Atomu, as he was originally called) — and who so aggressively pushed the envelope for the kinds of storytelling done through manga during his lifetime. He was unafraid to leap from birth to death, from the end of time to the beginning of the human race, all in the scope of one story, and make it all work. And then there was the sheer volume of his output: there was a Japanese bookstore in New York City, Asahiya, where one could find an entire floor-to-ceiling shelf dedicated to nothing but Tezuka’s works, the way an entire shelf in some English-language bookstores are dedicated to Shakespeare. Based on Apollo’s Song, and many of his other best works, the comparison isn’t wholly frivolous.
The first few pages of Apollo make it clear you’re dealing with a story of vaulting ambition. We see a cavern filled with hundreds of millions of men, all exactly alike, preparing to race towards their goal. No, they’re not men, but sperm — all struggling to see who will be first to mate with their queen (read: egg) and bring a new life into the world. It’s a classic example of how Tezuka fuses comic-book images and broad humor with real profundity. The image of two becoming one through a kiss also repeats endlessly through a book where the two who kiss will be torn apart again and again by fate.
Then the real story kicks in — that of Shogo, a teenage boy arrested for committing various acts of sadism against animals. All it takes is the sight of two birds necking to drive him into a frenzy. When the doctors probe him, they find he doesn’t hate animals so much as he hates mere expressions of affection. There’s never been love in his life, he declares, so why should anyone else have any fun? The doctors who have been trusted with his case give him electroshock therapy, and in the middle of his convulsions Shogo’s plunged into a fantasy involving a mysterious goddess-like figure. “Why do you disdain love?” she asks him — and with that Shogo’s ugly childhood is splayed out across the pages: how his father rejected him and his mother; how his mother entertained a succession of substitutes to no avail; how everything that the union of men and women represents fills him with disgust.
For this he must be punished, this goddess declares: he will love only one other in his lifetime, and across all the rest of his lifetimes to come (death and resurrection are themes rooted deeply into many of Tezuka’s stories), but he will always lose her. From there he plunges into one “reincarnation” fantasy after another: as a Nazi soldier during WWII, succumbing to affection for a prisoner; as a pilot, crash-landing on a deserted island with a women; as an assassin in the future instructed to kill a powerful queen with an army of clones. Sure enough, in each fantasy, he encounters the same woman — the same untouchable incarnation of love that he can’t have, no matter how hard he tries.
In between Shogo’s fantasies, a plot is unfolding in the real world — one where he escapes from the mental hospital where he was under observation and falls into the care of a woman who lives in the mountains. She, too, is the same woman from his dreams, and he realizes this with a shock: what does she want from him in his waking life? She claims to be a former marathon runner, and sees Shogo as having the potential to become one himself: a goal for himself, where before he had nothing of the kind.
Before long, Shogo’s shacking up at the cabin with her and putting himself through a brutal training regimen — either as a way to reach the goals she’s defined or perhaps as another self-elected punishment. And under and through it all, there are his fantasies, where he grows ever closer to her only to lose her again — until he finally has the chance to enact that drama of the subconscious in real life. He can try to have her, and maybe lose her, but he will never know until he tries.
What makes Apollo so hard to put out of mind is the way it knocks together many of the conceits we might bring to the story about love. We tell ourselves that a single moment of love can redeem a lifetime empty of love, but is it really true? It’s easy to say that if we’ve been there, but there are many who haven’t, and they can only look at the rest of us, shake their heads bitterly, and destroy. This is the story of someone who ended up at the bottom of the heap — or, as Harlan Ellison once put it so unforgettably in the title of one of his stories, The Beast who shouted Love at the Heart of the World. That could easily be a title for this book as well.
Art: Tezuka’s art style was deliberately patterned after the Disney movies he saw as a young man, and became the model for a great many other manga creators afterwards. It’s simple and instantly accessible, but every now and then he’ll put aside simplicity and pull out a full page or two-page spread that is staggering in its detail. If you’ve only been familiar with his art from, say, Astro-boy (or not at all), this is not a bad place to start.
Translation: Purists may grind their teeth a bit at the way Vertical chose to localizeApollo’s Song: it’s presented left-to-right, with effects completely retouched. Buddhawas presented in the same fashion, for the sake of making it as broadly marketable as possible, too, and I can’t completely fault them for making that decision: the best of Tezuka’s work deserve the broadest possible audience without stumbling blocks like reading right-to-left. That said, the flop-and-retouch job is pretty much seamless, and the translation by Camellia Nieh (who also did the excellent Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex novel translations) is about as transparent as it gets.
The Bottom Line: Tezuka’s work is about as essential and far-reaching as manga gets, and Apollo’s Song only adds that much more weight to an already massive reputation. Start here, and if you’re intrigued, Ode to Kirihito and Buddha also await you. There’s never been anything like Tezuka’s body of work, and there probably never will be again.