The other day I was trying to describe to someone how both prolific and talented Osamu Tezuka was, and for lack of any better way to express it I said, “He left behind masterpieces as freely as a tree gave fruit.”
There would be no manga as we know it without Tezuka. The more of his work I read as it slowly appears in English-language editions, the more I’m convinced of this. It’s not just because of the visual style he developed — which in turn was inspired by Walt Disney’s designs — but because he produced a body of work that dwarfed almost anything else seen before or since, that almost everything he put his name to was at least good and often outstanding, and because he labored tirelessly to expand the envelope for what manga was about, what it could do and what it could encompass.
MW is the newest of those masterpieces to be translated into English, and like everything else with his name on it, you are cheating yourself out of one of the best graphic novels out right now if you don’t read it. That said, there is practically nothing to connect it with the rest of his work, apart from the name on the cover and maybe the art style. As with Apollo’s Song, there’s none of Tezuka’s trademark slapstick humor and in-jokery (which even manifested in the inherently serious Buddha); MW begins in darkness and just tunnels down and down. This may not sound like something you would willingly subject yourself to — I don’t subscribe to the “endurance test” theory of what makes something good — but Tezuka is such a strong storyteller, so determined to see his characters as fully human and gives us such a broad, Dickensian canvas of characters and happenstance that you get swept along anyway.
The monster at the center of MW's vortex is Michio Yuki, a highly paid and regarded bank employee by day, and blackmailer, murderer, bisexual rapist and all-around two-faced monster by night. Yuki may be the single vilest character Tezuka ever created — in fact, throughout all of manga, the only other character with the same capacity for unbridled, self-seeking amorality that comes immediately to mind is Griffith fromBerserk, but Tezuka put Yuki through his paces a good two decades earlier. And like Griffith, you can’t take your eyes off Yuki; he radiates the deadly confidence a wolf does right before he rips your throat open.
Yuki’s vileness is no secret. In the first chapter alone he uses the pretext of a kidnapping to make off with a suitcase full of cash and to commit two murders (it’s left open-ended as to which he enjoys more, the murders or the theft) — then uses his position at the bank to misdirect the police trace on the serial numbers for the money. The only person who knows Yuki’s black heart is Iwao Garai, a Catholic priest who also happens to be Yuki’s most frequently-chosen lover. Garai is tormented by guilt and indecision right from the start: Yuki has him wrapped around his finger, and could have him thrown in jail or excommunicated on a moment’s notice. The threat of falling out of favor with God (or at least the clergy) horrifies him far more than the prospect of jail, and so for the sake of preserving what little public dignity he has, he keeps his mouth shut and watches as Yuki embarks on one vile escapade after another. Yuki appears sweet and girlish in every frame (again, like Griffith), while Garai bears more than a superficial resemblance to another iconic manga character, Golgo 13, with his beetle brows and his Neanderthal features — but he couldn’t be further removed from Yuki morally.
Garai and Yuki have a tangled past, to put it mildly. There was a time when Garai wasn’t a man of the cloth, but one of a gang of delinquent wanderers, “The Crows,” who made their nest on an obscure little island somewhere in the Japanese archipelago. They harassed the locals, schemed on how to break into the local foreign military facility (attributed to “Nation X,” but there’s no secret that Tezuka means the United States), and made a prisoner out of a young boy who happened to stop by the island. The boy was Yuki, and after Garai realized he was attracted to this improbably handsome young man he seduced him. (Yuki is underage when this happens, which makes it one of the many potentially tasteless plot elements in MW that Tezuka handles with unexpected care.) The next morning, they found everyone else on the island dead — poisoned by the accidental release of a poison gas codenamed “MW” that was stored in the military base. Garai and Yuki escaped, but not before Yuki was also poisoned. Rather than die outright, however, the gas deranged Yuki, leaving him a creature without morality or conscience. “It is my penance to save him from his own demons,” Garai insists, but he may not have the opportunity to even save himself from his own.
Yuki’s one-man reign of terror expands to include the president of the bank where he works. The boss wants the books doctored to push one of their less well-off clients out a window, and Yuki is only too happy to comply — at the cost of the man’s own daughter, Miho. Yuki not only tricks Garai into killing the girl, but impersonates the girl for the sake of blackmailing her bereaved parents. Only gradually do we learn that Yuki’s extracurricular activities have a broader purpose: he’s connecting all the dots around the conspiracy of silence woven around MW by both Japan and “Nation X”. The people responsible for all of it still walk free, their consciences as clean as Yuki’s, and if he can’t get them to realize their guilt then he can at least erase them from the face of the earth. The fact that Yuki wants revenge makes him, paradoxically enough, all the more human in Garai’s eyes: who among us so badly wronged would not also feel that way? When Garai looks at Yuki, he doesn’t see the adult who rapes and kills and seduces and destroys; he sees the little boy he himself damaged all those years ago, before he embraced God and knew better.
We may despise Yuki thoroughly, but we, like his cohort Garai, are bound to find out what he’s going to do next, even if what he does is unwatchably despicable. At one point Yuki trains a dog to do away with a detective who’s cramping his style, and it’s made clear he and the dog are — to put it delicately — intimate. Later on, he extracts a confession by dangling his victim over a precipice and dropping lit matches into his face (and then, ultimately, into the man’s screaming mouth). There is literally nothing he won’t do, and that feeds back into what are revealed as his real motives for piercing the veil of silence about MW. He doesn’t want justice, or even revenge. He wants nothing short of apocalypse, and since Tezuka himself has been more than willing to go headfirst into oblivion and beyond to make his points (Phoenix did this many times), there is no guarantee that he will not do the same thing here.
Apart from the moral quandaries that Garai is trapped in (and that Yuki engineers), much of MW deals with the way political power works — how people obtain it, how it’s used to silence opposition and erase whole swaths of history, and how everyone (people, families, businesses, nations) all have skeletons in their closets. The more Yuki uncovers about how the MW massacre was sent into the “dustbin of history,” the more convinced he is that annihilation is the only legitimate response to such corruption. The climax that all this builds to borrows a few too many pages from the playbooks of action thrillers for my taste, but it doesn’t betray our trust and aims where it does for a reason. And then there’s those last couple of pages, where having already yanked the rug out from under us not merely once but several times, Tezuka finally just tears out the floor itself.
Art: I mentioned before that MW’s art is fairly atypical as far as Tezuka’s other works go. It is recognizably his — the designs of faces, the layouts of panels — but, again, there’s nothing cutesy or in-jokey here. Even the things that are ostensibly supposed to be cute are not: Yuki’s dog is drawn with jarringly ferocious detail, so much so that I almost jumped out of my chair when I turned the page. And on every page you can sense Tezuka’s genius eye at work, whether it’s in images as simple as the one where Yuki shoves his head through an opening to get a better look at his fate (excerpted for the cover) or a series of panels that pay shameless, explicit homage to Aubrey Beardsley, both in the art style and in the decadence of the goings-on within.
Translation: MW is the most recent of Vertical, Inc.’s ongoing project to bring as much of Tezuka’s most ambitious and adult works into English as possible. They’re not alone in their efforts, though: Dark Horse has been translating Astro-Boy (a great place to start with Tezuka, actually) and some of his other one-shot titles; Viz has been translating Phoenix, Tezuka’s “life’s work,” which remained incomplete at his death but is still more than worth immersing yourself in. Those releases, though, have been aimed more or less at manga fans. Vertical is trying to bring Tezuka to an audience that would normally never pick up a graphic novel. From what I can tell the effort is slowly paying off: the eight volumes of Buddha received accolades in everything from The New York Times to Newsweek.
Vertical has been retaining translator Camellia Nieh for their editions of Tezuka’s works. I first encountered her efficient and accurate translation style back when I was reading the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex tie-in books (reviewed earlier at AMN). She did yeoman work for them for Tezuka’s Buddha, Kirihito and Apollo’s Songas well, and her work here is every bit as skillful and undistracting. Bear in mind that all of Vertical’s Tezuka editions to date have been rendered in left-to-right format, but given that they are trying to bring Tezuka to the broadest possible audience this is a wise move, and I only spotted one or two extremely minor instances where the flopping created any kind of problem. Sound effects have been reworked directly on the page as well, with the same degree of care.
The Bottom Line: It’s sometimes fashionable to call a book “disturbing” as shorthand praise for it. MW is disturbing for a whole catalog of reasons, but I’ll cite three of the best. It makes you wonder what else of Tezuka’s brilliant work still remains untranslated; it deals with a litany of questions about the way incompetence and flat-out evil are buried, ignored or paved over in our world, often with our own complicity; and it’s one hell of a good story, a story about a man so vile that the devil himself seems to be jealous of his handiwork.