I feel as though I am condemned to write nothing but lamentations
for Osamu Tezuka whenever I read a new translation of one of his manga.
It’s heartbreaking to know that the man responsible for so many
brilliant productions has been dead almost twenty years now. Worse, in
lieu of seeing anything “new” by him, those of us in the
English-speaking world have to settle for catching up with his life’s
work as it’s gradually licensed and released here.
Phoenix was Tezuka’s self-described “life’s work”, a series of stories taking place throughout human history, all linked loosely together through the symbol of the phoenix — the undying bird whose blood can grant immortality. The series was incomplete when Tezuka died, but he had enough of it finished to give any reader a sense of the magnitude of what he was attempting. U2 has a song titled “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” — it’s playing as I type this — and that is more or less what Tezuka wanted to do with Phoenix. He was out to do nothing less than encompass the whole of human existence in its pages — what it means to come into the world, to live, to die, and maybe even to be reborn, both as an individual and as a species.
The Early Works volume is just that — a set of earlier stories that use some of the same concepts as Phoenix, but in a more closed-ended, linear way. Call it a dress rehearsal of sorts for Phoenix; a first-draft exploration of the territory, both for Tezuka and the reader. This actually might be the best place for an uninitiated reader to start with the whole cycle, since it eases you into the Phoenix universe in a way that’s still strongly accessible. If you like it, by all means pick up the other books; they don’t need to be read in any particular order, so that’s another reason you can start here without hesitation.
Phoenix opens in Heaven, where a fresh batch of souls are opting either for reincarnation or nirvana. Unbeknownst to God, the Phoenix has slipped from her cage and made her way down to earth — Egypt, during the time of the pharaohs. There, a slave girl named Daia becomes marked for death when she overhears word of an assassination plot — but her singing has the power to charm animals, including the tiger sent to devour her. That power comes in handy when she’s sent along with the crown prince of the realm to track down the phoenix so that its blood can be used to rejuvenate the dying king.
By the time Daia and the prince return with the phoenix in tow, though, the plans have completely changed. The prince wants Daia as her queen, but the powers that be refuse to let such a thing happen, and so she and the prince die in each other’s arms rather than let the phoenix fall into the wrong hands. But they are in fact not dead at all; they have new lives ahead of them in Greece (and, later on, Rome), with the phoenix passing on her powers to her progeny and rallying help from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s startling just how much story is compressed into a single volume; the events of the first arc alone could have filled a single standalone book in today’s manga. Over the course of the story, Daia and her man “die” and are “reborn” several times — a neat foreshadowing of similar things to come in Phoenix as a whole.
This iteration of Phoenix, written from 1954 through 1957, was originally commissioned for Shojo Club, a girl’s magazine that had featured another seminal Tezuka production, Princess Knight (also soon to be available in English from Viz). His original inspiration here was big-screen American epics like Land of the Pharaohs and Helen of Troy, but there are also strong hints of his other major influence — Walt Disney’s animated productions, especially in the chapters where talking animals figure into the plot. Don’t wince: Tezuka handles the concept better than Disney himself did, and makes even a hoary idea like that serve the greater needs of his story.
My only complaints: a) this volume’s a good deal shorter than many of the others in the series, and b) things end with dismaying suddenness, but perhaps that’s because Tezuka sensed there was so much more he could do with the idea, and went on to do exactly that.
Art: Tezuka’s earlier, relatively conventional works are somewhat less adventurous in their designs and concepts than his later and more experimental ones (e.g., Dororo). That doesn’t make them any the less excellent, though — even from early on he had a good command of his style. Here and there you can also see signs of the more ambitious things he’d attempt later in his career — there’s a wonderful set of transitions where different plot threads are seen as pictures hanging side-by-side on a wall. (Trivia note: apparently a young Leiji Matsumoto of Galaxy Express 999 fame was one of Tezuka’s art assistants during this period.)
Translation: I was surprised to discover that Tezuka’s estate is actually keen on the idea of having his work presented in the left-to-right format so that it might gain the broadest possible audience. In the past I’ve typically resisted “flopping” manga, if only because the results have been unimpressive, but digital technology and a greater sense of reverence for the material in general has made this sort of thing a lot less gruesome than it used to be. Phoenix in particular is nearly seamless in its retouch job — I didn’t feel like I was reading something that had been optically reversed. Effects have been relettered rather than annotated, though, but again it’s done so cleanly and efficiently that most people will never notice.
The Bottom Line: I have wanted to recommend at least one volume of Phoenix here at AMN for a long time now, and never quite got the chance. Let this serve as a blanket recommendation for the rest of Phoenix, too.