Here’s something I could never have made up.
On the way back from A-KON this year, I dug out some of the manga I’d bought for the plane ride back home and started reading. One of the books was Buichi Terasawa’s Kabuto, a ninja fantasy with the same delirious flavor to its material as the live-action 1981 movie version of Flash Gordon. The second volume, though, sported a scene that somehow seemed terribly familiar: the hero Kabuto confronts a village magistrate in her bedchamber to allegedly “protect” her from a monster lurking outside … except the monster is right there with him — the magistrate transforms into a half-crab creature and prepares to devour Kabuto alive.
Where had I seen this before? I knew I had, and the question gnawed at me hard enough to make me ignore my complementary packet of pretzel sticks. It wasn’t until the plane touched ground that my synapses clicked, and once I was home I realized the Kabuto scene was an almost beat-for-beat replay of a climactic moment from the chapter “Kanekozo” in Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo #1. I would have cried “plagiarism!” if it wasn’t for the fact that Terasawa was, indeed, one of Tezuka’s protégées. And sure enough, there on the first page of Kabuto was this missive: Dedicated to a great hero, my giant master, Mr. Osamu Tezuka.
If there’s a single manga artist today that’s not somehow in Tezuka’s shadow, it’s Tezuka himself. The best proof of this is Tezuka’s own work, all something-hundred volumes of it — none available in anything but Japanese for the longest time, but now finally being published in English thanks to the good graces of folks like Viz, Dark Horse and Vertical, Inc. The first two publishers in that list have released Tezuka titles like Phoenix and Astro Boy, respectively, and approached them in much the same manner as the other comics or graphic novels in their line-ups, although with a bit more in the way of liner notes.
That’s a fine way to do it, but Vertical’s take on Tezuka’s body of work has been to publish it as literature, not “comics” or even “manga”. They’ve packaged many of Tezuka’s most ambitious works — Buddha, MW, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song — as potential New York Times bestseller material, along the lines of Art Spiegelman’sMaus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (itself translated from French). Vertical is to Tezuka what the Criterion Collection has been to Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Bresson and Ozu.
At first glance Dororo doesn’t seem like it belongs on the shelf next to those more “serious” books — it’s a rollicking samurai adventure about a young warrior pursued by demons and with prosthetics replacing forty-eight of his (missing) body parts. But appearances deceive. A man with no arms and no legs can become a warrior; the proud and noble may have deceit and greed in their veins and their marrow; and what only looks like an adventure story (although it sure is that!) has depths and insights that bring you back for multiple readings.
The first book gave us Hyakkimaru, he whose missing body parts were offered to the demons by his father as a sacrifice. The first time we see the poor kid, he’s about as independent as a lump of Floam, but after being equipped with prosthetics and a little real-world survival training, he’s able to pass for normal … up to a point. And as he strikes back against the demons who pursue him, one by one his body parts return. This turns the head of the urchin-thief Dororo, who adopts Hyakkimaru as a sidekick, boss, and substitute parent all in one. As fractious as their relationship is, under it all, they know they have no one else by their sides; for better or worse they forge on through misery and violence, unwanted everywhere and welcome nowhere.
Book two opens with a classic example of the sort of thing Tezuka does brilliantly all the time: a dramatic setup that also works as allegory. In “Banmon”, Hyakkimaru and Dororo stumble across what looks like the remnants of a giant fort, but it’s actually what’s left of a wall — a wall that divided a village during wartime, much as Berlin or Panmunjom were parceled up. Both Dororo and Hyakkimaru make discoveries about the true nature of the place in their own way, but it’s Hyakkimaru that has to face a particularly shattering revelation in the process. An arrogant young swordsman, Tahomaru, clashes violently with Hyakkimaru when the former prepares to lead the execution of peasant “spies” (whose worst crime was being caught on the wrong side of that wall). Only after Hyakkimaru kills the other man does he discover he has just slain his younger brother. Worse, the magistrate who profits by keeping the townspeople literally divided against themselves is his own biological father — the same man who sacrificed Hyakkimaru’s arms and legs and all the rest of it for the sake of a little worldly power.
Horrified as Hyakkimaru is, he has to continue, both for his own sake and Dororo’s. In that spirit, he goes after the nine-tailed fox demon that has tormented him with these revelations. It doesn’t help that despite the “border” being torn down and the two halves of the village unified, he and Dororo have no opportunity to stay and be revered as heroes — not with Hyakkimaru’s father after both of their heads, and Hyakkimaru himself despondent that the only possible connection he has to his family has been destroyed.
In “The Fair Fudo”, the two heroes are separated, with Dororo finding something like refuge with a woman who encourages him to call her “Mother” (even though, as you can imagine, Dororo’s not having any of that mushy stuff at first). She lives near a waterfall where various mountain monks and ascetics come to discipline themselves under the freezing downpour, but her real intentions are sinister: she kills them, gives their faces to a demon, and abandons the now-faceless corpses in a nearby cave. But even in the short time she has been caring for Dororo, she has come to think of him as her son, not just another sacrifice, and re-enacts the self-sacrificial behavior of Dororo’s own real mother without ever having known about it. Her selflessness also gives Hyakkimaru a chance to dive in and save his friend — but again, in one of the ongoing ironies of the story, they’re barely back together for five minutes before each is vowing up and down to go their separate ways.It’s then that another revelation, this time on Dororo’s part, emerges to secure the bond between them once and for all. Frustrated by Dororo’s reluctance to bathe, Hyakkimaru drags the urchin into the water and discover’s the boy’s back has a treasure map tattooed onto it — and not just any treasure map, either, but money Dororo’s own bandit-king father hoarded for the sake of the peasants he was hoping to make into his own army. This leads them into the concluding installments, “Sabame” and “Hell Screen”, where the two take refuge in an abandoned temple and find themselves the wards of a very strange, homunculi-esque baby (some baby — he’s about the size of a linebacker!).
They also intercede when a young couple leaves their child there — Dororo and Hyakkimaru know all too much about being abandoned — but the mother and father claim their intention is to allow the baby to be raised by Sister Jishoni, an abbess who is said to take in foundlings. But, again, things are not as they seem: the abbess is either a saint or a monster (shades of the Mother Theresa controversy), and the local lord’s life is turned upside down when he realizes his beloved wife is in fact one of Hyakkimaru’s demons. There’s more than a little of the spirit of Kurosawa’sRashomon (released a good ten years earlier) in this segment — not just in the gloomy setting of the ruined temple, but in the notion of how the truth of a given person or event can be frustratingly fluid. People are processes, not objects, despite our firmest wishes to see them as the latter. This is something our heroes recognize, but also a theme Tezuka himself embeds in nearly every aspect of the story.
Something I forgot to talk about the first time around is also prominent in the second book, and all the better for it: Tezuka’s use of the setting. He sets the action Japan’s early feudal years. roughly the same time period Kenji Mizoguchi used for Sansho the Bailiff, where imperious cruelty and oppression were the order of the day. Superstition, too — kind of hard to avoid that when demons go a-sporting across the pages — but Tezuka brings in those things in ways that are subtle as well as cinematic. It’s probably no coincidence that after killing the fox, Hyakkimaru regains his real nose. A common folk believe in Japan is that the spirit enters (and leaves) the body through the nostrils; by confronting this painful piece of personal history, he’s regained that much more of his soul. It’s also no mistake that each of Hyakkimaru’s regained body parts comes at the price of great personal suffering — not just the pain of having a new limb or organ grow in, but the conflict and the trauma that comes with each battle. Talk about your personal demons — here, they’re all too literal.
Art: Tezuka was quite plain about the debt he owed to Walt Disney throughout his career. The influence waxed and waned depending on what title he was working on — it’s a lot more prevalent here than it was in his more experimental work like MW orApollo’s Song. This isn’t a reflection on its quality, mind you: Tezuka’s art only looked simple because he didn’t put anything on the page that didn’t really need to be there, and because he knew how to pull out the stops and modulate his style for striking dramatic effect. He also used blocking and framing like the best of filmmakers — there’s a sequence in this volume which consists of several extremely wide, Panavision-like panels in a row, and I was reminded of how directors like David Lean and, yes, Akira Kurosawa did the same things with the broad gauge of a movie screen.
Translation: Vertical’s manga typically haven’t had as much fan-oriented material as, say, the Del Rey titles — not much in the way of bonus material or other goodies. The translations themselves, this one included, are typically excellent, though — colloquial and easy to read, and generally presented with minimal retouching. Some of the Tezuka books have been presented left-to-right (apparently at the insistence of the Tezuka estate, for the sake of wider marketability), but Dororo is in its original right-to-left format and features effects annotated on the page as well as the occasional bit of cultural marginalia. Volume two sports a nice bit of cross-promotion with another outstanding Vertical title, To Terra … (look for the anime Stateside soon as well!).
The Bottom Line: If everything I’ve written here isn’t a recommendation, then I’ll wonder how I failed. So here’s the short version: Tezuka is as essential, as insightful, and as rollickingly fun as manga gets. This is where it all came from, and maybe also where it’s all going.