The worst sort of crime, it could be argued, is that which is committed thoughtlessly. It’s intent that makes a true criminal, which is why we have both manslaughter and murder. Such is the theory anyway, but I imagine those words add up to little more than cold comfort in the mind of a victim. The victim wants justice, not rationalizations about the nature of the criminal. All he knows is that he’s been wronged, and that things must be set a-right.
Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects gives us a character that embodies this dilemma: a woman who, at least at first, ostensibly doesn’t understand her criminal nature. Stealing, lying and betraying are not acts of evil, but simply the way she plays the game — the same game everyone else around her seems to be playing, and sometimes far more cruelly and efficiently than she herself plays it. If she doesn’t do this, she’s simply going to have her throat cut all the faster. It’s nothing personal, you see. It’s just business.
The woman is named Toshiko Tomura, and while still in her early twenties she’s racked up a slew of achievements, any one of which would be credential enough for someone twice her age. She’s won a prestigious literary prize for her short story (the title of which is shared by this book); she’s been the lead actress in a prominent theatrical troupe; and she’s won a design award for her graphic art. It seems almost too much for one person that young to be capable of.
And in a sense it is, for we learn the secret to Toshiko’s success is … learning by osmosis. Or, to be less diplomatic, imitation and plagiarism. That story she wrote, for instance: she read a former roomate’s notes for a story, wrote it and published it before she did — so how is it her fault that the other girl got so upset that she killed herself? Is it her fault that she was such a fast and devoted learner in the acting troupe she was in that she was soon surpassing her own mentors? Is it all indeed fraud, plagiarism, mere mimicry? Or is Toshiko just an uncannily good observer and learner, so much so that others have no choice but to be fearful and jealous of her prowess?
That’s where Human Insects starts with Toshiko, but it spirals outwards from there into a different story that only by degrees reveals itself to have deeper connections to the original premise. A journalist approaches Toshiko to find out her real story. He finds out a great deal — not least of all Toshiko’s bizarre home life, which owes more than a few things to Norman Bates’s in Psycho — but is killed for his trouble. The triggerman in that murder is also tied up with some powerful right-wing politicians who are planning an assassination; Toshiko turns the plan into the plot of her next story, which is conveniently published days before the actual killing takes place. Not because she wants to save the life of the man in question, mind you, but because that’s about the only power she has over these men. Soon she comes to the attention of an even more powerful, manipulative man — the head of a major steel conglomerate — and is forced to up her game even further. This is contrasted against one of her former lover’s attempts to find happiness, only to be ground up and spit out.
Tezuka is normally one of the most consistently compassionate and even-handed of manga authors, but here he seems to be forcing himself not to take sides this time around. A sensible tactic for a story with no real heroes: the “good” guys are weak, most everyone else is out for themselves, and the main character is only at the center by dint of being that much better at climbing over the bodies of others. Still, Tezuka’s other serious works feature at least some of this pulling-back. MW, for instance, but that had a very explicit polarity of good and evil between its two lead characters. This story is somewhat closer to Ayako, where we had one central character (again, female) who remains emotionally aloof from the very things she is most responsible for, and whose sexuality becomes both a weapon and a marker that sets her apart from the other characters. (At one point Toshiko seduces another woman to influence events in her favor, and by that point we know enough about her psychology to understand her sexual appetites have the last thing to do with it.)
It’s also similar to that book in how dehumanized so many of the characters are. The men of power that surround Toshiko — the anarchists, right-wingers, steel magnates and other manipulators — are uniformly unpleasant; the only men of sympathy are people like Toshiko’s former boyfriend the graphic designer, shown as a weakling, someone else she sucked dry without even trying. And Toshiko herself is not even so much portrayed sympathetically as she is a … I was going to say a bug on a card, because that fits all too neatly with the book’s taxonomic metaphors. But then again, perhaps in a story like this, sympathy or even empathy is not the point: we are simply here to bear witness to behavior. We weren’t really supposed to applaud Mersault in The Stranger or Alex in A Clockwork Orange or William Gaddis’s J.R., but observe them in their full dimension and let that speak for itself.
This is also not the first time Tezuka has given us a battle between male and female wiles, at least not in English. Swallowing the Earth, which I have to write about at some point, came out a while back (albeit in a very limited printing) and also dealt with the ways men and women battle each other. That book was dated in more ways than one — its view of both sex and race is now downright awkward — but it sported Tezuka’s trademark wide-gauge ambition: if he was going to fall on his face, at least he’d do it because he was trying to leap to the moon.
Insects suffers a bit from a make-it-up-as-you-go feeling. The latter half of the story feels only distantly inspired by earlier events, and the whole thing does have the flavor of having been kicked off with a burst of inspiration not automatically accompanied by the rest of the plot that was ultimately written. But most of that only shows up in retrospect, because when you’re reading it you’re not going to be thinking about anything except wondering what the hell happens next, which is just as it ought to be.