Osamu Tezuka is routinely called “the god of manga”, not just because of the sheer size of his lifetime output but its breadth and depth. He drew hundreds of thousands of pages in his lifetime, and did everything from simple children’s stories (Unico) to cosmic odysseys that spanned millennia and civilizations (Phoenix, Buddha). At one Japanese bookstore in New York City, an entire shelf over six feet high and three feet wide was packed top-to-bottom with nothing but his work—in very small volumes—the vast majority of which has never been published in any other language except Japanese. Imagine if all of Walt Disney’s work—not just the movies but everything else that took inspiration from all his creations—had never been seen outside the United States, or even outside of California, until decades after his death. The hole left behind would be about as big.
Now, gradually and to great acclaim, Tezuka’s work is being released in English thanks to the efforts of a number of different publishers, and people are discovering decades after the fact that Japan had a talent who not only took his inspiration from Disney himself but whose work was a whole order of magnitude more ambitious. He was not simply telling stories about friendship and adventure, but morality and humanity, life and death itself. He played for keeps.
Ode to Kirihito is one of Tezuka’s most unabashedly bizarre and Gothic stories, somewhere between the medical mysteries of Black Jack and the gut-wrenching moral quandaries of Phoenix and Buddha. And like the life’s work of its creator, it encompasses a dizzying number of subjects: the ethics of medicine and the dilemmas of scientific study; the dignity of the individual and the demands of civilization; prejudice and hate and love. More than all of those things, though, it’s a headlong rush of a story that is compulsively readable from end to end. I started reading it at 11:30 one night and only paused, a few hours later, when my eyes simply couldn’t follow the pages any longer. I’m not sure higher praise is possible.
Ode spins together several parallel plotlines all revolving around a mysterious disease called Monmow. Its victims become horribly deformed, their features devolving into something like a fox or a ferret—possibly a shadow of one of our own biological ancestors. A young doctor, the Kirihito of the title, makes a journey to a remote mountain village to track down what he believes to be an important clue about the disease’s origins. There he is tricked into staying by the mayor, and even ends up in an impromptu marriage with Tazu, a local girl. Not long after that he contracts Monmow disease, and after suffering the ravages of its symptoms he discovers that his colleagues have conspired to have his career destroyed. And after Tazu is murdered, he is kidnapped and sold off to a Taiwanese crime lord as a human plaything.
This is barely the first quarter of the story, which spans continents and plunges fearlessly into one dramatic upheaval after another. Other characters swim out of the whirpool of the plot: Kirihito’s senior, the fiercely ambitious Dr. Tatsugara, who pins his career and his future on the certainty that Monmow is a contagios illness; Dr. Urabe, Kirihito’s colleague, who begins as a rapist and a liar and plunges down from there through one circle of hell after another; Reika, one of Kirihito’s fellow slaves, a dancer with a very peculiar Cirque du Soleil-style performance (it involves her being deep-fried in batter and emerging whole) and a gruesome fetish for her fellow freaks; Helen, a nun and a Monmow victim who becomes doubly cloistered after her illness, and has to find a dignity all her own in forgiveness and charity much as Kirihito himself does through violence and revenge against those who have wronged him.
One consistent theme through most of Tezuka’s stories is empathy for everyone involved. The people who would nominally be the bad guys in Ode are seen as misguided and wretched, but not evil. His handling of Urabe, in particular, is striking: here is a character who is unsavory at best, but Tezuka digs into his all-consuming compulsions and guilt—which he in turn channels back into his obsessive quest to continue Kirihito’s discontinued work, and to find absolution for his evil through Helen. What amazes him most is that anyone is willing to forgive him at all, or that forgiveness is even possible in the world. Likewise, Kirihito plunges to the bottom, not only because of his deformed face (although he’s actually not that ugly, just odd-looking), but when he loses faith in his abilities as a doctor. Doctors are far from superhuman—they have biases and commit errors in judgment and morality, as when Helen is paraded about by Tatsugara in the name of “medicine” but really for the aggrandizement of Tatsugara’s own career.
The symptoms of Monmow disease brought something immediately back to mind which Tezuka himself touches on (however briefly) at one point in the story. Ode was written in the early Seventies, during which time the world became aware of the horrific ravages of a industrial mercury poisoning on a number of Japanese. Minamata disease, as it was called, had its gruesome symptoms most strikingly immortalized for history not in any medical report but in a photograph by W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko Uemura in her Bath. The sight of the girl’s twisted, sticklike arms and bulging eyes brought attention to the illness and its victims, and after Tomoko’s death Smith’s estate returned the copyright over the image to the Uemara family. The picture has since been withdrawn from public circulation, but such is the impact of an image—and in the same way, Tezuka’s graphic novel is about the way people the world over avert their faces from the sight of someone less than human. Whether the culprit is a disease of body, mind, morality or economy does not matter, he seems to be saying; what matters most is that we see past the face and find the spirit, the way Tazu does with Kirihito.
Tezuka was trained as a doctor before turning to comics, something that explicitly influenced Black Jack but turns up from time to time in his other works as well. Here, his savvy of medicine not only as a scientific discipline but as a business and—as many other endeavors in life are—an arena in which the egocentric and the arrogant assert power over each other. His art style is slightly more restrained here than it was in many of his other works, even Phoenix—there’s less comical double-taking—but it’s unmistakably his, even when it plunges into the surreal excess he uses to communicate an emotional point such as Urabe’s inner turmoil.
Ode is not perfect; some of the plot developments are even outlandish by Gothic standards. But as overheated as they are, they remain true to the story’s themes, and as a whole the story is unmistakably of a piece. In fact, that Ode succeeds as well as it does despite its flaws makes it all the more interesting. It’s always better to see something that sticks its neck out this far and occasionally stumbles rather than something that continually plays it safe. The most startling thing about Ode is how it represents only one fraction of the total output of this man’s career, when it covers more territory in itself than most artists cover in their lifetime.xcap=Kirihito argues with Helen about the choices she has
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