GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Ode to Kirihito
Osamu Tezuka is generally billed as “the godfather of Japanese comics,” which implies a capo di tutti capi and a whole network of manga-kas rubbing each other out that I’m not entirely comfortable with. But I think that means that the Japanese comics industry isn’t quite sure whether to call him a god or their father, so they split the difference. His position in Japan isn’t comparable to anyone in the US; it’s as if Siegel and Shuster, Will Eisner, and Walt Disney were all one person.
Tezuka was also apparently extremely prolific over that period; Wikipedia’s page about him claims that his collected works in Japan stretch to over 400 volumes, which collect less than half of the 170,000 pages he created in his lifetime. And that doesn’t count his extensive animation work, either – the man was amazingly prolific. Some of his work has been published here – particularly Astro Boy, his best-known creation in the English-speaking world – but most of it is still a mystery to those of us who read only English. Luckily, the current manga boom is bringing more and more of his work to our shores, so we can check it out, book by book, for ourselves.
Vertical is a small publishing house dedicated to English translations of Japanese novels and manga, usually with a very refined and exciting design sense. (That’s no surprise, since Chip Kidd, the foremost book designer of our age, is associated with Vertical.) Vertical have published several of Tezuka’s works in English – most notably the eight-volume Buddha series – and seem to be concentrating on his later, more literarily and artistically ambitious works. Vertical aims at general readers, not established manga fans, so their works are in larger formats than typical for manga collections, and are also photographically reversed to read from left-to-right, as Western readers are used to. Ode to Kirihito is a handsome trade paperback, with French flaps and a sliding panel on the front, to obscure one half of the cover art or the other; it’s also well-bound, so reading its immense bulk with a bit of care will leave the spine intact.
Ode to Kirihito is from the middle of Tezuka’s career; it was serialized in Biggu Komikku in 1970 and 1971 and published in book form soon afterward. It also apparently incorporates elements of the growing gekiga style of manga, which was somewhat analogous to the US underground movement of the same era and aimed to tell stories closer to the real world, aim them at adults, and experiment with storytelling techniques.
I’m being aggressively factual here, and avoiding talking about the plot, because Ode to Kirihito is one long, weird comic, and it’s difficult to talk about the story directly and coherently. It’s a medical thriller with a very large cast and a story that ranges across the length of Asia; it contains extensive nudity and violence; and it’s about a mysterious disease or syndrome that transforms humans into animal-like creatures. Neil Gaiman’s quote on the back cover nails it: “Ode to Kirihito is moving, tender, and engrossing. Also very, very odd.”
The central character is Kirihito Osanai, an up-and-coming doctor at a major university hospital who’s a major member of a team investigating Monmow Disease, and who clashes with his boss about the source of Monmow. He’s soon sent to the remote Japanese village that is the source of the disease, and then things start to get weird. He starts off as our viewpoint character, but he disappears for chapters at a time, as other people take their turn in the spotlight. The story goes on for twenty long chapters – the book as a whole is well over 800 pages – and plenty happens before the end. A number of major characters die, and others come down with Monmow Disease. Even odder things happen, as well, with human freak shows, mad rapist doctors, refugee villages, and a battle for leadership of Japan’s medical establishment before it’s all done. Explaining the story much more than that would give too much away, I’m afraid – this is a story with a lot of twists and turns, where events build on events, so I shouldn’t even tell you what happens on page 64.
Ode to Kirihito doesn’t fall into any regular comics genres in the US – not that we have very many of them, these days – and it seems to have been somewhat sui generis even in Japan. (Tezuka trained as a doctor, much like that other unique writer J.G. Ballard, and his training clearly influenced and informed this story.) It’s one part existential crisis, one part medical detective story, and several parts character-based drama. Whatever it is, it’s a fascinating combination, and an amazing example of what comics unfettered from restrictive genres can be. It will be a relative minority taste in the world of American comic shops, but it may find a larger audience among older manga readers and fans of modern or transgressive fiction.
As for myself…well, I’ve got Tezuka’s Apollo’s Song to look forward to. It’s from the same era, and it seems to be even stranger, if that’s possible.
Ode to Kirihito (Kirihito Sanka)
Vertical, 2007, $24.95
Artwork copyright Osamu Tezuka. All Rights Reserved.