GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Apollo’s Song
Like Ode to Kirihito, this is a major graphic novel by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and “godfather of manga,” translated and published in English by Vertical Publishing. I won’t repeat the background here, but you click to the earlier review if you like.
(I’ll just wait for you to get back.)
Apollo’s Song is from the same era as Ode to Kirihito – it was serialized in Shukan Shoen Kingu in 1970 (Kirihito ran during 70-71) – and has similar concerns and motifs, though it seems to be less aggressively counter-cultural than Kirihito was. There’s a strong medical drama element in Apollo, and even more mystical/religious ideas than in Kirihito, including an on-stage pagan goddess who I believe is meant to be taken as real.
Tezuka clearly doesn’t fear anyone’s scorn; Apollo opens with a ten-page sequence about impregnation from the point of view of sperm, characterized as a vast army of identical men, all seeking one woman, the ova. The story proper begins immediately afterward, as a boy – apparently meant to be about fifteen or so – is brought to a psychiatric hospital for treatment after having been caught attacking and killing animals. The boy, Shogo, explains that he is the unwanted son of a prostitute (or perhaps just a kept woman…kept by a long series of different men) who hates love, romance, and all manifestations of “tenderness.”
Shogo is forced to undergo electroshock therapy, and first meets the aforementioned goddess, and then is hurtled to the first of several different hallucinations, or alternate worlds. In all of those, he meets a woman – who looks the same each time – falls in love with her, to one degree or another, and loses her. The plot in the real world progresses as well, and each hallucination is triggered in a different way. The plot tends to move in circles, into and out of hallucinations, all in the service of either Shogo’s doctor, who wants to cure him, or the goddess, who wants to punish him for all eternity (by losing love just as he’s about to get it in each life) for the crime of spurning love.
The message of Apollo’s Song should be obvious – and familiar – by now: humans must love each other, and particularly bond sexually, men and women, to be happy. Failing to do so brings misery – although, in Apollo’s cosmology, that’s because there’s a vengeful goddess punishing people, which makes it somewhat less of a message. (“Find someone to love or else I’ll torture you forever” is perhaps more compelling, but less majestic, than “We must love each other or die.”) And, unfortunately, this is a message-heavy book, with clunky message dialogue to match. It’s always tricky to know who to blame for translated prose that grates on the ear – was it that bad in the original language, or did the translation make it worse? – but I suspect, even in Japanese, Apollo’s Song was a bit too much. Most of the time, that’s not an issue – when the characters are talking to each other like normal people, it’s fine – but when classical references raise their heads, or the theme moves into the foreground, you can hear the gears of Tezuka’s sublimity machine trying to shift into high, and not really succeeding.
Tezuka’s art is generally very good, and particularly expressive, but his simplified, animation-derived style occasionally caused problems for my eye. In particular, the fact that all of his attractive females look more or less alike made it more difficult for me to appreciate that Shogo is meeting the same woman over and over – I mostly tell Tezuka women apart by their hairstyles, and those were different. Other than that, I had no troubles with his character design or storytelling, and this volume is actually pretty wordy for manga – there are frequent action sequences, but not the five-page montage of wind blowing through grass that manga-haters seem to think all Japanese comics consist of.
Apollo’s Song isn’t as immense as Kirihito was, but it still clocks in at a very respectable 541 pages. I’d still recommend Kirihito more highly, and as a better place to start with Tezuka, but Apollo’s Song definitely has its strengths, and may be of particular interest to readers concerned with its philosophical issues. (Mostly men, I’d expect, since the women characters are secondary and seen from the outside.) And it certainly isn’t much like any indigenous American comics; we don’t see many sexy philosophical/spiritual medical dramas these days.
Apollo’s Song (Aporo No Uta)
Vertical, 2007, $19.95