One Hundred Tales by Osamu Tezuka

It’s tough to be a fan of someone when you’re not quite sure what aspect of their work you’re a fan of. I read a big bunch of Osamu Tezuka books, mostly published by Vertical, more than a decade ago – MW, Ayako , Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, a few others – and liked them all a lot. They were smart, sophisticated, serious books for adults, with a striking depth of expression and focused imaginative power.

Vertical might have published everything Tezuka did in that vein; I really don’t know. But I haven’t seen anything else similar from Tezuka in my scattered reading since then. The latest attempt was One Hundred Tales , originally published in Shonen Jump magazine in installments in 1971 under the title Hyaku Monogatari and translated by Iyasu Adair Nagata for this 2023 Ablaze edition. (It was part of a series called “Lion Books” that some awkwardly-worded backmatter in the this book attempts to explain, but doesn’t do a great job of – they don’t seem to have been “books” in the first place, but multiple-segment manga stories published in SJ; the narrative slides from talking about this series to other manga projects to anime projects without a whole lot of clarity; and there’s no explanation of what “Lion” is meant to mean in this context.)

Tales is, I think, part of the main flow of Tezuka’s career, the huge flood of stories mostly for teen (and younger) boys that he created for so long at such volume. There are elements that resonate with adults, but it’s mostly an adventure story with minor pretentions of philosophical depth, with the usual random Tezuka comic relief and contemporary cultural references thrown in willy-nilly.

The title makes it sound like a retelling of the Arabian Nights, but it’s actually a loose retelling of Faust, set in a vaguely historical-fantasy Japanese setting. The main character is a mousy accountant/samurai (shades of “Office? Submarine!” ), Ichiru Hanri, sentenced to commit ritual suicide for his very minor role in a coup plot against his feudal lord. He doesn’t want to die, and offers his soul if he can survive – so a demon (yokai, more accurately) in the form of a beautiful woman, Sudama, offers to buy his soul in exchange for three wishes.

Ichiru wishes to live his life over again, to have the most beautiful woman in the world, and to rule his own country and castle. And so the episodic story moves forward – first Sudama makes Ichiru young and handsome, then he visits (in his new face and under an assumed name) his horrible wife and lovely young daughter, then he chases his choice for most beautiful woman (Tamano no Mae, a powerful yokai) with no good result, then has the requisite training montage to become a stronger and better sword-fighter, and finally spends the back half of the story working for another minor feudal lord, massively enriching that lord and then overthrowing him.

It’s all pretty zig-zag. It does add up to a coherent story, but it only maps to the wishes fairly loosely. Sudama is also vastly more “helpful attractive supernatural woman” than she is “powerful scary demon” – the Faust parallels are mostly superficial, and drop away for the required happy ending.

Tezuka was an energetic cartoonist – sometimes too much so, to my eye, since this book starts off with Ichiru in full comic-relief mode, all goofy panic and silly faces, and the tide of comic relief comes in several more times as the book goes on. But, if you think of this as an adventure story made very quickly for publication in a massive weekly comics magazine for boys – which is exactly what it is – it’s admirable and pretty accomplished in that context.

Whether that context is enough to overcome the negatives is up to every reader to decide. Tezuka is a world-renowned creator of stories in comics form, but his standard mode is very idiosyncratic and very tied to the specifics of the Japanese market and audience at the time.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.