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AICN Anime - A Preview of Osamu Tezuka's Opus Ode to Kirihito

Logo handmade by Bannister Column by Scott Green

Ode to Kirihito By Osamu Tezuka An 820 page manga collection, to be released by Vertical for $24.95 October 24, 2006

If religion can be thought of as a model for explaining the human condition, Ode to Kirihito can be thought of as a religious dialogue. "Kirihito" is a play on the Japanese pronunciation of "Christ."  In this work, Osamu Tezuka's humanism is channeled in such a way as to capture the spirit of religion rather than the dogma.  The manga appears to be an act of Tezuka attempting,through his characters, to reconcile a world full of tragedies where, at every turn, redemption sours.  While not a Christian manga, untied to faith, the work does use the power of the Christ image as a foundation for the manga's encounter with suffering. Setting aside the content of Ode to Kirihito for a moment to discuss Tezuka's significance as a creator, please put religion out of your mind as Tezuka's moniker is discussed. When Osamu Tezuka is referred to as the "God of Manga", it is a statement of reverence, but the tone is likely to be that of fact.  It's not an idea that needs to be pushed emphatically.  Simply put, Tezuka set the template for the field of Japanese comics to a degree surpassed or equaled by few other creators in any given medium. It might be far too soon and maybe too hyperbolic to invoke "Shakespeare", but in terms of range and invention of a language, comparisons can be made. Beyond his best known, widely marketed creations such as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, Tezuka created hundreds of works of manga (a list can be found here, ranging from an adaptation of Crime and Punishment to loosely inspired manga takes on The Lost World and Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Princess Knight, a fairy tale adventure whose exploration of gender identity introduced many of the tropes for girl's shoujo manga to violent supernatural samurai allegory Dororo to Black Jack, a maverick doctor's adventure that leveraged Tezuka's own medical degree to depict detailed surgical operations.   While Tezuka's career was marked by a volume of output which could be compared to that of a key board pounding pulp novelist, he was inventing a form. Tezuka took what was an emerging publishing industry and expanded its content to hold the messages he desired to convey and explore the ideas he had in mind.  The foundation for his storytelling was simple, clearly recognizable shapes.  The influence of classic Disney on Tezuka's stye is widely commented upon, but the approach is similar to that a comic strips or political cartoons.  It's the visual equivalent of conciseness: simple figures whose identity and disposition can be ascertained at a glance.  As the use in political cartoons may indicate, while this obvious simplicity does lend itself to works for young audiences, and while it does carry the connotations of children oriented work, it can be used to capture and distill complex ideas.  Many, but far from all, of Tezuka's works are aimed at younger audiences. In those cases he speaks to his readers without shielding them from the realities of the world.  An Astro Boy story (volume 6 of Dark Horse's release) features the robot boy from the future stranded in time during the American-Vietnamese war.  After telling a new born baby "grow healthy and strong... don't let the war stop you!" Astro Boy uses his last energy reserves defending the adopted village from the American advance.  After his body goes lifeless, the villagers perform a funeral. Then, the bombers return, killing everyone in the village. Even Tezuka's work as a creator of popular entertainment remained relevant and engaged. When he spoke to an audience, young or old, the manga was a vehicle for implications beyond the depicted events. Tezuka's body of work is timeless and stands at the zenith of the great works of manga, but there are specific selections that transcend genre and the ephemeral nature of most manga publication to establish the form's higher literature.  Phoenix, his self-assessed life's work, which explores the patterns of human existence, alternating between moving backwards and forwards in time, is one of these works.  Buddha, his fictionalized account of Siddhartha Gautama's life and awakening is another. As is Ode to Kirihito. Ode to Kirihito is one of Tezuka's works in the gekiga tradition.  Gekiga, which translates to "dramatic pictures" (manga translates to "irresponsible pictures"), was a movement that sought to engage the world on adult terms.  In that sense, the maturity of Ode to Kirihito's vision and mode of its characters' actions firmly stands as part of the gekiga style. While gekiga has a tendency towards naturalism, Ode to Kirihito uses that current as a baseline for allegory and a more flexible mode of conveying ideas. The odyssey than transpires grafts together a spiritual trial with a medical thriller.  It opens in the isolation ward of a prestigious hospital.  The staff have come to see a man whose affliction with Monmow Disease has twisted his skeleton, giving his face the features of a canine.  Director Tatsugaura of the First Department Of Internal Medicine, an ambitious man about to launch a campaign for the presidency of the Japanese Medical Association meets with Kirihito Osanai, a brilliant young doctor and Osanai's less sharp, but hungrier partner Dr. Urabe.  Director Tatsugaura insists that Monmow is caused by a contagious viral infection.  Dr Osanai insists that there is no evidence; that Monmow could be caused by a toxin.  Osanai agrees to leave his fiance and spend a month researching Monmow in Doggoddale, an isolated area on Shikoku Island where over two hundred cases of the disease have been recorded.  Disease and deformity mark a point where nature and society conspire to ostracize the suffering. In Kirihito, Tezuka uses this stigma to demonstrate the human capacity for dehumanizing members of their own species.  Whether it is race or other social divides, the orthodox establishment links the disease to existing divisions, and use its supposed contagiousness as a reason for enforcing separations.  In the wake of this mentality, the Monmow afflicted are treated like monsters or objects. Ode to Kirihito's tribulations take its actors across 3 continents,  witnessing numerous cultures and reaction in the process.  In the scramble to survive and explain the disease, there is a struggle to make peace with the world,  or at least establish a framework through which events are manageable.  Whether is to set affairs in order through revenge or prove one's  humanity by saving a life, the aim or outcome is thwarted by reality.  The difference between Ode to Kirihito and Tezuka's works like  Adolf or Phoenix, and perhaps what makes Ode to Kirihito a gekiga work, is that is dealing with formed people.  These characters are not young or easily adaptable.  The world acts on them and they respond by looking for answers, not by metamorphosing. The Osanai at the conclusion of the work is not the Osanai that argued with  Director Tatsugaura in the first chapter, but he's not radically different either.  Unlike other Tezuka works, the process produces change more akin to weathered rock than molded clay. Though many, or even most, of Tezuka's stories are platforms for broad heroes and villains, he shades these personalities with details that cast them in a human, gray light.  In Phoenix, a cycle of reincarnation, this is emphasized with the Gao/Saruta template, a brutish man whose crimes are marked on his ogre-like appearance, who never the less finds a sad enlightenment. For example, in the "Karma" chapter of Phoenix, Gao was a peasant who lost an arm shortly after birth.  Shunned and ultimately cast out by his village as a boy, he became a bandit and child killer.  Gao finally broke down after realizing a woman he killed had loved him because he had treated her gently in her previous life. Sentenced to work for a Buddhist monk, Gao began channeling himself into carving his rage into the faces of wooden statues. Despite the loathsomeness of his crimes, Gao is an enduringly sympathetic character whose struggles clearly lead to his enlightenment. Ode to Kirihito characters are not packaged in this even, round manner. Partially because Ode to Kirihito's character arcs are not built with the same dynamic strokes, it is even more vehement in its denial of virtue-vice ledger sheet character accounting.  Tezuka artfully lays out the history and ambitions that allows the reader to understand the motivations of even the most repugnant characters.  These circumstances are not design to create moral justifications and Tezuka is not working with a field of pitiable villains and  flawed heros.  The tone and suffering promotes understanding rather than sympathizing.  Ultimately, despite the degree of suffering caused, the motivations are never grand.  The events of the work are launched by a root cause that is so inside-politics, like China Town it is bewildering for outsider to see what is done for the small  advance from one peak to a slightly higher peak.  Someone with plenty of prestige, wealth and comfort grasping at a bit more.  That this is convincing makes it more upsetting. There are no players in the events of Ode to Kirihito who are or who becomes heros or saints.  Some do more net damage than others.  Some are able to bridge the divides that separate people. Some promote those divides.  A telling indication is that the story's final, if not recrimination, self imprisonment is concerned with someone who was not party to the epic's crimes, just a character who was inflexible.  The kind of act that you, your family or your neighbor might be guilty of.  Within Ode to Kirihito, religion does not act as a sole or direct mechanism for explaining human suffering.  However, the work is not designed to critique the subject or matters of faith. If there is a faith that comes under scrutiny, it is medicine.  Ode to Kirihito does not attack the pure science of medicine, but it does scrutinize the human process surrounding it.  The events dispel its doctors' arrogant belief that they are demigods with command and control over the world around them.  Christ stands as a metaphor for persevering through suffering and being unbowed by judgments.  This vision is not the answer presented for reconciling the troubles of the world.  It is an element of the complex outlook that characters like Osanai laboriously construct.  The reductionist answer would be to label the Ode to Kirihito and beautiful and painful call for a belief in human dignity. The clinching factor that makes this human allegory a masterpiece is Tezuka's masterful application of the comic medium and the manga form specifically.  While not every manga is black and white, the majority is.  That Kirihito is in black and white aids Tezuka in leveraging the flexible vision of manga.  He is able to seamlessly shift the model of storytelling from theatrical spot-light lit speeches, to noir cinematic work of shadows, to abstract expressionism to the kind of straight forward character close up that is thought of as typical comic presentation.  He also calls upon visual allusion, replacing characters with appropriated forms from the world of sculpture.   And he bends the rules of the comic medium.  A vision of Christ carrying the cross proceeds reverently through a page undivided by panel borders.  Kirihito Osanai's vision of his reunion with Tatsugaura is presented in an uneven fracture of a compound eye view, with each panel closing in as a real Osanai and an imagined Tatsugaura turn to each other to lock eyes. Within a span of pages, the packed auditorium of a medical conference is constantly recast to capture the tenor of the audience. It is depicted as straight forms, ordered lines of faces human shapes, a crammed, disorganized block of slightly Al Hirschfeld-ish caricatures, a grid of disembodied eyes, and finally parallel sketched expressions of shock.  One page captures Urabe's travels to a remote village.  The inter-island plane trip, the taxi ride through the mountain roads and a stop to ask for directions are all captured in lush photo realism.  The simplified but harshly depicted Urabe comes to a man whose family has been producing tonic water for 300 year, and the out of time yokel is depicted in a cubist jumble.  The even tones of black and white impose a sense of constancy on these fluid images. What could be dream like or surreal is held in check.  Rather than translating to a freeform stream, the irrationalness becomes a precise feed of the right images in the right presentation to capture an exact, immediately discernible idea. Working with sequences of images whose exact pacing is imposed by the reader, comics may be a symbolic rather than literal medium.   Tezuka has created works whose shift of visual presentation creates jarring transition that take the reader out the moment.  Certain works from the Phoenix cycle interject gag comedy into scenes of high drama, throwing cold water on the proceedings.  That is not the case with Ode to Kirihito.  In Ode to Kirihito, Tezuka appears to be speaking to the human brain in its own language. 
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