Tuesday, August 30, 2011

MANGA REVIEW: THE BOOK OF HUMAN INSECTS by Osamu Tezuka (2011)


The Book of Human Insects
by Osamu Tezuka

Originally published in serial form in Japanese in Play Comic, 1970-1971
English Translation by Mari Morimoto, 2011
Published by Vertical, Inc.

How does one survive in a corrupt world? Does one meet corruption with integrity and honesty? Do you resist the sources of corruption--government, corporations, big media, organized crime, the family, religious institutions, power brokers, violent political extremists--and if so, how does one resist? If the corruption of the world is pervasive, who can you trust? Maybe a few close friends. If the corruption of the world is total, then you can only trust yourself.

If you can only depend on yourself, then you better be tough, smart, and resourceful. Ethics are strictly optional, to be used only as they can give you an advantage in a given situation. That is to say, only do the right thing if it's to your advantage. Do the right thing if it'll elevate you in the eyes of those whom you would seek to manipulate to your advantage. Even in a world of absolute corruption, appearances are everything. People still have their vanity even in the absence of ethics. No one, even at their most dishonest and self-serving, truly thinks of themselves as evil. Sure, they might have some guilt, but nothing they can't live with, nothing they can't explain away, and anyways they were just doing what had to be done.

Massive wars have been perpetrated on the basis of lies, delusions, and self-serving rationales. If those that wage wars of folly can sleep at night, publish bestselling memoirs, and collect generous speaker's fees to cultivate more lies and more folly in the hearts and minds of the next generation of highly placed perpetrators . . . well, why shouldn't everybody have a piece of the game? What's a little graft, a little theft, a little murder now and again? Didn't some villain with a British accent in some movie say, "Kill a dozen people, you're a murderer. Kill a million, you're a conqueror?" And didn't someone else, maybe a grand philosopher, say, "Nature is organized murder?" Surely, as biological entities, we are all a part of nature.

The Book of Human Insects is about a person uniquely suited to survival in a totally corrupt world, a young woman named Toshiko Tomura. She's an acclaimed novelist, actress, and graphic designer. She's also a woman in a man's world, Japan in the 1970s. You would think she would be a role model to the young women and girls of Japan, a feminist icon of achievement and empowerment. Maybe she is, but she's an icon with a lot of baggage if that's the case.

You see, Tomura has a preternatural ability for mimicking her fellow human beings and absorbing their talents. All she has to do is spend time with someone, say they're an actor, and observe what they do in minute detail. Tomura goes to rehearsals, studies the script, and learns the lines. She starts out as the understudy, but soon she's the star. Well, that's not so unusual in the world of theatre.

But after she conquers the world of theatre, Tomura has fantasies of becoming a great novelist. So she latches onto an up-and-coming female novelist, finds out what she's researching, and then studies the same research materials. Tomura gets her novel to press before the up-and-comer can do so, and bingo. Tomura's an award-winning novelist.

The up-and-comer hangs herself in a hotel room. Call it collateral damage. Hey, life is struggle. Life is war. War isn't about making nice with the enemy. War is what George C. Scott talked about in the beginning of that movie Patton. The speech in front of the flag. Youtube it. It's about slaughtering the enemy. And not getting all broken up about it on the inside. You do your murder, and you move on to the next battle.

And so Tomura progresses through society, seeking out unwitting role models to mimic so that she can absorb their talents and co-opt their would-be success and achievement. Along the way, she meets others who are more like predators than mimics: an anarchist terrorist for hire, a right-wing yakuza who's a behind-the-scenes fixer, a corporate executive who would no doubt dig dropping sake bombs with the Goldman Sachs and Enron crowds, and others, all of whom have trouble seeing the moral forest for the ethical trees. Or maybe it's the other way around. What's the sacrifice of one tree when the whole forest is still standing? But what if you're not satisfied with cutting down just one tree? Just one more. And one more after that, there's plenty left. Now let's clear cut this mother . . .

The Book of Human Insects is a comic book, a manga, by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was the Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Harvey Pekar, Alan Moore, Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Immamura, Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, and Walt Disney of Japanese manga all woven into one, singularly driven man. He wrote superhero comics for kids, like Astro Boy. He pioneered girls' comics with Princess Knight. He did talking animal stories, like Kimba the White Lion. He wrote horror, science fiction, historical drama, Shakespearean adaptations, crime stories, satire, and hard-boiled crime fiction, and sometimes he wrote stories that combined elements of all of these things. He created an anti-heroic surgeon, Black Jack, who became, along with Astro Boy, Kimba, Princess Knight, and others, one of the iconic characters of Japanese manga. Tezuka also did slice of life, confessional material, and experimental works. He told all kinds of stories using the conventions of manga storytelling: text and panels and sequential images.

Tezuka's broad interests as an author seem to be tied to a voracious appetite for all manner of culture, high and low. The man went to medical school, could've been a doctor, but, no, he decided to do what he loved and draw funny books. Here's a man with enough of a grasp of hard science to hack it at a Japanese medical university, and yet also has a fine appreciation for what makes a good story. His comics are filled with allusions to movies, Disney cartoons, and classic literature. Film noir, samurai epics, spaghetti westerns, Dostoyevsky, ancient mythology, history, tabloid sensationalism, new age pseudoscience, surrealism, neorealism, tragedy, comedy, humor, and gore are all present in his works.

Tezuka also pioneered the distinctive manga look: big eyes, simplified faces and bodies, but with dynamic scenic layouts, and a cinematic sense of pacing, and montage. American comics have traditionally gone for muscular figures in highly compressed stories taking place within morally simplified worlds. Tezuka's protagonists are sometimes short and stout, sometimes thin and lithe, and sometimes grotesque and deformed, but they are almost never simplified. Even his unabashed heroes, like Astro Boy, end up dealing with life, death, and complex moral quandaries. Tezuka approached his comics like an auteur filmmaker, paying attention to every last detail of production, and he even created his own stock company of characters who take on different roles in different stories, sometimes even breaking out of their usual casting to show a new side of their acting chops.

The Book of Human Insects is Tezuka telling a serious story with quite a bit of restraint. Usually, his manga are filled with visual puns and gags, even in serious stories. In his epic Adolph, which deals with Nazism, Hitler, and genocide, one of the main characters has a candle growing out of his head, and , no, it wasn't exactly meant as comedy. But Insects has only a few visual oddities that I noticed. During one scene, someone makes reference to Yukio Mishima's spectacular suicide, and a guy in the rather tacky uniform of Mishima's notorious private army appears to put in his two cents. No, there aren't that many visual gags. Tezuka also foregoes using his stock company of characters for this story. No guys with candles in their heads, no Astro Boy or Black Jack.

But Insects is rife with wild and bizarre imagery which establishes a kind of eerie mood and helps illustrate the nature of Tomura as a mimic. Tomura is graphically compared with bugs that mimic owls, and metamorphose into other forms. Such transformations are understood as natural, as the consequences of evolution and survival mechanisms in action. No one would accuse an insect that mimics the appearance of another creature of being a liar. Such creatures have taken on deceptive appearances in order to survive in a hostile, murderous world. By that logic, Tomura isn't evil. She is merely adaptive.

Remember, Tomura is a woman in 1970s Japan, a patriarchal society that, for all its progress, still views women as subservient to men. Even a woman who is artistically inclined, and accomplished and acclaimed at that, will often be expected to give all that up when she gets married to some corporate executive. All of the giant corporations are run by men. All of the government leadership is exclusively male. A woman either accepts this, or has to go her own way.

Moreover, the society is thoroughly corrupt. Bribery, graft, assassination, deception, and betrayal are all business as usual. And all the major players are men. A woman could very well look at this state of affairs and ask, "Why not get my end? Why not be number one? A man in this world wouldn't even think to ask the question. He would just proceed on the basis of stark reality."

But Tomura, as Tezuka tells it, isn't so much coldly calculating as she is following her nature. Yes, she plots and schemes and has a callous disregard for others, but it's not always clear that she is consciously cruel or destructive. This is what makes Tomura such a fascinating character. Is she evil, or is she just following her own nature? Is evil something that objectively exists, or is it something that we project onto reality? That is to say, is there a way to define evil scientifically, or is it more of a fuzzy, mystical-religious notion? And, once again, how do we define evil within a totally corrupt society? By definition, in such a society corruption is inescapable. Try as one might, one cannot get away totally clean.

You could show up to work every day, pay your taxes on time and never steal, murder, lie, or cheat. But your tax dollars go into the coffers of a corrupt government that hires dishonest corporations with sweetheart deals to build projects that may never be properly finished. Organized gangsters and right wing extremists exert their influence and demand their tributes in the form of bribes and hush money. Intimidation, murder, and disenfranchisement are used against those that step out of line, resist, or try to bring about reforms. This is the world that Tomura must navigate.

Along the way, journalists try to get the scoop on her past, and oppressive men try to conquer her. As I read, I asked myself, "Where is Tomura going? Is this a story of self-destruction? Will society punish Tomura for her survival adaptations? Or is she the perfect organism to negotiate this labyrinth of lies?"

I was surprised where the story went. I don't want to give away too much, but it definitely does not cop out even as it takes some rather unlikely melodramatic hairpin twists and turns. I say unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. Tezuka is never one to shy away from outrageous melodrama, even downright bathos, and fantasy, but Insects is disturbingly credible for all its dramatic license and exaggeration.

The Book of Insects is another triumph of book design from Vertical, Inc. Vertical has become the primary publisher of Osamu Tezuka's manga in English in the USA, and each new volume is handsomely turned out with evocative collages of resonant images drawn from the manga themselves. Insects is no exception. Vertical seems to approach Tezuka's books like another publisher would approach the latest Johnathan Lethem or Johnathan Franzen novel: with utmost respect and seriousness. And also, a sense of using Tezuka's distinctive illustration style as the basis for eye-catching covers and dust jackets. Insects is well worth reading, but it'll also look good on the shelf once you're done. But don't just let it sit there. Loan it to a friend. And then point them to Vertical, Inc's website, and chat 'em up about other Tezuka works . . .

Vertical, Inc's website:


Vertical, Inc also publishes the following titles by Osamu Tezuka: Black Jack, Buddha, Dororo, Ode to Kirihito, MW, Apollo's Song, and Ayako.

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