Ode to Kirihito is the first long, serial work from Osamu “God of Manga” Tezuka that I’ve read, even in part. Oh, sure, I’ve got a couple of volumes of Astro Boy, a shelf filled with Black Jack, and somewhere I’ve got a couple of the books from Tezuka’s “life’s work,” Phoenix, but none of these series feature a single continuing plotline for more than a few hundred pages at a time — Black Jack features plenty of continuity, but wraps up every individual story in a single chapter, and Phoenix is about recurring themes and elements rather than one cohesive narrative. Not to mention that Kirihito is aimed squarely at an adult audience, rather than the boys’ comics he’s more famous for.
I’ve heard it said that Tezuka was a very competitive man, and works like Kirihito were something of a response to the independent gekiga (“dramatic pictures” — think “graphic novel”) movement of the times, a chance for him to try a hand at more experimental styles of storytelling and presentation. So, the copy of the first of two volumes in Vertical‘s reissue of Ode to Kirihito that we at Colony Drop received fresh from our grocer’s freezer (BUY VERTICAL PRODUCTS) is an exciting new experience for me.
The story centers on Kirihito Osanai, a young doctor among the staff of a prestigious university hospital, and his friends and colleagues, as they face one of the toughest cases they’ve ever encountered: a strange disease that transforms the body of its victim, changing them into dog-like beasts before eventually killing them. Kirihito and his best friend, Urabe, suspect that the sickness, known as Monmow’s disease, could be caused by some sort of toxin in the environment, especially since all the known cases of the disease originate in one tiny town in the mountains on an isolated island. His boss, hospital director Tatsugaura, is initially reluctant to allow Kirihito to pursue his theory, but experiences a sudden change of heart and sends him on a research trip to remote Doggoddale. Little does he realize that this journey to the secretive and superstitious town would turn out so tragically, as Kirihito contracts the disease and vanishes, while Urabe grapples with his personal demons and the quest for the truth about the disease and his friend.
Boy, if you thought Osamu Tezuka’s portrayal of women was uncomfortable in Black Jack, Ode to Kirihito is going to make you flip out. For starters, nearly every major female character in the book is raped at some point — one even dies during the assault. The uncomfortable moments start early, when Kirihito’s fiancée Izumi tearfully demands that Kirihito marry her as soon as possible. “I’m afraid I might stray,” she explains. “That Dr. Urabe, he looks at me all funny… I don’t like him one bit, but he comes on so forcefully, and you’re so cool toward me…” Kirihito reassures her that they will be married as soon as he finishes his research on Monmow’s disease, but true to her fears, Izumi “strays” only minutes later when Urabe locks her in and assaults her. The black “splotches” at her feet as she flees, and the oozing overpass above her, are but the first of many more “experimental” presentations Tezuka employs throughout the book (and easily the most awkward).
Izumi’s not the only lover of Kirihito’s who suffers. When Kirihito arrives in Doggoddale, a young woman, Tazu, is sent to bed him, apparently as part of an old village ritual to “accept” the outsider. As devoted and clever as Tazu might be portrayed, her motivations and true feelings seem very ill-defined. Perhaps, she was hoping to secure better treatment for her father, who also suffers from the village’s trademark disease, by befriending the visiting doctor. Yet, she never clearly states her plans, nor does she seem to harbor any doubts about going against her fellow villagers, the only people she’s ever known, even as they turn violent toward Kirihito. Her motives are stark in their absence, given how subtle Tezuka generally isn’t when it comes to the thought processes and motives of the other, male characters he focuses on. From her introduction, Tazu exists only to serve Kirihito as an able and devoted assistant. She and Izumi aren’t all that different, really — it’s not like Izumi does much more than worry about Kirihito’s safety for the majority of the book, either.
Kirihito eventually manages to flee the village after discovering the key to curing the disease, but his affliction has already taken its toll, with his body and face having been transformed into those of a dog. Worse, as they head down the mountain, Tazu is killed by a random thug in the wilderness, and Kirihito is abducted by human traffickers and sold to a rich Chinese businessman who collects “freaks” to be used as slave performers to amuse himself and a few dozen of his richest friends. During his captivity, Kirihito meets Reika, a young woman who performs a complicated and incredibly dangerous act involving boiling oil and batter, and who is probably the least favorably-presented woman in the entire book. There’s just no good way to read Reika’s scenes on the run with Kirihito after they manage an escape: when she tries to get fresh with him one night, sweating feverishly and extending her tongue toward his crotch, he smacks her away, calling her “improper.”
It doesn’t end there, as Kirihito discovers Reika’s ultimate goal: to turn him into her own masochistic sex slave until he dies, a fate that’s already befallen several other “freaks” she’s “rescued.” Yes, the only sexually-aggressive women in the entire comic are the sadist warped by harsh training since childhood and the village girl using every tool at her disposal to save her father, only to end up dead in the forest for her troubles. But before Kirihito can finish using hypnotic suggestion to cure her disorder, turning her into a “proper girl,” he’s discovered by the locals and placed right back into bondage (but not the kinky kind).
After that nasty business, Tezuka quite wisely shifts the focus of the next 175 pages entirely to the most interesting of the interwoven storylines in Kirihito: Dr. Urabe’s attempts to discover what happened to his friend and clashes with Director Tatsugaura’s political ambitions. You can’t throw a rock without beaning a blogger blathering about Tezuka’s demonstrations of anger with the Japanese medical establishment in Black Jack, but Ode to Kirihito offers a much more involved and sophisticated take on the subject than the flash-in-the-pan moments allowed by Black Jack‘s short installments (and younger audience). Tatsugaura is determined to get elected as the next head of the Japan Medical Association, and his campaign is relying on an impressive showing at the Association’s medical conference when he presents his research on the “contagious” Monmow’s disease, a claim that puts him at odds with subordinates and experts alike. As reprehensible as Urabe is — and I’m sure some readers will be unable to sympathize with him, especially after his second attack — his personal conflicts are far more interesting than Kirihito’s continued abductions.
I’ve said a lot of negative things about this book, in part due to the cultural differences between America now and Japan forty years ago and in part due to my general boredom with the “something’s rotten in a tiny rural town” flavour of horror/mysteries, but the first 475 pages of Ode to Kirihito still make a darn compelling read, and I ordered the second volume right after finishing it. I can’t say that the second volume resolves all of my complaints: characterization is still somewhat strained, as Izumi still doesn’t seem to have interests beyond Kirihito’s safety, and many of Tezuka’s experimental layouts and visual metaphors fall flat. But even if many of the arcs are heavily telegraphed, it’s still satisfying to see them tied together and resolved. Plus, the second book opens with what is essentially a prototype Black Jack story, a nice familiar touch.
Big points to Vertical for re-issuing Ode to Kirihito in a two-book edition, by the way. As nice as it is to get an entire series in one volume, the similarly-lengthy doorstopper release of A Drifting Life from Drawn & Quarterly has made it quite clear to me how annoying and awkward it is to try and read a large, 800+ page comic book. The production values are pretty much standard for Vertical: the font choice is a little goofy for the subject matter, the balloons are always stuffed to bursting with dialog, and the retouched sound effects sometimes clash pretty obviously, but the printing quality is a lot better than the astoundingly cheap efforts by some publishers in this niche. Oh, yeah, and the book’s been flipped so it reads left to right, since American fans of Japanese comics fans don’t read Tezuka — American fans of graphic novels read Tezuka. I highly doubt anyone actually interested in reading a medical suspense thriller by Osamu Tezuka would have a problem with that, but you never know.