July 19, 2007
I’m spending a couple days with this, because I want to make sure it’s right. I want to make sure I convey just how amazing this volume was. Now I’m forcing this entry out of draft so I push my childish take on the end of Death Note off the top of the page… but my points still stand.
When I was told that Osamu Tezuka was “The God of Manga,” the only work of his available in English was Adolf, which I had no interest in as a freshman in high school, and the aborted English attempt at Black Jack, which led me to believe that Black Jack was no good. Then we got things like Astro Boy and Lost World from Dark Horse, which… while they have their place in history, are extremely dated and not really good examples of what makes him “God of Manga.” Viz published his life’s work Phoenix, but Phoenix, while I like several of the volumes, is a bit too thematically dense for me. It’s also hard to explain why it’s considered one of the best to people who are not familiar with manga. But I think Vertical has touched on some of the work that makes him “God of Manga.” To be fair, I haven’t read even all the series available in English, but it seems like Ode to Kirihito and Apollo’s Song are good examples of what makes the “God of Manga” title stick after all this time. Though I hear Black Jack is also pretty badass.
I want to describe the plot briefly, because it’s important, and I’m about to get really high-handed. It’s basically the story of a boy who grew up with a hostess for a mom and no father. His mom didn’t love him, and neither did any of the men that was supposed to be his father. He grew up without love, and apparently became some sort of psychopath who kills animals and can’t stand to see public displays of affection, human or animal. To try and cure him of his violent behavior, they administer shock therapy in a mental hospital. The shock therapy causes him to meet up with a deity who tells him for the sin of not knowing love, he will fall in love with women and lose them before consummating the relationship for the rest of eternity. Then, of course, we get several storylines, both in real life and in his dreams, taking place in past, present, and future, where he meets a woman and grows to love her before she eventually dies. Slowly, throughout the course of all these storylines, he learns passionate love.
So what makes this a phenomenal series that stands the test of time? Well, for one thing, electroshock therapy is the only thing that dates it. I could easily believe that this was published one year ago, when in actuality it is nearly 40 years old. The narrative skips around, but… it could take place at any time in history. It goes to both the past and the future and comes back to modern times intermittently to tie everything together. The use of time and place was quite amazing, and there’s basically nothing that identifies “modern times” with any point in history, so it can be read for years to come and have the same effect story-wise without coming off as quaint.
Also amazing was the theme of love done up in the most tender and thoughtful way I’ve ever read. The main character is being punished for not knowing love. There is no physical love in this story, only emotional love, and it grows in the most slow and incredible way throughout the 600 pages of the story. The fact that throughout all the scenarios the main character is finding and losing the same female character over and over again, driving home the theme of soul mate and just developing the love further each time, was just about perfect. They may not all actually be the same women though… the first couple girls don’t look like the main woman, but it’s mentioned later that some of the other girls have the same face even though they look different, so I just really want to believe they’re all the same. It makes the story that much better for me.
I can’t really think of any criticisms. If I had one, it is just that I don’t quite understand why the character needed to be punished for all eternity once he learned love, but the fact that it ended where and how it did was pretty satisfying… also satisfying was the thought that the scenarios would loop forever.
The most shocking and powerful scene in the volume, honestly, was a one-page panel dedicated to showing you a completely silent field full of animals making love. In any other series, this would have had me laughing hysterically with its inappropriateness, but it fit so perfectly in with the mood of the story and what was going on at the time that it was almost like a slap in the face when it appeared and made its point. The fact that a one page spread of animals having sex could be taken seriously in any context should tell you of the quality of this volume.
It also has the best first three pages in manga history by far, and I say that without hyperbole. Really, the entire ten page opening was fantastic, but those first three pages made me close the thing up and wait for a time when I could read the volume in one sitting, which is exactly what I did.
This changed me in profound and magical ways. It’s definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to read manga, or comics, or anything at all, really.