Book of Human Insects

December 20, 2011

Osamu Tezuka – Vertical – 2011 – 1 volume

Don’t be surprised: this book is very strange. It almost defies description, in fact. I know that might be a shock, that Osamu Tezuka could write a strange one-shot, but buckle up. This one’s a weird one.

I’m joking a little bit. This is actually a little more grounded in reality and traditional/sensical narrative than Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, or Swallowing the Earth. I’d say it’s a little less shocking than even Ayako or MW. But it’s still a very interesting read, and once again, a noir-ish psychological thriller. I love this stuff, and I love that Vertical has made an annual tradition of releasing Tezuka volumes like this.

The story starts with a young woman named Toshiko winning a major literary award. Her book was so good, in fact, that there’s a huge media blitz surrounding both her and the award. She attracts the attention of a paparazzi photographer, who follows her out to a remote house and watches her strip naked and roll around with a wax figure by herself. Later, he meets a man connected with Toshiko who warns the paparazzi away, and relates a story about how Toshiko used to be a member of his theater troupe. She started knowing absolutely nothing, but worked her way up the ranks by first learning, then mimicking exactly the most talented members of the troupe (writing, acting, directing, et cetera), eventually forcing them all out, sometimes by claiming they had assaulted her.

This only makes the paparazzi more interested. Later, we find out that Toshiko may have copied her best-selling book from her former roommate, and also ruined the life of an old boyfriend, an up-and-coming designer, by mimicking all his designs and winning awards with them before he could submit his own. Toshiko is basically a very skilled copycat, and she seems to take delight in moving from life to life, siphoning the talents away from others (usually men), and apparently ruining their lives by taking everything they have as her own.

Eventually, Toshiko later begins playing dangerously close to an assassin, trying to best him, and there’s a storyline involving first her life with the assassin, then her married life with a businessman who knows her talents and bails her out of jail. The businessman thinks to beat Toshiko at her own game, and there’s a long story about the disturbing ways in which those two one-up each other. The men from Toshiko’s past, the designer and the one from the acting troupe, come and go throughout the course of the book, and the story ends with her being “freed” from her male pursuers (various men who want revenge, or her, or both).

The title of the book is a metaphor, and Toshiko makes several references to metamorphosis throughout, relating the insect life cycle to her movement through jobs. It’s clear Toshiko isn’t quite sure what she wants throughout, though she never lets the men know this. There is one man that she realizes later is the one she wants, but he’s smarter than most of the other ones she double-crosses, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

The interesting thing about this story is that Toshiko isn’t mentally unstable or a murderous psychopath. She does stoop to murder and blackmail, and she’s definitely underhanded and mean-spirited, but she’s far less evil than, say, the main character in MW. Her level of depravity is also fairly low for being the unbalanced subject of a Tezuka work. That she rolls around naked with a wax dummy of her mother is relatively normal in the context of these stories. I’m making fun of this, but in the story, the wax dummy of her mother is the one spot where Toshiko can feel safe, where she doesn’t have to act or scheme. The nudity, and her mother, is another metaphor for rebirth, since the mother and the house itself is womb-like. Or something.

This story is meant to engage the reader on a more moral and philosophical level, with a lot of the themes having to do with identity, sexuality, and sexism. There’s lots of ugliness, both from Toshiko and towards Toshiko, and somehow… though her crimes are horrendous, her punishments always seem to be perversely exaggerated. Why is it okay for her to “steal” the lives of others, but when the backlash comes and she winds up being captured by bad men, why do we then feel bad for her? It’s hard not to, even knowing the extent of her crimes and what she eventually does.

But I tend to enjoy these stories for their craziness, and the best buildup is when Toshiko is living with Kamaishi, the businessman who plays with her on her level. Enraged when he doesn’t fall in love with her, Kamaishi’s game begins when he claims that Toshiko will only see him again when she begs him to marry her. It only goes downhill from there. They do equally mean, spiteful, and depraved things to one another, and many others are also dragged into the fight. I don’t want to say too much, since spoiling any of their interaction would be a shame, but you see some downright filthy sportsmanship in this game. I was disappointed when Kamaishi’s story didn’t last through the end of the book. Honestly, I wanted a different outcome.

I did dislike the ending of the book, and I think I enjoyed Kamaishi’s section of story more because he was one of the few that was willing to stand up to Toshiko. It feels bad to say that, because Kamaishi is an awful person, and the things he does are no better than Toshiko… but the entire book is Toshiko doing as she pleased, and I really, really just wanted the other shoe to drop when he entered the picture.

But overall, I really enjoyed this one. The crime and job-hopping elements, along with the occasional murder, make this a more realistic noir story than what I’m used to reading from Tezuka. It’s quite a good one, and it has some interesting insights into its themes. I feel like I probably missed a lot of what it was trying to say simply because I disliked Toshiko so much, but it’s still a fine read without those elements. It’s probably towards the bottom of my personal list of these Tezuka one-shots we’ve seen in English, but I have yet to be disappointed by any of these, so that’s still saying quite a bit of good.