Manga Focus, the spiritual successor to my old Flip The Page columns at the obscure old website known as Live Action Anime, is my attempt to reconnect with the largest element in making me who I am today, manga and the manga community as a whole (though I hate it as much as I love it). Each week I'll highlight a title I feel deserves the attention, with the occasional look at what's coming out in any given month. Hopefully you'll gain something from it, or at least seek out the titles I give big ups to.
Considering he's the father of modern manga, you'd think that Osamu Tezuka would have his body of works given great exposure over here. Or heck, at least have the majority of the more notable titles in print stateside. And yet in my 6 years of being balls deep into the world of manga I have only seen around 4 of his titles in shops.
Now, I'm in the UK, so I'm admittedly crippled by my positioning in the world, but that's no excuse, as any amount of research would show that the only company to really have had enough guts to translate and print his material in english is Vertical Inc. (probably the manga company most willing to take risks in a market that's undeniably faltering) and they've still got a ways to go. Still, it's thanks to their support of Dr. Tezuka that I'm able to even read and review his work (well, alongside one series from Viz Media and another from Dark Horse, but I digress) so I can only be grateful, as without them I'd never have been able to read one of his more intriguing and absolutely bizarre works, Ode to Kirihito.
Ode to Kirihito is a book that draws upon high philosophy and Tezuka's own background as a medical doctor alongside the very concepts of good, evil, perception, morals and the human condition in an epic adventure through the harrowing and dark experiences of Kirihito, a doctor trying to deal with a peculiar new condition that is turning people into dog-like beasts. I'm not one to claim that something is "deep", because that sounds pretentious as all hell, but Ode to Kirihito is probably the deepest and darkest journey into the human psyche you will ever find on a comic shelf. And anyone who says otherwise is a liar.
So join me in this debut Manga Focus as I take a rather foggy magnifying glass to the genius of this, the greatest work of the greatest manga-ka in the history of ever. After the jump.
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What Is It? (some early spoilers): Ode to Kirihito is a medical thriller that primarily follows Kirihito Osanai, a young doctor intent on investigating and curing a strange disease plaguing a small village in the mountains of the Tokushima Prefecture (that's Japan in case you don't know your geography) that deforms people into a strange dog-like form before their deaths. Intent to prove his superiors wrong in their opinions that the disease (Monmow) is a virus he travels to the village to spend some time there and investigate the cause. Suffice to say things don't go to plan as he's not allowed to leave the village, has to marry a local (despite being engaged to a woman back in the city) and contracts Monmow himself. From there escalating events cause him to discover the truth of the disease and to journey far and wide to get the truth out about Monmow.
A plot that goes alongside this follows Kirihito's colleague, Urabe, as he receives a nun from South Africa who appears to also have Monmow disease. However his findings don't meet the approval of his jaded superiors and his fragile mental state weakens, leading to him making some very unpleasant choices as he reaches and passes breaking point. The chilling moments all lead to some hard, honest choices for him though, choices that show that, despite the negative things he's had to do and the mental state he's in, proves how much the case matters and what lays within his very soul.
What's so great about it? (spoilers!): More than anything? The art. Osamu Tezuka's style isn't only completely inimitable, it's beautiful to a tee, no matter what work the man did over time it just clicked perfectly with what he was writing, proving his position as a master of the art form. Here is no exception, with their being a real emphasis on creating tension and emotion through the use of layouts and surreal imagery, not to mention the very unusual use of Christian imagery (not that Christian imagery is unusual, just that it's very unusual to see in a manga).
Layouts never get their fair share of praise in the realm of comics, yet they can be so crucial in controlling how you read a work and here the main use is to build tension, like in the image to the right of this bit of text, where our protagonist is chasing down a horrific murderous sort, with the view getting tighter with each panel, showing a more panicked criminal and a far crazier and angrier Kirihito. And then we get a wider view, showing that it's this tense and emotional when there's STILL SO MUCH GROUND BETWEEN THEM. If that doesn't even slightly affect you outside of the full context then you really don't appreciate the medium as much as you should (yeah I'm being pretentious saying that but hush I'm talking about the godfather of manga's work here!).
The surrealer elements featuring Urabe really maximise the use of layouts too, creating a sense of a shattered psyche with unconventional and fractured panel placements and images. A personal favourite moment for this is when Urabe sees that Dr. Tatsugaura, his mentor, is responsible for ruining him and his psyche gets closer to completely shattering. We get a sequence of unusually shaped panels with black shapes in white panels, Urabe putting his hands to his face, sweating, his mentor's face and such, all laid out so you don't even know where to look. Your eyes go all over the place trying to find which piece of the bigger picture to look at, creating a feeling akin to that going through Urabe of a fractured mind flitting all over the place, breaking down at this revelation. It's powerful, art-light and shows what can be done just by playing with how a page is laid out.
It occurs to me at this point that I've rambled on and repeated myself endlessly about some stuff but haven't really expanded on the whole "excellent writing and examination of the human condition" stuff I may have alluded to earlier (goodness, I don't remember, it feels so long ago). Well, the writing is excellent. The dialogue is believable. Whether it's coming from the formal atmosphere of the medical profession to the old-timey village, it READS like how someone in that situation would speak, which is something that can be easily overlooked by a lot of comics professionals nowadays.
The whole human condition stuff is something to behold. Whilst a lot of other works would be content to say that good men do good things and evil men do evil things, what we get here is the idea that above anything a good man can do horrendous things for the right reasons. Kirihito himself has to make some hard decisions in his journey through the hero's labyrinth and they haunt him more and more as time passes. But despite all this the reader knows that these decisions are necessary, or at the least would be regretted if they weren't made. Ya know, like decisions people have to make in real life!
Urabe is an extreme in this respect, in that whilst not being a truly good or evil person a lot of the time the reader still generally gets that somewhere in his warped mind he is a good individual. It's just that on the outside he makes some horrendous choices that would paint anyone explored with a fraction less depth as a horrific monster who deserves nothing but pain. Instead what we get is a sympathetic character who can go to extremes and be forgiven because circumstances and the strains he is under warp him into something he is not. The decisions he makes should never have to be made by anyone in a real world situation, but when they are made it is as a real human being rather than a two-dimensional caricature of a singular trait like so many other comic characters manage to be.
Is it worth buying?: In a word? Abso-bloody-lutely. At about £15/$25 for over 800 pages of Osamu Tezuka's greatest material it really isn't worth missing. I believe at present that it's now collected in two chaper paperbacks splitting the story in half, which is fine, but I really recommend tracking down the first edition in its HUGE glory, you won't regret it.
Ode to Kirihito is a once in a lifetime experience in the world of manga and is something that will surely never happen again. So grab it, cherish it and tell all your friends about it. Anything less would just be disrespectful.