Sunday, February 18, 2007

Monthly Manga Review

Ode To Kirihito

Wow, it looks like a whole month managed to pass in which I’ve only read one manga collection. But what a manga collection it was. I picked up Vertical’s massive, 832-page, brick of a collection of Osamu Tezuka’s Ode To Kirihito from my library on a whim, and left it sitting on my coffee table for a week before I finally cracked the cover.

I ended up devouring it all in one sitting, physically unable to put it down as I raced through it (so that’s what they mean when they say, “It was so good I couldn’t put it down.”).

The Kirihito of the title is a young Japanese doctor by the name of Kirihito Osanai. He, his colleague Dr. Urabe and their mentor Dr. Tatsugaura’s are all studying a mysterious disease known as Monmow. Those suffering from it find their limbs and faces slowly deforming until they resemble a dog or a badger, they suffer from strange migraines and an overwhelming desire for raw meat and they ultimately die of respritory failure.

The cases they study all come from a single isolated village in Japan, and Osanai travels there to study it more closely, ultimately becoming infected with it himself, and his search for it’s cause and cure become all the more urgent; he’s able to arrest it, but not before he’s transformed into a man with a dog-like face.

The story that follows is by far one of the more epic I’ve read in a comic book. The story recalls favorite themes and subjects of Tezuka’s, specifically the two-fisted adventure medicine and medical thrillers of his Blackjack series, as Osanai finds himself thrust along a nightmarish, globe-trotting path back to Japan and vengeance, and Urabe and Tatsugaura follow different theories on the cause of Monmow, which becomes highly politicized as the leader seeks to sew up election to the directorship of the Japanese Medical Association.

Tezuka’s storyline is positively dripping with adrenal suspense, and his characters are all as well-developed as they are peculiar (I’d give examples, but they all go through so many transformations, I’d hate to spoil any surprises). They feel like real people; even the most hideous villains and unsympathetic characters are fleshed out.

And there are certainly villains and unsympathetic characters in this book. It showed me some of the most depraved things I’ve ever seen in a manga (none of which are shown in an exploitive manner), although, again, I can’t give examples without downplaying the shock. Suffice it to say atavism is a major theme, with human beings that resemble beasts on the outside interacting with others who look perfectly human, but are bestial within.

With an artist with a reputation like Tezuka (Scott McCloud once said during an interview that Tezuka is the trunk of the tree that is Japanese comics, with everything since branching off from his work in some way or another), the fact that the visual storytelling and design are all top-notch should go without saying.

It is worth mentioning how incredibly experimental Tezuka gets in many sequences, however, as he uses drawings to replicate within the reading experience what a fever feels like, or a schizophrenia, or a nightmare, or the delivery of life-shattering news. I haven’t personally experienced all these things, but reading the sequences where they occur to the characters, I felt as if I had.

When the Monmow begins to affect Osanai, for example, the two to eight panel pages give way to a 24-panel page, all extreme close-ups on his writhing head; Tezuka leads into it with a splash page of a primitive, upside down face, composed completely of swollen, humanoid bodies (I’d scan some sequences, but the format of the book makes it impossible to stick on a scanner).

I don’t think the word “masterpiece” is too strong a word to describe Ode To Kirihito at all.

And if that’s not a strong enough recommendation, I should point out that it’s only $24.95. That may just be the greatest value in the history of comics.

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