by Osamu Tezuka; translation by Camellia Nieh
published by Vertical; $24.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
Ode to Kirihito is a massive (800 pgs+) single volume collection of what could only be termed a medical thriller written by the sometimes-God-sometimes-Godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka. As indicated in his biography on the inside back flap, Tezuka completed his studies to become a doctor before abandoning medicine in favor of a career creating manga. Doctors and medicine in general are, not surprisingly, a recurring theme in most of Tezuka’s work whether by virtue of Astro Boy‘s preponderance of robot scientists (many of whom regularly create and modify mechanical life), Buddha, who is often presented as something of a doctor/mystic, or even Black Jack, a later Tezuka drama about, of all things, a rogue surgeon with a disfigured face and a heart of gold.
For all its commonalities with these other works, Kirihito is a different kind of story as it regularly wanders away from its title character to deal more directly with an inexplicable ailment that Kirihito studies and, ultimately, contracts, called Monmow Disease. The ode then is to Kirhito’s quest to reclaim his humanity in spite of the dog-like appearance that Monmow survivors must endure by exposing the truth about the disease and those who would seek to profit from it to the world.
There is so much to like about Kirihito, before even addressing the story and whatever shortcomings it may have, as to make the act of criticizing it seem almost superfluous to the work itself. If one is hunting for pure cartooning mastery at work, seemingly any Tezuka work (certainly all those available in English) will more than ably meet the minimum standard for genius by whatever standard it is measured. This period in the early 1970s is a fruitful one for Tezuka artistically as he begins to infuse his stories with a new level of breathtaking illustrative detail that the incredible demand for content during his butter years drawing Astro Boy never allowed.
When applied to a compelling story (as in the case of Buddha), Tezuka regularly exhibits sustained periods of first-rate storytelling that may well be without peer among his contemporaries in any tradition. Despite its many laudable qualities, though, Kirihito falls shy of this kind of superlative description due to perceptible weaknesses in the story itself. He seems a little out of his element, trying to create a believable world populated by mostly vile people where, by virtue of his determination, a just man finally gets what is due to him. His characterization of female characters in particular thuds flatly against the restraints of this world he creates.
More damning is the frequent use of coincidence to bring the plot around to where you know it’s going, some three hundred pages before it gets there. This sense of expectation is more forgivable when brought about by a clearly articulated motivation of a major character by virtue of their actions but too often in Kirihito, Tezuka goes back to more primitive devices that don’t deliver the same sense of satisfaction.
There is some truth to the idea that Tezuka, on his worst day, is inherently better than 99.99% of the work from any tradition that one might stumble upon. In this sense, Ode to Kirihito represents a much-welcomed addition to the miniscule fraction of Tezuka’s work currently available in English. It’s not, by far, the least compelling work in that group and features the incentive bonus of being a self-contained work available in one smartly-designed volume. But in comparison with even the totality of that limited pool, Kirihito lands cleanly below the high mark established by Buddha and the Phoenix cycle in that it clarifies some issues about Tezuka’s transition into this later phase of his career but demonstrates very little that is new about his work as a whole.
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