Ode to Kirihito

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.

Ode to Kirihito cover
Ode to Kirihito
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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.

An online preview is available.

15 Comments

  1. Ed Sizemore

    Johanna, I will concede the morality of the story can be a bit black and white (no pun intended), but here I think it works. I have to say I really thought this was a brilliant story. What resonated with me most was the courage and virtue of Kirihito. Especially, his internal struggles to retain his humanity while battling a disease that seeks to remove it and his external struggles to defend his humanity while others seek to deny it. The book really challenged me to think more deeply about my own humanity and to remember the humanity of others who aren’t part of the ‘beautiful people’. It’s a message similar to the Hunchback of Notre Dame–that the noblest of souls can be found in the most twisted of containers.

    What suprised me is how quick a read it was. I think I read the whole book in just under four hours.

  2. [...] takes on Poison Cherry Drive and Ferdinand checks out vol. 1 of 100% Perfect Girl. At Comics Worth Reading, Rob Vollmar gives Ode to Kirihito a slightly less glowing review than everyone else. And Katherine Dacey-Tsuei shows the rest of us [...]

  3. You know, I liked this story, but Tezuka uses the noble fallen woman who sacrifices herself for the miserable hero, thus reawakening his desirve to live again not just once, but TWICE!

  4. Rob Vollmar

    Ed,

    As I said in the review, there is no disputing Tezuka’s genius at work here. I think that it suffers some though in a context with some of his other work from this same period. I found his treatment of his female characters to be predictable and, for the most part, limited by his insistence to recycle a few otherwise successful characterizations into every woman that enters the story for whatever period of time. You can, again, directly contrast that with BUDDHA which features a much wider range of female characters, each playing her own role in the story.

  5. Rob Vollmar

    Dan,

    Thanks for the comment. Long time no see!

  6. Ed Sizemore

    Rob, Sorry I didn’t read the author line of the review and directed my comments to Johanna. Again my apologies.

  7. Ed,

    An understandable mistake and not one I would take any offense from, regardless.

  8. [...] Rob Vollmar joins the Comics Worth Reading website, with a look at Osamu Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito. [...]

  9. Just out of curiousity, what would be the least compelling work of Tezuka’s in English, in your opinion?

    I enjoyed this review, by the way. You kind of hit the nail on the head with some of the things that bothered me a bit with this title. It was immensely enjoying, but there were just a few things here and there that didn’t sit right.

  10. Rob Vollmar

    Connie,

    Thanks for your feedback! For me, the really early stuff that predates ASTRO BOY like NEXT WORLD or METROPOLIS is amusing but doesn’t hold up well in contrast to his later, better developed material. More specifically, Tezuka doesn’t seem have the same command over the flow of his story and they just seem to meander until they terminate rather than enjoying the unity of purpose that I associate with stories from the PHOENIX cycle in particular.

  11. [...] another in their line of works by Osamu Tezuka (whose Ode to Kirihito was recently reviewed on this site). It’s 500 or so pages, due in June, priced at [...]

  12. [...] of the artistic successes of those two landmark works while stumbling over fewer obstacles than his Ode to Kirihito, a work begun the same year, in the process of navigating these previously uncharted narrative [...]

  13. [...] site writer Rob Vollmar has talked up the works of Osamu Tezuka, “God of Manga”, here before, but none of them clicked with me until now. (Big thanks [...]

  14. [...] Ode to Kirihito [...]

  15. [...] (unlike Phoenix). It deals with an approachable, realistic, meaningful topic (unlike the sci-fi Ode to Kirihito or Swallowing the Earth). It’s not too creepy (unlike Ayako or Apollo’s Song). [...]

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