by Osamu Tezuka; translation by Jared Cook, Shinji Sakamoto, and Frederik L. Schodt
published by Viz; $15.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
While Osamu Tezuka may have created work that was more popular (Astro Boy) or more accessible (Buddha) than his Phoenix cycle, it is the latter alone that Tezuka himself referred to as his “life work.” Consisting of twelve thematically linked but essentially self-contained stories, the Phoenix, in its entirety, is a dramatic time-elapsed photo of a master at work across different phases of his career. Its scope, stretching from the dawn of Japanese history into the far-flung future, is dizzying and demands deep reading in order to gain an adequate appreciation for the tapestry that unfolds in the thematic interplay between the individual books.
The first volume, Dawn, speculates on a series of events that would lead to the establishment of the proto-Japanese culture. Tezuka deftly blends myth and history in building the cast through which the reader will experience this tumultuous period. The story begins in a remote village, Kumaso, which sits at the foot of a smoldering volcano. This volcano is also the home of the Phoenix, an immortal bird spirit prized among humans for its ability to bestow eternal life on whosoever should drink its blood. The book opens with just such an attempt, a young hunter named Uraji whom we learn later, is hunting the Phoenix in order to restore his young bride back to good health. Paying for his failure with his life, the story passes quickly to the people of Kumaso who live simply by the ocean in a manner depicted by Tezuka as being more governed by superstition than reason.
In less than sixty pages, though, the winds of war and cruel fortune make mincemeat of the village and only two of the residents, Uraji’s widow Minaku and his younger brother Nagi, manage to survive; both of them, prisoners in one manner or another. In Nagi’s case, he is adopted by Surata, the general who led the attack on Kumaso, in hopes that he might someday return there and slay the Phoenix for the aging queen of Yamatai, Queen Himiko. The least ambiguous villain in a piece populated by heartless bastards all around, Himiko is presented as capricious and vain, ruling over the people of Yamatai through fear and superstition. Her brother, one of many Christ figures that litter the Phoenix’s landscape, urges her to begin the transition towards a rule based on reason but her lust for power and immortality is unyielding. It is her tragic flaw, an unwillingness to adapt to changing times and, in a broader sense, accept her own mortality, which dooms Yamatai like Kumaso before it. The quest to slay the Phoenix distracts Himiko from her primary task of remaining prepared against hostile neighboring countries and her capitol is sacked by invaders.
Given Dawn’s setting at the dawn of the Japanese civilization, it is fitting that Tezuka would use his story to dwell on questions of ethnicity and social identity. In Kumaso, the reader is invited to see culture as an accumulation of shared behaviors. This tribal existence is made to look inferior in comparison to the Yamatai who destroy it, both in the ways of medicine, which sustains life without prejudice, and war, which eradicates it with the same equanimity. Once the story is re-established in Yamatai, though, we find characters held back by this same devotion to the supernatural over the natural and the mystical over the empirical. Yet Dawn, like every other volume in this cycle, is framed by its inclusion of the Phoenix, a supernatural being, whose continued existence supersedes the short lives of the various mortal players and ties them all together into a single continuity. While critically frustrating to parse out, these interwoven paradoxes are the heart-blood of the Phoenix series and suggest that Tezuka is more comfortable deriving meaning from irreconcilable conflict than from harmonious resolution.
Though Dawn is the opening book of the cycle, it is not the oldest of Tezuka’s work on display in Phoenix. The illustrations of nature in general and the volcano in specific in Dawn take on ever-progressing layers of detail, rivaling, in some cases, Tezuka’s awesome renditions of the Himalayas in his Buddha series. As with most of Tezuka’s middle and late period pieces, there are so many exotic visual techniques employed, it becomes tough to single one of them out for praise. After moving the story to Yamatai in the second section, he restricts most of Queen Himiko’s scenes to a stage-like frame that begs comparison to Greek theater with its soliloquies and chorus of attendants. When that two-dimensional world is intruded on by Nagi’s three-dimensional desire to put an arrow through her throat, Tezuka chooses to reconcile neither with the other but superimpose these perspectives onto one another to almost surreal effect.
Later, Tezuka decides, seemingly arbitrarily, to use the occasion of a fight scene to reverse all the light values in the scene and draw the figures, ala Alex Toth, in silhouette for dramatic rather than representational purposes. One is tempted to invent some scenario by which it had to be replicated that way (it was originally in color and he didn’t want to completely redraw it for black and white reproduction?) but even a casual appreciation of Tezuka’s many other works lead just as quickly to the notion that it just amused him to draw it that way. Whatever its intended purpose, it is but one diversion in a veritable forest of storytelling strategies that keep the reader engaged throughout.
Read specifically as an opening to the Phoenix cycle, Dawn‘s mixture of the natural and the supernatural sets the tone for all that follows ably. Even as Tezuka jerks the story in the second volume some four thousand years into the future (soberly predicting the world’s utter demise in less than years from our present), the contrast between this mytho-historical fantasy and the science fiction in the latter volume is reconciled by the recurrent symbols and themes that echo down through the series. In comparison with the other historically themed volumes, Dawn is one of the more fully-realized, with multiple narrative threads running simultaneously, often crossing and even terminating unexpectedly. I’m willing to go one step further and say that Dawn is a good place to get a general introduction to Tezuka’s more sophisticated manga. Highly recommended.