by Osamu Tezuka; translation by Jared Cook, Frederik L. Schodt, Shinji Sakamoto
published by Viz; $22.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
The second volume in the Phoenix cycle finds creator Osamu Tezuka switching gears from historical fantasy to science fiction. Where volume one’s Dawn was very interested in the elements that came together to form civilization (at least the Japanese one), Future is more broad in its scope as it examines the likely causes behind its dissolution, a fate he finds inextricably linked to the destruction of humanity as a species.
“3404 AD. The Earth was rapidly dying.” Tezuka’s narrative begins thus, hanging ominously over a series of bleak landscapes, detailing the degradation above ground necessary to drive humanity underground for its terminal phase as a species. The final five million inhabitants of Earth populate five “great” cities and live in distinct monocultures carefully regulated by supercomputers. The first phase of the main narrative begins in one of these cities, Yamato.
It is instructive to note that while Future was completed after Dawn, Tezuka’s art in the first half of the volume looks regressive in comparison. The stirring feats of naturalist drawings that flow from Dawn‘s historical setting can be read in context with a body of his middle period work that emphasizes illustrative over dutiful narrative drawings. Future begins in all-too-familiar territory, Tezuka’s cartoony and crowded vision of the future as defined by the emergent technologies of his own time. The conceptual self-plagiarism on display stretches, at times, to the very beginning of his career with early and more awkward works like Metropolis.
Populated by all of the Tezuka archetypal players one comes to expect from his work, the opening can seems almost like business as usual, which is odd for Tezuka in general and the Phoenix cycle in particular. But where Astro Boy is fueled by Tezuka’s curiosity about the future and what marvels it might hold for the human race, the tone here is markedly different enough to warrant re-examination of exactly how Tezuka is using that awareness of his earlier work to comment on the story that he tells. Without a miracle, sought relentlessly, not unlike the Phoenix herself in book one, human life on Earth is about to cease forever.
As in Dawn, the narrative sections of the story are partitioned by an appearance of the Phoenix. In the first, Masato Yamanobe, a young man in the Yamato Space Patrol, is forced to defy his superiors and flee the city in order to protect his girlfriend, Tamami, from execution by the state. She is not human but of a race of aliens known as the Moopie who are able to tap into human consciousness and provide vivid hallucinations that supersede reality. Her species has been declared forbidden in Yamato and Yamanobe himself had been involved in missions to exterminate them. Their flight leads them up out of the city and on to the wasted surface of the Earth in hopes of finding an observation dome before the toxins in the air and treacherous weather conditions kill them.
As the story moves, in one narrative strand, to the surface, Tezuka begins adding more detail and scope into his panels. Split between Yamato, where a world war begins to brew over Yamanobe’s escape, the Earth’s surface, and the interior of one of the aforementioned observation domes where the pair find refuge, we still find ourselves confined to more claustrophobic and technologically dominated environments than open and natural ones, however devastated.
With the mutual destruction of the great cities, the story is brought into a unity of location at the observation dome. The Phoenix appears to a famed scientist within this dome, instructing him to receive the fleeing refugees and, in her appearance, opens the second section. Tezuka reduces his players down to four, three men and one Moopie. With the law that declared the Moopie a danger to humanity made moot in the wake of civilization’s passing, Tamami becomes a commodity. The Doctor, seeking her cells to complete his experimentation into creating life; Roc, the same bureaucrat who sentenced her to death in Yamato, now wanting to take her into deep space to try his luck among the stars; and Yamanobe, who just wants his girlfriend back. But this love quadrangle doesn’t last long as the supervolcanoes erupt due to the multiple nuclear blasts and, even the observation dome is cracked, radiation poisons its inhabitants towards a slow but inevitable death.
Tezuka resolves the second section relatively quickly with two twists. First, Tamami gives up her human form that the Doctor might be able to construct Yamanobe an immortal body. Ironically, the Phoenix appears to Yamanobe and transforms him into an immortal being even as Tamami is stripped of her human form towards the same, now unnecessary, end. Within pages, everyone is dead except for Tamami, now trapped in her amorphous natural state, and Yamanobe, who is impervious to injury and, by all reckoning, immortal.
After the first two sections in safe and comfortable territory, Tezuka makes a broad stylistic leap in the third. It opens with the Phoenix’s revelation to Yamanobe that takes him on a trip of scale from the macro-cosmic to the quantum and back. With no analogous works from this period or before available in English, one is tempted to identify this as a new riff in Tezuka’s work that would resurface again in the more mystical sections of Buddha. Western readers may also feel a simpatico at work in this section (and others like later in the volume) with Steve Ditko’s work on Dr. Strange as well as more recent mystic explorations in comics like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s The Birth Caul.
With the reduction of the cast comes one of Tezuka’s most bleak storylines ever committed to paper. Yamanobe spends an eternity on Earth as its only sentient creature until all vestiges of his former life are forgotten. With humanity and its technology destroyed, the some of the page’s focus returns to the natural landscape but, oddly, Tezuka rarely moves fully back into the deeply illustrative approach of Book One. The Earth, as it slowly regains the potential to sustain life, is drawn in a more cartoony fashion, rounded edges and irregular shapes reminding one at times of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess).
As the story plunges deeper and deeper into the future, the distinction between that future and the past we assumed at the story’s beginning becomes as disassociated as Yamanobe’s recollection of his former life. Life arises, complexifies, dominates, and destroys itself over yet again before Yamanobe finally fulfills his task of repopulating the Earth with humans and is, at last, allowed to rest. In fact, the volume’s end reproduces the opening of Book One, lending credence to the idea that Tezuka considered ending the cycle in this one binary circuit.
Of the various installments of the Phoenix cycle, there is none so sprawling in its scope than Future. Though it technically adheres to the pattern set by the cycle as a whole (alternating from the past to the future with each volume), Future subverts the notion of keeping track of time in a linear fashion and, uncharacteristically, attempts to answer the existential questions that are tangled in the heart of the series as a whole. For some, Tezuka’s answers to these questions may prove less evocative than the asking itself but rarely in the series is the Phoenix so forthcoming with her vision and plan for humanity within it. Taken as a whole, Future is not the most visually impressive of the Phoenix cycle and the opening may underwhelm Tezuka enthusiasts looking for something novel. But given its scope and bold twists on the plot towards the middle and end, it is definitely one of the must reads of the series and stands well both on its own and in context with the series as a whole. Highly recommended.