by Osamu Tezuka; translation by Jared Cook, Frederik L. Schodt, Shinji Sakamoto
published by Viz; $15.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
The third segment in the Phoenix cycle, an historical tale called Yamato, is collected in the English-language edition with the fourth segment, Space. Without precluding the correspondences between these two stories (the urgency of which is no doubt magnified unnaturally by their proximity in this collection), I wanted to focus our full attention on each narrative segment as a stand-alone sequence as the cycle unfolds. After each book has been thus dissected, perhaps then some time can be spent discussing the threads and themes that tie them together into a cohesive whole.
Set a mere fifty years after the end of Dawn, Yamato speculates on the continued hostilities between the native people of Kumaso and the more-developed people culture of Yamato. It can, despite the essentially self-contained quality of each Phoenix segment, be read as a sequel to Dawn though the continuity ties between them are ephemeral enough that it is not necessary to have read the former to appreciate the latter.
The commonalities between the two volumes do not stop there. Yamato‘s plot can be read as a distillation of Dawn‘s, like an echo having become more simplified in its second rebound. To Tezuka’s credit, this decision proves to be a valuable one creatively as his recurrent meditations on the sacred nature of all life are able to resound with a greater clarity within this narrowed scope.
Like Dawn, Tezuka begins his world-building process with a glimpse into the everyday lives of the respective leaders of Yamato and Kumaso. According to Wikipedia, the Kumaso were “a people of ancient Japan, believed to have lived in the south of KyÃƒÂ»shÃƒÂ» until at least the Nara period” which began in the 8th century of the Common Era. KyÃƒÂ»shÃƒÂ» is the southern and westernmost of the four main islands of modern Japan. While the Kumaso may have persisted as a culture until the 700s, this particular story is set roughly four hundred years earlier, in what is known as the Kofun period.
A little historical context, in this case, goes a long way towards illustrating how adroitly Tezuka understands the task before him in rooting his story in exactly this place and time. A kofun is a particular type of burial mound that appeared during this period, the same type of burial mound that is one of the two central focii of this story. The Kofun period is distinguished from all those that preceded it by the development and codification of the first written Japanese language, using Chinese characters but a diverging vocabulary base and grammatical structure sometimes referred to as Old Japanese.
While Tezuka was forced to rely on myth and oblique historical references from the Chinese for the foundation of Dawn, Yamato marks the boundary of Japan’s own written historical record. The second focus of the story is on the production of the oldest historical document written in this first language, the Kojiki. In order to plausibly tie Yamato into Dawn‘s continuity, Tezuka plays a little loose with the history here, essentially producing the landmark work four hundred years early, excusing himself, one supposes, by never insisting that THIS Kojiki is THE Kojiki.
But even as the king of Yamato is compiling his kingdom’s version of the history of the world, he catches wind of a competing volume being written by the king of the Kumaso. Fearful of his own scholars’ inadequacies, he sends his youngest son to Kyushu to subdue the Kumaso people and subjugate them under Yamato rule. This setup is a convenient if effective means to illustrate the old aphorism that history is written by the victor and works exceptionally well as the motivating force to keep the players moving towards their final (and often grisly) destinies.
As with Dawn, Tezuka’s narrative sympathies lie clearly with the Kumaso, despite the obvious gaps in development between them and the dominant Yamato. The King of Yamato, who is nameless beyond his title, is portrayed as a monomaniacal buffoon and his court populated by incapable yes-men. Only the youngest son, Oguna Yamato, shows signs of being immune to Tezuka’s disdain. He serves essentially the same function as Em Dee, the doctor from Yamato that betrayed the Kumaso in Dawn, as a narrative bridge as both between the two cultures. As Oguna infiltrates the Kumaso people and slowly gains their trust, he develops three relationships that are important to the outcome of the story.
The first is with Lord Takeru, king of the Kumaso. Despite the counsel of his ranking warriors, Takeru welcomes Oguna into their presence and treats him as an equal, despite his status as foreigner. Though Oguna is open about his mission to subdue Kyushu for the Yamato people (which cannot be accomplished without murdering their king), Lord Takeru openly shares the singular aspects of his culture with the young prince. Though they are clearly adversaries, Takeru and Oguna come to respect one another as equals and the eventual loser in their inevitable clash bestows his name upon his killer as a sign of respect for his character.
Oguna also develops a relationship with Lord Takeru’s sister, Kajika. Kajika, like all Kumaso women, is a skilled warrior and distrustful of Oguna’s presence among them. Though she persistently encourages her brother to have Oguna killed to protect himself, the pair eventually become romantically involved, again mirroring the relationship between Em Dee and his Kumaso bride. Like Nagi from Dawn, Kajika also winds up in Yamato after fleeing the unrest in her homeland in order to gain revenge, only to find herself forging a strong emotional bond with the very person she sought to kill. Given the insistence with which he repeats this theme over and over, Tezuka seems to suggest that the assimilation of one culture by another is an act that is, at once, about both death and love. Put another way, it is a process that almost always begins with horrific violence but, within less than a generation, is often perpetuated by strong emotional bonds that develop between once sworn enemies.
Lastly, Oguna is our window to the Phoenix herself. While in Kumaso, Oguna subdues the Phoenix peacefully by playing music for her every night. For the first time in the Phoenix cycle, the mythic creature willingly gives up a portion of her blood to a mortal as payment for his kindness. Though he, like nearly every character in Yamato, commits murder to further his own agenda, his motivation in coming to Kumaso is as means to convince his father to end the practice of burying servants alive in the king’s tomb upon his death. The Phoenix is moved by his compassion for his fellow man and allows him to stain a piece of cloth with her blood that he might use it to preserve those lives in the event that he is unsuccessful at changing the ingrained traditions of his people. Though the Phoenix is given time in the story as a transcendent mythical figure, Yamato’s version of the Firebird is less aloof than most to the plight of humanity, at one point, actually interfering directly in the battle between Yamato and Kumaso in order to save Oguna’s life and allow him to return to his people.
Moving beyond the mechanics of the plot, Yamato exhibits a few singular traits, both visual and narrative, that bear mentioning. Known for regularly relying on a star system from which to choose his players, it is surprising to see that most of the characters in Yamato are not derived from the normal batch of visual archetypes. While the burden of creating new character designs for this people-dense piece finds Tezuka occasionally teetering on the edge of ridiculousness (like Kajika’s outfit, which looks like something out of a third-rate production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle), Yamato is definitely richer for the extra effort required to execute that particular creative decision.
Another curious trait is Tezuka’s urgent reliance on what I like to call narrative frontality; an intuitive term, not unlike “graphic novel”, intended to borrow elements from its constituent components without being held to the strict restraints placed on each as a formal term. Frontality, as it might broadly be applied here, is a key feature in portraiture prior to the development of modern Western perspective techniques and persists in many global art traditions to this day. A recognizable example of partial frontality is the well-documented Egyptian paintings that feature a profile shot of the head and a frontal shot from the neck down. While drawings of this kind do little to satisfy those acculturated to Western standards of realism, their facility as a tool for communication was greatly enhanced by a creative decision to openly decry their fictional status in presenting a known thing in an unrealistic way. The drawing of the thing should not and, by virtue of its design, could not be mistaken for an actual object or, in this case, person.
Narrative frontality then might be thought of as a tendency in the work to routinely reveal itself to the reader as a fictional story and not as a facsimile of life itself. Whatever you want to call it, this disruption of the audience’s suspended disbelief is at the absolute core of Tezuka’s entire body of work. The more obvious examples of this include his aforementioned use of the star system, the hyoutan-tsugi (a weird, pig-gourd looking thing that appears generally out of nowhere for a panel or two), and Spider, the nonsensical dwarfish figure that nearly always proclaims that he is “here to meet ya!”
In Yamato, Tezuka takes this disruption to a whole new level as he hinges most of its comedic asides on anachronistic references to issues and ideas contemporary to his own time. This kind of juxtaposition for comedic effect is one of Tezuka’s slapstick staples, but here, he seems to bet the entire funny farm on this one joke. In one sequence, he actually frames a character’s internal monologue in the form of an advice column while in another, student protesters picket the environmental damage caused by the construction of the king’s tomb. Without an obvious tie into Tezuka’s loftier themes that otherwise work so seamlessly here, the amount of space in the book dedicated to these comedic asides remains something of an enigma. It becomes a mystery tinged with irony when one considers the great lengths that Tezuka goes to in order to immerse the reader in not only the physical aspects of geography but the more intangible aspects of culture (religion, politics, etc.) specific to this historical period in time. Just as in Future, the creative value for Tezuka seems to be in the irreconcilable differences between these two opposed concepts.
A moment should also be set aside to remark on not only the splendor of visual storytelling techniques that Tezuka packs into this dense piece but the almost uncharacteristic precision with which they are largely applied. There is a restlessness that haunts all of Tezuka’s work that often finds him preoccupied with testing out new experimental storytelling techniques at the occasional expense of clarity and emotional focus. In Yamato, we see this same drive but in service to the thematic focus and dramatic punch of the work as a whole.
Early in the book, Oguna must participate in a ritualized stick fight elevated high off of the ground with one of the Kumaso warriors. This eight-page battle sequence truly ranks towards the top of Tezuka action scenes in terms of dramatic staging and use of perspective to reinforce the sense of danger. A good deal of the story also deals with music and Tezuka uses the presence of this abstraction to dabble in playful psychedelia that would resurface in his later examination of the life of the Buddha.
The final profundity to be taken away from Yamato is how many facets of interpretation it manages to present in a paltry 174 pages and, in the end, I think it is representational of why I believe that the Phoenix cycle is one of the most important works in the history of narrative art, whether comics, manga, bande dessinee, or what-have-you. From volume to volume, Yamato included, Phoenix is not without its flaws. It is a deeply human work whether or not it articulates Tezuka’s often cited but rarely defined humanistic philosophies. It asks the existential questions that plague every human being, of any culture or time, while simultaneously dissecting the worldviews and ideologies that have guided, do guide, and will continue to guide the course of human events. It’s a lot to ask of lines on paper but, that is why there will only ever be one Osamu Tezuka.