by Osamu Tezuka; adaptation by Camiella Nieh
published by Vertical; $19.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
Just as his own status as Manga no Kamisama (God of Manga) was being slowly eroded by the more serious gekiga school of manga towards the end of the 1960s, Osamu Tezuka embarked on an ambitious quest to re-imagine not only the form he re-christened to his own liking but to re-invent himself and his audience’s expectations of him. This middle period of his career is representative of the most ambitious of Tezuka’s works, beginning with his recommencement of his Phoenix cycle in 1967 and concluding, arguably, with his completion of Buddha in 1983. Apollo’s Song, begun in 1970, enjoys many 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 waters.
Apollo’s Song is the story of Shogo Chikaishi, a young man with the irrepressible urge to murder all living things that express love. The story’s narrative oscillates between Shogo’s real life and a series of extended visions in which he must act as an unwilling player; visions that function, for all intents and purposes, as self-contained parables with their own meaning and contribution to the over-arching themes of the book. His first experience, a hallucination brought about by electro-shock therapy in the state mental hospital, bears special consideration as it dictates the content of all others that follow.
In this “dream,” Shogo finds himself in a massive Greek temple that is dominated by a statue of what appears to be the goddess Athena, though she is never named as such. She demands Shogo to explain to her why it is that he hates love. In a flashback sequence that details his troubled childhood with an unfeeling mother, Shogo makes a case for his psychotic behavior and appeals to her mercy for having been shaped by forces beyond his control. Unimpressed with his defense, the goddess curses him to “love one woman again and again but before the two are united in love, one shall perish. Even in death, thou shalt be reborn to undergo yet another trial of love.”
For the remainder of the book, these episodes interrupt the main narrative for extended periods and create a framework for Tezuka to explore any time, place, genre, or whim that suits his theme. In this sense, Apollo’s Song echoes the audacious narrative scope of the Phoenix cycle without taking eleven self-contained but thematically intertwined long-form manga to accomplish his task. Going down the list of genres utilized, one finds science fiction, historical fiction, general adventure with a tinge of Old Testament iconography, and Greek mythology used seamlessly as points of departure from and returning to the main narrative. These frequent location and period changes give Tezuka ample opportunity to showcase both his unequaled skills as a visual storyteller and his emerging fascination with meticulously drawn natural landscapes.
If both strands of Apollo’s Song‘s narrative were as potent as these sequences, it would definitely rank among the finest of any of his work. Several forces conspire, however, to undermine the main narrative in such a way as to render it mildly silly and, on even rarer occasion, dangerously close to incomprehensible. After his eventual escape from the mental hospital, Shogo is taken in by the enigmatic and beautiful Hiromi Watari. Hiromi, the daughter of a once-famous marathon runner, sees great potential in Shogo as he runs from the police and proposes to train him to become a world-class marathon runner at a secret mountain hideaway in order to honor her father’s legacy. In case someone is keeping score, that’s the silly bit. That strand of the story, while framing some of the more potent emotional moments, follows a continuum from ridiculous to utterly implausible and adds little or nothing beyond additional pages to an otherwise excellent story.
The good news, in contrast to Ode to Kirihito, which suffers the same problems but has no other narrative to which to turn for its salvation, is that the allegorical elements of Apollo’s Song add up to more than enough to classify it as an important, if not fundamental, work. It reveals insights into Tezuka’s own views regarding gender and sexuality (a topic which could make up an entire dissertation on its own) as well as the timbre of the time period in which it was produced. Readers should be warned that Apollo’s Song is neither gentle nor squeamish in its rendition of violence and can be thought of as Tezuka’s own Titus Andronicus in this regard. Otherwise, it is highly recommended as a substantive addition to the body of Tezuka’s work currently available in English.