Swallowing the Earth

I find it difficult to read Osamu Tezuka. I admire his craft, but so much of his work is so time-bound — he worked many decades ago, and the attitudes of those periods permeate his stories. (I’m especially uncomfortable with the gender stereotyping.) I also have a hard time reading manga that’s supposedly for adults that looks so cute and cuddly and Disney-fied.

Swallowing the Earth cover
Swallowing the Earth
Buy this book

About the only series of his I’ve liked, in terms of choosing to read it for enjoyment, is Black Jack. There, the exaggerated appearances match the outrageous actions. With much of the rest, I find the big themes undercut by the cartoony style. It’s like trying to watch Bugs Bunny doing a straight version of Waiting for Godot. I’m putting all this on the table because it’s important background I had to overcome in order to read this single-volume collection, and I don’t think I was very successful at doing so.

Swallowing the Earth is the story of Zephyrus, a modern-day siren. She’s immensely beautiful, captivating any man who sees her, but her seduction leads to their death. The only person immune to her is Gohonmatsu, a sort of Japanese Li’l Abner who isn’t particularly interested in women and only wants to get drunk. His desire inspires the title, although it also represents Zephyrus’ goal.

It’s apparent that the story was originally serialized in the way that it rambles and meanders and takes a while to get to the point. The foreword by Frederik Schodt is very helpful in reminding readers of what the world, and especially Japan, was like in 1968, when the book was created. He apologizes for Tezuka’s visual racial stereotypes, also artifacts of the time, which are particularly galling during a chapter that tries to deal with the U.S. civil rights struggle. Youth culture, the Vietnam War, and changes in the manga industry were all factors in this work, Tezuka’s first long-form story aimed at adults. It’s surprising to think of an over-500-page book as “transitional” — I would expect someone experimenting with new topics and style modifications to aim a little shorter — but apparently, that’s how this fits into his career.

The exaggerated goofy visual gags can undercut the aims of the book, which intends to show how men are fascinated by gorgeous women, how women can abuse this power, and the problems of basing an economy on the gold standard. (No, really.) To someone reading today, the main plot — an abused woman raises her interchangeable daughters to humiliate men, take revenge, and destroy the world — is pretty cheesy and laughable. The mother married a greedy man who only wanted her as a way to get her father’s research and sell it to the Nazis during WWII. She couldn’t divorce him, due to laws of the time, so after she runs away with her children, she raises them with the mission to destroy the world’s systems of money (through flooding the gold market), laws (by developing artificial skin, which leads to a crime wave), and men (with sex).

The symbolism is also heavy-handed. Having sex with Zephyrus leaves a man empty, shriveled, dead, and shrunken smaller than a child’s arm. Hmm. I wonder what that could mean.

Gohonmatsu is so much a man’s man that when Zephyrus forces him to undress and sees how endowed he is, she passes out. I also said earlier that this was Zephyrus’ story, but that’s wrong. She’s the inciting figure and the pursued object, but we don’t really get a sense of her as a person, with identifiable feelings and motivations. Especially since we later find out how generic and replaceable a beautiful, buxom blonde is to these men. On the other hand, we don’t get much sense of their characters, either. They fall into stereotypes as well: rich American, drunken everyman, possessed foreigner, bad guy.

(While a full discussion of the women’s roles would involve numerous spoilers, I will say that although Tezuka acknowledges that fake skin can’t camouflage body shape, he still draws most of his women with the same stereotyped hourglass figure. A woman who looks different is usually shown as immensely ugly in order to set up a joke.)

Love is a plot device, unbelievable in its declaration. Although made for older readers, with its cartoony boobs and sex, the events are still plotted for the young, with violence tossed in whenever things get boring and lots of “and then this happened” storytelling, where events are strung together to keep things moving without much concern for plausibility or the theme or shape of the story as a whole. The idea of Gohonmatsu, a drunken idiot, being the hero sums up who the audience is and what they want to see.

If you don’t mind the caricatured (and sometimes racist) character designs typical of the period and artist, the art is quite skilled and often impressive. The out-sized emotions are palpable, which makes some of the more exaggerated events — like men dueling to the death — a little more plausible. By the end of the book, though, nothing kept me involved in the increasingly ridiculous plot. I would have really appreciated having some culture/translation notes, but they would have made this lengthy book even longer.

Now, all that said, if you’re looking for an approachable way to try Tezuka, demonstrating both his strengths and weaknesses, this affordable single volume is a good choice. The site Tezuka in English has a 25-page preview and discusses the book in the context of his other work. Scott VonSchilling’s review points out many of the same problems I had, although he also praises the layout, with examples of the art. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

17 Comments

  1. I find many of your comments to be ironic and slightly amusing in light of the fact that I got an advertisement on the left side of the column offering me Asian women for love and marriage.

    No disrespect, just a chuckle.

  2. Oh, my. Sometimes the keyword search picks up on entirely the wrong things. :) It’s blocked now.

  3. BTW, I just reloaded the page and the ad’s back. Did something on the server block the blocking? :/

  4. [...] Connie on vol. 1 of Record of a Fallen Vampire (Slightly Biased Manga) Johanna Draper Carson on Swallowing the Earth (Comics Worth Reading) Laura on vol. 1 of To Terra (Heart of Manga) Melinda Beasi on [...]

  5. [...] [Review] Swallowing the Earth Link: Johanna Draper Carlson [...]

  6. It takes several hours for an ad block to take effect, Hsifeng.

  7. Johanna Says:

    “It takes several hours for an ad block to take effect, Hsifeng.”

    Oh, OK! Glad to know your server’s not messing up after all. :)

    Anyway, thanks for reviewing Swallowing the Earth! I keep an eye out for single-volume self-contained comics, and might have wasted time on this one if not for your advice about what’s actually in it beyond just ‘it’s by a classic mangaka.’

    Meanwhile, I’m not exactly sure if this is on-topic for comics or DVDs woth reading or watching, but I just finished the first prose-instead-of-comics novel (which got optioned for a film) by James Robert Smith (who writes comics too), The Flock, and would like to recommend it.

    Publisher’s Weekly Says:

    “Stealth, cunning and killer instinct have ensured the survival of the flock of this gonzo eco-thriller’s title, a population of prehistoric, predatory, highly intelligent giant proto-birds [no, they're big birds, no proto- here] who’ve roamed for thousands of years in the trackless savanna of what’s now a government military reservation in central Florida. Smith’s entertaining debut [hey, it's not exactly his debut] kicks into high gear when the birds get caught between conflicting environmental and business interests. Vance Holcomb, a billionaire rogue environmentalist, is trying to protect the lurking creatures, while the Berg Brothers, a Disney-style entertainment conglomerate, crave the land as residential real estate. When a right-wing militia is hired to destroy the flock, a naïve young Fish and Wildlife officer and his girlfriend find themselves caught in the resulting melee. Smith maps out a complex living environment that makes the flock’s continued existence almost believable and depicts human characters who match the killer birds in adaptability…”

    I think it’s already a good summer blockbuster on the printed page. The plot is well-paced, the surprises keep coming, and the ending rocks. Also, the book might be especially enjoyable for anyone else who liked Jurassic Park and/or the news out of WWF-Indonesia in recent years on a Sumatran tiger and a Javan rhinoceros trashing cameras. ;)

    At the same time, now that I’ve already read The Flock and enjoyed the story I’m not looking forward to seeing the movie as much as I would have if I didn’t know the ending. OTOH, I liked Slumdog Millionaire and then when I read the book it’s based on, Q & A by Vikas Swarup, it was different enough to still surprise me and be an almost entirely different yet just as enjoyable story. So maybe this time the movie (assuming the filming plans don’t fall through) could be different enough too?

  8. [...] Johanna Draper Carlson, meanwhile, says of Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth, “if you’re looking for an [...]

  9. [...] in this volume is another appearance of the Black Queen, the female doctor who resembles Zephyrus. This story ages particularly badly, as Black Jack forces her into quitting her successful surgery [...]

  10. [...] printing his Black Jack series in beautiful editions. DMP published Tezuka’s experimental manga, Swallowing the Earth. Frederick Schodt is touring the country with his lecture on the life and legacy of Tezuka. Two new [...]

  11. My college’s manga club will be discussing this later on today. This is an interesting insight on the manga.

  12. [...] Manga published Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth back in 2009, and once the initial run was sold, the book went out of print. Now, they’ve set [...]

  13. [...] in a large size: 5 7/8″ x 8 1/4″, the same size as [their] previous Tezuka release, Swallowing the Earth.” (No word on how much of the funds will go to paying a translator, or if they’re going [...]

  14. [...] Swallowing the Earth [...]

  15. [...] in English pointed out that I’ve mostly read his “transitional works”. Books like Swallowing the Earth get translated because they’re historically important (in that case, one of his first [...]

  16. [...] first Kickstarter are now available to you — they’ve brought Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth back into print ($24.95, due May, MAR12 1013). I don’t recommend it, since it’s very [...]

  17. [...] 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). I’m glad it’s back [...]

Leave a Reply