Swallowing the Earth

Swallowing the Earth cover

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.

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.

Swallowing the Earth cover

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. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


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