Message to Adolf Volume 1
One of the most famous of Osamu Tezuka’s adult works is now back in print in an oversized hardcover with a new translation by Kumar Sivasubramanian.
The story of three men named Adolf is introduced to us by a reporter, Sohei Toge, who covered the Berlin Olympics in 1936. (Message to Adolf was originally published in the 80s, which made his age more reasonable.) His brother is murdered there, and the body, taken away by officials, disappears. While investigating, Toge discovers his brother’s history of dissident politics, which leads to him being pursued and tortured by Nazi men in black.
Meanwhile, two boys named Adolf become friends in Japan, in spite of their families’ opposition. One is Jewish, and the other is the son of a German diplomat. The two share a secret about Hitler that could bring down the Nazi party. That secret is the macguffin that drives all the many chases throughout the book. After several chapters of the boys, we return to the reporter, whose life has been destroyed due to his brother’s discovery.
Given Tezuka’s roots in creating popular entertainment, it’s not surprising to see plenty of action and suspense. This is a thriller, not a thoughtful, serious exploration of the rise of Naziism. There are plenty of coincidences and a sprawling plot with lots of characters who keep running into each other. As war begins, we also visit a concentration camp and a school for Hitler youth.
Modern readers might be taken aback by another trope common to Tezuka’s work, that of abusing the female characters. Toge’s brother’s former girlfriend is two-faced, which apparently justifies beating and raping her. Adolf’s mother is constantly threatened by others, although she at least gets to have desires of her own. Tezuka also beats up his main male character a lot, creating a history for him that resembles Job, what with him being tortured and driven to vagrancy and maimed.
The art, as one would expect from the “god of manga”, is astounding, with the opening establishing shots of a graveyard transitioning into the packed Olympic stadium particularly remarkable. As events move quickly, the pages are easy to read, even when packed with dialogue panels. The characters are distinctive, their movements perfectly captured.
The pages have been flipped, to make it an easier read for English-speaking audiences and presumably to reach more readers. This does lead to the occasional blip, as the Nazi salute is given with the left arm, but it’s not particularly noticeable, unless you’re looking for it.
I did find the inconsistent treatment of racism troubling. The whole story is about the Jews being impure, but everyone seems to treat one of the Adolfs as pure German even though he’s half Japanese. I know it’s needed to make the story work, to give it the Japanese connection Tezuka wanted, and it shouldn’t surprise me that Nazi villains are hypocrites, but it just struck me as an odd thing to overlook until late in this volume.
Of all of Tezuka’s adult work I’ve read, this is the one that strikes me as best for a reader looking to understand his appeal. It’s faithful to his style without being too cartoony (unlike Buddha). It’s relatively self-contained and easily available (unlike Phoenix). It deals with an approachable, realistic, meaningful topic (unlike the sci-fi Ode to Kirihito or Swallowing the Earth or the fantastic Princess Knight). It’s not too creepy (unlike Ayako or Apollo’s Song). I’m glad it’s back in print.
Message to Adolf would be my first choice for the modern reader who wanted to sample Tezuka, although they should know that this book is over 600 pages, and the story doesn’t conclude in it. The second and final volume is due out next week. (The publisher provided a review copy.)