Saturday, September 5, 2009
Ode to Kirihito
The story: The title character, Kirihito Osanai, is an up-and-coming doctor, engaged to a beautiful woman and researching Monmow disease alongside his mentor, Dr. Tatsugaura. Monmow disease, prevalent in a remote village in Japan, causes a horrific physical transformation, ultimately resulting in a dog- or badger-like appearance until an agonizing death claims its victim. When Kirihito dares to challenge his mentor's theory that the disease is viral, he's sent off to the village to investigate. There, he contracts the disease and his painful and transformational experience begins. From being sold to a Chinese multimillionaire to being kidnapped in the Middle East, Kirihito goes through a Homer's Odyssey of sorts in his attempts to return home to Japan and confront Tatsugaura, who conspired against him to begin with. Meanwhile, his friend and colleague Dr. Urabe goes through a psychological transformation of his own while Kirihito is away, although he tries his best to get to the bottom of what happened to his friend. Will Kirihito ever make his way home and, if he does, will he confront Tatsugaura as a man or beast?
Reaction: First off, this was a rather thick tome and, despite my speed-reading ability, took me the better part of a week to complete. But, that in no way tarnishes its greatness. Much like other Osamu Tezuka series, Ode to Kirihito is a thoughtful meditation on life, from what separates man from beast to how greed and ego can sublate our humanity. There's also a strong tie to Christian values that surprised me, and a parallel to Christ's suffering. There's a carefully balanced duality of storylines at work here, too, between Kirihito's outward transformation into a beast alongside Dr. Tatsugaura's transformation into an ever-obstinate politician. Unfortunately for Tatsugaura, he never yields. Thankfully, Kirihito finds his humanity and his purpose, making this a fulfilling story despite it's seemingly untimely ending.
Deep thoughts: There's a lot of religious imagery and symbolism in this book, from images of Christ carrying a cross to a display of (most likely) Hindu gods in ecstasy. The inclusion is an anomaly, even among Tezuka's other works. While he's always included spirituality in some unspoken way, I've never seen such an overt and purposeful incorporation in his other works that I've read thus far. Also, the character of Sister Helen is an interesting one, and a contrast to the other characters, as she's the only one you could definitively say was truly good. Otherwise, all of Tezuka's characters carefully walk a path of gray morality in a black and white world.
Artwork: While this isn't a steep departure from his prior works, Tezuka does flex his artistic muscles here, including some metaphorical and surreal scenes to illustrate Urabe's descent into madness. There's also the unconventional religious imagery I mentioned prior, as well as some wonderfully and clinically detailed medical moments. But, my favorite panels consistently show Tezuka's attention to detail—whether it's the architecture of an up-and-coming Chinese city to a surgery in a Middle Eastern cave. And, as always, his cartoonish style alleviates the, at times, overbearing seriousness in this manga, allowing a psychological break of sorts.
The verdict: Highly recommended. I hesitate to call this required reading for a few reasons, namely that it's hard to say how anyone will react to a story like this. It's an odd, dark book that shows the worst of mankind. While it tries to find a positive note towards its end, it seemed to end too early, much like Dororo. However, this is still a wonderful book that I heartily recommend, simply for the themes it brings up. Ode to Kirihito is available in the U.S. from Vertical.