January 2008

Josh Cook


Apollo's Song by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka's eight-volume epic Buddha is one of the great works of graphic fiction. Its scope, depth, pathos, humor, and characters make it a genius piece of storytelling. Throughout, Tezuka establishes and stretches much of the visual grammar used today by graphic storytellers. Considered the grandfather of modern manga, Osamu Tezuka is a graphic storyteller on par with Will Eisner and Apollo's Song is another brilliant entry in Tezuka's canon.

Apollo's Song starts at the beginning in a dramatized representation of conception, and tells the story of Shogo, a young man whose relationship with love and sex is warped and twisted to the point where fury overtakes him whenever he sees an act of love. He acts cruelly as a child and young man and is condemned by the gods to eternal punishment, moving through time and space, meeting, falling in love with, and the losing the same woman over and over again. The story takes us to Nazi Germany, an island ruled by peaceful animals, contemporary Japan, and a dystopian future where humanity has been subjugated by emotionless clones. Through these scenarios he explores the intricacies of love and sex, the demands they place on individuals, the sanctity in which we approach those concepts, and the challenges circumstance and society place in front of those in love.

Like Eisner, and more recently, Bechdel's Fun Home, the storytelling is natural and compelling. The layout, landscape, backgrounds, characters, and text all contribute seamlessly to the grand narrative. The passage from pages 36 to 39 shows Shogo committing one of his crimes against love. He watches as a snake attacks a pair of birds guarding their nest. Most of the frames depict the fight between the snake and the bird, pulling back to a near full page frame to capture the snake's writhing and the bird's successful attack. The bird, though, is badly injured in the fight and crawls back to its mate and eggs. Like the best filmmakers, Tezuka uses the focus of the frame to intensify the emotions of the scene, using close-ups of the birds and the dead snake's head to narrate the pain of the victory. Then a small frame is filled by Shogo, boulder aloft, eyes and mouth enfuried. The next frame is a boulder in a nest with a wing sticking out. I've read this passage a dozen times; it affected me each time.

Tezuka is also a master of landscape. Mountains. Volcanoes. Cityscapes. All are rendered in breathtaking clarity and depth. The effect of these landscapes is multifold. First and foremost they establish that the cartoony character design is a conscious style choice and not the result of a limited ability. Secondly they provide a different kind of narrative depth than is present in the rest of the story. They can be looked at and interpreted as paintings. They are stories in themselves that can be read. Furthermore, they provide another level of connection between Shogo's different episodes by drawing connections to the spaces in which they take place. For example in one landscape we see a beautiful mountain with a small house and a trail of chimney smoke in front of it on page 245. It is a portrait of our interaction with landscape. Later in the story, in the dystopia part, that mountain again is shown in its interaction with humanity, except in this picture the mountain is cut in half and there is an entire city in front of it.

Tezuka is also a genius of layout. Every page is arranged to contribute to the story. Every frame and every gutter is designed to reflect, reinforce, or imply some aspect of the story. One of the clearest examples happens on page 211. Shogo has been saved from arrest by a mysterious woman. She is driving him to a mountain hideout when he recognizes her as the woman from his condemnation dream. In that moment, when Shogo's world turns, the frame's orientation turns, so the final frame of the page is vertical, along the entire right edge of the page. That reorientation of frame compellingly communicates the effect of the realization on the character. This world turning occurs again, to the clone queen of the dystopian world. After finally learning to love through her relationship with Shogo, she learns that he too has been replaced with a clone. The knowledge turns her frame, but this is a different situation and a different kind of realization, so instead of driving towards the top of the page, as on page 211, this world turn points the car to the bottom of the page.

Apollo's Song asks challenging questions about love and is one of the only works I've read that truly explores the connection between the emotion of love and the biological function of procreation. This does limit its scope to heterosexual relationships, but, ultimately, as a work of literature, it does not suffer from this limitation. Furthermore, Tezuka can occasionally be heavy-handed with his text, especially when his characters are called upon to expound about love or he describes the environmental mistakes of our society. But, in his defense, it is almost impossible to speak directly about love without falling into some kind of exaggeration and cliché, and he was writing before environmentalism became a mainstream idea, when he would have needed to shout to make his point heard. In most works, these faults would not stand out, but Tezuka's work is generally so close to perfect that whatever flaws there are get magnified.

In art and literature there is a kind of punishment for success; if one's work reaches a certain level of influence, then lesser imaginations will appropriate the style and opportunists will corrupt it for commercial gain. For Tezuka, his visual style became the defining grammar for manga, and though some very good manga has been written, much of it is entertainment product, whose cues, especially in terms of character design, have been further appropriated by children's cartoons. This creates a bias in many American readers, who come to Tezuka expecting the same kind of entertainment, leaving them totally unprepared to accept what Tezuka offers.

There is too much depth and complexity in Apollo's Song to explicate in the context of a review. Even for this review, I was compelled to read it twice, take careful notes, and return to key passages dozens of times. Apollo's Song deserves the close reading of a literary novel and will reward those who do so. Tezuka is a master storyteller, and as graphic fiction continues to gain acceptance as a form of literature, his prominence will rise as one of the great writers of the last half of the twentieth century.

Apollo's Song by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, Inc.
ISBN: 1932234667
544 Pages