"Ode to Kirihito": 2.3 Pounds of Comic Book Masterpiece
Before he began the work that would establish him as the God of Manga and the father of the anime industry, Osamu Tezuka was trained as a medical doctor. No doubt his experiences in that prior life informed Ode to Kirihito, a grand-scale work from 1970 that has just been released in English by Vertical, Inc. Ode to Kirihito has more in common with Tezuka’s unfinished science fiction epic Phoenix than his better-known works like Astro Boy or Kimba the White Lion. It is a challenging and fascinating work that may not appeal to all audiences. Frankly, it’s kind of weird. However, it also contains rich rewards for those willing to plumb its depths.
The book centers on Dr. Kirihito Osanai, a young, up-and-coming doctor researching a mysterious disease which triggers skeletal disfigurement and an excess of body hair, resulting in an appearance like a wild dog. While researching the disease in a remote mountain village, Dr. Osanai becomes infected with it, isolating him from society. Subsequently, he becomes the victim of a monstrous conspiracy that ultimately encompasses a huge network of people, including his corrupt and power-hungry supervisor, his fiancée and her power-broker parents, a deeply depraved oligarch from Taiwan, and a medical colleague with a tragically unchecked id. That doesn’t even manage to include the corrupt priest attempting to cover up a saintly nun who is also afflicted with the disease.
Ode to Kirihito doesn’t resemble the average comic book or manga series as much as it resembles a Russian novel, both in terms of its length and its population of richly-depicted secondary characters. The characters may be prone to occasional excessive histrionic outbursts caused by a swell of emotions, but we accept these easily because the emotional cores of the characters remain true and completely believable. Furthermore, Kirihito and the nun must find their salvation through suffering, enduring their own, separate tortured journeys lifted straight from Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. Like the leads of many Russian novels, the pair ultimately find their relief through God – unlike many American comic books that studiously shy away from explicit religious references, Ode to Kirihito achieves much of its spiritual depth through its use of Christian themes and imagery. Finally, Ode to Kirihito can be enjoyed equally as a gripping tale of people stumbling through the hardships of life and as a metaphor for deeper, more existential issues.
Tezuka plays a dangerous game by surrounding the virtuous Kirihito with characters who are all morally compromised to some degree. The black-and-white morality that is a comic book stereotype is replaced with a world of dismayingly dark shades of gray. This is an exceptionally risky technique, since it is easy to cross the line where revulsion towards the characters overwhelms the story. Thankfully, Tezuka manages to present an array of characters who (mostly) earn our pity rather than our scorn. The prevalence of moral darkness also make the moments of grace stand out in even sharper relief.
Comics are words and pictures working in tandem, and the artwork in Ode to Kirihito demonstrates exactly why Tezuka was such an important figure in the world of manga. Comic book storytelling is a highly underappreciated skill, even among most fans of the medium. One could learn volumes on comic storytelling techniques from any of Tezuka’s work, but Ode to Kirihito is an exceptionally rich mine for them. Like Will Eisner, Tezuka’s layouts are deceptively simple, but deliver a tremendous narrative and emotional impact. Tezuka masterfully balances the flow of an individual page with the flow of the overall narrative – the book never drags and never loses the reader in an over-complicated mess of panels. If nothing else, the art is notable for the numerous ways Tezuka depicts a mental breakdown in comic form, each of which is different from the other and all of which communicate their message with devastating efficiency. The only other comic book artists in recent memory who could communicate emotional turmoil so effectively are Dave Sim and Gerhard in Cerebus, and the similarities are so strong in places that one wonders whether Sim was influenced by an earlier import of Kirihito.
Vertical would earn kudos simply for bringing such a challenging and uncommercial project to press, but their edition of Ode to Kirihito is exemplary. Vertical presents the work in “flipped” format to allow for a left-to-right reading style more familiar to Western eyes and commissioned an excellent translation by Camellia Nieh. Normally, the binding isn’t something that calls attention to itself in a book, but it proves to be exceptionally noteworthy when the book is 800+ pages and is still easy to open and read. The only criticism of the book’s design comes from designer Chip Kidd’s use of a separate half-sleeve on the cover, similar to the colored bands he used on Vertical’s Buddha hardcovers or the half a dust jacket on DC’s Batman: Year One deluxe hardcover. These design elements may look wonderful on a desk but are often far more trouble than they’re worth in bookstores or on bookshelves. However, the one on Ode to Kirihito isn’t quite as fragile as those on Kidd’s earlier books, and also serves an interesting artistic function as it slides back and forth on the cover.
Ode to Kirihito isn’t a book for everybody. Its heft alone requires a level of commitment that is further challenged by the depth of the story and the sizeable cast. However, the risk is well worth the reward.
James has additionally written a review of this book titled, Ode to Tezuka: “Kirihito” Classic Is a Must Read.