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The Fine Print
All text is © copyright VIZ, LLC. No reproduction without written permission. All images are © copyright their respective copyright holders as noted. No reproduction without written permission. © 2002 Tezuka Productions
BY PATRICK MACIAS
Astro Boy. Kimba the White Lion. Adolf. Black Jack. Metropolis. When Westerners make a short list of the masterpieces created by Osamu Tezuka, the odds are there's been a crucial omission. More than any other work created by Tezuka it is probably Phoenix, a.k.a. Hi no Tori, that best proves that its author is indeed deserving of the lofty-title of "the God of Manga."
Originally begun serialization in the pages of Manga Shônen magazine in 1954, Phoenix is an epic story cycle that ultimately came to be composed of over 3,000 pages and 10 volumes. Phoenix's themes encompass nothing less than the search for the meaning of life and humanity's wish for immortality. The story jumps across eons, across planets, the past, the future, and barriers of life and death. By any standard of art, let alone that of manga, Phoenix is a formidable work, one which the author himself considered to be his "life work." Sadly, the grand picture ultimately planned by Tezuka was forever left unfinished by his death in 1989. But what we do have to read and ponder is truly amazing.
So far, only small samples of Tezuka's intended magnum opus have been made available to Western audiences. First came 1980's Phoenix 2772, a fine, yet somewhat overlooked, animated feature film currently available on U.S. home video from Best Film and Video. Three years later, a 26-page excerpt from volume 4 of the Phoenix manga was published in Frederik L. Schodt's now classic must-own book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.
Beginning in May, Viz Comics' Pulp line will be publishing a substantial portion of the saga in a new large-sized 7"x10" 296 page graphic novel called Phoenix. Composed of volume 2 of Tezuka's 10-volume epic, this edition of Phoenix is, like others in the series, a completely self-contained story that can be enjoyed independently of other installments. Unlike other story sequences from Phoenix, which are sometimes set in Japan's, or even China's, historical past, Viz's edition of Phoenix is a thought-provoking work of science fiction set in the year 3404 on a dying planet called Earth.
For over a thousand years, the surface world has become a nearly uninhabitable wasteland. Mankind has had to move into underground mega-cities of which there are five city-states -- Yuork, Lengund, Pinking, Ralais, and Yamato. Each city is effectively run by both bureaucrats and by all-knowing, all-seeing super-computers.
As the story begins as our young protagonist Space Patrolman Yamanobe is enjoying a relaxing vacation in sunny 20th century Hawaii along with his beautiful girlfriend Tamami. But this seemingly impossible trip to paradise lost is cut short when Yamanobe is ordered to report to Yamato Central Command by his supervisor Roc. (A sort of variation of the Roc character as seen in the recent Metropolis movie. This sort of casting happens a lot across Tezuka's work and Phoenix is no exception.) Roc accuses Yamanobe of irresponsibly spending all his off-duty hours hypnotized. It seems that Yamanobe's darling Tamami is actually nothing more than a shapeless alien life-form known as a "Moopie." Because Moopies themselves have no natural shape, they can take on various organic forms. Not only that. Moopies have the ability to stimulate human minds with sound waves, inducing a drug-like dream state. While Moopies were once kept as pets by humans, mostly because animals and other living things had gone extinct, they are now blamed for the decline of the human race. People became overly dependent and addicted to these creatures who had the ability to indulge every owner's fantasies and dreams. Moopies have since been outlawed across the universe. They have been hunted and killed and Yamanobe is now ordered by Roc to exterminate his forbidden pet. Naturally, it isn't any easy task for him to accomplish. In fact Yamanobe is so attached to Tamami, his Moopie, that he decides to flee the country--far from an easy task, especially with a Big Brother-like mega-computer called Hallelujah assisting Roc in tracking down the two fugitives. Tamami and Yamanobe are left with no choice but to take their chances on the blasted, abandoned surface world.
Only a few people would dare to live in such a harsh environment. Among such folk is the elderly Dr. Saruta, an ugly, but kind-hearted scientist who lives in his dome laboratory. Because the animals who once populated the Earth are long-since extinct, Dr. Saruta has devoted himself to creating fragile living replicas who must dwell inside artificial glass wombs lest they quickly perish. When one of his creations dies a tragic death, Dr. Saruta finds himself at the end of his rope, single-handedly trying to repopulate a doomed planet that God seems to have abandoned...and failing. Faced with his own imminent mortality, Saruta begs God to teach him the secret of life. Almost at once, a magical bird-like being appears. It is the mythological Phoenix that ties together the various strands of Tezuka's multi-part epic. The Phoenix is not God, but rather the embodiment of the life-force of all living things. The Phoenix tells Dr. Satura that the cosmos has fallen ill, just like any biological entity would. But all is not lost. Only one person it seems can save the Earth...at which point Tamami and Yamanobe appear on the horizon hotly pursued by Roc's radar search robots.
With its unique mix of speculative science fiction and cosmic spirituality Phoenix indeed lives up to its reputation as a giant among manga. Although originally written and drawn in 1967, Tezuka's legendary storytelling skills make it a wildly entertaining read, as well as a thought-provoking literary work. The translation is being supervised by America's resident Tezuka expert Frederik L. Schodt (who is performing similar duties for Dark Horse's Astro Boy) and his partners known as Dadakai.
In short, if you are already Tezuka fan, or merely curious about the legacy and true power of the God of manga, a reading of Phoenix should very well be mandatory. It is indeed that good.