Creator: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical, Inc.
Age Rating: Older Teen
Genre: Action
RRP: $24.95
Ode to Kirihito
Reviewed by Michael Aronson

Ever heard of the “medical thriller” genre? Heck, western publishers don’t even have enough regular thriller series to constitute a “thriller” genre alone. But true to form, Tezuka demonstrates his versatility and mastery at any subject he chooses by crafting an instant classic that might as well begin and end the medical thriller genre in one stroke; I can’t imagine a better entry. Thanks to his medical background, he presents a surprisingly serious and modern exploration of the physical, social and political implications of a physically degenerative disease.

Monmow Disease perplexes the colleagues of Dr. Osanai Kirihito, but only he is determined enough to personally investigate the site of its outbreak. Those who contract it exhibit regressed canine-like bone deformities and hair growth all over the body, not to mention a craving for raw meat. Although the effects of the disease sound like a werewolf horror cliché setup, the only monstrous acts involve the weakened mental states of the disease’s victims . . . and the hungry avarice of those who would exploit them for amusement, political gain or otherwise.

Tezuka has written more woeful and sorrowful stories, but he’s seldom demonstrated such absolute restraint from any kind of humor or winking at the reader. As such, the consistent tone of the story maintains a tragic aura for each character, and this integrity in approach holds the reader’s sympathy and never lets go. The entire cast, from Kirihito’s rival Urabe to captive exotic dancer Reika to diseased nun Helen Friese, are all given layers of personality and emotional reactions, culminating in possibly Tezuka’s most well-realized assemblage of characters ever.

In addition to variety of voices, there’s an even greater variety of locales, and this is the first time I’ve come across Tezuka covering the social issues of racism and poverty. By visiting areas in Thailand, South Africa and the Middle East, the primarily Japanese characters discover an outsider’s impression of Japan as well as difference in cultural expectations and status stratification. Kirihito and company are forced to consider their roles as individuals in both society and the world as well as defining which values are regional and which are universal. Most of Tezuka’s literature is loaded with symbolism and meaning, but so rarely does he tackle modern social issues in a real world setting.

Ode to Kirihito is especially lengthy, clocking in over 800 pages in a single volume. This is especially good for exchanging one’s money for page upon page of quality storytelling, and the length allows for a large number of scenes, locales and subplots, but the scope is so large that at times certain threads start to become undone or seem superfluous. While the focus of the story is on physical illnesses that alter one’s form, mental illness plays a small but questionable role in throwing a wrench into one character’s progress. The story never slows down, especially after seeming digressions prove significant, but the quests and narrative aren’t as neat and tightened as they could be. But then, allegories don’t necessarily need to be confined to a strict plot.

See, in Japanese, Christ is pronounced “Kirisito.” And the main character here is Kirihito . . . get it? Despite Tezuka’s fame for his Buddha saga, he switches gears nimbly to tackle the messages and symbolism of Christianity. Pathetically, I only came upon this realization after finishing the story, so I didn’t observe how closely it could be applied. But while Buddhism deals with karma and the reward for doing good deeds, Christ’s role is about suffering for the sins of others, and that can clearly be seen throughout the story.

Vertical brings another Tezuka masterpiece to the west and we really should be grateful. Every story this creator attempts is bold and different from the last, and Ode to Kirihito is one of the most unique of all.

12 October 2007
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