A little exhausted, but I promised myself I would write a little about this at least.
First of all, let me just say I’m really glad that more of Tezuka’s mature works are getting published here in the United States because of works like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, Tezuka is seen as the pure, unadulterated beginning of manga. Most people that are aware of works like those previously mentioned have this conception of Tezuka as being a mostly commercial artist who drew and wrote simplistic works in response to a national tragedy, just as Walt Disney had done with his Mickey Mouse animations, but the truth is that while a lot of his works had commercial appeal, he was also interested in using the manga medium as a way of artistic expression, and The Book of Human Insects is an excellent foray into this plane of thought.
I’m really surprised at how many works are connected to Gustave Flaubert’s realist classic Madame Bovary and just how influential the novel is. Yes, I would go out to say that Tezuka’s work does borrow a lot of the thematic elements that made Madame Bovary so great. I feel like a lot of the books I’ve read recently have similar connections to Flaubert but for the sake of this post I will just ignore that nagging sense of inauthenticity that is telling me that I haven’t “read enough” because connecting this book to Madam Bovary is actually quite appropriate. Both Bovary and Toshiko are attempting to enter a social realm that they were not born into, that they have both romanticized, and both characters are willing to do whatever they can to be a part of that elevated bracket. However, what differs between the two of them is the fact that Toshiko is able to succeed at her attempts to break into the “upper class” lifestyle. But just like Bovary, she is trapped in the false happiness that her status and material objects give her, and quickly grows bored with them. If I had to convince a literature major who vehemently hated manga and comics, I would tell them simply that this graphic novel is Madame Bovary if Emma were smarter, more ruthless, and almost entirely soulless.
Though the story is entertaining and good based on its own merits of simply telling a story, there is also an undercurrent of social critique throughout the work. Here, Tezuka employs the rampant consumerist trends and nihilistic tendencies of a modern Japan that had adopted America’s capitalist society to exaggerated heights to create a protagonist that both captivates us and disgusts us. Toshiko Tomura is a beautiful, mysterious, and intelligent young woman that is rapidly climbing the ladders of society and enjoying the fruits of her “hard earned” labor. However, the reality is that Toshiko has stolen and connived her way to the top by stealing the works of others and giving her own spin on it. Throughout the novel, Toshiko justifies her actions with a creedo that seems far too common to me and others who have been living in this country: “I wanted it, so I took it.” Everyone else has to suffer the fall-out of her actions. And though there are moments were Toshiko faces the consequences, she manages to overcome them even if it takes years of scheming.
There is also a post-modern element present in Book of Human Insects that can be found in Tezuka’s art. Though a lot of the panels have a very cartoony, almost humorous look and aesthetic to them, there are some panels where Tezuka’s art gets either incredibly psychedelic and representational, or gritty and realistic. I often had to just sit and study panels just to absorb all of the information contained within. The sexual energy and tension in this book is never outright and always present as an undercurrent, but when it splashes into the spotlight, Tezuka handles it with style and a soft flourish. And when sex is shown, it takes different forms and is shown as an act that transcends itself, and this is done in a visual manner. It never feels cheap or forced and when it does happen, its meant to propel the story forward. Overall, the art is typical Tezuka flair but with splashes of noveau, psychedelic expressionism that can be found in Belladonna of Sadness.
The Book of Human Insects, in my opinion, is just something that every “anime elite” and “comic connoisseur” needs to pick up and study, just like Eisner’s Contract with God. It goes beyond the boundaries of comic book into the realm of art and literature and it has the weight of a literary classic. Unlike some of his “serious” works (like Apollo’s Song and Princess Knight, which seem rushed) everything here is evenly paced, detailed, and written in such a way that it can be enjoyed on several levels. I’d like thank Lizzie once again for getting me my copy and Ed Chavez of Vertical Inc. for discussing Tezuka with me and getting me started on this entire “art manga” bent. If any of you are seriously looking to get into gekiga or alternative manga, Tezuka is a good place to start.