Monday, July 26, 2010

きりひと讃歌 (Ode to Kirihito)

Ode to Kirihito is a medical drama manga from 1970-1971, written by acclaimed manga master Osamu Tezuka (creator of Astro Boy, Black Jack, and the recently-reviewed classic Metropolis).  It is the story of Osanai Kirihito, a young doctor intrigued by a strange ailment known as Monmow Disease, which turns all of its sufferers into animalistic creatures with dog-like physical features, cravings for raw meat, and difficult-to-control impulses.  Osanai goes to the town of Doggoddale (in the original Japanese, Inugamisawa), where it seems all (or at least most) of reported cases of Monmow Disease originate.  As Osanai investigates this ailment, a disturbing change occurs in him, and he is led on a wild odyssey around the world searching for the answers to this disease and trying to return home to Japan.  There are also many, many subplots, including the fate of Osanai's fiancee, Yoshinaga Izumi, the aspirations to authority of Osanai's superior, Dr. Tatsugara, the investigations of Osanai's coworker, Dr. Urabe, and the stories of numerous individuals Osanai meets on his journeys around the world.

The art is fantastic.  It's dark and edged; defining lines and expert shading abound.  All the art is drawn in the style of gekiga ("dramatic pictures"), a term coined by mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi to refer to serious comics, in contrast to manga ("irresponsible pictures").  One analogy is that it is like the term "graphic novel" in the United States.  In analogical form, manga : gekiga :: comic books : graphic novel.  In all, this means that the art is meant to be serious rather than whimsical, and its focus on shading, shadows, darkness, rigid lines, and more realistic imagery certainly portray that.

The story is very complex.  All the subplots blend into the main plot, and for the most part everything is resolved.  The weaving of the plots is truly masterful, and, unlike Metropolis (which I felt was rushed far too much), the plot makes progress, but it takes its time.  The pacing is focused and powerful.

It's hard to do justice to how much the manga makes the reader think.  This story is not for the faint-hearted: one major idea in the book is how physical depravity does not equal moral depravity; instead, they can often be opposing forces.  The morality is complex, to say the least; things are not black-and-white, although there is a lot of black.  Christian symbolism (even to the point of depictions of the Way of the Cross) are surprisingly common (it's rare for manga to reference Christianity), most often in connection with the intriguing (though not perfect) character of Sister Helen Friese.  Psychological illness is explored somewhat, although I believe every case of it in the book is violent, adding to the stereotype of the mentally ill as always violent.  What it means to be a doctor and the power of altruism are evident here as well.  This brief overview is just a glimpse into the fascinating, multi-layered world of this work.

I must say, I think this work far, far surpassed Metropolis, the other manga by the same author I've read.  Not only was the pacing much more effective, but the art blew me away.  Sometimes I couldn't believe I was reading the same mangaka who created the kid-friendly art of Astro Boy.  This is a dark, deep, complex, questioning work.  Even though sometimes it may seem like a work that portrays the world as hopeless, on the whole it is positive about the goodness in humans and the dignity of humanity.  That's not to say that all the humans in the work are good: far from it; moral depravity is rampant, especially in regards to the terrifying character of Master Mahn (just thinking about him makes me sick).  The Christianity (actually, Catholicism: the Christian character is a nun in a convent) present here took me by surprise, but I think it was portrayed very well.  While I'm a bit wary on some parts of the Christian character, overall I think it's a positive view of Christianity (for those who actually live it out, that is).

In conclusion, I must say that I was blown away by Ode to Kirihito.  While for now I'm giving it a 9/10, further reflection may up that score to a 10: we'll see.  It is a complex and challenging work.  While I'd love to recommend this manga to everyone, I have to say: Ode to Kirihito is NOT for the weak-hearted.  Totaling 822 pages in the single-volume edition, it's a hefty tome.  That's just a mild reason for my caution, though; the content can be very disturbing at times. WARNING: This manga portrays much moral depravity (in a negative way, but it's still present) including, but not limited to, racial discrimination, murder of the innocent, prostitution, rape, bestiality, sexual perversions, and disregard for common decency.  That's just some of the very blatant stuff that can be summarized easily: there is much more that can be disturbing, but is hard to explain succinctly.

My final comment is this, then: I give Ode to Kirihito a 9/10, and I'd highly recommend it, but only for those who are up for reading a work which can be very disturbing at times.  Read at your own risk.  But if you are able to get through it and reflect on it, I think you'll find it to be a fascinating and worthwhile read.

Thanks for reading.  God bless, and peace.

Nota Bene: All images from Google Image Search.  Thanks to Wikipedia for background information on this work and on the concept of gekiga.

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