Swallowing the Earth (of 1) (Mania.com)
Review Date: Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Release Date: Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Swallowing the Earth is a fascinating, yet often maddening, snapshot of a transitional period in Tezuka's career.
Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Translation: Kumar Sivasubramanian
Adaptation: Kumar Sivasubramanian
What They Say
Amidst the chaos of World War II, two Japanese soldiers hear of Zephyrus, an utterly captivating woman rumored to exist on an island in the South Pacific. The tales of this bold enchantress seducing men to their dooms are both chilling and fascinating. Over twenty years pass, and Zephyrus resurfaces in Japan, seemingly unchanged, to wield her mysterious power over men once more.
The one man immune to Zephyrus' charms is simple drunkard, Gohonmatsu Seki, son of one of the wartime soldiers. Employed to spy on Zephyrus, what will Gohonmatsu uncover about her ultimate plot to create international discord and consume the world of men? What brought this woman to conspire for decades against patriarchal society-against an entire gender-and can anything be done to stop her plans?
DMP has collected Swallowing the Earth's entire two-volume run in a single oversized omnibus. The production values (not to mention the 500+ page count) well justify the $25 MSRP: line art is sharp, contrast levels are good, and the paperstock is on par with comparably priced premium releases from the likes of Viz and Dark Horse. The sole -- though much appreciated -- extra is a foreword from Tezuka scholar Frederik L. Schodt, which discusses Tezuka's entrance into the seinen demographic.
Sensitive readers should note DMP's warning that they have presented Tezuka's artwork without censorship, including depictions of other races that would be considered un-PC by today's standards.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
If nothing else, Swallowing the Earth illustrates how hard it can be for creators to shake off entrenched habits, even when said creator happens to be the legendary Osamu Tezuka. Schodt's foreword to the book provides some key historical context about the series's creation: when Swallowing the Earth premiered in 1968 as part of the then-fledgling Big Comic magazine, it was one of Tezuka's first attempts to reach an older seinen demographic, and arguably his first crack at doing a series in the style of a long-form serial. Yet in spite of the stylistic changes that Schodt points out in his foreword, Swallowing the Earth contains more than a few bewildering artistic and narrative choices, giving a strong impression that Tezuka hadn't quite yet grasped what it meant to write for an older audience.
Having said that, I don't want anyone to get the impression that I'm outright dismissing Swallowing the Earth as a failed experiment -- while a frustrating read at its low points, its high points form some of the most engrossing output in Tezuka's English-translated canon. The basic plot outline shows just how high Tezuka's ambitions for the series must've been: the core revenge story involves a three-pronged attack on mankind, law, and the world economy over decades of European and Japanese history. This revenge plot starts with the "introduction" of Zephyrus, a stunningly beautiful European woman whose photo shows up in a Japanese POW camp during the last days of World War II. The photo winds up in the hands of Second Lieutenant Seki and Lieutenant Adachigahara, who become obsessed with the woman and what little information they can glean about her from their American prisoners; however, their quest for information is cut short by the fall of the Axis powers.
The narrative then shifts forward to contemporary Japan, where Adachigahara (now an entrepreneur) tracks down a destitute Seki to deliver news that Zephyrus has recently been sighted in a nearby hotel. The two decide to send in Seki's son, the alcohol-obsessed Gohonmatsu, to track Zephyrus and find out exactly what she's doing in Japan -- the idea being that Gohonmatsu is so single-minded about booze that he's the only person who could resist her seductive powers. Although Gohonmatsu mostly gets into random fights at first, his investigation gradually uncovers why Zephyrus seemed to disappear off the face of the planet for two decades and then re-emerge without any signs of aging.
What he discovers is that the real Zephyrus died many years ago, driven out of her household by a blackmailing husband who coerced her into revealing the family's industrial secrets in exchange for protecting her Jewish father from the Nazi authorities. When Zephyrus's husband finally betrayed her trust by turning in her father, she escaped with her lab assistant Chritos and her seven daughters, who she swore to vengeance on her deathbed. Zephyrus's eventual "resurrection" is modern-day Japan is brought about by an artificial skin developed by Chritos in the intervening decades, designed (among other things) to let the daughters disguise themselves as their mother in order to further their conspiracy.
As an indicator of how richly Tezuka developed Swallowing the Earth's storyline, that last paragraph isn't even a major spoiler: nearly the whole conspiracy is exposed to the reader long before the series reaches its halfway point, leaving a good 300 pages left for the consequences to unfold. This single fact is probably both the best thing and the worst thing the series has going for it. On the positive side, chapters like "Scherzo" and "Adagio Moderato", which tell two very different tales of lives affected by the availability of artificial skins, are possibly the best arguments I've seen in favor of putting side stories into manga. Rather than feeling like padding, as so many side stories often do, they emphasize the seriousness of events going on in the "main" plot thread: here are deep, well-plotted stories of people who've become collateral damage in the sisters' revenge plot.
But even with some engrossing chapters, Tezuka's decision to let the series coast to a halt at this point in the story (with nearly two-thirds of the way to go) suggests that he didn't really have a firm grip yet on what was involved in writing a serialized story. At some points, it seems like he was barely paying attention to where the narrative was going; among other glaring plot holes, one involves Gohonmatsu getting kidnapped and then inexplicably running around free a couple of chapters later. (Tezuka's "fix" was to insert an off-hand comment later in the dialog about how Gohonmatsu snuck past the guards when no one was watching.) The final few chapters suffer especially from poor pacing and incongruous plot twists; the closing "Coda" chapter bears so little resemblance to the rest of the story that it feels bolted on from another series entirely.
Possibly more frustrating is Tezuka's habit of falling back on the stylistic eccentricities he developed earlier in his career. The many sight gags and Fleischer-style action sequences might've made sense in the context of a lightheighted romp like Astro Boy; but when juxtaposed against LSD trips, temptresses, and the collapse of society, it pulls me out of the story to suddenly see Gohonmatsu stuffing enemies in barrels or packing a car full of bottles from hood to trunk. Having read Tezuka's later seinen works like MW or Ode to Kirihito, where these kinds of gags are less frequent and more subdued, it's hard not to compare techniques -- Swallowing the Earth is probably superior when it comes to fascinating plots, but it does a far less effective job of "pitching" that plot to its target audience.
Should these problems stop you from picking up Swallowing the Earth? Well, like I said, I think that it's a fascinating work overall; I wouldn't have given it an A grade for content if I didn't. But this is one of the rare cases where a nicely put together, premium omnibus release could be a liability for DMP; $25 is an awful lot to sink into a single book, especially one with an eccentric second act that will either completely win the reader over or make them hurl the book out the window.
Am I allowed to make a qualified glowing recommendation? As much as I deeply enjoyed reading Swallowing the Earth -- and as much as I want to recommend it to a general audience -- there are clear signs throughout that Tezuka hadn't quite gotten a grip yet on what it meant to write for an older audience, leading to some maddening artistic choices that could easily alienate many readers. For readers who're interested in Swallowing the Earth for its pure historical value, it's an obvious buy; other readers should consider how patient they are of Tezuka's eccentricities before sinking $25 into a flawed near-classic that could've greatly benefitted from a little more incubation time.
Mania Grade: A
Art Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: A-
Text/Translation Rating: A
Age Rating: 16 and Up
Released By: Digital Manga Publishing
Orientation: Right to Left