Another Tezuka masterpiece that exposes the prejudices and petty politics of a society that thought it had moved on.
Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Translation: Camellia Nieh
Adaptation: Camellia Nieh
What They Say
Kirihito combines medical melodrama and anguished debates about guilt and redemption. The hero, complacent Dr. Osanai Kirihito, believes he's been assigned to study people suffering from a new, fatal disease that degrades them into doglike beasts. When the transformation hits him, too, he realizes that the cause is not what he was told and that the condition can be controlled. However, Kirihito soon finds out how violently society reacts to anyone who looks different. He also discovers that the medical establishment has betrayed him and now wants him to disappear permanently. Fleeing through episodes of brutal exploitation, he tries to find a place where he can function as a human being; he winds up as a combination of Jesus Christ and the Count of Monte Cristo. While Kirihito struggles with himself and other vividly drawn characters, the operatic plot swirls from one passionate scene to the next, reinforced by Tezuka's apparently simple but strikingly expressive line work.
This new printing of Ode to Kirihito is identical to the previous one, so if you already own the edition printed in 2006, there is no reason to double-dip here. Unless you lost your first one. However, for those who missed out on Ode to Kirihito the first time it came out, you will now have a chance to experience an exceptionally well put together book.
The only drawback to this production is that it is still flipped to read left-to-right. This is in holding with Vertical's other printings of Tekuza's long-form works, so it should come as no surprise. That aside, the quality of this book is top-notch. The sliding slip cover returns which, depending on which side you have exposed, shows Kirihito's "human" face or a Monmow patient's "dog" face (actually the face of one of the Rhodesian Kuonay Kuoralay patients, to be specific). This slip cover is just as neat now as it was the first time, so I'm glad it stuck around. There is a downside to it, though, in that the slip cover can catch on to other books quite easily when putting it on or removing it from your shelf. Over the years, I have seen a number of copies of this book with a ripped slip at bookstores and libraries precisely because people weren't careful when replacing it on the shelf. This is easily avoided with even the most basic amounts of caution, but it is something to be aware of.
Tezuka experiments quite a bit with his own art style throughout this book. While you could certainly turn to any page and easily identify this as a Tezuka work, there are a number of places where Tezuka punctuates his moments with a unique artistic flair. Sometimes it is as simple as using scratchy, hatched lines to make his characters, instead of bold ones. He also utilizes some extreme detail for portraits, something you see quite a bit of in Black Jack - though those details are almost exclusively reserved for anatomical illustration in Black Jack. Throw in a few visual metaphors and an excellent use of negative space, and you have a truly dynamic style that is just as instrumental to the meaning of the work as the text.
Kirihito is a young, talented doctor at M University Hospital with an exceptionally promising career in front of him. He has a loving fiance, Izumi, who can't wait to get married, but understands Kirihito's delay-causing commitments. Kirihito's best friend and colleague, Dr. Urabe, is the protege of Dr. Tatsugaura, the director of M University Hospital. While Dr. Urabe is a talented doctor in his own right, he freely admits that Kirihito is the superior doctor and he relies on Kirihito quite a bit.
All three doctors are struggling to understand a mysterious illness called Monmow disease, which distorts bones and inflames joints. After suffering from Monmow disease for some time, those afflicted begin to crave raw meant and take on the general appearance of dog, eventually dying.
Two theories begin to emerge: either Monmow is an endemic disease, brought on by unique environmental conditions, or it is a viral pathogen. Kirihito believes the disease to be endemic and writes up a report to that effect. Dr. Tatsugaura sees it as commendable work, but disagrees and is firmly convinced that Monmow is viral. Both men want to present their findings at a prestigious medical conference, but since it is still months away, Dr. Tatsugaura suggests that Kirihito go to the remote village where all the cases of Monmow disease originate from for further study. Before long, Kirihito confirms his theory is correct but, in the process, discovers that he has begun to suffer from Monmow disease himself.
Ode to Kirihito is a mid- to late-period manga of Tezuka's and shows a tremendous amount of confidence with such a long-form work. Originally serialized for over a year and checking in at 822 total pages, Ode to Kirihito never seems to lose its focus and remains consistently terse and centered despite its many twists and turns. Even though Tezuka was one of the artists who helped move manga away from short gag strips aimed at children and pioneered book-length stories intended for wide audiences, stories of this length and baroque plotting can easily become bogged down or wandering in direction. However, Ode to Kirihito effortlessly flows from one plot point to another, from character to character, and from country to country, without missing a beat. It moves as briskly as most action-packed manga.
While Ode to Kirihito is a manga with many themes, its most prominent is prejudice. Monmow is a disease that deforms people in a way that can't easily be hidden. Across all the cultures that are shown in the book, you see the kind of treatment that someone can experience just because they look different. There is some very real racism displayed in these pages, most obviously in the segments that take place in South Africa, where there is a parallel drawn between the country's racial apartheid and the segregation of the Kuonay Kuoralay patients. Kuonay Kuoralay (a disease that is all but the same as Monmow) is seen as a shameful illness that only affects the colored - not unlike early prejudicial attitudes about AIDS and homosexuals. When Dr. Urabe happens across a patient that doesn't conform to this understanding (a white nun) both he and the nun are nearly killed in an attempt to keep the matter a secret. And after Kirihito has taken on the appearance of a dog-man, the trials that he must suffer are legion.
Beyond the prejudice, there is also quite a bit of politics discussed here. The dirty politics of the Japanese medical system is not new territory for Tezuka, but it is something that he handles exceptionally well each time he decides to write about it. Dr. Tatsugaura has a lot riding on his personal theory about Monmow disease. He is running for Chairman of the Japan Medical Association and wants to use his research into Monmow as a benchmark that will help him get elected. Despite evidence that contradicts his theory that Monmow is a virus, he holds true to his beliefs - even if, at first, he holds them simply because that is what he plans on presenting at the medical conference and "there's no time [to change it]." When Dr. Tatsugaura suggests that Kirihito go to Doggoddale, he does so with the intent of removing Kirihito and his contrasting views. Dr. Tatsugaura bribes the Doggoddale mayor to keep Kirihito holed up in the town and to ensure that Kirihito contracts Monmow disease so that he can be used as a live experiment to help prove the viral nature of of the disease.
Dr. Tatsugaura never really shows doubt in his own theories, but he is not fully convinced of them at first, as he does admit that Monmow has him more stumped than he has ever been in his career. But as the story progresses, and as Dr. Tatsugaura's political ambitions increase, he becomes more stubborn and obstinate in his opinions, flatly rejecting criticism without considering the arguments. In order to obtain political power, Dr. Tatsugaura effectively turns his back on science and reason. He stops caring for the welfare of his patients and considers only polling numbers and public image. But while he is certainly the most prominent example of this problem, it seems to be true of almost everyone in the work who mixes medicine and politics together. This is all but spelled out for the reader when Dr. Tatsugaura meets with the sitting chairman of the JMA who laments that fact that people with such medical talent would give it up for politics.
There are more than a few interwoven narratives that make up the whole of Ode to Kirihito. But for Kirihito himself, this is a story about trying to get back home and, more figuratively, trying to find his place in the world. What starts off as a simple trip down the mountain from Doggoddale leads to Kirihito being kidnapped and imprisoned in a private freak show in Taiwan, nearly killed by impetuous villagers, abandoned in Libya and revered in Syria. Kirihito is a success, and it is his unquestioned talents that cause him so many problems later in the story. While he is certainly not someone who was handed everything he achieved, he also isn't someone who had to suffer for his achievements. In many ways he is a typical prodigy: he focuses on work since that's what he's good at, but his social skills are a little wanting even though he isn't inept. When he contracts Monmow disease, his whole life is thrown into a tailspin. He rejects his fiancee and tries to cut ties with his past. When the only tie to his present is raped and killed, he is left completely without a safety net. Where he could so easily achieve before, life has now put him in the position where he has no choice but to suffer. And he does suffer greatly. For the first time he is completely out of his element and he doesn't know what to do. He does get to rely on medicine, but he is out of the system and out of his element. When he is confronted with illness and death, he tries to find ways to make it work, but he also learns that there are limits to his abilities. Eventually, he suffers a crisis of faith that rocks him to his very core, stripping him of every confidence he ever had. Of course, he couldn't be a hero unless he loses himself in the darkness. And like all true heroes, he emerges from that darkness a better man.
Ode to Kirihito is exceptional manga and exceptional literature. Tekuza was simply one of those creators who had it all, and he certainly laid everything on the line with Ode to Kirihito. It should come as no surprise that a Tezuka book of this length would have so many talking points and so much depth, but one of the things that makes it so special is how it seems to epitomize so much of Tezuka's creative career. Many of the themes and story elements that Tezuka tackled throughout his life's work can be found here, and all of them are handled with complete erudition. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a thematic Tezuka digest, but would feel comfortable calling it a Tezuka primer. The character psychology, the cultural metaphors, the religious context and subtext, and both the subtle and exaggerated humor all act as the underpinnings of a simply top-notch story where the sum is greater than the already impressive parts.