By Kory Cerjak
Title: Apollo’s Song
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Osamu Tezuka: the man, the legend, the God of Manga and the Godfather of Anime. Born in 1928 in Toyonaka, Tezuka is perhaps the most well-known figure in the manga/anime cultural pantheon. I’ll skip some of the finer details and move to 1946. In 1946, Tezuka was just graduating from medical school and had to make a decision: medicine or comics. He loved both fields, but loved one just a little more. He got his degree, but ultimately decided to pursue comics. In 1952, Astro Boy began its syndication in Shonen magazine. The rest, as they say, is history.
Apollo’s Song opens with an amazing visual metaphor of 500,000,000 people all clambering to become the king to the one queen. The metaphor ends up being of a sperm and eggs, and is used really effectively to represent humankind as a whole, in the sense that only one out of 500,000,000 people will be that special one. But it’s not just that, it’s a story of life as a whole, where life repeats this ritual of life and death and bringing new life to this planet. In just nine pages, Dr. Tezuka tells the story of billions of years of life, almost solely with pictures.
True to its name, Apollo’s Song is about love. The manga opens with a boy named Shogo Chikaishi in a mental institution. According to the doctor, Shogo has locked his feelings away in his heart and the doctor is trying to find the key. He uses various methods to try to achieve this, including electro-shock therapy and hypnosis, but none seem to work.
Through these therapies, Shogo goes through various hallucinations and machinations, which allows Tezuka to tell several different stories through these methods. The first is simply Shogo’s past, which finishes the metaphor from the teaser. The sperm who made it was Shogo and he was destined to be the “chosen sperm,” yet hated when he was born. His mother had him sort of against her will, but she cares for him. She seems to “fall in love” with various men to make her way through life and to care for Shogo. Her one redeeming moment is when Shogo says he needs money for school, she blushes in front of her next suitor, and then throws a pile of yen at his feet. This one moment tells me that the mother is at least loving of Shogo, if not also hateful toward him.
My favorite story is the first book is when he was being hypnotized by the doctor to believe he is a pilot. He crashes on an island with a woman photographer who’s badly injured once they get to the island. The kicker is that she was injured by the animals, who did it in retribution of Shogo killing and eating a rabbit. The animals all co-inhabit the island and work together to live—rabbits and foxes and deer alike. But the story really pushes home the metaphor of continuing life. These animals are no longer fighting to survive by eating each other. They eat the fruits and nuts on the island and the fish in the sea. Shogo breaks it down to say that humans are just animals, if you strip away their clothes and jobs and worldly feelings, which is true. This is especially driven home near the end when Shogo and the photographer end up nearly naked. They seem to throw away their sense of shame, because they are just animals. And the nakedness is a recurring theme throughout the manga. In his flashback, Shogo sees his mother having sex with one of her men. In a different hallucination, he meets a Jewish woman while he is a German World War II soldier. He helps her escape, but ultimately both end up near death for reasons I won’t spoil. But they end up holding hands, promising to marry each other, even though both won’t make it through the night.
It’s at about the halfway point that Shogo’s story really starts up, because he runs away from the mental institution and gets saved by a woman named Hiromi Watari. She’s a long-distance runner that wants to achieve her dream through Shogo, because she’s a woman. This is kind of typical gender politics for the time, as women weren’t really allowed to do anything of significance in Japan in the 1970s (even the Showa 24 were just getting started at this time). It’s sexist, but we’ll save that discussion for Princess Knight.
The second book is possibly the greatest execution of metaphor I’ve been exposed to since Revolutionary Girl Utena. Shogo, now in a futuristic world ruled by Synthians, is tasked to kill the Synthian Queen, who looks like Hiromi. The Synthians are produced, cloned by the scientists and have no genitals. They don’t reproduce and they don’t feel love—the latter very much like Shogo. But when the Queen falls in love with Shogo, things get a little more complicated. Shogo kills the Queen, but she just keeps being cloned and coming back with the same body and the same feelings of love. This is exactly what Shogo is going through in each of these machinations: Feeling love, dying before it’s truly fulfilled, and being reborn only to suffer again. The visual metaphor of seeing dozens of the Queen’s bodies spring to life and cling to Shogo, only to die, was so compelling and so heart breaking that I couldn’t help but stop reading for a moment just to stare at the pictures.
Ultimately, the entire book can be summed up by its teaser. This is my first foray into the works of Osamu Tezuka and I can say that I am not disappointed at all. The execution of the metaphor of both life, death, and rebirth and the myth of Apollo were absolutely stunning. The artwork is beautiful in Tezuka’s signature style and I often found myself stopping just to stare at the artwork, even when I had delved so deep into the mythos of the story. I didn’t want to stop reading, but I wanted to appreciate the artwork. It’s a conflict I’ve never had reading comics before.
Before reading this, I knew some of Tezuka’s history. I’ve got Helen McCarthy’s book, The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, and I’ve read this and that on the internet. So I know Tezuka’s influence in terms of work load and art style pretty well. But experiencing the story and knowing how this man weaves a tale is absolutely amazing. If you’re a fan of comics and haven’t picked up anything by Tezuka, then do yourself a service and do so.
Apollo’s Song is published by Vertical Inc. and the volumes are readily out there. I usually see at least one thing by Tezuka at my local Barnes and Noble, plus they’re always in stock at Right Stuf, Amazon, and your other online retailers.
Editor’s note: Listen to Tim and Kumar discuss this book in DCP episode 208!