Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Group: Ode to Kirihito (Chapters 1-7)

Tim O'Neil had the idea to read a common book and discuss it -- in comments sections or on our own blogs -- choosing Ode to Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka as the (first?) selection. He's already written about the first seven chapters and I'm almost a week late with this post. I just finished the seventh chapter of the book having read bits and pieces of it at random times over the last week.

Unlike Tim, this is my second time reading the book. I bought it just after Christmas in 2006 when it was released by Vertical since I read so much praise for it and, having never read any manga before, figured it would be a good place to start. (As of right now, it's only one of two manga books I own. Not because I didn't enjoy both quite a bit, simply because I'm still geared towards North American comics. I don't have enough time/money to buy/read all of the books I want from that group, so going outside of it doesn't happen much. Not a good reason, but it's my reason.) I believe I read it all in a single night. Just ploughed through it and, as a result, didn't retain a whole lot about it. I remembered bits and pieces. The story of a doctor and a strange disease that turns people into dogs, perhaps?

Tim's idea to do a little 'book group' on it was the perfect chance to reread it, especially since I just brought it back from my parents' place last month with some other stuff in my ongoing quest to have all of my books in one location. Nice coincidence, no?

The plot: there is a disease (Monmow Disease) that turns people into dog-like creatures before eventually killing them. The epnymous Kirihito is sent to the remote village where this disease occurs to study it and see what causes it, if it's contageous, etc. There, he contracts the disease, but discovers its source and manages to halt its progress, so he appear dog-like, but shows no signs of decay or the disease advancing. Meanwhile, his friend and fellow doctor was sent to South Africa where they have an identical disease. The hospital administrator is convinced that the disease is contageous, but all signs point to it being endemic. He's more concerned with advancing his career and being 'right' than the truth. He sent Kirihito to the village to get the disease and prove his point, which has resulted in Kirihito being enslaved by a rich man who takes out his self-loathing on others. Ultimately, he escapes with another prisoner and that's where we end basically.

Having read the first seven chapters, I'm struck by the odd tension between the story and the art/depiction of characters. Monmow Disease lends itself to commentary on what it means to be human. Is Kirihito less a man because of his appearance? No, because he still thinks the same and has the same personality basically. It's a commentary on racism, especially when highlighting the conditions in South Africa at the time of Apartheid or even the treatment of Dr. Urabe when he visits. It's a pretty clear analogy, but it's undercut somewhat by Tezuka's art, which depicts characters in the most stereotypical manner possible. Black characters have big ears, big noses, big lips, are coloured in with dark ink, while a Chinese character speaks with a stunted speech pattern. I'm not sure what to make of it. Tezuka does draw most characters as caricatures in some way or another as many cartoonists do. They highlight certain physical features as shorthand, but it's unsettling for a book that is meant to argue that physical superficialities don't determine what it means to be human to show characters in such a light. It's hard to reconcile the two.

Otherwise, I've found it an interesting and compelling read. None of the characters are entirely pure or good. Even Kirihito has some big flaws, mostly pride and thinking himself superior at first. The disease teaches him humility in some areas, while also strengthening his resolve and pride in who he is. Watching him resist being labelled a dog or a freak, insisting he is a man is pretty much all he does for the second half of this section. I believe we have more of that in store for the rest of the book.

Except, of course, he wasn't seen as a man really even before he contracted Monmow since his boss sent him off to be a test subject without his knowledge. Monmow is an analogy, a tool to get at these ideas, but they were there before, too. The head doctor doesn't see patients or his fellow doctors as people, they are pieces that he can manipulate and dominate. Patients are problems to be solved so he can gain recognition. Doctors are lackeys to do his dirty work for him and agree with him.

Urabe, similarly, has issues with seeing people as equals and treating them with respect. To Kirihito, they are friends, but, behind his back, he hits on his fiancee, even raping her. He does this because of her appearance, because she isn't completely human to him either. While he acts as a counterpoint to the racisim in South Africa and the head doctor's behaviour, a scene late in this section where he tries to force himself on Kirihito's fiancee (who hasn't given up on finding him) shows that he doesn't truly recognise her as an equal, merely a sexual object.

Tezuka's art varies greatly in parts. For a large amount of the art, he does it in a very loose, minimalist cartoony style, but he also shifts at times to more detailed, fully rendered drawings. Lots of cross-hatching and detail. Landscapes get a lot of detail and line work, while most interactions are done in the cartoony style. He's very adept at using a small number of lines to get across what a character is thinking/feeling. Some of the layouts are a little iffy, but they may read better in the right-to-left originals than they do here. Though, I'm not sure how the basic layouts would be affected by a flip... The shift between the two styles can be quite arresting at times. Tezuka uses the shift to great effect, pushing you forward with the energetic, simplified art and, then, BAM! stopping you dead with these gorgeous, lovingly rendered pictures. Is his art in other books like this or was it something confined to this, I wonder...

I'm definitely interested in seeing what comes next. While it's a big, thick book, it's a brisk read. If you haven't picked this up or, like me, don't really know manga, this is a good book to start with. Very easy to get into and follow.