If there was any justice in the world today, then you’d be reading my thoughts about “Blade of the Immortal vol. 21: Demon Lair II.” But not only did my comic shop not have it, the volume wasn’t even mentioned on Diamond’s shipping lists this week. This is in spite of the fact that Dark Horse’s website lists the book as coming out today, as does Amazon (which is currently sold out of the volume). So it looks like I’ll be picking it up (along with “Berserk vol. 30,” “Parker: The Hunter,” and a ton of other stuff) at Comic-Con next week. In the meantime, here’s a look at one book I wasn’t expecting to find at Anime Expo a few weeks back, but was glad that I did.
Thank goodness for Frederick Schodt. Not only has the man given us some stellar collaborative translations of works from Osamu Tezuka and Masamune Shirow, but written renowned books on manga such as “Manga! Manga!” and “Dreamland Japan.” If that wasn’t enough, he has now contributed a forward to the newest Tezuka manga to hit our shores that perfectly calibrates one’s expectations for it. It’s not that I don’t think I wouldn’t have liked “Swallowing the Earth” if I hadn’t, it’s just that it would’ve taken some getting used to before I appreciated what it had to offer.
The key thing to take away from Schodt’s introduction is that this was a transitional work for Tezuka. “Swallowing the Earth” is effectively the bridge between the old kid-friendly and kiddie-oriented Tezuka works like “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion” to the more ambitious and mature works like “Black Jack,” “Phoenix” and “Ode to Kirihito.” As is the case with most works that show an author deliberately trying to stretch and reach to the next level, it’s not entirely successful at everything it tries and it bears the signs that even the author didn’t have any idea where this was going and was making things up as he went along. Fortunately Tezuka is a skilled enough creator to make a story as chaotic as this work, even if it’s not up to the caliber of the other “bricks” of his that I discussed on the podcast.
“Swallowing the Earth” starts out with a mysterious prologue about several shadowy women swearing to fulfill their mother’s wishes of vengeance against men before shifting to showing two Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal in WWII hearing about a beauty of mythic proportions named Zephyrus from their American prisoners. Flash forward two decades and one of the soldiers, Adachigahara, has become a successful businessman, while the other, Seki, has become a bum. Naturally, Adachigahara comes calling on Seki because he needs a favor: He’s heard that Zephyrus is in Japan and he wants Seki’s son Gohonmatsu to spy on her and learn her secrets. Now Gohonmatsu is a friendly, easygoing guy whose strength is matched only by his passion for drinking. He’s also got no interest in sexy women, so he’s not too keen on meeting up with this Zephyrus, who in turn is frustrated by this drunkard who seems to be immune to her legendary charms.
From here, the story follows Gohonmatsu as he winds up being dragged across the globe as various parties want to enlist his help to use Zephyrus for their own means. While Zephyrus herself can’t seem to get this alluring drunkard out of her head, he’s not going to stop her from bringing chaos to the world of men by marketing an artificial skin that allows a person to be someone else to the masses and flooding the world with free gold. Duels to the death, LSD induced couplings with sexdolls, a military coup in Japan, and global catastrophe are just some of the other things that occur along the way in this story.
Now if you’re wondering where Tezuka’s going to go with these plot threads and how he’s going to tie them all up, the answers are, “Lots of strange places,” and “By taking lots of digressions.” While it’s evident that there’s some method to the madness here at first, it’s clear that Tezuka finds some of his plot threads more interesting than others. Otherwise he wouldn’t spend a few engaging, if not quite plot-critical, chapters exploring the possibilities and moral consequences that the artificial skin and sudden discovery of gold bring to a few select parties. Still, it’s not hard to look at the last third of the book, where the coup and catastrophe set in, and think that Tezuka was over-reaching here. These events come at a breakneck pace without a lot of buildup and would’ve had me rolling my eyes at such contrivances if I had been expected to take all of it seriously.
That’s probably the biggest saving grace for a lot of “Swallowing the Earth,” as Gohonmatsu proves himself to be an endearingly goofy, slapstick-prone protagonist from the beginning to (almost) the end of the work. His goofball exterior masks a fierce square-jawed heroism that will go to any length (and through any bottle of sake) to set right. There’s also the fact that since Tezuka was coming off of his “kiddie” period, there’s a lot more of his trademarked exaggerated slapstick humor to be found in here too, which reinforces the fact that you’re not supposed to take a lot of this very seriously at all.
It’s a testament to Tezuka’s skills that even with the goofiness, he still knows when the right time to shift gears is (usually after a chapter break) and change to a more serious mood and not yank the reader out of the work with the sudden shift in tone. These serious parts also seem to coincide with Tezuka stretching himself as an artist, as he does some interesting things with panel layout and focus at several points in the book. Though the story is all over the place to be sure, Tezuka still keeps things spinning along even when things are at their most chaotic and out of control.
So while it’s not his best work, if you’re a fan of the “God of Manga,” “Swallowing the Earth” is still worth a read, if only because it shows him making the transition from the creator he was to the creator he would go on to be. Now if you’re not already a convert, then I’d probably recommend you pick up a copy of “Ode to Kirihito” to see what the man is really capable of, and why he got the nickname he did. By the time you’ve read everything else, this will make a good chaser to those works.
(So John, if you’re reading this, whatever you think of the book, know that he’s done better.)