Alabaster (Volumes I and II) by Osamu Tezuka
Alabaster (Volumes I and II), written by Osamu Tezuka in 1970 and published in 2015 by Digital Manga, Inc., is a dark but compelling story that touches on the evils of which humankind are capable and the resentment and desire for revenge that results in those who are mistreated. Alabaster’s story allows Tezuka to critique bigotry, specifically focusing on racism in the United States. James Block, a young African-American gold-medal winning Olympic athlete, turned into Alabaster because of his experience with the woman he loved as a young man. After a year of dating, James Block proposes to Susan Ross, only to be laughed at, mocked, and turned down by her because he was a black man. She displays shock that he would even imagine that she would stoop to marry a black man.
Block responds in violence and is called the “n-word” in his struggle with those who grab and try to restrain him. The editor and translator have a footnote that explains, wisely I think, that the use of the “n-word” was important to employ here because it is this pivotal moment that turns James Block from a man filled with love for humankind to a man full of hate.
At this point, Tezuka employs his often typical science fiction plot device, which is always important to his thematic concerns, in this case the problem of racism that results from people’s perception of others’ skin color. Block, while in prison, meets a mad professor who killed his daughter by using his invention on her: The invention is a “gun” that makes a person turn invisible. However, if a person has the gun turned on them for too long, they will die. Block, angry at the world and angry about his skin color, tries to erase his skin by literally turning invisible. Fortunately for him, he collapses and falls out of the gun’s range and is saved from dying; unfortunately, his skin becomes invisible so that his organs and veins and bones all show in a grotesque fasion.
Thus Alabaster is born, and his goal is to attack all people because he views them as hypocrites, particularly those who show “beauty” on the outside while hiding ugliness within. Tezuka critiques the worship of beauty in our society, but he also critiques others who pose as one thing while hiding evil within. Anyone from the religious clergy to politicians telling sweet lies become targets in Alabaster’s plan to erase false beauty from the world.
There is much more going on in this story: Alabaster collects around him a loyal gang, and he makes queen of the gang Ami, the granddaughter of the mad professor, who is fully invisible. Much of the battle in this book is for Ami and her beliefs: Alabaster, in love with Ami, wants to make her as angry and resentful and full of revenge as he is. This is a theme Tezuka uses in other works too. A young member of the gang decides that Alabaster is misguided and wants to rescue Ami from him. He, too, is in love with Ami. And finally, there is Rock Holmes, the FBI man out to stop Alabaster. He should be our hero, but Tezuka makes him a pompous bigot and rapist. In other words, there is almost nobody who is likeable in this tale except perhaps Ami’s brother and her mother, a lawyer. Still, even though it is bleak, I find the story’s fast action keeps despair from overcoming the reader.
Tezuka, oddly enough, thought this work only worth republishing because a publisher was collecting his complete works. Tezuka even went so far as to make this claim about Alabaster: “It seems I have a habit of writing works featuring completely unsalvageable Nihilism, and this one, Alabaster, became one of those.” I would disagree with Tezuka; I think that there are glimpses of hope, and even though the ending is a dim one for all the characters, Tezuka offers light through the very act of writing such a critique of society and humankind’s baser tendencies. Thankfully there was a demand for this book, and thankfully Digital Manga, Inc, felt it worth translating as well. Alabaster is a two-volume work totaling about five hundred pages, and it is available in both physical and digital editions. It is worth seeking out.