Apollo’s Song (Part I and Part II) by Osamu Tezuka is a imaginative tale of out-of-body experience, time travel, fantasy, science fiction, mythology and love, all by the God of Manga himself. If you’ve never heard of Osamu Tezuka, you are missing out. He’s best known in the United States for Astro Boy, his very early comic-turned-anime that was broadcast in the U.S. as a Japanese-import English-dubbed cartoon. Unfortunately, as great as Astro Boy is, it represents Tezuka’s early work aimed at kids. Much, if not most, of his later work is aimed at adults, as is Apollo’s Song.
I can’t overstate Tezuka’s importance to Japanese comics. In Japan, he is known as the “God of Manga,” a title that I can best explain by comparing him to American comic book creators. His ideas rival those of Walt Disney, Alan Moore and Stan Lee (plus those who got less credit for certain character creations than Lee did), and his innovations in art are equal to the combined talents of Eisner, Kirby, and Steranko. In other words, he had an impact on popular culture at the level of Walt Disney and Stan Lee, but he also created high concept comics as does Moore; and his artistic techniques influenced future manga artists as much as Disney, Eisner, Kirby, and Steranko combined influenced comics in the United States. Teruzka has even won an Eisner for his works translated into English! He really continued to evolve his art so much that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine in the U.S.
However, these extensive artistic innovations are best understood if we are aware of what an incredibly productive genius he was: During and after getting his doctorate in medicine, a profession he did not pursue, he published over 150,000 pages of comics! In addition, he acted as animator on and producer of countless films as well as writing numerous essays on every topic imaginable, from comics to art to popular culture to society in general. He had other projects, too, but I think you get the idea: Tezuka was a creative genius with an incredibly high artistic output. Only a fraction of those works have been translated and published in English. If you can get your hands on them, you’ll want to read them, particularly his eight-volume series on Buddha, ANY of the seventeen stand-alone volumes about Black Jack, or Apollo’s Song.
Apollo’s Song, like much of Tezuka’s adult work, still strikes the uninitiated reader as slightly Disney-esque, but don’t let that initial impression fool you: Apollo’s Song is not for kids, and the style is not a weakness. Instead, the style allows us to read Tezuka’s adult material without being completely crushed by the dark content. It’s much like Spiegelman’s Maus in that way. In Maus, Spiegelman uses animals to tell the story of the Holocaust, to make it so we can bear reading about an unbearable, horrific historical event that must not be forgotten. Tezuka does the same thing: Lest his readers avert their eyes from his dark tales, he presents his stories with a semblance of lightness.
Apollo’s Song is not light, though it is often a tale of hope and redemption. The story combines the tale of Apollo and Daphne with Tezuka’s interest in the ongoing cycle of birth and death placed specifically within the context of one man’s attempts at love. It’s a heart-breaking but beautiful story because Tezuka takes what could be a generic theme — humanity’s endless cycle of love and loss — and places all that weight on a single man we get to know: Shogo.
Shogo’s story is a sad one: He did not know his father, and he kept searching for him in the face of every man of the many his mother brought home. Traumatized by not having a father and by his promiscuous mother who was emotionally abusive, Shogo’s natural desire for love becomes warped into hatred, a hatred so great he kills animals that show any affection for each other or their offspring. As he becomes more and more emotionally and mentally unhinged, he finally is captured and placed into a mental institution under the care of a kindly doctor. The doctor tells the boy he is not truly one of the lost ones because he is young and there is still hope for him to learn to love.
Perhaps the last paragraph sounds like plot summary, but I’ve really just given a summary of the prologue to this brilliant two-volume work. The real story starts at the end of the prologue when the doctor gives Shogo shock therapy — a literary device used by Tezuka to help explain the reason for Shogo’s strange out-of-body experience (but seriously, the Doctor IS kind!). During this inexplicable moment, Shogo meets the Greek goddess Athena who gives this him this pronouncement:
Thou hast disdained the beauty and sanctity of love. Thou shalt love one woman again and again. But before the two are united in love, one shall perish. Even in death, thou shalt be reborn, to undergo yet another trial of love! Awaken, and be gone! May thy trials commence and continue . . .FOREVER!
Now the story really takes off. I won’t give any spoilers other than to say that Shogo shifts through time, awakening again and again to a new place that he has to figure out. Shogo feels disoriented, and we, as readers, feel disoriented as well, which is a large part of the fun! The story combines fantasy, mythology, war, and science fiction; from Nazis to Cyborgs, you won’t know what’s coming next or whether what Shogo is experiencing is REAL (in the physical world we live in) or “real” (a psychological experience only Shogo can perceive). Are we in his mind or are we in an alternative reality? Are we in our past or a possible future? I think Philip K. Dick would have liked this work. And any fan of his, or the wonderful television show The Prisoner, will enjoy this aspect of Apollo’s Song.
I feel that my discovery of Tezuka over the past month has changed my life. I can’t put it any more bluntly. And I don’t mean to exaggerate. I was enjoying the Buddha series. And then I picked up the Black Jack books and was blown away: Each book is a short story about a House-like Doctor who is so good, they bring only the worst-case scenarios to him. But like the episodes of the TV show House, the stories aren’t really about the medical cases; the medical cases are an excuse to discuss ethics and society and relationships. So, Black Jack, wow. I thought it couldn’t get better. Then I read Apollo’s Song! And when I figured out what the first fourteen pages were REALLY depicting? Ha! You’ll just have to read it for yourself. In fact, you must. You really must.