“Human Metamorphoses” 「人間昆虫記」by Osamu Tezuka

**UPDATE (12/29/10): Vertical has announced at Comic-con that they are translating Human Metamorphoses (they’re calling it “Book of Human Insects”….subtle….), so you can look forward to an English version soon-ish!**

Osamu Tezuka, my favourite comic artist of all time, the father of all Japanese comics and animation, branched out a lot in the late 1960s and 1970s.  At a time when many manga artists were moving towards more serious, sexually explicit, and violent subjects, Tezuka also wrote many of his most dark, mature, and psychologically profound works: Yakeppachi no Maria (a strange, sexual, pseudo-educational manga about which I will probably write another time), MW [Muu] (Tezuka’s darkest work in my opinion), Barbara, Ayako, I.L., and several others were all written by Tezuka between 1969 and 1978.  Though I love almost all of Tezuka’s work, this period is particularly interesting to me for many reasons.  Tezuka not only began to experiment with art style, layout, content, and presentation but also integrated some of the aesthetics of the times into his work.  As a fan of 1960s and modernist aesthetics, I find it fascinating to see ’60s and ’70s styles reflected in the medium of manga.  Furthermore, these works allow a glimpse into Tezuka’s true artistic talent; though he stuck to “cartoony,” Disney-like characters for much of his career, he was highly skilled at more realistic rendering and at adjusting his style to different genres and situations.

konchuki0Tezuka wrote Human Metamorphoses (「人間昆虫記」Ningen Konchuuki) in 1970-1, during this same fascinating period of experimentation.  It is unfortunately not available in English translation, but I recently finished reading it in Japanese and wanted to share my opinions.

I only wish I had a scanner at the moment, as the artwork and layout in many of the page spreads is fantastic; it’s hard to convey just how awesome this manga is without the images to back it up.  For now, you’ll have to settle with scans found on the internet.  Images that some may find objectionable due to mature content will be linked to off-site.

Human Metamorphoses, like another famous Tezuka work called Birdman Anthology, draws parallels between humans and animals – in this case, insects.  Many of the characters even have the kanji of the insect in question in their name.  The main character is the beautiful, fashionable Tomura Toshiko, likened to the haruzemi (the terpnosia vacua cicada), moves through life constantly reinventing herself amid a succession of lovers, shedding her previous identities like the cicada sheds its shell.  Toshiko is ruthless yet subtle, convinced that her actions are justified.  Most of her successes rely on plagiarism and blackmail, yet she is able to enjoy the results of her underhanded methods without feeling guilty for the most part.  The plot unfolds dramatically, its characters highly interesting, its visuals cinematic and fascinating.  Take for instance this panel (no, it’s not distorted by scan or photography – it actually looks like that in the book):

konchuki1

Toshiko has gone to the doctor to ask about having an abortion – one that her husband has forbid her from having.  As the doctor informs her that she will need a document stating her husband’s approval in order to have the abortion, the panel becomes distorted.  You know that feeling you get when things seem hopeless all of a sudden – your head aches, your face gets hot, and you feel dizzy?  This panel captures that feeling perfectly, in my opinion.  It’s an interesting device as well – rather than show the full extent of Toshiko’s despair through a thought, text, or an external expression, Tezuka shows the pressure building up inside Toshiko via distortion of the image.  This internal feeling reflected in external surroundings for the viewer to more easily relate to is a highly cinematic strategy, and just another way that Tezuka integrates the magic of the cinematic into his works.

As someone who recently joined a manga club in Japan and started drawing manga with “professional” tools, I’ve really come to appreciate the simplicity of Tezuka’s works.  First of all, they are visuals-heavy rather than dialogue- or text-heavy, which makes for more effective, cinematic, and faster-paced work in many cases.  Tezuka also keeps things simple in the visual realm (which is probably why he was able to write so many works during his lifetime) using his trademark more animation-cel-like style of art yet also integrating complex shaded pieces into his work in an economical, interesting way.  Furthermore, Tezuka uses screen tone (used in manga to make shades of gray and patterns) sparingly, hand-shading almost everything.  Many manga artists today overuse screen tone either because they are too lazy to cross-hatch, don’t know how, or prefer a “cleaner look.”  As a poor artist, I love to see how Tezuka got around using screen tone before it was invented, and continued to pattern and shade by hand through most of his works after the invention of screen tone – it reminds me that I don’t have to constantly spend money on screen tone to make something interesting-looking.
To give you an example of what I mean by tone, look at the above panel again.  Absolutely no tone.  Every “grey” and “pattern” in that panel is inked by hand, yet one still gets a sense of colors and textures.  In contrast, here’s a page from a more recent manga, Ludwig Kakumei by Kaori Yuki:

too...much....screentone

too...much....screentone. Every shade of grey, the playing cards, and the trees too are all screentone. The trees *might* be digital but that's also still cheating :P

So, that’s my take on Tezuka’s art.  If you read Japanese, I highly recommend Human Metamorphoses, and if you don’t, let’s hope Vertical picks it up for translation.

–Recca 5/26/09

4 Responses to ““Human Metamorphoses” 「人間昆虫記」by Osamu Tezuka”

  1. http://www.tezukaenfrancais.com/ste/

    If you found this post interesting then check out that link, it has some great info on “mature Tezuka” and a preview of the new English release of Tezuka’s “Swallowing the Earth”

  2. Existential Warrior Says:

    Awesome article! I was interested by your recommendation, so I googled it a bit and came across your article. Anyways, I hope it gets translated soon enough.

  3. [...] New York: Vertical, Inc., 2010. Black Jack. New York: Vertical, Inc., 2008-10. 12 volumes, ongoing. The Book of Human Insects. New York: Vertical, Inc., 2011. [N.B. Announced at New York Comic-Con 2010. Also known as Human [...]

  4. [...] You can find more information about the series at the Tezuka World website, or by reading this thoughtful critique of the Japanese edition. Look for this one-volume manga in July [...]

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