It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.
The novel begins with Japanese high-society celebrating the accomplishments of Toshiko Tomura. These celebrations initially seem warm and heart-felt but it soon becomes evident that while Japan’s cultural elites are proud of Tomura’s native talent, they are also wary of it. The problem is that, while the novel begins with Toshiko Tomura enjoying all of the success associated with writing a commercially successful and critically acclaimed first novel, her recent success follows hot on the heels of similar successes in the worlds of acting and graphic design. In other words, Toshiko Tomura has tried her hand at a number of different artistic disciplines and has mastered them all before the age of thirty. When seen through the eyes of people who have devoted their entire lives to a single artistic discipline such talent is not merely enviable, it is downright terrifying. Nobody should be able to enter a film and master it immediately and absolutely nobody should be able to re-invent themselves so thoroughly and so successfully.
Sensing a potential scandal and the chance to suck up to Japanese high-society, a sleazy investigative reporter named Aokusa begins to follow Tomura around. Once Aokusa latches on to Tomura, it is not long before he has fallen in love with her and, once he has fallen in love with her, it is not long before he has become obsessed with understanding what makes her tick. After stumbling across what it is that Tomura does when in the privacy of her own home, Aukusa blackmails the writer into telling him her story.
The story that Tomura tells is structured as a series of flashbacks to earlier periods in her life. Each flashback follows the same pattern: A naïve Tomura enters a particular field and latches onto the most talented and well-respected practitioner of that particular art form. Before long, the target of Tomura’s affections is head-over-heels in love with her and Tomura is rapidly acquiring all of their skills. Then, just as the victim readies what will be their greatest work of art, Tomura emerges from their shadow and beats them to the punch by publishing a work that is absolutely identical to the work the victim was planning despite it having been created by Tomura. Obsessed with feelings of betrayal, the victim then destroys themselves either through an ill-conceived act of vengeance or by attempting to get their own work published thereby inviting everyone to see them as little more than a vulgar plagiarist.
Initially, Tezuka uses the journalist to explore the idea that Tomura is nothing more than a play-actor who owes her success to a form of highly evolved pre-emptive plagiarism. However, once Tomura leaves the relative safety of the art world for careers in politics, terrorism, crime and high-finance it rapidly becomes clear that she is doing far more than simply beating her teachers to the punch. However, what it is that she actually does remains something of a mystery as, despite featuring on nearly every single page of the novel, Tomura cannot really be said to be the book’s protagonist. Indeed, the plot of The Book of Human Insects is built around a series of contests between Tomura and the unsympathetic, misogynistic but highly skilled men who attempt to both possess and understand her. However, while Tezuka makes sure that Tomura’s true nature remains frustratingly out of reach, her unsympathetic male opponents are so easy to read that it is almost impossible not to wind up empathising with them. After all, like us, they are fallible humans trying to make sense of a character who is never anything less than alien.
By expecting us to empathise with a bunch of villainous misogynists, Tezuka is casting a critical eye over the nature of human relationships. Indeed, the title of The Book of Human Insects invites us to look upon the novel’s characters as a set of biological specimens, some of which are easier to identify than others. For example, when Tomura ties herself to an ambitious executive, we quickly join Tomura in recognising the man’s obsession with high-stakes gambling and his tendency to see all of life’s challenges in precisely those terms. Like all of the male characters, this executive is relatively easy to understand because, though his desires are hateful, ugly and misogynistic, they are at least recognisably human. By making these unpleasant characters easy to understand and emphasising the similarities between their desire to pigeon-hole Tomura and our desire to understand her, Tezuka places us in the position of unpleasant reactionaries who would rob something of its potential by seeking to render it comprehensible. The idea that Tomura might somehow be harmed by becoming comprehensible is what lies behind the anguished scene where she rebels against categorisation on the grounds that she is still a larva, something in the process of becoming.
Though Tezuka never provides us with any definitive answers as to what Tomura’s final form might be, he does raise two interesting possibilities:
Firstly, Tezuka raises the possibility that Tomura’s capacity for re-invention might mask some inner essence that has either remained hidden from view or been overlooked amidst all of the re-inventions. If correct, this theory would suggest that Tomura’s constant re-invention is nothing more than a process of trial-and-error whereby Tomura tries on different identities before choosing the correct one.
Secondly, Tezuka also raises the possibility that Tomura’s true nature might very well be that of perpetual change and re-invention. If correct, this theory would account for why it is that we find it easier to empathise with the hideous men who litter Tomura’s life rather than Tomura herself. Indeed, much like Tomura’s men, we are creatures with fixed natures and to gaze upon the mercurial and the protean is to gaze on something that is as hideous and alien as it is alluring.
At the beginning of this essay I referred to the character of Tomura as being “Mr Ripley-like”. This is a reference to the character of Tom Ripley who appears in a series of novels by Patricia Highsmith as well as the films Purple Noon (1960), The American Friend (1977), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Ripley’s Game (2002) and Ripley Under Ground (2005). The similarities between Ripley’s capacity for imitation and Tomura’s capacity for radical re-invention and psychological absorption are what lie behind my suggestion that The Book of Human Insects might be read as a psychological thriller. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of a psychological thriller is the presence of a mystery grounded in human psychology. At its most crude, this mystery can take the form of an FBI agent who pieces together a psychotic delusion in order to trap a serial killer as in Thomas Harris’s early Hannibal Lecter novels or, at its most sophisticated, Barbara Vine’s exploration of why a prim and moralistic woman would stoop to murder in A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986).
The Book of Human Insects can be read as a psychological thriller and its depth and pacing ensure that it works brilliantly when seen as such. However, a more rewarding interpretation of this manga is to take it as a critique of post-War Japanese society.
September 2 1945 did not only bring the end of the Second World War, it also saw the end of an Imperialist phase of Japanese history that began with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Aside from overturning the last Shogun of Japan’s Edo period, the Meiji Restoration also attempted to catapult Japan onto the global stage by having the historically isolationist country assume a more imperialistic and expansionistic attitude towards the outside world. As well as modernising Japan’s industrial infrastructure and massively expanding its military capacity, the oligarchs of the Meiji government promoted a form of cultural chauvinism so intense that it would eventually lead Japan to feel a degree of kinship with the Fascist powers of Europe. When Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, they were not just closing the books on the Empire of Japan, they were also calling time on a sense of national identity that stretched all the way back to the days of the Samurai.
As well as unprecedented levels of economic growth and a deluge of democratic and liberal reforms to the Japanese state, the American occupation of Japan also brought a profound sense of cultural confusion: If Japan could not fulfil its destiny by becoming one of the world’s great Imperial powers then what was to become of it? As people and institutions struggled to re-invent themselves, their growing identity crisis found a voice in what is now seen as one of the great golden ages of cinematic history. If you want to see a culture struggling to come to terms with foreign influences then look no further than the grubby Americanisation of Japan’s underworld as depicted in films such as Shohei Imamura’s Pigs & Battleships (1961) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956). Similarly, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) feature a sad acceptance of the inevitability of change while his Late Autumn (1960) transforms that sadness into optimism as that-which-once-was is gently replaced by that-which-will-be.
Manga itself can also be seen as a by-product of Japan’s post-War identity crisis as while we may now think of manga and anime as being quintessentially Japanese, the ‘Big Eye’ style that Tezuka pioneered is actually based upon American cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Disney’s Bambi. Sensing a tension between manga’s Japanese character and the fact that its roots are in the popular culture of an invading power, Tezuka created The Book of Human Insects in order to address his nation’s identity crisis. This identity crisis would have been obvious to Tezuka who, born in 1928, would have seen an entire generation of Japanese people grow up and reach their prime in the shadow of American occupation. However, while previous generations of young Japanese people could find comfort in the history and values of a Japanese Empire that stretched all the way back to the feudal era, the post-War generation found themselves trapped between the discredited values of their parents and the decidedly alien (and occasionally oppressive) teachings of American liberal democracy. The sense of identity crisis engendered by the remodelling of Japanese institutions begged the question as to whether Japan was still Japanese.
The character of Toshiko Tomura is Tezuka’s attempt to determine the real essence of 1970s Japanese culture. Indeed, much like the economically resurgent Japan of the Cold War, Tomura makes her way in the world by absorbing the skills of others to the point where her expertise surpasses theirs. Tomura’s ability to systematically surpass the skills of her masters represents the fact that post-War Japan was a much more effective liberal capitalist democracy than America whose economy struggled until the deregulations of the 1980s. However, while 1970s Japan enjoyed both immense cultural vitality and explosive economic growth, its success appeared hollow to those elements who felt that liberal democracy was not the Japanese way. By exploring the possibility that Tomura might have a hidden inner character or that her true nature might very well be that of constant re-invention, Tezuka is raising the possibility that Japan too might possess a nature founded on principles of constant change and re-invention.
The metaphorical nature of The Book of Human Insects is also evident from Tezuka’s style of art. Those used to the more uniform Big Eye style of contemporary manga might fall into the trap of seeing Tezuka’s artwork as primitive or overly cartoonish. However, look beyond the rubber-legged foreground characters and you will find not only extraordinarily detailed and ‘realistic’ backdrops but a capacity to change modes of composition to denote the manga equivalent of dream sequences and moments of heightened reality. Consider, for example, Tezuka’s use of traditional cartoon iconography in this seduction:
As well as the pinpoint realism of this attempt to locate the action:
And compare them to the twisted realism of Tezuka’s attempt to capture the essence of jazz in visual form:
Consider these three very different series of images together and you will get a taste of Tezuka’s artistic sophistication and his tendency to lapse into more and more ‘cartoonish’ styles to denote either heightened reality or increasing unreality.
By populating his novel with images of cartoonish characters in realistic landscapes, Tezuka is underlining their metaphorical nature. These characters, Tezuka seems to be suggesting, are not real… they are simply attempts to force ideas into a human form and project them onto the real world. By ensuring that the ‘real’ elements of his artwork are Japanese while the design of the ‘unreal’ characters is grounded in the aesthetics of American popular culture, Tezuka is forcing us to confront the identity crisis that looms over Toshiko Tamura as a character, manga as a form and Japan as a society. Every panel and every word of The Book of Human Insects cries out with a desperate need for a fixed sense of identity and a legitimate place in the world. The unease we feel upon being confronted by the character of Tomura is the same unease we feel when confronted by anything postmodern. Much like the men in Tomura’s life, we work hard at fitting ourselves into neatly ordered boxes and Tomura’s protean nature serves as an eerie and unwelcome reminder of how arbitrary and artificial those boxes can be. The truth is that we are all like Toshiko Tomura but she appears alien because she is willing to accept that there is no real Toshiko Tomura, there is only the boundless possibility of what Toshiko Tomura can become.