Rating: 5/5 – A great entry point into Tezuka’s world for older readers
Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but even that vision seems short-sighted in today’s society. Today anyone with enough web-savvy and a modicum of talent can get their work out there, get noticed and have their fame – at whatever level – for as long as they can hold onto it. The problem, if it is one, is that with everyone suddenly becoming a sensation, nobody is genuinely famous anymore. At least not in the way it used to be some forty years ago when Osamu Tezuka first serialized The Book of Human Insects.
In the 1970s, the Baby Boomers entered the workforce in droves, and for the first time in a long time, standing out took real work. Fame and notoriety were out there for those willing to grab it, but whereas it was once a question of talent and ability, it is now a question of doing whatever it takes to be famous. If you lied to get your name in the press, that was still getting your name out there. If you could appeal to the court of public opinion, that held more power than the actual truth, didn’t it?
Enter Toshiko Tomura, a devastatingly beautiful woman who’s managed to beat the odds by becoming a celebrated author, actress, and designer…and that’s only the beginning of the book. Toshiko’s fame hides a dark secret, however. She learns just enough from those she works for in order to surpass them. As a design assistant, for example, she enters work similar to that of her employer (without outright plagiarizing it) in order to win a prestigious award and the acclaim of the design industry. As an actress, she feeds off the work her predecessors did in order to outshine them, take their roles, and move the spotlight her way. Her latest feat? The publication of a book called The Book of Human Insects, which won her the acclaimed Akutagawa award for literary achievement.
She’s a moon, however, reflecting the light of those who have actual talent. Left to her own devices, forced to create something on her own, she becomes that most hated of words in her vocabulary: ordinary. She often retreats to a hidden place of seclusion where there is no outside world. No eyes to see her stripped down to her barest essence. Nobody to see that she’s…nobody.
Make no mistake – we’re not meant to pity her. Indeed, there’s only a small handful of likeable people in this dark story. The book mainly deals with her as a force of nature, and focuses as much on those people caught in her sway as it does Toshiko herself. Though set in the 1970s, it’s difficult not to draw parallels to today’s society, where so much of fame involves feeding off of what has come before, and where so much has been created that it’s hard to separate the truly innovative and brilliant work from the rest of it.
Tezuka, known in Japan as the “God of Manga” (think of him as Japan’s version of Will Eisner), set the standard for how manga is created for generations of new readers and creators. Criticized sometimes for his cartoonish style, he set out to create a series of darker, more adult-oriented stories, while maintaining the artistry he was known for. You can get a sense of Toshiko’s outer beauty, while at the same time sensing the darkness within. Many of the characters seem like caricatures of well-known stereotypes – the rat faced businessman, the ape-like theater producer, etc. – but Tezuka uses those stereotypes to further convey the seriousness of this story despite their cartoonish appearance.
Older readers who might be new to Tezuka’s work may find this to be a great entry point into his world. Clearly this story is not for a younger audience, which was one of the reasons Tezuka created it. Comics as a medium are not just for children, and this book cements that idea. It stands as a work of not just comics, but of literature, and of social time capsule. Those who only know Tezuka as the creator of Astro Boy are in for a real surprise, as The Book of Human Insects is a 180 degree turn from what those people might think of him – a dark noir thriller shows us where we were in the 1970s, and foreshadows where we seem to be today.
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