Four-Eyed Stranger #10: The God of Comics Goes to Hell
A chilling work by the most famous figure in Japanese comics, MW is also eerily prescient, utilizing themes and topics that are as relevant today as they were in 1976.
The cast of characters includes a terminally ill survivor of childhood sexual abuse, now a sadist, kidnapper and murderer, and a Catholic priest who is not only the killer's lover, and true love, but also the person who abused him 15 years ago.
More than 30 years after its initial publication, MW still has the power to unsettle. The themes in this stark manga by Osamu Tezuka cover not just the nature of evil, guilt, and sexual and personal identity, but also post-war Japanese history, terrorism, protest and governmental abuse and mistrust.
Despite the extremely dark territory that it delves into, MW never veers into graphic depictions of sex and violence. Tezuka also seems to remain non-judgmental about his characters, showing us instead how they wrestle with their guilt (or lack thereof), and empathizing with all of them. Consequently, the reader experiences the same objectivity, which adds to the chilling effect of Tezuka's story.
It's a massive, nearly 600-page paperback similar in format to Vertical's 2006 edition of Tezuka's Ode to Kirohito, and Drawn and Quarterly's edition of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life in 2009. All are physically and psychologically heavy, epic stories, and of the three, MW is by far the darkest.
Even though Tezuka may best be known for more child-friendly work like the legendary Astro Boy, and for being the prolific "god of comics," much of his work is tinged with darkness.
In MW, he seems to give free reign to those impulses. This is Tezuka's gekiga, a storytelling style that in many ways developed as "anti-Tezuka" around the late 1950s, and tended towards grittier, more realistic and often more violent stories.
MW follows Father Garai and Michio Yuki on their quest to find a hidden stash of the chemical weapon known only as MW. Along the way, Garai wrestles with his conscience, while Yuki commits many kidnappings, rapes and murders, and maintains a physical and spiritual love affair with Garai.
The two are "bound by fate," as Garai says. Fifteen years prior, they met on Okino Mifune island. The "young and ignorant" Garai had joined with a gang who called themselves the "Crows," and they happened upon Yuki, who was a child.
"This was during the period set between the 1960 and 1970 security pacts between Japan and the U.S., and all over the world, groups of vagabonds and drifters were forming," Garai explains to his bishop. "Some of the movements were little better than gangs of hoodlums."
The fishing village actually disguised a "foreign military storage facility" that "housed a top-secret chemical weapon developed by a certain nation X to inflict mass casualties in Vietnam and Laos ... a weapon called MW."
There's an "incident" involving the MW, leading to governmental cover-ups, political assassinations and more. There's also an incident between Garai and the boy, which also leads to greater tragedies in years to come, and even though Garai went on to become a priest, he and Yuki have been lovers ever since.
At one point, Garai attempts to confess to his bishop. Garai explains his affair with Yuki by trying to portray the young man as a shape-shifting demon who "transforms himself into a woman and seeks my flesh."
The motif of shape-shifting seems to recur throughout. Garai attempts to transform from a violent thug and pedophile into a soul-saving priest. Yuki shifts his identity and sexuality according to his needs. Various politicians and power-mongers shift their allegiances as news of MW's existence spreads.
There are also many fascinating visuals. When Yuki suffers periodic attacks of pain, possibly the result of his exposure to MW as a child, the images of his haunted face recall the sweating and ghostly-eyed faces in Hideshi Hino's work. During one sexual interlude between Garai and Yuki, they transform inexplicably into characters from Aubrey Beardsley drawings.
This is a crime story with wider ambitions than merely thrilling its audience (although it does that very well). The comic is rife with references to political and social commentary. There's an interesting scene late in the story, when the lead investigator on Yuki's trail is denied entry onto a U.S. base in Japan, and he exclaims, "Bastards! Where's our sovereignty?"
There are also reference to the event in Japanese history that overshadows the entire century. When one character learns of MW's destructive power (which is also the power that Yuki wields), he says, "Come to think of it, the atom bomb is an indiscriminate killer too."
Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.