Phoenix (Hi no Tori) – Osamu Tezuka

The phoenix
The phoenix

Following on from Jim Barker’s post about the need to take comics seriously I thought I’d write about an artist who is recognised as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time, Osamu Tezuka and his finest creation, the twelve volume Phoenix series (Hi no Tori), first published in Japan between 1967 and 1988.

In the West Japanese cartoons are tainted by association with violent porn aimed at adolescents, or Pokemon. Think anime and images of big robots slugging it away, irritating creatures incessantly droning ‘Jiggly Puff’ or monsters doing unpleasant things to schoolgirls pop into the mind. Once a year a Miyazaki Hayao Studio Ghibli film is released, a door opens and we get a brief glimpse of intelligence, beauty and a stunning grasp of narrative, then it slams shut and Transformers and green fifteen-foot willies take over once again.

Problems of perception from Volume 5 of Phoenix
Problems of perception from Volume 5 of Phoenix

The second problem, which has prevented Osamu Tezuka getting the international audience he deserves, is the one that Jim Barker so eloquently described in his post. In the UK especially,  comics are for kids. Even if the artwork is stunning, the story lines adult and you call it a Graphic Novel, it’s still a comic for kids. If your drawings look like they were aimed at seven year olds (which is the case with a lot of Tezuka’s artwork) then you are completely buggered, even if you write a twelve-volume masterpiece on redemption and forgiveness that spans humanity from the dawn of time to the distant future.

Which brings me on to Phoenix. This is perhaps Osamu Tezuka’s finest work, a long sprawling saga covering millions of years of history, all revolving around the mythical firebird. The blood of this legendary creature bestows eternal youth on whoever drinks it and so some of the many tales in the epic concern those deluded enough to try and kill the bird and guarantee their own immortality. Other stories focus on doomed love, the search for glory and power, and the bigotry and cruelty this engenders. In these stories, some of which are traditional tales set in medieval Japan, others science fiction stories set in far-flung corners of galactic empires, the phoenix appears as moral commentator and guide. Throughout the cycle the same characters pop up again and again, the searcher for forbidden knowledge, the warrior thug obsessed with wealth and power (his inner turmoil signified by an enormous noise covered in boils), the tragic lovers etc. All of them end up suffering heartache and tragedy, partly through circumstance and partly as a result of their own ungoverned desires. It’s an incredibly complex and imaginative saga that needs to be read many times before all the parts of the puzzle click into place.

Another tormented soul trapped on the endless wheel of Karma
Another tormented soul trapped on the endless wheel of Karma

To understand Phoenix you need to know a little bit about the principles of Mahayana Buddhism which inform Tezuka’s work. In a nutshell, life is characterised by suffering caused by excessive personal attachment to things that are transient. We constantly torment ourselves by striving for illusory goals, either chasing the rainbow or clinging desperately on to stuff that eventually slips from our grasp, because of the mutable nature of the universe. Greed, jealousy, hatred and cruelty are the products of this attachment and the aim of Buddhism is to free every living thing from this cycle of illusion and disappointment. One interesting consequence of this moral framework is that there is no absolute evil, merely bad deeds done by ignorant and tormented souls. Everyone has a chance of redemption given enough time and guidance, even Hitler. Reincarnation is a fundamental component of this process, if you do bad things you tend to be reincarnated further down the scale (with hungry ghosts and the denizens of hell at the bottom – though even hell is still only a way-station and not a permanent abode). Humans are unique in that they have the conscious mind capable of grasping the system, but they are at greatest risk from their own inevitable greed and stupidity. In this context the phoenix itself is essentially a Bodhisattva, a being that has attained enlightenment but who chooses to remain in this universe to help others do the same.

The bandit Gao and the mysterious woman Hayame from the anime version of Volume 4
The bandit Gao and the mysterious woman Hayame from the anime version of Volume 4

The story of Gao in volume four is a perfect example of Tezuka’s belief in Buddhist redemption. Set in the eighth century during the construction of the Todai-ji temple and its massive statue of Buddha, it tells of two characters, the vagabond thief Gao and the sculptor Akanemaru. Gao starts the tale as a complete villain – a murderer and rapist who thinks nothing of killing a child in front of its mother. One day, hunted through the fields, he impulsively allows a ladybird that has crawled on to his arm to live. Later he meets a beautiful white-haired woman in the forest who treats him with kindness no matter how cruel he is to her and others. He begins to fall in love with this enigmatic creature but is betrayed into murdering her. Overcome with remorse he wanders the world as a beggar before he discovers he has a penchant for carving exquisitely hideous faces channeled from his own inner torment. He ends up being commissioned to carve the demons that are put on roofs of Buddhist temples to frighten away evil spirits. At this point he bumps into Akanemaru who is obsessed with his own quest for perfection, a self-destructive pursuit of the impossible that causes him to visit cruelty on others, including the reformed Gao. It’s a stunning, complex tale that contains within it most of the themes of the entire series. Tezuka has an uncanny knack of interweaving a tale of intense drama and tragedy with moral lessons that are never preachy, and some genuine instances of laugh-out loud humour. It’s also fascinating for anyone interested in early Japanese history (the era is that of Charlemagne and the first Viking invasions of Britain). For people interested in the series it’s a good place to start.

Osamu Tezuka, 1928 - 1989
Osamu Tezuka, 1928 – 1989

The other books in the series move from the stone age through to the distant future. Tezuka loved science fiction, and was a fan of, among others, Isaac Asimov. Several tales pose the question what it is to be human, and whether our moral duty to fellow creatures extends to artificial intelligence. One particular story in volume five is a direct tribute to the first short story in Asimov’s collection I, Robot (1950), ‘Robbie‘ in which a little girl has a robot teacher/playmate.  Be warned, though, Tezuka’s version comes to a far grimmer conclusion. Indeed, throughout the series there is a constant tragic thread that, at times, is quite hard on the reader and his or her favourite characters (think George R. R. Martin). This fits in with the peculiarly Japanese concept of the tragic, hopeless hero who no matter what they say or do, end up perishing in some god-forsaken wasteland having achieved very little. To be fair though, the overall message is one of eventual redemption as all the tormented souls weaved into Tezuka’s massive tapestry end up being led by the phoenix to enlightenment.

Viz Media (not related to the UK comic Viz, thank god) have released English translations of all twelve books and they are available from Amazon.



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One response to “Phoenix (Hi no Tori) – Osamu Tezuka”

  1. Mike Avatar

    You might also be interested in “Pluto”, which is mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s take on Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”. Urasawa is a big name all on his own for works like “20th Century Boys” (which is also well worth checking out). “Pluto” also has some echoes and inspiration from Asimov and is pretty damned good to boot!

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