Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Phoenix, Vol. 1 - 13 (Osamu Tezuka)

Unarguably the single greatest achievement in the career of the most influential mangaka (Manga cartoonist) in Japan's history, Phoenix rockets back and forth across the temporal plane from volume to volume, telling tales of future and past, that each get a little closer to the present as the volumes tick by. After only the first few volumes the greater design comes into focus: Tezuka is telling the history of the universe.

And what retelling of the history of time would be complete without a lot of rumination on the nature of time and man's mortal role in the universe (unless you're Larry Gonick)? While the phoenix (Hi no tori, in Japanese, meaning 'firebird') owns the name of the series, he/she/it and its many manifestations is mearly a backdrop, or a point of obsession for the real characters, stepping in only as a greek chorus to manipulate the characters, or a god descending from the ink, and Tezuka does not exhaust any one way of revising the reader's concept of what the phoenix is. In one volume the phoenix becomes puppeteer to a scientist who will be allowed to witness the universe as himself a god, in one volume the phoenix will remain an elusive shadow to an artist who seeks to represent the firebird's glory in a painting or else lose his life to a sinister, commissioning lord, and in another volume a red herring of a bird is captured and warred over by rivaling Japanese lords, as they vie for the phoenix's blood and eternal life.

My personal favourite story, Strange Beings (half of Vol. 9), does the old 'time flows backwards' trick to tell the story of life and the universe as a never-ending backwards loop, involving the life of a girl (raised as a boy by a murderous tyrant) who unintentionally becomes the universe's private, eternal mother Theresa.

The cultural effects of the Phoenix saga may have been even more far-reaching had Tezuka not perished before penning its conclusion, presumably set in the modern day. But maybe that's for his readers to accomplish.

This is a sculpture of the famous firebird, which sits just outside the Osamu Tezuka museum in Takarazuka, Japan (20km northwest from Osaka).

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