From 1968 to 1969, Osamu Tezuka created Swallowing the Earth, his first long-form story manga and the beginnings of his efforts to break away from his reputation as being just a children’s manga creator. Thanks to DMP’s Platinum line, we can enjoy his efforts and marvel at the imagination and thought that went into creating this work that explores greed, misogyny, racism, and war and the effect that they have on the world.
During World War II, rumors of a mysterious woman named Zephyrus begin circulating through Japanese and American soldiers. She is reputed to be a stunning beauty and a devious enchantress who seduces men for her own ends. But the chaos of war intervenes before two young Japanese soldiers can act upon a tip that might lead them to Zephyrus. Twenty years later, the two men are leading very different lives, but Zephyrus still haunts their dreams. The son of one man, a young man named Gohonmatsu Seki–who cares only for alcohol–is enlisted to spy on Zephyrus and learn who she really is. His discovery will have ramifications that will shake the foundations of the modern world.
DMP Platinum’s publication of Tezuka’s massive work opens with a disclaimer reminding readers that “Characters and events depicted in Swallowing the Earth reflect the generally accepted mores of Japanese society from the time period in which they were created. Today, some of these depictions may seem outdated or racially insensitive.” They go on to say that the decision to publish Swallowing the Earth unedited for racial or other stereotypes is done with the hope that the audience will understand the context of the work. First of all I’d like to applaud them for not making any changes and second I’d like to say that I’m not certain changes needed to have been made. It would be like editing language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tezuka, like Mark Twain, was trying to make a statement about the society and the world he saw around him. Ignoring what he had to say because he use the language of his day would be ignorant on the part of the reader. And he has so much to say here. Even to a Western, 21st Century eye, what Tezuka was trying to say about revenge and hatred resonates throughout the work. Yes, sometimes this tale feels anti-feminist, but at other times it feels anti-misogynistic, so things are balanced. In the same way, images that seem racist today are balanced by insights into the racial politics of the late 1960s.
What shines through most clearly is Tezuka’s talent at storytelling. You’ll notice that I’m not giving you a lot of plot details. That’s because I don’t want to give anything away. Tezuka builds his story carefully, adding elements to elements as he goes until you get a clear picture of who his characters are and where they are headed. The characters themselves are mostly just archetypes, used to represent various emotions, schools of thought, etc. This is not a failing of the work, however. It does lead to some emotional distance on the part of the reader, but it also allows you to more clearly grasp what Tezuka is trying to say. He stumbles occasionally, adding in scenes that add atmosphere but don’t add to the main story. But this is a minor quibble and even those scenes are gripping reads. For a 514 page book, this is an extremely fast read. There are nice divisions between the chapters, though, for readers needing a break.
If you ever have any doubts about why Tezuka is known as “manga no kamisama” (the god of comics), a careful look at the art in this book will alleviate those forever. Underneath a style of character design that now feels old-fashioned is a masterpiece of comic art. Pick up a copy and turn to pages 46-51. Two men are fighting over a woman and their battle is contrasted with that of two bugs fighting for the right to mate. The panels are in various geometric shapes, reminiscent of honeycombs, and within those panels are bits and pieces of each battle. Not only is the fight beautiful to witness on paper, it is a clear indication of what Tezuka is thinking about the combination of sex and violence. In a later chapter, a rape scene is reduced to a spiral of hiragana characters as the woman screams in agony. Landscapes and cityscapes are rendered in minute detail. The entire book is an example of why comics are literature and how the visual language of comics can tell a story that words alone cannot.
DMP has done an excellent job with this title. The cover is attractive, the binding is sturdy, the images are reprinted crisply, and the translation is smooth and easy to follow. There isn’t a translator’s notes section at the back, but it is unneeded. Any time that there is a part which might be confusing a small note is made at the bottom of the panel. Sometimes these are a little small and hard to find, but not often and their unobtrusiveness makes them less distracting from the text. Some might wish for this to be hardback, but even in paperback I didn’t tear it up reading it (and I’m fairly rough on paperbacks). Plus making it paper over hardcover keeps the price to a reasonable $24.95. Frederick L. Schodt’s foreword sets the scene for readers without being overly long. All in all, this is a wonderful addition to the recent wave of Tezuka releases. I have high hopes for DMP’s Platinum line. It seems to be angling to take its place next to VIZ’s Signature line and Vertical’s releases in the world of classic, literary manga.
NOTE: This review was previously posted at an old blog of mine, Fujoshi Librarian.
Swallowing the Earth