The Book of Human Insects is not necessarily what I would call an enjoyable read. Yet, quite like main character Toshiko Tomura, there is something so tantalizing and irresistible about the book that you can’t help but be drawn to it. When I reached the last page, I found myself rather exhausted and questioned just what author Osamu Tezuka was trying to accomplish with this work.
To be fair, The Book of Human Insects provides an engaging read throughout, but it is extremely challenging to gauge just what the takeaway message is supposed to be. There are few likeable characters in the entire book, and almost everyone acts in a vile manner that often seems inhumane. Perhaps Tezuka is simply trying to expose how ugly and deplorable humankind can be. Humans are portrayed as being nothing more than insects, willing to pull one another downward in a greedy attempt to survive.
Possibly the most merciless of the bunch is Toshiko Tomura, who despite only being in her early twenties, has reached fame as a celebrated stage actress and prize-winning author. However, behind her success lies a dirty secret: She is a master of mimicry. Nearly every aspect of Tomura’s life is nothing but a farce. She has the uncommon ability to attract the affection of any person she chooses, and she masterfully copies their unique skills and abilities and passes them off as her own. Tomura’s reputation soon precedes her, and even though many of the individuals she encounters are wary of what may come of getting tangled up with such a dangerous woman, her intoxicating nature is impossible to resist.
Yet, despite Tomura’s deplorable actions, it’s hard not to feel pangs of sorrow for her. She houses an unexpected innocence veiled by her cunning exterior, and her repeated solitary visits to her now-abandoned childhood home demonstrate just how alone is in the world she truly is. Though she may be surrounded by suitors and admirers, Tomura leads a life of isolation and constantly longs for the love and affection of the one man who refuses to return any of the attention she almost pathetically thrusts at him. As much as she can effortlessly take whatever she pleases from the people around her, Tomura really only wants the one thing that is out of her reach.
Osamu Tezuka obviously put a lot of effort into creating The Book of Human Insects. His trademark black and white artwork is minutely detailed, with stunning backdrops and a clean layout that helps keep the story moving forward at a speedy pace. As with all of Tezuka’s works, the cast looks rather cartoony, but what they lack in realism they make up for in expressiveness. The character design of Toshiko Tomura is especially pleasing, with smooth, bold lines that effectively capture her alluring nature and remarkable beauty. The artwork will have no problem attracting readers from the get-go.
But audiences should be warned that not only is The Book of Human Insects a rigorous read, it contains scenes that make it an adults-only affair. There is a significant amount of violence, nudity, and sex throughout the book, which may be off-putting for readers who have only been exposed to Tezuka’s more popular works like Astro Boy, Phoenix, or Black Jack. There are also a number of scenes I found cringe-worthy. For instance, Toshiko Tomura is slapped multiple times and is forced into a pregnancy against her will. Written in the early 1970s, The Book of Human Insects obviously comes from an era in which women were regarded as lesser than men, and even though Tomura may be a strong, shrewd character, her treatment as an object more than an individual is rather disturbing.
However, as I stated before, The Book of Human Insects has an intangible magnetism that makes it hard to resist. It’s an emotionally-draining read, and it presents a bleak view of humankind as a species with few redeeming values. Yet, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it fascinating, despite my criticisms. Reading The Book of Human Insects is akin to passing by an accident scene, where you know you shouldn’t look but find your eyes drawn to the carnage all the same. Kids and younger teens should keep their distance, but anyone curious about the darker side of Osamu Tezuka should give the book a try.
The Book of Human Insects
by Osamu Tezuka
Publisher Age Rating: 16+