There is a thing that happens when you read enough Osamu Tezuka: you keep comparing each work that you read to his greater body of work. That’s not necessarily fair, but it happens, and in this case Message to Adolf, Part 1 (which won the 1986 Kodansha award) is comparable to, but does not quite reach the heights of, other Tezuka works, like Buddha, MW, or Ode to Kirihito. It is a strong work overall, however.
The first part of Message to Adolf sets the stage of the story. It begins during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when all three Adolfs the story follows are still alive. Sohei Toge is covering the Olympics when he gets a mysterious phone call from his younger brother Isao who implores him to meet up at 8pm the next day. Sohei arrives late to the meeting to discover his brother murdered, hanging in the tree below his apartment. Sohei only has two clues, a piece of paper with the letters RW on it and the presence of a white powder, plaster, underneath Isao’s fingernails. This plaster sparks Sohei’s memory of a murder case back in Japan, a geisha who was found dead with a similar white powder under her nails. This becomes the setup for the first part of this volume, which deals with Sohei trying to discover why his brother was murdered.
Another part of the story deals with Adolf Kamil, a German Jewish boy living in Japan, and Adolf Kauffman, a half Japanese, half German boy whose father is a high ranking member of the Nazi Party. The two develop an unlikely friendship that is strained with the rise of the third Adolf (Hitler), the Nazi Party, and the start of WWII. Kauffman befriends Kamil as a youngster, before the onset of war, and this friendship persists even as Kauffman is shipped to a Hitler Youth school in Germany.
Message to Adolf’s story is a bit loose and many connections with characters are ephemeral and feel forced. Some of these characters feel like an attempt to inject a more literary feel to the story, which is largely unsuccessful and unnecessarily bloats the story. Fortunately, though, the cartooning is top notch and shows why Tezuka is hailed as a genius and a father of manga.
Tezuka deftly handles the multitude of characters, giving them all distinct visual elements and making them easily identifiable. He also is masterful at cartooning the emotions these characters go through; shock, nervousness, fear, and rage are all easily identifiable. In addition, he creates remarkable depth and range, and when you consider the number of pages he illustrates to tell this story it is truly an astounding and outstanding output.
While there is nothing to preclude it from being enjoyed by a younger audience, this story would likely be best suited for adults. It has an adult tone and the youthful characters are more symbols of youth than someone a younger reader might identify with. Libraries of all stripes would benefit from having this in their collection.