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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: APOLLO'S SONG (1970)



APOLLO'S SONG will probably never be on anyone's list of favorite works from Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka. Indeed, one online resource claims that Tezuka himself didn't like it, partly because it came from his so-called "dark period." Many of the manga from this period reputedly have a nihilistic edge, far from the boundless optimism one finds in his early, often-juvenile works like TETSUWAN ATOM (aka Astro Boy) and RIBON NO KISHI (aka Princess Knight).

SONG is far from a perfect, or even disciplined, work. It's comprised of several disjointed episodes in the life of a 20th-century Japanese delinquent named Shogo Chikashi. Aside from the opening scenes, in which Shogo goes to an asylum and suffers shock therapy to straighten him out, the reader can't be entirely sure that any of the episodes actually occur. In addition, the work is informed by the author's desire to descant on the subject of sex education-- although Tezuka's vision of heterosexual relations seems fraught with a sense of devastating irony, in which all human aspirations are frustrated.

A prequel to Shogo's adventures takes the form of a sex-ed comic. Tezuka projects his imagination into the human female's Fallopian tube, where a few thousand sperm-- drawn as identical male humanoids-- gather to make their race for the personified egg, with whom one lucky sperm will successfully merge. It's one of the few un-ironic moments in the novel.

Shogo, however, isn't exactly the finest exemplar of the human species. He's a confused young man who's been committed on the grounds of his having assaulted small animals, and it soon comes out that he's the result of a slutty mother who gamboled about with many men while barely giving Shogo any maternal attention, beyond beating him from time to time. 



Tezuka's scenario is almost textbook Freud: lack of a positive father-figure and a concupiscent mother mold Shogo into a person almost divorced from feelings. However, instead of a "talking cure," in Tezuka's world the delinquent merits only punishment from a strange goddess-figure with a vaguely Greek appearance; one who appears in his dreams after his first encounter with electro-shock.



Despite the use of the name "Apollo" in the title, and in the story's only direct reference to Greek mythology, Shogo's fate seems modeled after that of a Greek tragic figure like Hippolytus. In the surviving play by Euripides, the titular character is minding his own business, worshiping the chaste goddess Artemis, when the love-goddess Aphrodite decides to make his life miserable by causing his stepmother Phaedra to pursue the young man.

By comparison Hippolytus was lucky: he only suffered one doom, while Shogo undergoes several-- and even by the novel's conclusion, it's stated that his sufferings will go on forever, with no expectation that he can ever break the cycle. To some readers this may seem pretty excessive for a youth whose aberrations are largely the result of adult irresponsibility. However, such a sense of universal injustice would accord perfectly with a masochistic outlook. As I'm not a Tezuka expert, I can't say if such an outlook appears consistently in his work. But in SONG, he certainly seems to be taking pleasure in his protagonist's sufferings.

The first episode, taking place after Shogo is cursed by the goddess, is one of the weakest. Shogo finds himself living in the body of a WWII German soldier, with no real memory beyond the fact that his name is still the very un-German Shogo. He meets a cute young Jewess and tries to set her free from captivity, but both of them are killed by the war's violence.

The next episode takes place after a hospital psychiatrist has hypnotized him. This time Shogo imagines being a Japanese pilot who's stranded on a remote island with a rather uppity Japanese female. The island is also inhabited by an assortment of animals who have formed a community in which none of them devour one another, although they will eat fish from the neighboring sea. Presumably the psychiatrist suggests this scenario because he's trying to force Shogo to relate to the animals that he's come to hate, largely because he can't stand their unconflicted attitude toward sexual fertilization. That said, it's odd that the doctor ends his tale with more death and tragedy.




Then, in a sequence which may or may not be part of the story's base reality, Shogo escapes the hospital. He's spirited away to a secluded mountain resort by a slightly older woman, Hiromi, who isn't interested in seducing him but wants to train him as a long-distance runner. The improbability of this setup is rendered slightly more palatable when it's revealed that Hiromi is also a psychiatrist, who took it upon herself to attempt cuing Shogo with this strange athletic program. At the same time, she's not above tempting Shogo with her feminine charms in order to manage him, and it's strongly suggested that she falls in love with him in the process of trying to heal him. 



This sequence is possibly the most successful in an aesthetic sense: Hiromi incarnates some of the motherly traits that Shogo's actual mother did not have. Yet she's also had a former lover, a fiancee who comes nosing around when he learns about the young man's presence, and this character may represent a deflection of the many fathers that tormented Shogo's life. In addition, she even slaps him a few times, giving her yet another resemblance to Shogo's unnamed female parent.

The interlude with Shogo and Hiromi is interrupted when he's injured, thus precipitating the story's last story. Shogo dreams that he's transported into the far future, at a time when human civilization has been marginalized by artificial, non-reproducing humanoids called "Synthans." Future-Shogo is talked into making an assassination-attempt on Queen Sigma, ruler of the Synthans. To his dismay, this requires him to become a servant in her palace, and this leads her to become intrigued with the human practice of lovemaking. Over the course of time, Sigma and Shogo fall in love for real, amid many SF-tropes involving cloning, artificial body-parts and robotics. Only in this section is there something closer to the passion of drama rather than the futility of irony.



The dream ends, and Shogo is back with Hiromi, though not for long. He soon finds out how he's been played by both Hiromi and the psychiatrist from the asylum.






The psychiatrist's idea of deferring sexual passion through Greek myth bears a moderate resemblance to Hippolytus' rejection of his own amorous potential. Yet it doesn't do either Hiromi or Shogo any good. They both die, and the spirit of Shogo is hauled before the goddess once more. Even though he's experienced genuine love for Hiromi, the goddess tells him that because he has "no faith in love," he will continue to experience "the trials of love" for the rest of existence.

It's possible that the English translation of APOLLO'S SONG misses some of the nuances of the Japanese original. Still, even if the narrative may not be entirely satisfying in any language, I must admit that it's one of the most pervasively pessimistic myths ever committed to a comics-page.


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