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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...

Friday, July 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: PHOENIX: A TALE OF THE FUTURE (1967-68)



I have not read all twelve of the translated arcs in Osamu Tezuka's mammoth PHOENIX story-cycle, but they're meant to stand alone, and in fact Tezuka passed away in 1989 without having finished everything he wanted to say on the theme. Possibly, since he viewed the cycle as his life's work, he never would have finished it, even if he'd been given the impossibly long life of certain characters in this 1967-68 arc, which I'll henceforth refer to as FUTURE. Though FUTURE was one of the first arcs that the "God of Manga" completed, it was also chronologically the end of the cycle, in which Tezuka put the earth of 3404 AD through the mill of a great apocalypse, only to deliver on the promise of renewed life afterward.

The author's distant techno-future is a visual feast, though sometimes skimpy on the logical details. Although humankind has mastered space-travel-- two characters are "space patrolmen" and Earth has played host to at least one alien species-- it's not clear whether or not humans have been able to colonize the stars. Regardless, Earth itself has become a desolate place of cold temperatures and windblown terrain. No one can live on Earth's surface, but what remains of the human populace has been crammed into five colossal underground cities. In the city named Yamato-- presumably pioneered by Tezuka's ancestors-- a conflict evolves between three of the narrative's main characters: heroic Masato, his "negative mirror-image" Roc, and the female alien Tamami.

Tamami belongs to the aforementioned alien species, an amoeba-like organism able to (a) transform into any other organic form, and (b) able to beguile humans with hypnotic dreams, so that they can flee their hectic, crowded lives into the idyllic worlds of Earth's past history. But after the shapechangers became popular in Yamato as both pets and lovers, the autocratic computer that rules Yamato commands that all Moopies must be exterminated. Space patrolman Masato is one of those who was obliged to carry out such executions, but somehow he managed to hide Tamami in his own apartment, with the alien using its powers to appear like a normal human relative of the patrolman. However, Masato's superior officer Roc-- who came up with Masato in the ranks, and is therefore about the same age as the hero-- finds out about Tamami, and gives Masato the chance to finish off the last Moopie on Earth. Masato, aware of the penalties in Yamato's rigid society, tries to kill his companion but cannot. The two of them flee to the hostile surface of Earth, with Roc's forces in pursuit.

All that saves Masato and Tamami is that the image of the Phoenix appears to them, leading them to the shelter of eminent scientist Doctor Saruta, one of the few men able to maintain a domed refuge on Earth's surface. In addition, the Phoenix appears to Saruta. The creature represents itself as the living spirit of Earth itself, and urges the doctor to let the fugitives into his home, asserting that they will be necessary to renew the failing life-forces of the Earth.

I won't recount all of the involved plot-developments, except to note that after Roc's expeditionary forces fail, he himself seeks out Saruta's redoubt, because two of the great city-computers have declared war on each other. Soon the three men and the alien woman (the only major female character in FUTURE) are the only intelligent creatures left on Earth. Masato butts heads with both Roc, who covets Tamami's beauty, and Saruta, who wants to use her in his experiments to bring forth new life.

Though Tezuka's cosmological and metaphysical myth-motifs are of great scope in FUTURE, conceptutually they too butt heads. Most of the time Tezuka portrays the rise of new life in strictly materialistic biological terms, reminding one of the "Rite of Spring" sequence in Disney's FANTASIA. The Phoenix, however, claims that both stars and planets are alive in some metaphysical fashion. This would be acceptable if Tezuka were advocating panpsychism. However, the Phoenix can actually pull off a few miracles, like transforming Masato into a nearly immortal man, who oversees the return of life to Earth long after all the other characters have died. Yet, when the ancient Masato beholds a new race of primitive cavemen worshiping their gods, he thinks they're morons for so doing. What?

Tezuka is perhaps at his best with psychological themes, but he's ambivalent here as well. He sides with lovers Masato and Tamami, and their harmless dream-diversion, against the dictates of the city-computer. However, Tezuka seems to be on the side of "the reality factor" when he reveals that Saruta attempted to find emotional comfort with female robots. His arguments here aren't especially consistent, though one can hardly doubt Tezuka's abilities to put over any sentiment with affecting (if often fevered) dramatics.


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