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Phoenix – Volume 1

I’ll admit I know embarrassingly little about Tezuka’s life and work, beyond the obvious impact he had as both one of the pioneers of manga and the originator of TV animation. There was short-form anime before Tezuka, but it was the cutthroat bargain he struck in terms of “limited animation” that allowed anime to be in any way financially viable as a weekly television medium. And to be honest, his bargain was itself a pretty loose interpretation of “financially viable,” a labor-heavy yet nonetheless bare-bones adaptive method that still has repercussions in how animators are criminally underpaid today.

So Tezuka both created and quasi-doomed television animation, while also creating some of the most iconic and long-lasting characters and narratives in either manga or anime. Hell, one of last year’s most acclaimed productions was an adaptation of a prestige reimagining of an Astro Boy arc. His works stretch the limits of “classic” to something almost equivalent to sacred texts; anime is where it is dramatically because of his imagination, and where it is financially because of his business acumen.

Like many originals of such stature, Tezuka was never content to sit on his prior accomplishments, or simply replicate the things he had created before. The last stretch of his career featured a dramatic broadening of his creative ambitions, shifting from tales of boyhood achievement to grand reflections on historical figures or the course of humanity. Phoenix represents the culmination of this late-career ambition, though of course, things can only be seen as “culminations” in retrospect. We cannot know where else Tezuka’s arms might have stretched – we only have the incredible catalog he left behind, alongside a legacy continuing into the future.

From its first pages, Phoenix demonstrates the odd confluence of variables at play in Tezuka’s later work. The manga begins with a somber reflection on the great and terrible power of a volcano, here accompanied by playful drawings of forest animals with anthropomorphized body language and big friendly cartoon eyes. This scientific breakdown of the process of eruption is then contrasted against an articulation of the mountain’s mythic import, its significance to an early tribe of humans revealed through their prayers for a woman on the verge of death. And then we lurch again towards slapstick comedy, just before it is revealed that the young boy Nagi’s brother has succumbed to his wounds.

Through this unique mixture of far-reaching philosophy and farce, of comical exaggeration and frank violence, Tezuka offers a story of mankind’s inhumanity towards man – not to judge us, but to position us within the legacy of all animals, the way of nature altogether. And he constructs this meditation out of all the tools he’s acquired throughout his career, embodying an ethos of stories being approachable by both children and adults, and of disrespected forms like comic art being capable of great, soul-churning artistry. In Tezuka’s world, cartoonish exaggeration can exist right alongside mass slaughter; there is no partitioning the world into socially agreeable and grotesquely morbid boxes, the world is funny and sorrowful and silly and brutal all at the same time.

Nagi’s brother Uraji wished to claim the life of the phoenix, which is said to grant eternal life. He desired this not for glory, but to save the life of his ailing wife Hinaku, who was suffering from what Tezuka soon reveals to be untreated tetanus. But just before Hinaku succumbs to her ailment, she is saved by the wisdom of a man who washes up on shore – Em Dee, a foreigner who is at first treated as a slave, but ultimately allowed to marry the woman he saved. But then, on the eve of their wedding, it is revealed that Em Dee was actually a spy; a forward agent of the Priestess Himiko, whose troops proceed to slaughter Hinaku and Nagi’s village under the command of the brutal captain Saruta.

It is at that point where Phoenix reveals the true scope of its perspective. For as it turns out, Em Dee’s betrayal will prove only the first in a long line of upheavals and reversals, shifting tides that will force Nagi to find family where he can, cast the powerful down to the earth, and ultimately destroy nearly every character we come to know. Nagi will come to see the conquering Saruta as a genuine father, Em Dee and Hinaku will bear the seeds of the future, and all will ultimately be lost in the great march of time, the phoenix perpetually flying overhead, a constant reminder of our implacably finite lifespans.

In a traditional story, this might seem somewhat fatalistic. But Phoenix is not about the stories we tell of our own lives – or rather, it includes such stories only to emphasize that they are fantasies, comforting delusions designed to frame us as the center of the universe. But any individual human life is quite brief, even if consequential, and Phoenix is in truth about the great span of history, the forces that shift and repeat and see humanity reinventing itself in new yet familiar forms. It contains historical markers largely to emphasize the distance between their living grandeur and historical import; its perspective is always that of the phoenix above, seeing the conflicts of humans as little different from the warring of red and black ants.

Phoenix’s most desperate characters rage against that dying of the light, the necessity to eventually depart the stage so as to make room for someone new. The Priestess Himiko could be considered the antagonist of this arc, but she’s also simply a desperate woman clinging to fading power in an age where superstitions are no longer sufficient to maintain order. Himiko also embodies Phoenix’s approach to history and legend; though she is historically canonized as the first leader of Japan, she is here depicted as both a heartless conqueror and a superstitious tyrant. This immediate deflating of Japanese mythology reflects Tezuka’s age and experience, but the takeaway is nothing so simple as “Japan is built on a false promise of supremacy.”

Himiko is not a monster, she is a person, and all people are similar in their ignorance, selfishness, charity, kindness, ambition, and all else that makes up human nature. All humans are provincial in their concept of fellow humanity, all are desperate to survive, and all are determined to ensure their legacy endures. When Saruta completes his routing of Nagi’s tribe, the opposing chief’s final words are “if your leader is a woman, you too will be destroyed” – a statement of feeble superstition, emphasizing that there was no greater “righteousness” in this tribe, but that they still deserve life. Em Dee could have brought greater fortune and intellectual enlightenment to these people; instead, he led his own allegedly superior tribe to destroy them utterly. Neither education nor its absence are inherent markers of nobility or decency. So it goes.

By grounding Nagi’s adventures in history, Tezuka further emphasizes how forces that seemed implacable, permanent, or even the avatars of the gods were simply quirks of their era, great leaders who rose to near-godhood only to fall into obscurity via the long arc of human progress. When describing the ascension of Japan’s first emperor, Tezuka states that “in this fashion, Japan was formed as a nation through invasion, war, and slaughter.” With each bloody step forward, Phoenix pushes against the assumed righteousness of our self-serving views of dynasty and destiny. There is nothing magical or inevitable about the emperor of Japan – he is simply the latest conqueror to install himself upon a throne of skulls, his allegedly god-given right to rule a self-serving fantasy common to many rulers. Himiko claimed herself invincible and inevitable, but ultimately fell into ruin. Her successor will experience the same; all tyrants have their turn in the sun, but all empires eventually crumble.

On the individual level, the fluidity of human nature and superficiality of assumed righteousness are illustrated through the path of Nagi and Saruta, mortal enemies who eventually become genuine father and son. Dragged across the sea by his hated oppressor, Nagi at first cannot understand why Saruta works so hard to preserve him, in spite of previously culling his whole village. It’s an understandable disconnect, for the distinction between personal morality versus loyalty to a higher power is complex and fluid. Often, the humanity we assign to others is simply a reflection of personal proximity, rather than the actual behavior or beliefs of anyone involved.

This truth is reflected in reverse when Nagi plans his assassination of Himiko, recruiting another boy whose parents were killed by the priestess’ alleged supernatural justice. It is a difficult thing to turn people against the belief system of their entire society, but collisions of the personal and the cultural have a way of provoking such crises of faith; when the shaman you worship accuses your parents of lies, the levy has a tendency to break. It is often only a personal connection that can overcome the weight of culture or superstition, as in the case of Em Dee’s bond with Hinaku. And though he once swore revenge on Saruta, Nagi eventually finds himself desperately carrying his surrogate father to safety, praying he will last long enough to see the far shore. Our lifespans are harshly finite, but there is enough time within them for profound reinvention, for finding new humanity within ourselves or others.

Of course, this is not a lesson that is easily learned, and conflict is a constant of nature, whether it is human or animal. The tribes of Phoenix war against each other relentlessly, each desperate to ensure their kind survive. And even on the individual level, characters like Nagi demonstrate the difficulty of truly embracing a broader view of humanity. Returning to the volcanic crater of the phoenix, he finds Em Dee still alive, who claims his sister is well and has even borne him children. Nagi despairs at this “betrayal,” though in truth he has already forgiven the man who actually destroyed his village, purely because he came to understand his humanity in the year they spent together. His very different reaction to Em Dee only reflects the fickleness of human morality, of our ability to forgive those who we’ve come to see as human, versus our tendency to revile those who we cannot see closely or come to understand.

And above all this striving for meaning and eternity, this arbitrary war and equally arbitrary allotment of provisional humanity, the phoenix soars, promising a personal glory that can never be attained. Many of this manga’s characters destroy themselves in pursuit of it, yet its body holds nothing for them. Only embracing the future, the “eternity” promised by carrying your own genes as well as your culture and historical legacy onto your children, can ensure your presence survives. And there is little warmth in this assurance; only the certainty of humanity surviving in aggregate, just as any species would hope. “It’s too late!” Em Dee calls down to Hinaku as her babies tumble into the magma, “you’ll have more later!”

At times Phoenix is quite intimate in its articulation of human suffering, as in the story of Nagi and his surrogate father. At others, it takes an almost dehumanizing, impersonal long view, seeing the deaths of a few human beings or even a society as an inevitability of time’s passage, a reality that can be mourned, but must be moved on from, must be contextualized in the overall forward march of the human race. I suppose living through total war will have a tendency to do that; it becomes harder to see individual human lives as essential when the world around you demonstrates how fragile they are, and how often we are forced to carry on in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.

Thus we struggle onward, forming what connections we can, often being destroyed in the crucible of history, but striving ever for a greater connection, a future for ourselves and those we love. There is no righteousness in the battles presented in this volume, nor any noble inevitability in the course of technological progress. Such things are as fickle and amoral as the wind and rain, or the terrible roar of the phoenix’s mountain. All we can hope for is that our hardships offer lessons we can hand on to our children, that they might chart an easier course through this chaotic, ever-shifting world.

Standing on the slope of the phoenix’s lair, desperately urging his son not to fall into another cycle of revenge, Saruta’s reflections on a wasted life seem the embodiment of this volume’s true ethos. For thirty years he squandered his strength in worship of a false idol, and now only has “his own stupidity” to show for it. But even he knows he is wrong; for he has learned well the mistakes of his past, and gained a son he treasures along the way. So what if our lives are brief fragments in a great chain of mankind; if you can learn from your mistakes and find loved ones to walk alongside you, then your life has been a worthy one. “The phoenix is everywhere,” he pleads with Nagi. “There are phoenixes everywhere you look.” Nagi does not hear him; his eyes are trained on the summit, his thoughts consumed with unreachable glory.

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