Manga Review: Swallowing the Earth

When I read the fifth volume of Black Jack a few weeks ago, I decided to give in to the peer pressure of my fellow manga enthusiasts and open myself up to the grandfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka. I wanted to dive deep into this man’s massive catalog of decades old works. So when I found out that Digital Manga Publishing was releasing the 1968 Tezuka classic Swallowing the Earth this week, I leapt at the chance of securing a review copy for my second fray into the world of this legendary manga artist.

In World War II, an American soldier dies with a smile on his face in front of the Japanese. He uses his final breaths to tell his oppressors the name of one woman, Zephyrus, and hands them a photo of a beautifully buxom blond woman.

The Japanese soldiers are absolutely infatuated with the woman in the picture, and begin to ask around about Zephyrus. What they come to learn were stories of a goddess among women, a seductress with the power to charm any man into bed with her. After nights of the most incredible pleasure, the men literally shrivel up dry and get thrown aside, then the blond siren moves on to her next boy toy.

Twenty years after the war, those former soldiers still remember the picture, and they just so happen to hear that a woman named Zephyrus just checked into a Japanese hotel. To add to the mystery, she is said to be just as beautiful as she was in the picture, and hasn’t age at all in all these years. So one of the soldiers employs his drunken slacker of a son named Gohonmatsu Seki to spy on the girl. If there’s any man strong enough, or just plain stupid enough, to not fall for the siren’s tempting advances, it would be him!

What follows is a 500-page epic adventure of Gohonmatsu as he travels the world to uncover the mystery behind Zephyrus. I believe that this long story is the best element to this comic. Tezuka creates a very detailed narrative mixed in with many layers, many characters, many subplots, and many places to create a massive environment for the reader to indulge themselves in.

An excellently written forward from Tekuza biographer Fred Schodt outlines the world as it was in 1968, the year that this comic was created. It was a time when the Japanese economy was rebuilding itself, the Vietnam War was being fought nearby, and the hippie and civil rights movement was taking place in America. The amazing thing is that you can see all these influences written within the comic itself. It’s an interesting story taken from one of the most interesting times in recent history.

Another amazing thing about this comic is the way Tezuka plays around with the panels and layout of each page. Such examples would be spreading an image across two pages, a huge emphasis of negative black space, drawing panels overlapping each other or diagonally to look like sun rays, or repeating the same images a few times.

I think that the only flaw within Tezuka’s story telling is in the humor. For some reason, he thinks that the fact that Gohonmatsu likes to drink is the funniest freaking thing in the world. In about every page featuring this protagonist, there is a joke about him drinking, being drunk, or asking for a drink. It’s extremely repetitive and the joke gets old very quickly.

But humor aside, this is one solid story, and I can fully recommend it to anyone looking for a good manga read. However, I just didn’t find it to be as engrossing as Black Jack or any of the series I have recently read from artist Naoki Urasawa. Swallowing the Earth is good – maybe even very good – but it’s not great. It feels experimental, and unfortunately, the experiment just falls shy of perfection.

As far as the visuals go, this is the first time I’ve been exposed to the “adult” side of Tezuka’s work as the main character through out this story is the seductive siren. In the forward, Schodt also explains how the Japanese ideal of attractiveness was different in the late 60’s than it is today. But I say that on the contrary, there is nothing wrong with this ideal. I found these female characters be very beautiful and attractive even by 2009 standards.

But his sexy lady character designs are the only ones that can hold up to modern times, because all of his other characters look way too goofy to be taken seriously in such an epic adventure story.

Since Tezuka was the pioneer of bringing manga and anime to Japan, his only influences at the time were the early American cartoons of Disney, Betty Boop, etc. So from a modern reader’s perspective, his works look like American cartoons and not at all like what we perceive manga to be.

But it’s not even modern American cartoons that he’s reminiscent of, it’s old American cartoons. The type that were aimed at adults and just oozing with racial stereotypes. But the world got politically correct since then, and through out my lifetime, such cartoons have been long buried away and never mentioned again. So while there are multiple warnings at the start of the book begging the reader, “please don’t take it the wrong way,” it is still a shock to see the way ethnics and African Americans are portrayed in this book.

This is an argument I’ve had with many Tezuka enthusiasts, but I have to, and will always have to, take issue with his art style for these reasons. Yes, it is because of the times he lived in, and sadly, it is in no way the fault of the artist himself. But we live in modern times, and it is an obvious hurdle that modern readers will have to deal with when they’re first getting into his work. I will honestly admit that it takes away a lot of the appeal of his comics for me.

The Good: Epic adventure story, creative page layouts and art techniques, sexy female characters.

The Bad: Artwork outdated and potentially offensive to modern readers. Running gags get old pretty quickly.

Final Verdict: Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth is a bold entry into the American manga market. While it may not be particularly suitable to regular manga readers, it does offer many interesting artistic elements worth checking out to manga enthusiasts.

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