If I remember correctly, the original 2006 Vertical edition of Ode to Kirihito was my first true exposure to a dark, somewhat self-contained Osamu Tezuka tale. It also may have been the largest bulk volume of manga I consumed prior to Drawn & Quarterly’s release of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life. Its original run in Japan was a different matter, with twenty gripping chapters serialized as Kirihito Sanka in Big Comic from 1970-1971. Whether it’s absorbed in one fell swoop or via Vertical’s recent two-volume edition, Ode to Kirihito is one of the finest Tezuka stories available in English.
Kirihito Osanai is working with a slew of doctors to unlock the mysteries of Monmow disease, as a patient under their watch suffers from its symptoms. Chief among them is a bizarre physical regression, ultimately causing the patient’s features to appear more canine than human. Kirihito is convinced the disease is endemic, but Director Tatsugaura insists they’re dealing with a contagious pathogen. In fact, the future of his career may rest on proving this theory as fact.
In order to further his studies and settle this endless debate, Kirihito heads to a remote village known as Doggodale in search of Monmow’s source. What he doesn’t know, however, is that this trip is just the beginning of something much more sinister; a tapestry woven before Kirihito even set foot in this small, run-down settlement. Over the course of the next 800+ pages, Tezuka plays with countless twists and turns, the confounding puzzle of Monmow pulsating at the center of it all.
There’s a great deal of interesting characterization in Kirihito. The titular doctor meets a truly strange assortment of individuals throughout his harrowing journey, which could easily be categorized as epic had the word not been twisted into a shell of its former self via the Internet. Aside from Osanai, one of the real standouts of the book is Urabe, a doctor who also developed under the tutelage of Director Tatsugaura. He just may be the most conflicted of the bunch, and his psychological transformation is vividly depicted.
Tezuka’s art is at its best here, both volumes rife with expressive characters and highly detailed backgrounds. What’s most impressive about Kirihito, though, is the frequent experimentation in everything from page composition to the style of individual drawings. Depending on the mood, a typical Tezuka-styled character can turn into an almost lifelike caricature, often framed in pitch black.
The tone is also consistently dark and foreboding, with very little of Tezuka’s spirited comic relief to lighten the mood. In fact, off the top of my head I can recall maybe one or two intentionally humorous moments, and they do little to break the tension. Instead, Tezuka focuses his powers on showcasing stark contrasts in humanity. Just take a look at the beginning of chapter four; savagery captured in frenetic but focused panels of clawing and snarling and discipline turned to desperation.
Despite Ode to Kirihito‘s considerable length, the collection is quickly consumed. Anyone that found themselves missing out on their first opportunity to read it shouldn’t do so this time. Just be sure to pick up both volumes at once, or at least within a reasonable window of time. I couldn’t imagine the type of frantic dash that would ensue upon getting to the end of one and being unable to immediately continue.
It’s worthy of rereading, too; something in which I took great pleasure. There’s a thick mass to explore beneath the surface, and return trips have proven to be rewarding. For me, Ode to Kirihito is up there with MW as not only essential Tezuka, but essential comics.
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Story & Art: Osamu Tezuka