This is the first in a few posts making up my – slightly last minute – contribution to Tezuka Month, that was kicked off by Evan Minto and the guys over at Anigamers. Starting with this look at Vertical’s recent paperback reissue of MW, I’ll be posting a few different things up over the next few days.

From the first few pages its clear that 1976′s MW was Tezuka proving that he could write for an adult audience beyond the teenage consumers of Astro Boy and Black Jack, as the reader is bombarded with images of violence and – perhaps symbolically – the graphic death of a small boy. The book is littered throughout with events and images designed to surprise and disturb, but it never scoops as low as just pure shock tactics – instead MW demonstrates the manga master weaving a thrilling and thought-provokingly tense thriller that forms what was perhaps Tezuka’s most darkly adult work.

The book revolves around a cover-up of a chemical weapons test gone wrong on a Japanese island, a disastrous blunder that leaves an entire community dead. Only two witnesses survive – and several years after the event these two become the story’s central protagonists. The first is the enigmatic young bank clerk Michio Yuki, who’s exposure to MW – the deadly chemical of the aforementioned incident – has apparently lead him to becoming a violent sociopath. As a result he leads a secret life as a criminal mastermind, extortionist and woman-hating serial killer. Driven by a twisted sense of justice following the incident and what he saw as a young child on the island, the book follows him as he pursues a campaign of revenge against those responsible, those that hid the truth and ultimately the rest of the human race as a whole.

Our second lead player is the even more complex – and perhaps even more psychologically damaged – Father Garai. A Catholic priest and Yuki’s only true friend, he is haunted by guilt and his own perceived sin; not merely as his position stops him from revealing Yuki’s actions to the authorities but also because he partly blames himself for the young man’s rampage of terror. While the other inhabitants of the island perished in the accident, he and Yuki survived by accidentally hiding in a cave where Garai found himself sexually abusing the young boy, and 16 years later they are still lovers in the most forbidden of secret relationships. Torn between his desires and a sense of responsibility towards Yuki and his horror at his actions Garai spends the entire story grappling with his conscience and seemingly on the verge of becoming insane himself.

It’s this complex interplay between the two that Tezuka uses to explore the main theme of MW; the perceived conflict between good and evil. At first glance it is easy to see the two man taking these sides, but Tezuka never once allows anything to be so cut and dried. For every disturbing rape and murder we see Yuki commit we can still feel empathy for him and the pain of his childhood scars, and for all Garai’s moral righteousness it’s impossible not to see the blood on his cowardly hands. Tezuka uses these two to show the reader that far from a black and white conflict, the relationship between good and evil is in fact a symbiotic one; that just as Garai’s abuse helped create the killer Yuki, the priest’s abhorrence at his lover’s actions drove him into joining the clergy. And not only does good create evil and vice-versa, but the two require each other to continue to define themselves, the suggestion being that if this conflict then neither side can be victorious without losing all meaning and relevence.

It’s an ingenious and thought provoking angle of attack by Tezuka one of his favourite targets – organised religion – but it’s not the only one he takes aim at. Just as in Black Jack and his other works we see the media, politicians, corrupt business men and naive revolutionaries all feel his wrath, in his usually elegant yet blunt style. Along the way he pauses to tackle a number of other themes from the treatment of homosexuals in 1970′s Japan to the corruption of the country’s political parties. Of particular note is his assessment of Japan’s post-war dominance by America; the nation’s timid impotence in the face of their victorious enemy framed in stark contrast to Yuki’s unwavering virility; and it seems to be an interesting fore-shadowing of themes explored decades later by the likes of Mamoru Oshii and Katsuhiro Otomo.

The influence on Otomo and others’ work is apparent elsewhere too, especially in the fantastically accurate looking drawings of Tokyo’s architecture, where Tezuka seems to be enjoying his chance to draw the real over the fantastic for once. The art through-out is engaging and immaculate, and it’s a thrill to see him depicting the dark and disturbing in truly graphic detail – if it’s not clear yet then let me spell it out – MW is not a work for young children, by any stretch of the imagination.

As enthralling as the book is, it’s not without its flaws. For a start it’s portrayal of women, while perhaps a sign of the restrictions of Japanese society at the time, seems somewhat two-dimensional as they fall unquestioningly into Yuki’s murderous arms. Similarly a few leaps of believability are occasionally needed by the reader in order for Yuki’s schemes to succeed, especially when he passes himself off as a member of the opposite sex. His brother being a famous cross-dressing kabuki actor is used to explain this to a certain extent, but it still pushes plausibility when he’s impersonating a woman that the other characters are personally familiar with.

Not that any of this is should distract from your enjoyment. While Tezuka is famed for his ability to add depth and meaning to his children’s stories, it’s exhilarating to watch him work on an unashamedly adult tale. If you think you know his work but you’ve yet to read MW, then this book may very well challenge your perceptions. Which is, for me at least, something to always be relished.

Review based on a copy provided by the publisher.