Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), creator of Astro Boy and over 700 manga series, is often called the God of Comics or the Disney of the East. But neither title acknowledges the mark he's left on science fiction. If you don't know who he is, then you should get to know him — now. For decades, Tezuka's works weren't accessible to the non-Japanese-reading public. NBC aired over half of the Astro Boy anime series in the sixties, but the original manga wasn't published in English until 2002. At last, a handful of publishers is actively translating and releasing some of Tezuka's lesser known titles into English. One of the best is Apollo's Song, published in English for the first time a few months ago by Vertical Inc. Its an elegant, compact representation of Tezuka's scifi genius — and a milestone in Japanese free expression due to its frank depiction of sexuality in a postapocalyptic world.
Apollo's Song was originally serialized in a weekly comic magazine back in 1970. This was during the transition phase of Tezuka's career—his production company had just tanked, and he was skeptical of the anime industry, which insisted on censoring his work. It was the same year that he wrote Alabaster, a story about a homicidal, partly invisible ex-athlete intent on destroying all the beauty in the world.
For Tezuka, science fiction was never a goal; it was the medium through which he chose to explore complex, often taboo issues of his time, like love and hate and promiscuous sex. By addressing these issues via animated fictional characters living in a surreal future, he avoided controversy and criticism in the real world.
Apollo's Song is a coming-of-age story that starts in the present and warps back and forth into the past and future. The ambiguous protagonist is a boy named Shogo, who learned to despise the idea of love during a childhood mired in his mom's promiscuous affairs with his many papas. He hates it so much that he obsessively murders any living thing showing even the slightest hint of passion. These killing sprees land him in a mental hospital, where a mysterious doctor puts him through electroshock therapy and transports him into different roles, each in extreme imagined environments—an island where dozens of zoo animals procreate, an isolated house in the mountains, and Nazi Germany. Through his adventures, Shogo finally learns to love. Hypnosis takes him to his final destination—Tokyo in the year 2030, where super-humanoid clones called Synthians rule a cold, heartless world. There, Shogo is caught between two tasks he's been ordered to perform—to kill the Synthian queen, but also to teach her how to love.
The inner lives of animals, reproduction, twisted sexuality, reincarnation, and the inevitable war between humans and their creations—clones and robots—are themes that arise repeatedly in Tezuka's manga. Even today, a lot of Japanese people don't talk that openly about love and sex. Manga is often a prime medium for understanding these issues—sex ed is often taught in comic strips, and almost every male magazine has pornographic graphic novels tacked into its end pages.
Nearly 20 years after his death and over half a century past his heyday, only twelve of Tezuka's titles have been published in English. But with the Asian Art Museum's recent exhibit on Tezuka and other titles being worked on by publishers like Vertical and Viz, we should be seeing a greater rollout in the years to come. If you're going to start somewhere with Tezuka's science fiction works, Apollo is the place to go.