Like Will Eisner in the west, Osamu Tezuka is considered one of the founding fathers of the graphic novel. Ode to Kirihito is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces, standing alongside Buddha as an epic of Japanese graphic literature.
The story revolves around Kirihito Osanai, a brilliant but rebellious young doctor, who’d have a bright future ahead of him if only he could toe the line of the Japanese medical establishment. Instead, his ageing mentor Dr Tatsugaura, who is looking to use his research on a rare disfiguring disease called Monmow to move away from consultancy and into the politics of medicine, sees Kirihito as standing in his way. In an attempt to bury Kirihito, he sends him on a research mission to the remote village of Doggoddale, where Monmow disease has been turning the inhabitants into dog-like creatures with canine faces and a hunger for raw meat, before painfully killing them. Kirihito contracts the disease while he’s there and is imprisoned by the villagers in an attempt to contain the potentially virulent disease.
The 800-page story follows Kirihito as he attempts to unravel the mystery around the disease and his own fate. His life is hard – his facial disfigurement keeps him in the shadows while unsavoury types view him as a freak and a victim, and attempt to take advantage.
Tezuka proves himself a true master of his craft. Both story and art are quirky – simultaneously entertaining, uplifting, heart-breaking and horrifying. His characters are morally ambiguous, far from the black and white comic characters appearing across a good proportion of the rest of the globe in the 1970s. And his art, while reminiscent of his character work in books like Buddha, has no sign of the Disney look he often brought to the party.
You have to regard this as a period piece – some of the fashions depicted here, both in terms of clothes and attitudes, have moved on over the years. But it’s still a thrilling ride, perfectly paced despite its length, from a master of graphic story-telling.