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MW is seventies Tezuka, the God of Manga in his darkest period, the time when he was observing and partially creating the men's-magazine style of manga with its James Bondish action and adventure and nudity, but also exploiting the content allowed him by that style to produce absolutely lacerating commentary on human cruelty and darkness. Which is to say, this is the darkest of noir, saved from total nihilism only by tiny and astonishing moments of a rare and vanishing kindness. It's hard to read, which is why I've been putting it off for a few years, but it's also absolutely brilliant. It's basically Tezuka doing gekiga, and it's one of his natural genres.

The manga centers around an unlikely couple: the up-and-coming young bank executive Yuki, notable in his office for his good looks and his celebrity Kabuki actor brother, and the Roman Catholic priest Garai. They're bound by shared secrets on all sides: their affair, of course, which Garai is desperately metaphysically tormented over, but also the fact that Garai is half-intentionally using the seal of the confessional to shield Yuki from the police. Yuki is a brilliant sociopath, who kills and robs with an amazing indifferent cruelty, and Garai is his only real emotional connection. Garai believes with all his heart in the sanctity of the confessional, and is genuinely trying to save Yuki's soul, but they are inextricably entwined not only sexually but because of a horrific chemical weapons accident fifteen years previously. Yuki and Garai are the only survivors of eight hundred and fifty people in the area, as well as the only witnesses missed by a massive government coverup, and brain damage brought on by chemical exposure is part of what destroyed Yuki's conscience. So Garai is willing to work for a shared revenge-- but is that actually what Yuki wants? How much of what Yuki is is what he has been made, and what things really made him? Where should the responsibility for crime be placed, and whose crimes, in this world full of them, are worst?

Believe me, I'm not telling you too much of the plot. There's a lot of plot here to go around. The book's main weakness, in fact, is the sheer amount of plot; there is so much going on here that portions of it don't quite hang together, and areas where the action makes more sense thematically than in a rational way, or where character motivations turn on a dime with no explanation, or where the logistics of what is going on are too complex for even Tezuka's spectacular panel layouts to adequately get things across. But it all makes emotional sense, always, and there are indications that some of the incoherency is intentional expressionism, the gripping confused urgency of nightmare. I admire a sequence in which a perfectly ordinary conversation between Yuki and Garai has its visuals morph into seamless pastiche of Aubrey Beardsley, so that when Garai admits his utter helplessness against his lover he is drawn as the head of John the Baptist, and Yuki in a precise and grotesque fusion of his own face and the original is a coldly chilling Salome.

This makes me want to have read Yukio Mishima, because I suspect it of being a homage and riff on that writer's politics and life. I think Yuki was named after Mishima, whose suicide was six years old when the manga ran; there is a sequence in which Yuki toys with and uses a writer who runs a political/terrorist student group similar to Mishima's cult of personality. In the end Yuki drops the writer: for not going far enough. And the central questions around Yuki's identity, the way he takes on the roles and personalities and appearances of the people he betrays and kills, the way he is all things to all people, also remind me of things I've heard about Mishima's ruminations on identity and appearance, and a part of Garai's backstory reminds me very much of something I've seen mentioned as a major plot point in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. But this is all speculative, because I haven't read any Mishima, so I could be totally wrong. (I should read some Mishima and see.)

Not an easy book. It's extremely violent, physically and emotionally, and it has sexual violence in a direction so appalling it had not crossed my mind as possible, and the most charismatic and interesting character is, intentionally, Yuki, who is also vilely, disgustingly, but sadly not unbelievably evil. It has no answers to the questions it raises about responsibility and justice, religion and mercy, crime and existence, and it means to have no answers, to sear into you that there may not be any. But it's one of those works of art that is so incredibly well conceived and executed that I cannot find it depressing, so beautifully done that its very existence belies its own negationism: it is too good to mean nothing. If you can cope with it, I recommend it.
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I know William Weaver primarily for his translations from the Italian; he's done both Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. Thrud had a fellowship for some time at the Villa I Tatti, and it turns out that Weaver wrote a history of the house, so I read it mostly out of curiosity about where Thrud had been living. A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti is I think a vanity project, honestly; it's a factual account of the house, its various refurbishings and renovations and contents, but it does not make an argument as to why the house is so important except that Bernard Berenson bought it, Edith Wharton stayed there a lot, and Harvard owns it now. There are a great many photos, and honestly that is what was important to me, but I cannot recommend this to anyone who is neither passionately interested in the architecture of Italian villas nor doing research on one of the relevant historical figures, especially as the last chunk of the book essentially reads as one long apologia for Harvard's tenancy and a lot of assurances that they are Maintaining The Place's Historical Value, which, I mean, it's Harvard, I was not going to assume that they aren't. Personal interest barely got me through this, though Weaver's prose is perfectly competent. I wonder why he wrote the thing?

And then the next night I read Paul Kozelka's The Theatre Student: Directing, because I have never been in a play and have always been curious about the directing process-- there is a lot of mystique surrounding it. Unfortunately, while vaguely informative, the Kozelka was also fairly dire. It seemed to be aimed at persons wishing to direct community theatre for an audience of children and operates on the assumption that such persons are by definition more cultured than the people around them and must bring this culture to the unenlightened masses; it also worships Stanislavsky, which does not seem entirely compatible with the previous. And the included play may be by Betty Smith, but I am sorry, a novelist does not always a playwright make. I learned some details about ways directors could organize their lives into a notebook and that is really all the help this gave me. Can anyone recommend anything better on the philosophy and technique of stage directing and acting? There must be more than this.

Fortunately after that I came to Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth.

I have an odd relationship with the God of Manga. Honestly, I don't enjoy Tezuka ninety percent of the time. I find Phoenix too unbearably depressing to be manageable, I tend to summarize Princess Knight to people as 'a comedy where all the wrong people die', and I find Urasawa's Pluto far more readable than the chunk of Astro Boy from which it is adapted. However, I keep reading and watching Tezuka, because every so often something happens like his nineteen-fifties theatrical version of Saiyuki (the English dub stars Frankie Avalon, I will never get over this), or the first ten pages of Apollo no Uta, or the Tezuka studio's gorgeously weird Kanashimi no Belladonna, one of the strangest films ever made (it's a film based on the 1860s book about witchcraft La Sorcière, and almost all of the animation consists of still pans over paintings-- I love this movie, but I totally understand why it was an utter commercial failure).

So I tend to go into Tezuka with a certain hesitancy. I refuse to become attached to his characters, and honestly I am usually waiting with trepidation for the book to do something I hate.

Swallowing the Earth I do not hate. )


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