God's Learned Burlesque

Apollo's Song

It is the mark of love, truth, and sincerity between man and woman, male and female. Nature divides us into male and female; we come together and create offspring for posterity. As long as the world exists, men, women, and the children they bear will repeat this endless drama, day after day…”


That’s the word you need to keep in mind with this book. It’s a new release from Vertical, another deluxe softcover doorstop (544 pages for $19.95), collecting a complete tale from the great Osamu Tezuka. But you’ll be better off this time knowing the context.

A product of 1970, a time when the mainstream of Japanese comics became more welcoming to explicit content, Apollo’s Song was Dr. Tezuka’s attempt to instill good mental hygiene in the youths reading the biweekly Shōnen King anthology at the time. It wasn’t his only attempt either - the very same year brought the longer-lived (1970-72) and thoroughly berserk-sounding Marvelous Melmo, concerning the educational travails of a little girl who magically becomes an adult when she eats special candy that was given to the ghost of her dead mother by God. Aside from a similar 'sex ed' vibe, it apparently even shares some character designs with Apollo’s Song (not that Tezuka ever had qualms about 'casting' favored characters in different roles). Plus, for the adults, Tezuka also co-directed Cleopatra: Queen of Sex in 1970, so clearly love was in the air.

And love is all over this book. Love and learning, and art and allegory. And sex. And silliness. Oh boy does this one get silly. It's always been part of Tezuka's charm that silliness gets mixed in with drama, seemingly without concern for what the subject matter is, but there's some particularly choice bits in here, maybe a side effect of the master's desire to keep his messages palatable to a young audience.

Granted, the older audience that's likely to read the book in English -- and let's bow our heads for a moment to honor the New Golden Age irony of an upscale botique publisher serving an adult audience of connoisseurs a youth sex education comic from nearly four decades ago and a culture away -- might find even more entertainment in Tezuka's method of education, a curious mix of biology, sociology, then-contemporary cultural mores, folklore, political comment, and the type of rampant cartoon shorthand that winds up anthropomorphizing all the beasts of the field into romantic monogamy, gentle smooches between wild cats included.

So it's no Phoenix. No Buddha. Very few will call Apollo’s Song a masterpiece. But it’s a curiosity of the very best sort, the product of an artist who can’t help but delight (and convince) by simply doing things his way. Tezuka is an automatic entertainer, among the very least pretentious of philosophic artists, and even his most eccentric works are rich with weird amusement and vivid cartooning.

That's how it goes with the story of young Shogo Chikaishi, born to a mother who sold her body for money, and never connected sex with love. Why, he wasn't even nursed with breast milk! "But sir, they say it weakens the bond between mother and child!" warns a helpful voice from off-panel - no matter. Soon Shogo is thrusting large wooden logs through his television screen at any hint of love on the air. He walks in on his mother with a man, and the woman beats the shit out of him with a broom while clad in slinky see-thru negligee, sex equaling violence. Before you know it, he's killing animals when he sees love in their eyes, and winds up getting electroshock therapy. As we all learned in science class, having one's head zapped with electrodes results in the patient winding up in either the land of Oz or the hall of the Goddess of Love, and it's the latter for Shogo, who's doomed by his sins against love to love again and again, with tragedy always ruining everything.

And so, for the next 130 or so pages, Shogo dreams up a pair of alternate lives for himself, scenarios that fortuitously allow for all sorts of helpful sex messages. Now, when I think 'helpful sex messages' I always visualize Nazi Germany, so it makes sense that the first story begins with the now-German Shogo ("It's the name I was born with.") loading people into camp-bound freight cars. Ah, but our young hero soon spies a pretty girl in one of the cars, resulting in an unfamiliar Sieg Heil down below. This prompts a man-to-man talk about boners with an older soldier while Allied aircraft bomb the train:

You wonder why it gets hard? Well… it’s a sign that you’ve matured.”

Remember, this conversation is going on in the middle of a smoke-and-fire disaster zone while Jews are being loaded into trucks by Nazis at gunpoint. There's also bloody shootings, attempted rape, and plenty of general mayhem, until Shogo and the aforementioned girl wind up holding hands in the grass, her naked, he bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, both of them talking about love and marriage literally until they die, flowers springing up with the sun to mark their place. It'd all be absurdly saccharine, and possibly offensive, if it wasn't for Tezuka's total devotion to what he's doing, a visual authority that captures the full impact of dead eyes staring out from blossoms, along with every crackle of energy from a breathing human being.

But that’s nothing compared to the absolutely jaw-dropping second story, in which Shogo and a female photographer (circa mid-20th century) become stranded on a very allegorical island populated by super-intelligent animals. Our Hero immediately goes about killing a cute bunny for food, prompting the furry critter’s mate to, for all intents and purposes, call out a hit on the photographer, big Disney eyes gleaming with malevolence as a mighty beast dumps the girl’s tattered, still-breathing body in front of an understandably stunned Shogo. You see, everyone on this crazy planet need to learn to live in peace, and Shogo soon realizes the value of respecting local customs while nursing his gal back to health. Why, he’s eventually in so good with the animals, that he’s allowed a glimpse to their top-secret sex pasture.

Yes, you just read ‘top-secret sex pasture.’

In which peaceful, closed-eye couplings occur between leopards, deer and skunks, lovingly detailed in what may well be the single most po-faced comics panel of the 1970s. Then there’s a sweaty close-up of horses fucking and Shogo looks directly at the reader and declares “I should never have come here!” He then runs away to discuss the intricacies of socio-biological systems with his fellow castaway, but she eventually begins to panic because she’s a girl and girls panic in tough situations, and then it looks like they’re going to kill each other, and then someone gets hit in the face with a spiny ocean thing, but then they have sex during an earthquake. I won’t reveal the rest of the story, but it involves a heroic mauling, the ruinous complexity of the human animal, and sexually suggestive explosions. It’s gorgeously drawn, especially the loose and silly doodles of human society (suicide jokes!), and the shuddering images of destruction. Gorgeous.

At this point, 172 pages in, Tezuka drops the 'living historical lives' deal and sends Shogo on the run in the 'real' world, possibly compelled to murder women (and totally compelled to kiss his mom on the lips) by his love frustration. Tezuka loves to draw running, and Shogo runs and runs across the city, eventually falling in with a mystery woman who coaches him to be a marathon runner, and he runs runs some more in the name of healing and romantic pursuit.

And then Shogo gets knocked on the head and warps off to the year 2030, when humans have polluted their way out of Earthly dominance, the emotionless Synthians have taken over, and Shogo is tasked with the mission of killing the Synthian queen, who also wants Our Hero to teach her... the ways of erotic love. It's essentially a miniature graphic novel all its own, chock full of devlish villains in capes and tights, palace intrigue, rampant bloody violence, and nods toward Japan's student movement of the time. Yet it's also a culmination of what's gone before, with Shogo tasked with seeing how much he's learned, and ultimately made to face his old self, all in preparation for a grand finale that sees the seemingly improvised plot neatly fold in upon itself everything suddenly in its place.

But don't be fooled by my synopsizing enthusiasm into thinking that Apollo's Song is mere camp. The further the story goes, the more intense Tezuka gets with his message of love's beauty radiating a too-short ways into the cold world. It's a fairly sex-positive book, if in a socially conservative way, willing to appreciate the beauty of lovemaking so long as it's not divorced from love, with traditional gender roles often in play (and with all the talk of biological functions, it goes without saying this is the sort of comic that doesn't so much decry homosexuality, as pretend it does not exist). Yet on the whole, I think it's really obsessed with the search for genuine human connection in a serile modern world, baby formula and cloning and doctor-patient games all symbols of a lack of human touch. Sex is intimacy in this book, and Tezuka connects intimacy with the right and good functioning of the world at large and the human race in particular.

Still, it's always made clear that the human world doesn't quite love to love, no matter how important it is. The title of the book refers to a song of mythic tragedy, of discovering love only to see it flee, and Tezuka gradually reveals to us that Shogo is less an aberration than a logical product of a destructive society. World War II was only 25 years in the past when this book was created, and there's references to the conflict scattered throughout the book's stories, real or imagined. Tezuka's typical concerns of recurring human problems and latent social violence are in full force, and the tension of society at that moment in time is palpable. It's really quite a downbeat book in the end, asking if there's any hope for spiritual progress across the gore of the 20th century. If Phoenix is at-heart comfort, this one's a laugh toward the gallows.

Sex ed to the end, then. Plenty of scares for the kids. But Tezuka thinks big, and his art never stops bellowing his authority. Maybe the next generation will hear. Whatever 'next' generation is reading this next. You'll laugh 'till you cry, but Tezuka strives to leave you crying.