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The Structure of Tezuka’s Phoenix

Tezuka, Osamu. Phoenix (12 volumes). Viz, 2003-2008.

I’ve read a lot of Osamu Tezuka’s work over the years, from early Viz issues of Black Jack through to most of the releases from Vertical (Buddha, Dororo, MW, Kirohito) and even a French translation of one of his shorter series (Ayako). I’d rank many of them very highly, particularly Buddha, but the one that I hold to the highest regard is Phoenix. I think the series has gotten an unfortunate short shrift because of the timing of its publication. It is only with Vertical’s deluxe, bookstore friendly, volumes that Tezuka seems to have really reached a high profile in the US, and Viz’s publication of Phoenix predated this higher profile (at least the start of the series, it took them a long time to get all 12 volumes out). The series also suffers, I would imagine, for its unusual structure: a series of stories spread across time that do not (always) share a direct plot connection. The cohesion of the stories are to be found primarily in thematic concern and in the overarching idea of reincarnation/resurrection. Tezuka also jumps around in genre throughout the series, which is not unusual for him in general, but moreso within the same series.

The Phoenix, the bird of myth which dies and rises again from its own ashes, is the only recurring character across all the stories, but a number of characters seem to make multiple appearances through the series. These characters have the same appearance, and often character arcs, across the stories, sometimes even sharing the same name, yet they are only very rarely explicitly linked as the same character. Like the Phoenix, we can read the recurring characters as reincarnated versions of each other. We might just read them as another of Tezuka’s “star system” where he re-used character designs across different series, but I’m sure, based on the theme of this series, that the re-use is thematically purposeful here.

I should correct myself, and note, that as I read more the volumes, I am seeing how there seems to be one character that crosses over from one story to the next story following it in chronological order. That is, a character from the first story in the “past” appears in the second story from the “past”. A character in “Karma” appears in “Civil War” (again, the next story in the “past”). These are often rather subtle and easy to miss if you haven’t just read the other story. (Added 3/14/09)

The overarching structure of the series is mapped in the back of all Viz’s volumes. A two page diagram shows the 12 stories that make up the series as two columns, one of stories in the past, one of stories in the future. A dotted line connects the stories in the order they appeared in the series, criss-crossing from the most distant past to the most distant future. As the series progresses, the stories alternate past and future, slowly converging towards some unknown center. Tezuka died before calling the series finished, so we do not know where it might have ended (unless there are personal papers somewhere that are not mentioned in the books). A short note by Tezuka in the back of some of these volumes written early on in his creation of the series, finds him explaining his desire to have the series end in the present with a final story that pulls all the seemingly disparate stories together. The diagram leads the reader to assume a fairly straightforward to-and-fro-ing of the series, a linear series of stories from past to future, rearranged non-chronologically.

I recently started rereading the series in order: my first time reading through all the volumes without waiting (often for long periods) for the next volume to be translated. I plan on posting something about each volume as I progress through the series, but here I wanted to address the series’ structure as a whole because I had a revelation about its structure this time through.

The first volume takes place in the past, approximately 240 A.D. according to Viz’s diagram (all future dates I will use are drawn from that diagram). The story starts with an erupting volcano where we see the Phoenix and its first (of many throughout the series) hunter, Uraji. Uraji, like those that will follow, wants the Phoenix’s blood for its legendary powers to make the drinker of its blood immortal. Uraji’s story is short, his younger brother quickly becomes the focus of a story of kingdoms and war and the search for the Phoenix.

The second volume takes place in the future, approximately 3400 A.D. and forward, where mankind lives in a very few number of underground cities (wasn’t that the background for Star Blazers?). As the story progresses the world is destroyed, life evaporated, and then life starts again. Tezuka shows us death and then new life and evolution. What is important here is that at the end of volume two, man has evolved once again and we, once again, see Uraji (here unnamed) from volume one, hunting the Phoenix. The series has created a massive circle in time, heading from volume two back to volume one.

Volume three is divided into two stories. The first story (320 A.D.), in one of the rare uses of a explicitly repeated character (that is a character who is clearly a character living the same life as in a previous volume), brings us a character from the end of volume one. The diagram of the stories makes it natural to see this progressive as skipping back in time from volume two to volume three. The second story in volume three, takes place in 2577 A.D., which we could see as skipping ahead from the first story. Volume four takes place back in 720 A.D., a jump backwards in time from the second story in volume three…

Yet, in that moment where volume two seemingly loops back to volume one, I realized that these volumes are not a back and forth, past and future, journey. They are a relentless forward motion. The character appearing at the end of volume two is not the exact character from volume one, he is the reincarnation of that character. When volume three’s second story becomes volume four, it is not a journey back in time, it is a journey forward in time, once again through the destruction and new life that is found in volume two. Each seeming jump “back” in time is really just another circle around the wheel. Phoenix is in this way a rather unusual example of a circular narrative (best other examples of the top of my head: Finnegans Wake by Joyce and Le Chiendent by Queneau (both novels, I’m not sure of any comics examples)).

Next: I’ll be posting a bit about each volume (see Volume 1: “Dawn”). I was inspired to do this by Mike Wenthe’s month long series on each volume of Lone Wolf and Cub. In particular, I’m going to be looking at individual pages. When I wrote about pages from Mushishi a few weeks ago, Dirk Deppey noted: “I’d love to see more of these sorts of dissections of manga pages…” And I was noticing a lot of interesting pages by Tezuka as I read.