Human Metamorphosis, a satirical Manga depicting human society compared to the insect world, focuses on the life of a devious woman. Tomura Toshiko, who is said to be a genius, is a rising star writer. Her novel wins the Akutagawa Prize for the best novel of the year. While she attends the award ceremony, another woman named Usuba Kageri commits suicide in another place. It turns out that Kageri and Toshiko used to live together, and the awarded novel was copied from Kageri's transcript. Toshiko is like a parasite: approaching talented people one after another, squeezing everything out of them and stealing their works for her own fame. Behind her success story, she has her secrets.
When discussing society in popular culture, it is best to keep in mind the time period in which it was written. While Osamu Tezuka’s “The Book of Human Insects” is not without its flaws as a story, as a conversational piece about societal roles of Japanese women and where the country was heading as a whole when the post-WWII generation came of age, it is a dynamic work.
While reading it, another recent story (albeit American) came immediately to mind: “Gone Girl”. The main character of Toshiko Tomura shares many similarities to the character of Gillian Flynn’s novel; the most striking way being as an embodiment
of the growing rebellion of women’s roles in society. Toshiko is cutthroat, greedy, jealous, underhanded, but all in the name of being independent and free of the chains of pre-established patriarchies. While by no means a feminist role model of any kind, Toshiko’s journey defies all previously held concepts and notions of the ideal Japanese woman, the “yamato nadeshiko”, to the point that a “yamato nadeshiko” doppleganger of Toshiko is introduced at some point into the story. The doppleganger, Shijimi, serves to contrast Toshiko in the dramatic difference between the outcome of each women in the story, based on whether they accept or defy of a woman’s traditional place, and this is arguably where the manga speaks the strongest.
But while “The Book of Human Insects” poses a great dialogue on women in Japan, it strives as well to best reflect the times that were and would come for the country. Abortion, assassination, political corruption, sexual agency… hell, this manga actually addresses Japan’s atrocities to China and Korea in WWII! For anyone who knows anything about how Japan feels now about that period of time, that is more than enough reason to check this out. Tezuka defies all concepts of Japanese subtlety in favor of a harsh, biting story that addresses the concerns and predictions on the future of Japan in the hands of the post-WWII generation. Perhaps of greatest regard is that it is still just as pertinent now.
The manga does indeed continue to capture Tezuka’s inherent gift for capturing motion and nuance in the framing and artistic choices of his panels that is rarely seen in this day and age. Unfortunately, the story does wobble, especially in its final third when things get unnecessarily convoluted. There is too much focus on side characters and Toshiko is metaphorically chained down by the plot the entire time. It tries to pick itself back up in its climax, but it’s not enough to save it from ending on a fairly average note.
Still, it does a splendid job of addressing the issue that as Japan tried to uphold traditional roles after WWII, a new generation was rising who sought to be free of it all. It is a feat of topical Japanese media, par for the course for the god of manga.
Overall, I give “The Book of Human Insects” an 8 out of 10.
Osamu Tezuka is widely considered the 'God of Manga' due to high output of work and inescapable influence on the medium. However, due his Disney-esque art style and the fact that his most popular works were primarily marketed to younger audiences, a newcomer could easily be forgiven for thinking his works are largely kiddie fluff. The Book of Human Insects blows any perceptions that Tezuka couldn't handle the heavy stuff to bits, with a story that could stand up to any number of hard-nosed 1970's Hollywood thrillers.
Japan. 1970. The first generation born with no memory of Japan's shattering defeat in the Second World War and
raised during the postwar economic boom has reached adulthood and is entering the workplace in droves. And ironically, these Baby Boomers are remarkably similar to their American counterparts, remaking the social norms in ways unthinkable to the older generations. 'Kids these days' indeed. But one particular kid is enigmatic even by the standards of the time: Toshiko Tomura. A woman of seemingly inexhaustable talent, she is far more- and in some ways far less- than meets the eye. To tell more would get deep into spoiler territory, but rest assured this woman will pull the reader in as inexorably as she does to the men (and even a few women) in her life.
Now on to the actual craft of the story. If you ever had the impression that Tezuka's content was strictly lightweight, rest assured this manga will dissuade you of that misconception. Tense, creepy, mysterious, and definitely not designed for kids, Human Insects will keep you thinking and reading all the way to the end. Go in looking for something along the lines of the American movie "Chinatown" and you'll be satisfied.
The artwork remains in Tezuka's signature Disney style despite the adult nature of the story, but you'll quickly learn to overlook that. There's a high level of detail put into the backgrounds and costumes and soon you'll be so engrossed in the images you'll think you're reading an episode of 'Mad Men' as you get sucked into the early 70's. The art is excellent, hands down.
The plot centers around Toshiko Tomura, a woman who deserves wider recognition as an original manga bad girl. She's hardly sympathetic, but endlessly fascinating as she sheds her skin time and time again to adapt to whatever the situation demands. And if she happens to leave a trail of human wreckage in her wake, what of it? The good, the bad, and the sorry find themselves trapped by her against their will, even when they think they know what they're getting into. The supporting cast is solid as well, and their story arcs play out in surprising ways as they come under the spell (or perhaps curse) of Toshiko Tomura. Not every character or secondary arc was flawless, but still more than enough to make the story interesting.
A taut mystery thriller and unintentional period piece with more than a little commentary on the nature of fame and success in a mass-media world. Tezuka shows he can play hardball in a manga most definitely meant for adults. If you have a friend who's a fan of 70's movies that you want to get into manga, this just might be the perfect gateway drug starting point.