Nov 16, 2013
TrenchKamen (All reviews)
This is the story of three men named Adolf. It is a story with the grand sweep of myth, something that seems to rise from the unconsciousness, as told through a Japanese observer. At the opening of this story, in the early 1930's, it was a popular given name. Two Adolfs lived in Kobe, as part of the German expat community: one the son of a Jewish baker, and one the son of a Nazi diplomat. The coincidences interweaving their lives are so profound they should seem contrived, but they play out organically in the cadence of tragedy.

This is more painful to read the second (third, etc) time. The suspense is still there, but it is tinged with the tragedy of inevitability. That, I hold, is a hallmark of truly great storytelling. It is compelling no matter how many times you read it, and you realize different things each time you do. The dramatic irony that comes of the reader knowing history is brilliantly rendered. This is a masterwork of literature, skillfully plotted, driven by a vague sense of futility. And I am struck, each time, by the clarity of perspective with which Tezuka writes. It is a stunningly anti-war work, ruthlessly critical of the Japanese military state and the Nazi regime, but the atrocities of each country are laid bare. They are all guilty of unimaginable violence. The Manchurian campaign is to this day glossed over in Japanese textbooks (America is no less guilty of this sort of censorship of its history), but discussed openly in the story. The American firebombing of Kobe (recall most Japanese buildings were woodframe at this time) was an attack of equal cruelty as the Blitz and the atomic bombings. The Pearl Harbor ships were essentially dragged out as bait, the seamen left to die. The Russian army raped and pillaged Berlin with impunity, taking revenge, as is so often the case in war, on those who had no control over the situation from the beginning, many of whom were just quietly trying to survive. The Jews were ruthlessly persecuted by the Nazis, but then persecuted the Palestinians with equal ruthlessness, and the Palestinians responded equally heartlessly against Israeli citizens.

I am taken by the honesty with which Tezuka portrays a person's awareness of his own malleability, foreshadowed by a young Adolf Kaufmann not wanting to go to a Hitler Youth school, because he knows it will brainwash him to hate Jews--even though his best friend is Jewish. Even knowing this, he does indeed become a Nazi ideologue. This is one of the most stunning aspects of the story, not often explored honestly in literature, anymore. Usually, we assume awareness of the effect ideology will have on us is portrayed as sufficient to prevent its effects. It is so often not so.

Sexism and racism aside (of which there is plenty in his works), Tezuka was a man leagues ahead of his time and place. I ask the reader to keep this in mind with any of his works, and I am glad they were reproduced accurately. If we censor the casual prejudices of brilliant writers in hindsight, to make their works more palatable to contemporary audiences, we erase a record of how pervasive these prejudices actually were, to be entrenched even in people who truly believed in egalitarianism. It still took courage to write this stuff, even as late as the 1980's. As recently as this year, Miyazaki Hayao was catching heat for anti-imperialist themes in his latest movie, which takes place during the war. That's 2013.

I find it interesting Tezuka implies Hitler was a man who abstained from all forms of stimulants, as shown in a brief dinner scene. The pop culture version I had always heard here in the US was that he was a vegetarian, but a meth addict in his later years. I do not know if that was the Japanese version of Hitler that existed in the public mind back in the 80's. Maybe Tezuka was illustrating his hypocrisy.

Overall, I most highly recommend Message to Adolf, even if you don't normally read manga or comics at all. It is just a damn good story, and an illustration of the potential of graphic novels to portray stories of equal nuance and power as prose.