Featuring a noir cast of jaded journalists, anarchist hit men, right-wing shadow brokers, cutthroat executives, and spent artists, The Book of Human Insects traces the career of an ingenue who is every bit those menís match but is far from a feminist role model. In step with a heroine who is equally self-seeking, the usually "humanist" author here achieves with a Wellesian smirk a portrait of a world without heroes. Begun in 1970 as baby boomers were graduating from college and entering the workforce in droves, this graphic novel not only stands as one of comics master Osamu Tezukaís first satisfying thrillers for a post-teen audience but also as a prescient critique whose actuality only fully registers today.
In the animal kingdom there are creatures that get by through brute strength, some with skill and others with speed. Some others survive by guile and deceit. Until civilisations arose, the last kind of creature didnít have any place in human culture. But in order to get ahead in life, there are people who use other peopleís skills and strength against them. Iím just surprised that someone else other than Osamu Tezuka tried to craft a story about such a person and even more surprised that nobody praises the book he wrote more. In any event, the person is Toshiko Tomura and the book is The Book of Human Insects.
Set in the 1970ís in Japan, the book charts a natural mimic, Toshiko, as she climbs the greasy ladder of fame and power, she destroys those who pose a threat to her and tosses aside those she can no longer use. In the Japan of this era, women are pretty much put in a corner and gender equality is a phrase in a dictionary in someone elseís country. Women are meant to be pretty, hardworking and silent. Once they catch the eye of a suitor, marriage follows and then thatís it for independent thought for you, young lady. So as I watch Toshiko destroy people, I canít really fault her. Sheís surviving in a culture that tells her that she should just be happy she exists. The people she destroys, in a roundabout way, deserve what theyíve got coming to them. When you see how despicable they are, Toshiko really isnít that vicious. Mob bosses, powerful CEOís and anarchists are drawn to her for her beauty and her mystique and must posses her because thatís what they want and thatís what society says they should be able to do to her. Where she goes wrong is when things escalate into murder and death, she canít control what other people do when sheís not directly controlling them. Even then, though, she is so immoral that she seems to worry about them and then casually moves on. I say "seems" because as one character points out to another, Toshiko is a natural mimic as I said who also picked up acting as she cruised through the world of the cultural glitterati. So itís impossible for me to figure out if Toshiko is actually concerned or just acting concerned to conceal her joy at having gotten away with another person being thrown to the wolves.
Tezuka moves with a fluidity that shocked me in this book. He knows that just as I am repulsed by the other characters immorality, Toshiko is the worst of the lot. Time and again, men attack, brutalise and, in some cases, outright rape her in pursuit of their goals. Yet in one case, Tezuka seems to indicate that she not only anticipated the attack but that she was only feigning her resistance. If thatís true, Toshiko is playing up to menís internal struggle that they know inherently that forcing themselves on women is wrong but that they do it anyway because they want to. She is lying to them when they are losing to her, lying to them when they are winning and lying to them when she loses interest with them. Because in the era sheís in and the society sheís moving in, they all lie to her to get what they want so why shouldnít she? The answer is that itís not just bad people who suffer at her hands, itís people who had no bone to pick with her. In the opening of the book, a young author who had done painstaking research for a debit book she was writing commits suicide. No loss to most, but this girl was roommates with Toshiko and she was driven to suicide because Toshiko would not acknowledge that she had stolen the girlís work. Of course, from Toshikoís perspective, the girl hadnít written the book yet so how can you steal something that hasnít been written yet? For all the people she crushes, the one character that Toshiko wants but canít seem to have is the second most interesting person in the book - Ryotaro Mizuno, a designer that Toshiko copied and then left behind. Unlike other people, Mizuno doesnít want anything to do with Toshiko after she is revealed to be a mimic of his work. In fact, everyone else who is discarded by her turns into either a bitter, self destructive person or a wasted sycophant like the theater director Hachisuka. Everyone except Mizuno. He was a rising talent who naively thought that Toshiko loved him. Now, by the time the book starts she is the one being naive in thinking he would welcome her back with open arms. Everytime Toshiko tries to ingratiate herself back into his life, he rejects her outright. She in turn acts spurned and keeps trying. Interestingly, Mizuno is shown by Tezuka to, honestly, be the only person trying to repair the damage his former love did to him. Even so, Tezuka gives Mizuno a destiny unconnected with Toshiko.
In the end, the bookís best and defining characteristic is that nobody in it will get out alive. What I mean by that is that even when you like or dislike a character, their arcs usually end with them being destroyed. All except Toshiko. She alone remains every time, still the same, still looking for something. She never expresses what sheís looking for, just the fact that she keeps moving on climbing higher and higher. Though the ending feels somewhat rushed to me, the resolution Toshiko finds is weird to me. Tezuka doesnít bother telling us why she became the way that she is so we are forced to confront her as a character instead of a reason. She is too immoral, too vicious to be considered an anti-hero yet I canít help but sympathise with her because the arena she is in requires her to fight back or die. In many ways, this story is the counterpoint of MW, the other great tale by Tezuka of evil triumphing over good. In MW, the main bad guy is traumatised by two events happening back to back. Exposure to a nerve agent robs him of the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. As a result, he strives to defeat those who oppose him and get satisfaction from the people who created the nerve agent. In Book Of Human Insects, Toshiko is an immoral character, not an amoral one. There is no excuse of "Oh, well, sheís like that because of extenuating circumstances" to fall back on. The strength of Toshikoís story is that thereís no happy ending for the reader. We donít hate Toshiko because sheís levelling the playing field but there is such a trail of destruction and so many people get hurt that I canít call her a good person. Far from it, all the way to the end, Toshiko refuses to apologise for being her. In the final analysis, why should she say sorry for being her when I probably will end up hurting people in my life for just being me? The only people who get to have a say in her fate are her many victims.
Tezukaís work in the 1970ís were dark and unapologetic and Book Of Human Insects joins MW and Ayako as a trilogy of ascendant evil. In this story, the final desolate panel is how we should feel at the end. Truly powerful stuff.