Any mention of the name Osamu Tezuka is guaranteed to make dedicated manga fans’ ears perk up. Astro Boy, of course, has crossed over into being a cultural icon. I’ve gushed about Black Jack before. Digital Manga Publishing recently held successful Kickstarter drives to reprint Swallowing the Earth and publish Barbara in English. Everyone’s oohing and ahhing over Vertical’s recent release of Princess Knight, and I for one can’t wait to see what the publisher does with the license-rescued Adolf, the tale of three men named Adolf in World War II-era Germany. The archive page for this month’s Tezuka Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey over at The Manga Critic, is testament to just how much we manga bloggers can discuss the man regarded by many as the “god of manga.”
Yet in this time of plenty for Tezuka fans, one English-translated volume stands out for its sheer rarity. This curiosity has been sitting in my collection for several years now, scooped up for $2 in the Punahou Carnival White Elephant tent. I’d never seen the book for sale before. I haven’t seen it anywhere since. The only other review listed in the MMF archive is one by Connie C. over at MangaVillage.
Meet Crime and Punishment.
It’s a second-print Japanese-English bilingual edition, published by the Japan Times in November 1990. The translation, handled by writer/translator/Tezuka scholar and associate Frederik L. Schodt, is top notch, as can be expected by a man who pretty much wrote the book on manga for English-speaking audiences, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. The first edition’s release date, in May of that same year, places its publication a little over a year after Tezuka’s death in February 1989. The manga itself is from Tezuka’s early career, published by Tokudo in 1953. It even came with a postcard.
As well as a lovely pamphlet advertising some of the other books available from the Japan Times at the time.
But back to the manga itself. This is, indeed, Tezuka’s adaptation of the 1866 novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Before you start having horrifying flashbacks to that time you had to write a 1,000-word essay for your world literature class about the novel’s prevalent themes and how they applied to 19th-century Russia, though, you have to realize that this is very much an early-’50s Tezuka production. I haven’t read the original novel, but I can’t imagine Dostoyevsky ever wrote anything like this:
“Morning, sir,” the short, pudgy assistant to Inspector Zamyotov said. “The Superintendent wishes to see you, sir.”
Zamyotov yawned and rustled in bed. “Thanks, but I’m sleeping in,” he mumbled.
“His aide has come for you, sir!”
“Tell him I’m not here!” Zamyotov said, sticking his tongue out.
“But he nose you’re here!” With that, the assistant’s curvy, elephant-like nose suddenly grew even longer, bonking Zamyotov on the head.
“Yow!” he screamed, crashing to the floor.
So while the core story remains the same — Raskolnikov, a student, kills a pawnbroker that he feels cheated him out of the cash he deserved, then spends the rest of the book dealing with the knowledge that an innocent passer-by is being framed for his crime — Tezuka tends to take many liberties with the material, adding in cartoonish humor where none existed before. It makes for a curious pairing at times — a few pages after the scene described above, for instance, there’s a serious discussion of an essay Raskolnikov wrote about how the “ordinary” masses are always destined to follow the privileged, “extraordinary” few. And that’s followed by a scene where Raskolnikov inadvertently flings some jewels at some mice, who promptly start putting them on and marveling, “Beeootiful!”
The blending of cartoon humor with a mature psychological thriller isn’t perfect. But where Tezuka’s Crime and Punishment excels is in revealing part of the artist’s creative evolution. Realize that in 1953, Tezuka’s biggest successes had been in writing stories tailored more toward younger audiences, with New Treasure Island, Astro Boy, Jungle Emperor and a just-starting Princess Knight among them. The prototype for what would become Phoenix would come in 1954, with many of his books for more mature audiences (Black Jack, Buddha, Swallowing the Earth, Book of Human Insects, Ayako, et.al.) to follow in future decades. What we see here is a small taste of Tezuka’s future direction.
Crime and Punishment also features its fair share of Tezuka’s experimentation with panel layouts. Take the critical scene where Raskolnikov kills Ivanov, the pawnbroker. Tezuka leaves his virtual camera trained on a cutaway view of three levels of the apartment building and lets the action play out for 11 pages. Sometimes the characters run up and down the stairs. Sometimes two different things are going on at the same time on two different floors. Watching what would otherwise be a mundane act of two men going about their work painting a room for rent on one floor intertwine with the main action on another floor actually heightens the dramatic tension, and it’s a neat effect to see play out. Another memorable sequence sees Judge Porfiry discussing with Raskolnikov how he plans to draw the murder suspect to him like a moth to a flame, the scene slowly transitioning from a view of Porfiry and Raskolnikov to that of a flame seducing an attractive female moth. When the flame finally succeeds in pulling in the moth, the flame’s shape morphs into that of Porfiry’s head, driving the point home with added emphasis.
As more Tezuka manga gets translated into English, one would hope that Crime and Punishment would see a re-released edition sometime in the future. For now, though, all I can say is, if you ever come across it at a used bookstore, or a garage sale, or some unusual venue like that where you can get it cheap, buy it immediately. It’s a neat collectible.