Apollo’s Song (Comic, 1977)
Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
One of the pleasures of visiting my local library is getting the opportunity to peruse their graphic novel section. The genre is something I’ve had a love and hate relationship with for many years. So much of comics you’ll encounter are junk. More frustrating is how bad the library’s choices are. For every Sandman there’s a Stephen King adaption (my apologies to Stephen King fans). Good luck trying to the good indies.
During my last visit I encountered this strange cover of a naked woman whose naked body has been partly covered by a boy’s face. It’s a striking contrast of yellow and red, and is very provocative. My interest was piqued.
The comic, or rather manga, is titled Apollo’s Song, and is by the godfather of manga Osamu Tezuka. I had never actually heard of Tezuka, although his anime Astro Boy rang a bell. While I’m a fan of the Japanese form of graphic novel, I’ll admit I’ve barely dipped my toes in the water. This discovery alone meant I had found the right choice.
Apollo’s Song begins with images of men resembling sperm. One man stands out among these men and shouts that only one of them will only prevail in the conquest of the woman at the end of the tunnel. This woman, of course, represent the eggs, the tunnel the cervix. I immediately said “What the fuck!” when I read it.
Apollo’s Song came out after Japan had lifted strict censorship laws outlawing the depiction of sexuality. Tezuka seized on the opportunity to create a quasi educational take of love and sex. Anyone familiar with manga will find Apollo’s Song tame, but it’s by far a more literary tale, something most magna can’t boast of.
After this strange introduction, we meet our antihero Shogo, a teenager incapable loving. He’s been brought to the mental hospital for killing animals. The head doctor of the hospital interviews him, and we learn that Shogo does not feel love because he’s a bastard whose mother was a whore. To cure Shogo of his wickedness, he goes through Electric Shock Therapy.
Like most manga, our narrative strays from reality. Shogo’s medical treatment is exaggerated and detracts from his Freudianesque complex. It’s a weird mix of a mature psychological narrative with a sillier stereotypical depiction of a mental institution. Just look at the head doctor’s appearance.
He has a cartoon look to him, with exaggerated facial expressions. Tezuka’s hero was Walt Disney, so it’s no surprise that his style is characterized with stylish expressions and looks more like a caricature rather than a portrait. While I normally wouldn’t complain about a more animated style, I felt it dampened the serious tone presented in the narrative.
The rest of the tale follows Shogo’s trial and errors in finding true love, which take place in the form of dreams and fantasies that may or may not be real. The first out-of-body experience is triggered by the shock therapy. Shogo passes out and awakes to find himself in a Nazi uniform. He’s part of the guard who are herding Jews onto a train headed for a concentration camp. One of the Jews is a woman named Elise who catch’s Shogo’s eye. Shogo helps her escape but is killed by her because she blames him for her parent’s death. Thus we have Shogo’s first trial in an attempt to discover true love, a fate he must live over and over.
It’s an interesting take on the theme of youthful love. In the west these type of narratives are hopeful and end in happy endings, but Tezuka’s take is Shakespearian in our hero’s tragic fate.
Shogo goes through more trials. He escapes from the hospital and is rescued by a woman named Hiromi, who wants to train him to be a marathon runner. Shogo falls in love with her, as Hiromi teaches him to French kiss. She seems to take a genuine interest in him, but tries to hide her feelings. This budding relationship fails to come to fruition though when Hiromi is killed a jealous -ex-boyfriend.
There are more trials that Shogo embarks on that all have similar fates. It’s as if Tezuka is asking the reader whether or not this human endeavor to find a soul mate is a useless endeavor. While a nihilist would certainly find Apollo’s Song to be a confirmation of their beliefs, I’d argue the ending provides of a hopeful note.
Shogo is killed by the police after Hiromi’s death. He is summoned by the Greek goddess Athena, who tells him his trials shall go on forever. As Shogo walks away, we see Hiromi following him towards light. Thus ends our tale.
Tezuka’s style as mentioned is an mixture of heavy themes and lighter style drawings. But this is offset by his detailed backgrounds, something most manga lack. He also injects Shogo’s plight with more suggestive and erotic images, reinforcing the sexual themes.
Ultimately, Apollo’s Song is an interesting work, especially considering its importance in depicting sexuality in Japan during a time of revolts and riots. Shogo seems to be a symbol for people who react violently to the world, a reflection of the sorry they bring. As Athena states, they’re doomed to relive their tragic fates for forever. Do we have the power to change?