by Osamu Tezuka
During World War II, two Japanese soldiers hear rumors of a beguiling beauty called Zephyrus, so intoxicating that no man can resist her. Just her photo is enough to turn one of the soldiers to obsession. Twenty years later, one of the soldiers realizes that Zephyrus is in Japan, so he hires the son of his former comrade to track her down and discover her history. Gohanmatsu Seki seems like the worst candidate for the job, for his one and only passion is alcohol. He doesn’t care what sort of booze he’s drinking, as long as it’s plentiful. But his single-minded obsession may make him the one man in Japan able to resist the charms of Zephyrus.
Renowned as the creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka is one of Japan’s best known and most popular comic creators. But while people are familiar with his children’s hits like Kimba the White Lion and Unico, fewer are familiar with his adult stories.
Swallowing the Earth was first published in 1968, but even after forty-six years it’s an entertaining story. Zephyrus’ goal is to destroy the world of man, and at times she and her sisters seem like modern-day Amazons. Yet they aren’t warriors in the traditional sense; Zephyrus will bring chaos not through battle but by systematically destroying the value of gold and reducing powerful men to her slaves. It seems a mad plan, yet as it is worked through you come to admire her cunning and forethought, coming up with such an intricate plot from the tiny island where she lives.
It’s also very strange to have a drunkard as the main protagonist. To be honest, there isn’t much to like about Gohanmatsu Seki. He comes off as lazy, callous, and crude. His complete and total focus on locating his next drink dominates his personality and gets him into trouble, but I have to admit there’s something very funny about a man so distracted by his desire for alcohol that he’s oblivious to the bombshell beauty who keeps throwing herself at him, clad in scanty outfits, unable to understand why her feminine wiles aren’t working on this buffoon.
The story is very much a product of its time, and some allowance has to be made for things that would be offensive today. Tezuka’s drawings of natives that Gohanmatsu runs into while escaping from Zephyrus definitely wouldn’t pass muster today – black skin, thick lips and grass skirts are no longer PC. But it was a very common way of depicting the foreign other in comics at the time, and Tezuka’s adherence to the tropes of his day is not exceptional.
Instead, focus on Zephyrus and her sisters, strong women who create a clever plan to bring down the current world system. Many of the issues raised in the manga, like the role of women in society and our obsession with beauty and the ridiculous depths to which men and women will go to enhance or preserve it, are still very relevant today.
As a single volume, epic, self-contained story, Swallowing the Earth was a highly experimental manga when Tezuka created it – and it’s quite good. Take a chance on it and check it out!
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After by Steven Hockensmith
2010: Erotica gives publishers a surprising boost
2009: Contest #7: Gilded Age Giveaway