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Swallowing the Earth by Osamu Tezuka

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Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth

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One of Tezuka's most adult series, Swallowing the Earth treats the use of female sexuality as a weapon, and the abuses of women in human history. Zephyrus, a mysterious, icy seductress, uses her power over men to snare them into aiding her scheme to overthrow the world order in order to avenge the wrongs done to womankind over the course of history. The only one immune to her charms is young Seki Gohonmatsu, a Neanderthal-like perpetually-drunken sailor whose only goal is to drink all the liquor in the world, a crass parallel to Zephyrus' schemes to swallow the Earth with her revenge.

The late 1960s marked an important turning point in Tezuka's career, in which he moved away from the intrepid boy heros and tomboyish heroines of his earlier comics and experimented with more adult themes focusing on the darker sides of the human psyche. Tezuka had always had an interest in the seemingly-inescapable tendancy of human civilization to degenerate into violence and intolerence, but now the strains of philosophical pessimism which had forced Astro Boy to face and, frequently, fail to conquor bigotry and xenophobia expanded now into stories like Dororo (1967-8) and Phoenix (begun 1967) which focused on violence and evil tendencies in society and in individuals. Vampires (1966-9) is usually considered the beginning of this dark turn, the first story in which Tezuka took a villain as his protagonist, exploring the human capacity to will evil and the desire to escape the confines of civilization and conventional morality. Vampires was left unfinished, but during a hiatus from the project Tezuka wrote the complete story Swallowing the Earth, which combined Vampires' themes of deception, self-transformation and apocalyptic ambition with another Tezuka signature: gender. Tezuka had been a leader in the treatment of gender in manga ever since early projects like Metropolis (1949) and Princess Knight (1953-6) which introduced the themes of hermaphroditism and gender reversal which remain critical in shoujo manga to this day. If in Princess Knight and The Mysterious Melmo Tezuka dealt with sexism on a level intended for girls and young teens, by presenting realistic problems to strong, playful heroines who could always overcome them, in Swallowing the Earth Tezuka approaches the chauvenist strains in civilization on a fully adult and sexualized level, asking what women can do to combat sexism in socity as a whole, and arriving at a very grim conclusion. Inventive medical sections mixed among the drama anticipate the creativity of Tezuka's signature Black Jack (begun 1973).

Swallowing the Earth is also part of the famous Tezuka "Star System", in which Tezuka re-used the same characters in different stories, showing the reader different directions the same personality might develop, and often exploring the karmic connections between the crimes of one lifetime and the sufferings of another as characters are in effect reincarnated in Tezuka's larger Buddhist universe. Tezuka buffs will recognize Zephyrus from the Black Jack stories "Black Queen" (1975) and "The Last Train" (1978), where she plays an icy female surgeon attracted to the dark doctor. Appropriately, the Zephyrus in these Black Jack stories is engaged to Rock Holmes, a.k.a. Makube Rokuro, the same dark master of disguise from Vampires whose techniques Zephyrus borrows for her own schemes in Swallowing the Earth. A softer version of Zephyrus appeared as Hayame in 'Karma' in 1970, widely considered the strongest volume of Phoenix and another in Unico in 1976 as an airy spirit who helps young unicorn flee the fates who want to destroy him. These many versions, all written after Zephyrus' debut in Swallowing the Earth, will continue to explore different possibilities for how the ice queen can endure experiences which melt or soften her frozen heart. Some may also recognize the ancient ruined kingdom of Mu, a recurring symbol of the lost mysteries of the ancient world, seen in many Tezuka series from Astro Boy to The Three-Eyed One.

The DMP release of Swallowing the Earth is an indispensible opportunity for English-speaking readers to see this critical turning point in Tezuka's artistic development, and to see how the themes of his early works connect to later projects like MW (1976) and Adolf (1983). Its foreword by Tezuka's personal friend Fred Schodt provides a vivid portrait the climate of manga production in 1969, highlighting how the shadow of WWII still dominated the political concerns of the day, and how novel it was for Tezuka to employ a long story format here with no episodic chapter breaks or "reset button". That daring, dramatic format means that, While some of Tezuka's earlier works have aged badly and fail to grip most modern readers, Swallowing the Earth is still a vivid, dramatic read, masterfully combining a suspenseful story with Tezuka's talent for highly emotional stylized figures. Anyone who has doubted Tezuka's choice in continuing to employ such a "cartoony" art style as most manga became more elaborate and detailed will see his work here at its best, with intense emotions communicated through a few simple lines and highly erotic images conveyed through his signature sexual abstracts. It is a brave choice on DMP's part choosing to release Swallowing the Earth, since it is not one of Tezuka's better known titles, but it is both an essential chapter in the Tezuka corpus and a perfect example of why, even today with so many flashier modern competitors, Tezuka is still one of the top selling manga authors in Japan.

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Swallowing the Earth - TIKYUWO NOMU by Osamu Tezuka © by Tezuka Productions. All rights reserved. First published in Japan in 1970. English translation rights arranged with Tezuka Productions. English translation © 2009 by Digital Manga Publishing.