Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Book Group!

Ode to Kirihito
by Osamu Tezuka

Part 1

The image that lingers in my mind after closing the first third of the book is that of Jesus Christ, carrying his monstrous cross through the streets on the way to die on Golgotha. The picture is on page 184 and it comes on the heels of a particularly intense and troubling sequence set in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the apex of Apartheid. Dr. Urabe, attempting to uncover the secret behind an unexpected outbreak of the deforming Monmow disease in the country, has been shot and left for dead in a black quarter of town, along with SIster Helen Friese, the disease's first recorded white victim. Sister Friese wants to die because she has been turned into a strange dog-man hybrid, but Dr. Urabe, a nonbeliever, convinces her to live with these words:
Sister, I'm not a Christian, but I know the story of Christ's life! Jesus said he would suffer for all of humanity! Those were brave words. . . . bearing a crown of thorns and the public's jeers, he made his way to Golgotha Hill, to his own execution site. He persevered and died for his faith. . . . Your life, too, like his, could end amidst ridicule and contempt, unbearable suffering might become your lot. But, Miss Helen, don't you think this might be God's test for you? Don't you want to overcome this and be strong and live on?
Ode to Kirihito can be seen from one perspective as a catalog of suffering, a never-ending pageant of violence, rape, murder, racism, sadism and needless cruelty. The first rape begins on page 28, and it's remarkable just how often rape recurs throughout just the first third of the book. Life in these pages sometimes appears to be nothing but the unfettered exercise of power by the strong against the weak.

Dignity is only found through resistance, but the prominent example of Christ proves that resistance takes many forms. The book's titular hero, Kirihito, contracts Monmow fairly early, and turns into a hideous dog-man, more comfortable running on four feet than two. But he refuses to become a beast: even when he is kidnapped, beaten, forced to perform in captivity, raped by a dog (again with the rape, this time mixed with bestiality), and offered the chance to win his freedom through an act of despicable servility, he refuses to bow or compromise. He remains a man. When he escapes from captivity with the strange concubine Reika - who had previously been made to perform as a naked human tempura, covered in batter and deep fried for the pleasure of perverted oligarchs - she attempts, in turn, to rape him, proving to him that she has been warped by the violence of her captivity, turned feral, less than human and made into a slave of her own grotesque desires.

At first the grotesquerie is an affront. Then the reader becomes accustomed. But before long the parade of depravity reaches a point of sheer grand guignol excess that threatens to overwhelm the narrative. The scene where a python eats a live human baby should probably seem far more horrifying than it does, but on the heels of dozens of similar acts of inhumanity both large and small it barely registers. Is this surfeit of filth supposed to instill a deadened response on the part of the reader? Although in most ways the books could not be more dissimilar I am reminded of Ellis' American Psycho - another harrowing, inhumanly cruel reading experience constructed out of a parade of filthy setpieces. The lack of affect in American Psycho is the whole point: after a certain juncture the failure to register tragedy and emotional trauma becomes heartbreaking in itself, the repetition of numbing, gorey detail a sign of the most profound failure of human feeling. But I don't believe that Tezuka's intention is to overwhelm the reader to the point where the catalog of horrors becomes an academic exercise: he wants the reader to feel every moment of senseless cruelty in much the same way that audiences feel every lash of the Roman whips in The Passion of the Christ.

One of the problems with accepting the Christian allegory at its face value is that it forces the reader into a mechanistic appreciation of secondary and tertiary characters. Is the suffering of these dozens of ancillary characters "real" or is it simply a product of the process by which Kirihito himself becomes purified? The Christian metaphor shades into Buddhism: is suffering itself "real," or merely a distraction? There is a point at which anyone who wishes to perfect himself must pierce the veil of Maya and turn away from material reality. Even Nietzsche writes of the process of overcoming one's humanity in order to become more fully human. I am curious, then, as to how exactly Kirihito's life will resolve: will he reach his apotheosis through suffering and eventual renunciation? So far his story is a mythical story: he has set out on an impossible quest, suffered a strange transformation, lost family and been held captive against his will, been tempted at multiple junctures to betray his most cherished ideals. Already I can feel the looming presence of a monstrous, cosmic climax.

Next week: I only planned to read the first third because I didn't know how dense a book it would turn out to be. It's actually a really quick page-turner, so I imagine we'll be able to discuss the conclusion of the book this time next week.

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