There’s a horrible condition in a rural backwater of ‘Doggoddale’. Called monmow, it deforms the patient, making them look more like a dog than a man. There’s many different theories as to what might be causing it, but no cure. This is the world in which we land, in the Osamu Tezuka manga Ode to Kirihito.
A candidate for president of the Japanese Medical Association (JMA), Dr. Tatsugaura, has studied Monmow and is convinced that it is a virus native to Doggoddale. Feeling threatened by a young, well-liked intern named Kirihiro Osanai, he sends him to do some on-the-ground research. While he’s there, he does end up contracting monmow, but by force of will is able to keep from succumbing to most of the mental effects of the disorder. But he does turn into the half-dog, half-human spectre that is associated with the disease.
While he is there, he does discover that it is almost certainly not a virus that is infecting these people, but rather a contamination of the groundwater, but Dr. Tasugaura wants nothing of this. He’s built his career and his hopes of advancement on the idea that monmow is a virus, and goes so far as to delete Kirihito from the records at M University Hospital to stop word from coming out.
What ensues is a trek around the globe for Kirihito, seeing some of the best and some of the worst that humanity has to offer. Throughout, he battles both the disorder and society to keep his humanity intact, and people along the way both help and hurt this. We meet members of a demented circus and missionaries, as well as normal rural townsfolk. We also meet Kirihito’s fiancé, who never gives up on him, even when the rest of the world seems to have.
There’s a lot of subtle imagery and depth to this story. The fact that the disease makes the sufferer look like a dog, instead of simply deforming him, for example, shows how their humanity is being stripped away. To become deformed, especially when it involves the face, affects one’s self-identity. Taking on the aspect of a dog, on top of changing that self-identity, makes the victim take on the aspect of a creature that is considered less than humans. It’s that stripping off of his humanity that causes so many of the emotional problems suffered by the victims, as well as perhaps some of the discrimination that the outside world has against them.
There are also a few pages in which Christianity is called into question. The victim Sister Helen is grieved that the church will excommunicate her. Kirihito tells her that he believes that Jesus especially would never turn his back on her. He points out that there are many passages in the Bible in which Jesus and his disciples accept, if not actively seek out, unfortunates and care for them. To some extent, it could be seen as a criticism of the church, as a separate entity from Christianity.
This is a magnum opus of a graphic novel. Along with helping to firm up manga as an art form, the complexity of the story helps cement manga’s place as a true form of literature as well. I can’t help but think that if American publishing companies would put out stories such as this, or the Black Jack stories, in weekly or monthly publications, perhaps print media wouldn’t be at death’s door.
Highs: Fantastic pacing, a compelling story, and lots of layers of social commentary
Lows: Some of the panels can be a little hard to follow, as the standard form of manga writing was still being developed
Verdict: A must-read for any manga lover who is beyond the shojo/shonen stage
Further Reading; Black Jack Volume 1, A Contract with God