As a person grows, she can be likened to the stages of an insect's life. As larva, she absorbs her surroundings, eating voraciously, like a child learning about her environment and developing many talents at once. As a pupa, the insect cocoons herself away from the world, focusing and changing, as a person might in High School and college, slowly focusing down into one or two fields. Then, as an adult, the insect springs forth, fully formed and ready to face the world in her new form, as a graduate would be ready to enter her chosen field.
But what about when someone doesn't want to grow up? Such is the case of Toshiko Tomura, in Osamu Tezuka's Book of Human Insects. She's made a life of absorbing field after field of interest, not caring who might be in her way, and after achieving fantastic success, throwing it all away to pursue a new field.
And she doesn't just take on the field she's pursuing. She chooses one of the most promising rising stars in the field and steals everything away from them. She stole the troupe right out from under the director while she was acting. She stole the blueprints from an amazing architect she dated. And she stole the research from an author, submitting her book first and stealing an award out from under her. She leaves a trail of broken careers, and broken people, behind her.
We meet several of the people whose lives she's stolen, both in flashbacks and in the current time, including the architect and the director. The victims never really regain their momentum, and end up simply working along in middling jobs afterwards.
But when a paparazzi becomes fixated on her, and makes it his job to follow her, we learn that perhaps the saddest character in this story is Toshiko herself. Even though she takes great pleasure and pride in each metamorphosis, as well as some glee in the idea of swindling people out of their own work, she never is able to come into her own talents. She still runs back to her mother's home for comfort between transformations, and has a bizarre, infantile existence there. Since she can never stay in one adult form, she can never really become her own person, either.
Osamu Tezuka gets accused of both misogyny an racism in several of his books. Some of the stores in Black Jack show indigenous people with the stereotypical big lips and kinky hair of earlier cartoons. Ayako has the main character of a girl who has been locked in a shed for almost all of her life, and therefore has very twisted relationships with the family members who interact with her. Even Dororo has the majority of the female characters as either victims of the men in their lives, or demons themselves. I do believe that this is more a product of the times in which Tezuka was raised and wrote, rather than a personal opinion of the women in his life.
In prewar Japan, a woman's role certainly was in the home, and she was still treated as property, as women were treated in American and Europe in centuries past. In a society such as Japan, with even now the strong emphasis on conforming to society's expectations, women generally didn't have a chance to be anything else. So when a woman with as much ambition as Tomura hits the scene, odd things are bound to happen.
Highs: Tezuka has always been great at understanding human motivation and portraying full, well-rounded characters. As damaged as some of the people here are, they can hardly be accused of being stock, one-dimensional characters.
Lows: The problem with any book like this is the characters who don't get their stories told. There are so many side characters that inevitably can't be given their own side stories, but it leaves the reader wondering exactly where they came from.
Verdict: A very strange read, but worth the time to decipher the threads woven together to make the whole.
Further Reading: Ayako, Pluto