By Osamu Tezuka
The opening scene of MW reminded me of a cheesy cop show from the 1970s: A car on a lonely bluff over the ocean, a truck swerving in from nowhere, a kidnapping plot gone awry, helicopters overhead, guys duking it out on the deck of a motorboat. I kept expecting Tom Selleck or maybe Jill St. John to show up and join in, at least until things turned bloody at the end of the scene.
That 70s vibe continues throughout the book. It’s partly cosmetic: chief villain Yuki Michio’s muttonchop sideburns and his stripey swingin’ bachelor pad never let us forget what era this is, and Michio’s chief pursuer is a flowing-haired detective who looks like he stepped out of a Peter Max painting. The story is slick and shallow with plenty of action to keep the reader involved. And while the book touches on issues that seem very contemporary—chemical weapons, the molestation of a child by a priest—these are merely story elements, dropped in without much commentary or angst.
It’s hard to summarize MW without making it sound more outlandish than it actually is: It’s about a serial killer who plans to annihilate the entire earth—and the priest who loves him. The story starts in the 1960s on an Okinawan island, where The Crows, a band of hippies straight out of Central Casting (headbands, love beads, vest worn over bare chest) kidnap a young boy, Michio, and send one of their number, Iwao Garai, to hide him in a cave. During the night, Garai molests Michio, and when they emerge the next morning, everyone else on the island is dead, stopped in their tracks by what we later learn is a deadly gas, MW.
While Garai is spared, Michio is profoundly affected, physically and mentally, by MW, which has apparently burned away his conscience. Tezuka skips the next 15 years and presents us with two characters who have apparently taken completely different paths: Garai is a priest, Michio works in a bank, where his planning abilities and utter cold-bloodedness are assets to his social and career climbing—and to his life of crime.
While some deeper themes are presented here, MW is really about watching Michio commit one heinous crime after another, pulling them all off with the same smirking competence. Eventually it becomes clear that Michio is targeting those responsible for the MW incident and the subsequent coverup, but this isn’t about revenge; Michio is dying, and he wants to take the rest of the world with him. And he’ll use MW to do it. Most thrillers have something strongly pushing the action forward; MW lacks that element of urgency until fairly late in the book, when the clock starts ticking and Michio is finally outwitted.
Tezuka has a great imagination, and he puts it to work devising an escalating series of adventures for Michio and Garai. That doesn’t mean he steers clear of the clichés of the genre: When a reporter hot on the trail of MW agrees to meet Michio alone, late at night, in a garage, we know he’s doomed. And some of Michio’s capers stretch even the credulity of a dedicated manga reader—such as when he murders a young woman, then puts on her dress and a wig and impersonates her so well that her parents are taken in.
Unfortunately, both main characters come across as pretty flat. Michio is so cold-blooded and depraved that he’s almost boring. Whether he’s dispatching his boss by hanging him from an iron bar and tossing lit matches in his face, setting up Garai in a gay sex club, or having sex with his dog, he does everything with the same smirking opacity, without ever slipping and showing us the inner man. Garai has a conscience but does little with it; the seal of the confessional provides a handy excuse for him to cover for Michio, but it’s harder to understand why he repeatedly accompanies him and gets drawn into the action. You’d think he would learn after a while that this guy is trouble.
Garai and Michio’s affair is the cheesiest part of the whole book. Tezuka’s figures are so smoothly polished that the sex scenes look almost abstract, and Michio does most of his seducing chastely clad in underpants, which make him look more comical than come-hither. The biggest problem, though, is that Tezuka fails to establish a convincing emotional connection between Michio and Garai. The general pattern is: Michio does something horrible, Garai decides to take a stand, Michio thwarts Garai and then says “Oh come on, don’t be mad,” and they have sex.
The art in MW is smooth and straightforward, often dramatic but seldom outstanding. Tezuka is at his best when he’s working the whole page, and he has a few breathtaking turns here, but most of the time the action is contained in small panels and the illustrations are competing with the word balloons for space. And there are a few places where he just punts. You get the feeling his heart wasn’t in it for big stretches.
Nonetheless, Vertical gives this volume the full treatment: It’s beautifully printed on creamy paper, with a luscious black and white and magenta cover and dust cover by Chip Kidd. The artwork is flipped, which doesn’t hurt the story much, and sound effects are translated and retouched so as to become part of the art.
MW reads pretty well as a caper story, not so well as literature. It’s entertaining enough to watch Michio pull off one clever but improbable plot after another, but he never really gets under your skin, and neither do the other characters. It didn’t make me lose my religion, but it did keep me entertained enough not to want to put it down, which after all is exactly what comics are supposed to do.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright (c) Tezuka Productions.