Violence in Tezuka Osamu’s Works (NSFW)

I’m a huge Tezuka Osamu fan, so you’ll probably see plenty of posts about him here (eventually).  One of the things I’ve always found interesting about his work is the way he handles violence.  In his more mature works he neither shies away from depicting violence (think of the classic PG-13 device of showing a gun against someone’s head but panning away before the gunshot), but nor does he pornographically glorify or fetishize violence like so many works do (think ridiculous fountains of blood, people clinging to life so their lurid suffering can be prolonged, etc.).  Tezuka displays violence, but depicts it as tragic, brutal and cruel.

I was reminded of this while rereading a volume of Hi no tori (Phoenix).  Hi no tori is a fictional history of Japan spanning from pre-history to the distant future.  Volume 8 covers the turmoil at the end of the 12th century.  Specifically, I’m looking at the scenes that depict Kiso Yoshinaka’s army plundering the capital. This is one of those events that doesn’t get much attention in textbook history, mostly because it’s kind of just a prelude to the big historical event; Minamoto no Yoshitsune leading Genji forces to defeat first Yoshinaka and then the entire Heike clan.  But one of Hi no tori‘s projects is revealing the human tragedy behind footnotes in history.

I want to examine three consecutive pages that portray this incident. The images below are depictions of violence and might be NSFW.

tezuka1

First we have a shot of Yoshinaka’s army charging into the capital.  You might notice that Frankenstein’s monster is included in the invading hoard.  This might seem like an inappropriate place for a visual gag, given the nature of the events being depicted, however, there are probably a couple of reasons Tezuka decided to include him.  First, Tezuka is a master of emotional pacing.  He’s about to give us a page of brutality and death, but he’s not a Naturalist and he knows it, so he can’t be unrelentingly depressing.  Therefore he uses a quick gag to lighten the emotional tension before plunging ahead.

Second, the inclusion of a literal monster in the midst of the soldiers emphasizes their own monstrosity.  At least Frankenstein’s monster has an excuse: he was brain dead for a long time before being shocked back to life!  The other samurai share his monstrous lack of empathy for human suffering and lack of value for human life, but they have no such excuse.  Frankenstein’s monster here emphasizes that it is the samurai who are the real monsters.

tezuka2

Now for the brutality and death.  In the first panel an entire family of four, two generations, is murdered at once by a samurai seemingly quite pleased with himself.  Characteristically, Tezuka doesn’t shy away from depicting this: it’s right there for the reader to see in all its tragedy.  And the murder is tragic, not glorified.  An entire family, including children, run through with a spear is a shockingly frank visual, but there is no blood and no pornographic reveling in the visuality of violence. Unlike manga and movies that showcase brutality and violence, this murder is just there: there’s no buildup, no tension and release designed to let the reader voyeuristically enjoy death.  It is, appropriately, quick and senseless. Tezuka manages to shock the reader without allowing aesthetic indulgence in shocking images.  The family’s faces are either running with tears or convey surprise.  The exaggerated surprise on, for example, the boy’s face might seem too comic for this moment, but these are supposed to be commoner residents of the capital, and extreme shock is exactly what Tezuka wants to convey: these ordinary people have nothing to do with the conflict between the Heike and Genji clans.  How have things come to this?  Why must their lives end this way?  Shock and tears are appropriate.

The second, third and fifth panels employ an interesting technique: the weapon slashes that kill civilians also slash through the panel.  Of course this allows Tezuka to subtly hide the wound sites (again, not allowing any aesthetic enjoyment of gore), while still showing the brutality of the acts and the victims’ terrified faces.  However, this technique also implies that these acts of murder are so extreme that they cut through the frame of the story  itself, spilling out of the bounded fictional space.  Outside of the bounded fictional space, the fourth wall as it were, is where the reader exists.  This technique therefore transforms violence from something that can be safely viewed from a distance and brings it closer to the reader, increasing it’s visceral relevance.  Also, on this page the panels are arranged into five near-rectangles. The weapon slashes cut those rectangles short, a visual metaphor for how they also cut short the lives of the people depicted.

tezuka3

And here is the last page, where something strange happens.  In the first panel a group of monks are beheaded, but this killing doesn’t seem to convey the weight of tragedy that those on the last page did.  One theory of physical humor (and I can’t for the life of me track down where I read this right now) states that pain we don’t empathize with is comic, while pain we do empathize with is tragic.  And the monks’ faces deny empathy with their pain; one has a comical cross-eyed face, another just looks grumpy, certainly not worried about his own death.  A third sports “hanging tears,” used to express comic crying, such as in emotional overreaction or moping (contrast with the real tears on the previous page).  Why would Tezuka make us laugh at violence and death here after making us feel it so sharply on the last page?

One reason is, again, emotional pacing.  He’s just given the reader a terrible page, and he’s about to give us another terrible scene at the bottom of the page, so he lets up a little on the emotional tension briefly.  Another reason is that monks and temples were a locus of political and military power at the time, and while Tezuka portrays the civilian victims of history with sympathy he has little sympathy for authority figures. Earlier in the narrative he showed monks and courtiers conspiring to execute a violent coup d’etat (the Shishigatani incident). This is not that coup, but the violence here is similar to the violence they sought to engineer so Tezuka allows no sympathy for their pain: they deserve what they get.

This sets the reader up for the final panel, which uses both empathetic and non-empathetic pain at the same time.  The woman is crying real tears as she is raped, and her pain is certainly real and empathetic.  This may be a different kind of violence, but Tezuka uses the same techniques for sexual violence that he used for murderous violence: he shows it simply and frankly, without shielding the reader from its terribleness, but without allowing visual enjoyment of it.  The woman’s exposure is shocking in the context of this manga (where there is very little nudity) and is again a technique to deny the reader any shielding from the brutal reality of rape; it is hidden neither by framing nor by clothes.  But her body is drawn with only a few brief penstrokes, an abstract outline that depicts enough to portray her desperate exposure to her assailant but not enough to allow any visceral visual enjoyment.

In the very same panel there is a courtier being killed as a samurai slices through his ceremonial hat.  His pain is not empathetic; he just looks a bit alarmed, a slightly comical reaction.  Courtiers, like monks, hold power and authority, and like the monks above they are not people Tezuka wants the reader to empathize with.  Courtiers have been complicit in both the corrupt Heike government and various attempts to violently overthrow it, and Hi no tori has little sympathy for them.  Tezuka’s juxtaposition of empathetic pain and non-empathetic pain in the same panel is a clear indication of how he wants to guide the reader’s emotional reaction: sympathy for innocents that have violence forced on them and none for the power figures who are complicit in it.

Of course, this is the reverse of most historical narratives, which focus on the motivations of heroes and generals, while mostly ignoring the commoners who bear the brunt of the suffering for their victories.  But deconstructing received history is Hi no tori‘s big project.  Tezuka’s depiction of violence here is a powerful visual rhetorical tool that advances this project.  His careful balance of not hiding the reality of violence from the reader while at the same time not fetishizing or glorifying it allows him to powerfully convey the brutality of national history, which is one of Hi no tori‘s main themes.

Advertisements

One thought on “Violence in Tezuka Osamu’s Works (NSFW)

  1. Pingback: The Brilliant Framing and Paneling of Tezuka Osamu | Misc.Misc

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s