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Why Bad Things Happen To Cute People: rambling Tezuka-Urasawa essay

Why Bad Things Happen To Cute People: rambling Tezuka-Urasawa essay published on

A professor I had described the difference between Western and Eastern culture this way: Western culture believes that history points forwards. It is bringing itself towards some end point, honing itself into something purer and in some way perfect – though perfection may mean destruction. Our world is a story, and we are certain that it will end, the way all stories do, with a new sort of equilibrium established.

History is different in Eastern culture, he said. Once there was a golden age, but it is over now; and things deteriorate. They are continuing to deteriorate, often gracefully, and beautiful things are found in the ruins, and at times some facsimile of the golden age is established for a while. But it always falls apart again, and each time it returns a little coarser. There is no endpoint in sight, only a constant tumbling of the pieces of that perfect civilization, thinning out. Time seems to be getting wider. It’s not going anywhere.

I don’t agree. Westerners idealize the future – I don’t know if we do it more – but we also essentialize the past. We look at it as something narrower and purer than the present; the past only has one thing in it, and it’s dead. And the need to place ourselves within a narrative is basic to revolution and apocalypticism, which live everywhere, and always have – they are not an American export. Men and women don’t die for an upward twitch on a line graph; we die for the last chapter, and our names are written in stone that the rain will not wear down. This is true everywhere.

But I think that these are both philosophies that individuals have. They are both comforting, in that they allow us to assign meaning to the things that happen to us, and particularly the things we have lost. We say, “this is not the end, but the end will look like this,” and “this is something that my children will not see; maybe their children will.”

If only one thing separates the two philosophies, I think it would be the idea of vindication, of someday being shown proof that you have been right. The Christian conception of rightness is predicated on a particular moment in time, the moment of death, or Judgment Day. Our souls are cumulative, but if that day never comes, they accumulate to nothing. We will never know if we were good, or if our suffering had any meaning.

Personally, I’m not sure I want my suffering to have any meaning. My teacup doesn’t have any meaning; let’s make it like the teacup, and I’ll put it away when I’m done.

Anyway, I read Ode to Kirihito recently, and I’ve been thinking about Tezuka, and Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, a re-imagining of a storyline from Tezuka’s Astro Boy.

If I ever saw any of Astro Boy as a kid, I don’t remember it, but I did see Unico. Unico is not a nice story. The title character is a little unicorn who has been exiled from heaven due to the jealousy of the gods. Now the West Wind must carry him from place to place in the human world, which is uniformly miserable and brutal. Unico tries to solve people’s problems and succeeds; but the people he helps are often as cruel to him as the villains, and whenever he has finished what he was trying to do, and earned the friendship of those around him, the West Wind comes and carries him away again, and he forgets what he has accomplished and who has cared for him. And every time he comes to ground, he has no idea who he is or what his worth is.

Tezuka’s stories believed strongly in evil. In them, bad things do not happen because people make mistakes. They happen because people do evil things. He is judgmental about this. In the famous Pluto arc of Astro Boy, a robot named Pluto is sent out to destroy the seven strongest robots in the world, including Astro Boy. Astro tries to save the others, and can’t, and tries to save Pluto from his own death, and can’t. At the end he is left bewildered, having failed at everything he set out to do. He asks his mentor, Professor Ochanomizu, why robots have to fight each other. “Because humans make them that way.” This is even less helpful than it sounds – Pluto’s creator, it turns out, was himself a robot.

This is a statement that seems to dissolve Pluto of culpability, but doesn’t. Astro Boy makes his own decisions, and like in most of his stories, in this one some of them weren’t good ones – at one point, accidentally, he nearly kills his little sister. Though he and Professor Ochanomizu, who are the closest thing to good in the comic, are sorry that Pluto is dead, I don’t think Tezuka is, particularly. The story isn’t sorry. However little choice he may have had in the matter, Pluto killed innocent people, and so he died for it. The force of the story itself asserts a justice to which Astro and Ochanomizu can’t find their way. I think this is supposed to be an admirable thing, on their part – they don’t know how to partake in the full cruelty of the world.

Tezuka wrote cruel stories, in the sense that bad things happen with great frequency and harshness. People die horribly and go mad and hurt themselves and their loved ones. The weather is a threat, and so are disease and hunger and thirst, and those you love are apathetic or uncomprehending or hostile. And that’s only what happens if you’re bad or mediocre – if you try to be good, all the forces of the universe seem to be against you. It is very, very hard to be good.

Tezuka’s justice is this: “If you are good, bad things will happen to you – but also if you are evil.” Probably, like people do, he didn’t think that was good enough; but his stories never seemed to take place in a world that expected to come to anything different.

Naoki Urasawa spends a lot of time talking about evil in Monster. A lot of evil is done. But he doesn’t think of evil the way Tezuka does. Kenzo Tenma and Anna Liebert, the heroes, begin the series as flawed, but shortly evolve into creatures of impossible goodness. Their mistakes are free of selfishness and malice. They probably resemble Tezuka’s heroes less than do their enemies.

Urasawa’s great artistic strength is drawing faces, and when his characters say or do something terrible, their faces look distant and unnatural. They may wear masks, or glasses that reflect too much light, or fixedly smiling expressions. There might be a reaction shot, someone looking frightened or outraged, and the reaction shot is frequently silent because words make horror smaller. Evil is terrifying, unbelievable. It has a certain lack of immediacy. He treats it as an unknowable thing or a mystery to be solved, and probes at its causes and tries to figure out if there’s any way to sympathize. He is very hopeful that it can be fixed.

But for Tezuka there is nothing to talk about, nothing to think about, nothing to repair. There’s no great change in people’s faces when they do something evil, because evil is normal. The forces of good’s reactions are equally unmarked, and often feel cliched – not because Tezuka can’t do more with them, but because he doesn’t see any point. Evil is elemental and simple and needs no introduction. The hero’s objections don’t matter. Evil exists in the world, and good wants to do something about it, he thinks. The “whys” are not very important.

Urasawa’s Pluto is not telling the same story that the Pluto arc in Astro Boy did. There is a lot of grieving done in Pluto. People are given time to consider the murdered and the murderers, to talk about things they wanted and their inner lives. We are asked to look at people’s faces and to offer sympathy.

I don’t think Tezuka was asking us to do this, or at least, he didn’t care much if we did or didn’t. We could grieve and sympathize somewhere after the last page, if that was our inclination. (In an author’s note at the beginning of the volume, he comments matter-of-factly, “I couldn’t bear to make Pluto a completely evil robot, so when he finally was destroyed I received tons of protest letters.”) I think that for him, the purpose of a story was a sort of scourging of the hero, and showing how he or she makes it out of that scourging still determined to be good – or not, as the case may be. Bad things happen to Astro Boy so that he can get sad and angry and shout and cry and try to kill someone, and we can feel outrage about so much unfairness. People don’t think very hard, they just feel, and as a result they want to do something. They cry out, and we move on to the next frame; maybe it will be underwater.

I think there’s a feeling at the end of most of Tezuka’s works that the means aren’t justified by the ends. In the Pluto story, most of the Unico stories, Phoenix, Buddha, and Ode to Kirihito, there’s a sense that the sacrifices that had to be made may not be worth what was gotten for them. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they aren’t sacrifices at all – they’re just tragedies, and it’s good that they’re over now. In Ode to Kirihito, the torments the heroes go through in the name of science are eventually meaningless, when another researcher, mentioned twice earlier in the story, releases his own study from his nice, safe lab on the other side of the world. This does not make up for anything; it merely puts an end to it.

It’s not quite right to say that Tezuka’s works are pessimistic, I think, simply because they do not see the world as a thing that is in progress – the same things will happen over and over, because there is evil in the world. It is a tangible and ordinary thing to him, like food. (It’d be easy here to slip in something about World War II and the atom bomb, which Tezuka lived through and remembered, but Urasawa sees from a distance – but that’s cheap and not the point.)

Most people would say that the content of Tezuka’s manga is more sensational than that of Urasawa’s – certainly a lot more happens. Urasawa places a focus on the personal and ordinary that humanizes the sort of tragedies that Tezuka presents as stark and larger-than-life. Tezuka often glosses over people’s motivations as being unimportant; everyone thinks they have reasons for doing evil, and they’re never good enough.

But Urasawa has a need to give his characters direction that Tezuka does not. They acquire some sort of perfection, either a purity of goodness, or one of evil or wretchedness. Often this happens immediately preceding their deaths. I don’t think that Tezuka’s characters have that sort of arc, or at least, not one pointing towards perfection – Ode to Kirihito‘s Kirihito and Sister Helen start out with an intense purity of idealism, and are finally broken to a kind of unwilling compromise with the world. Other characters seem to have no destination at all. None was, apparently, necessary.