‘The Book of Human Insects’ is one of Osamu Tezuka’s first “mature” offerings, after the more family-friendly ‘Astro Boy’ and ‘Kimba the White Lion’. It was originally published as a serial in the early ’70s, and it’s now been published as a complete tome in North America.
I don’t know where it ranks in all of Tezuka’s oeuvre, but I wasn’t especially fond of it. The key problem for me was a loose attention to detail and lapses in logic. To put it succinctly, some of the developments in this book simply couldn’t take place in the real world. That really bothered me – especially since it was a common issue throughout. It was as though Tezuka took shortcuts to connect the dots in his tale, satisfying himself with the outcomes but ignoring the fact that it didn’t gel one bit.
Which brings me to another matter, and it’s just how convoluted the story is. I am not enough of a manga aficionado to offer an opinion as to how typical this may be of the genre, but I have found this type of plot development in Tezuka’s other books as well as in other authors’ work too, including Naoki Urasawa’s classic ‘Monster’. The thing is that this book starts off with an intriguing premise and then drags it on and on tenuously from one moment to the next. It all feels a little bit like a daytime soap opera, but confined to one or two key characters.
Which is a shame, because there are a lot of intriguing elements along the way. Unfortunately, they all stumble into melodrama and are at least one step away from typical human behaviour – they are within the realm of the possible, but are hardly conventional. Weave together many elements such as this one and it’s very difficult to believe any of it – one gets the impression that it’s overdone, too elaborate, and that he should have left some ideas on the table for other stories, other works.
The core idea, that of a woman who is a chameleon, morphing her personality to emulate the people closest to her and riding on their talent, is quite an excellent one. Why Tezuka felt the need to turn her into a psychopath and make the book a thriller is another thing. It’s not that this is a horrible approach, but he would have needed to tie it all together more convincingly. Unfortunately, a lot of what she is able to achieve depends on the inexplicable weaknesses or failings of those around her. Every time. Without fail. As far as I’m concerned, she could have easily been stopped. But no one does.
The artwork is pretty good, though. Tezuka has an affinity for creating convincing landscapes, whether it be the city, the countryside, or natural surroundings. My key beef is with his character designs, which are more cartoon than realistic. They are still pleasing to the eye, but they don’t fit in with their environments as well as they could. He does manage to inject some eye candy with a few pages of luscious erotica – designed to be titillating without being too graphic. And there are pages that are creative in the same way that filmmakers such as Dario Argento were on the screen.
I know that Tezuka is a legend. I also understand that his works are considered groundbreaking and influential like none other in the manga world. But I can’t say that I’m a fan. After reading a few of his books, I find myself engaged just enough to get through them, but generally unimpressed with the way the stories are threaded. Of course, this may also be why he became popular with the masses: it’s exciting enough to capture the imagination, but not complex enough to truly challenge readers intellectually – thereby becoming tedious.
If ‘The Book of Human Insects’ were to be compared to Christopher Nolan’s cinematic oeuvre, it would be ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, as opposed to ‘Memento’. To each’s own, but I much prefer simple and intricately woven over epic and loosely tossed together.