Written and Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
There’s a line in Citizen Kane that’s haunted me ever since I heard it. The reporter researching Kane’s life observes to Kane’s general manager that Kane made an awful lot of money. The manager’s response is what gets me. “It’s no trick to make a lot of money,” he says, “If what you want to do is make a lot of money.”
That was the first time I’d ever come up against the idea that you really can do whatever you want as long as you’re willing to sacrifice everything else to get it. And it’s the American Dream, really. If you just work hard enough and sacrifice enough, you can achieve anything, right? Hold on to that thought for a second, ‘cause I’m coming back to it.
MW is the story of a guy with a single-minded goal. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. The trouble is that his goal is the death of a lot of innocent people. Nearly seven billion of them, actually.
The guy is Michio Yuki, a rich kid who was kidnapped as a child by a gang of teenagers on a small island called Okino Mafune. One of the teens, Iwao Garai, was supposed to watch over young Yuki in a cave up in the island’s hills while the others went to arrange a ransom. Instead, Garai molested Yuki. And to make the situation even more horrifying, Yuki and Garai woke up the next morning to find everyone on the island dead; poisoned by an accidental leak of nerve gas that was being stored on the island by a foreign nation.
Though Yuki and Garai had survived the accident by being in the highlands, Yuki was still affected by the gas, called MW, and hasn’t been right ever since. As an adult, he’s now a sociopath, willing to torture, rape, and/or kill anyone who stands between him and his goal.
At first, we’re not sure what Yuki wants. He seems to be just climbing the corporate ladder for a while and while we never actually cheer for him, I found myself sort of begrudgingly admiring him for a bit. It was a sick feeling and I quickly corrected myself, but remember my point from above. The appreciation of independent, persistent self-reliance runs deep in Americans, and even as I was disgusted by Yuki’s actions, I was more intrigued at seeing how far they would get him than I was eager for him to be quickly caught. At least at first.
It eventually becomes apparent that Yuki’s goals extend far beyond the top of his company. Everything he does, every milestone he reaches, turns out to be in service to another, larger plan. Maybe it was that Yuki’s real goal was so heinous that I wasn’t interested in seeing him get there; maybe it was that I was just bored by Yuki at that point, but once the Big Plan was revealed, I was ready for Yuki to be caught and the story to be done. My begrudging admiration for him was replaced by repulsion, though if I’m honest with myself, I think that was borne as much from his assholish arrogance as it was from the monstrous nature of his actions. In short, Yuki’s not a very charming villain.
And that’s a big flaw for a book where we have to spend so much time with the bad guy. It’s not coincidence that I sort of liked Yuki at the beginning, but as I got to know him, I just wanted to see him dead. And unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren’t much more likable.
Garai, repentant over his actions on Okino Mafune, has become a Catholic priest in adulthood and his single-minded goal is to save Yuki from the monster he’s become. Unfortunately, Garai’s absolutely horrible at it and frequently allows himself to be tempted and used by Yuki in Yuki’s plans. He’s such a complete wuss that we never root for him to achieve his goal either. Yuki’s such a dick that we don’t care if he’s saved for his own sake, and Garai’s so inept as a priest or even as a friend that we quickly realize he’s never going to save Yuki, so we stop caring for his sake too.
Just about everyone around Yuki is similarly ineffective and it ultimately becomes ridiculous. The height of the stupidity is a young, female friend of Father Garai’s named Sumiko. She has an unrequited crush on Garai at first, which Yuki takes advantage of. In his typically sadistic way of doing whatever he can to hurt Garai, Yuki lures Sumiko backs to his apartment and rapes her. Naturally, she falls in love with him.
And I don’t just mean, “bizarrely attracted” to him. I mean, completely, irrationally, “I’m going to stalk you now, please marry me” In Love. We never learn why; we’re just supposed to accept that she is. And that’s pretty indicative of the way people react to Yuki in general. Sometimes we can sort of see how he’s fooling them, but a lot of the time folks just get stupid around him. And eventually we start to see that this is because the story demands it in order to keep going.
I don’t want to spoil the specifics of Yuki’s plan because there are places where MW is a pretty cool thriller. Let it suffice to say that his plan is huge and has unbelievably enormous consequences for all life on earth. Yet at every turn, the Japanese government and their “unnamed” foreign ally (everyone keeps referring to them as “Nation X,” but it’s so obviously the U.S. that the obfuscation becomes laughable) pussyfoot with Yuki and keep allowing him to progress to the next step in his plan. “Oh, no, he’s got hostages. We’d better do exactly as he says.” “Oh, crap. I guess that was a mistake. Now he’s really got us. Better do what he says.”
Whatever happened to not negotiating with terrorists? I know this story was written in the ‘70s, but is US policy on this that recent? And even if it is, there are several points in the climax where a well-placed sniper could have ended things quite satisfactorily, but no one seems to have thought of that. Everything is conveniently orchestrated to let the plot continue as long as possible.
Even the one guy who seemed to make any sense in the whole business (a long-haired, big-nosed prosecutor named Meguro who sort of looks like he could’ve played with the Beatles) flaked out on me at the end. I spent most of the book liking this guy. He was smart and relentless, even if he was realistically hindered by proper procedure. He knew what Yuki was up to, but had to collect proof in order to do anything about it. Unfortunately, by the time his hands are untied enough to act, everyone else has mucked the situation up so badly that he’s also forced to act outlandishly. He calls his own plan “cartoonish” and explains that “it may go against common sense, but we’ll have to trust to our luck.” That’s another reason I like the character. He’s the only one honest enough to say that MW’s plot is so screwed up by the end that it can’t be resolved in a realistic manner.
MW would’ve been a lot better at half the length. It’s not that it’s padded out or unexciting. It actually does a really nice job of keeping things moving and the art is positively amazing throughout. But Yuki becomes more and more unlikable and unbelievable as the story progresses and the plot becomes so absurd that you finish the book realizing that only the first half was in any way realistic and wishing that Tezuka would’ve quit while he was ahead.