Written & Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Translated by Camellia Nieh
Published by Vertical
Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, is one of my favorite comics creators, largely because his work simply can’t be pinned down. After rising to prominence with the adventurous pop fun of Astro Boy, Tezuka’s work included a lifelong (literally) quest for immortality in Phoenix, medical thrillers such as Black Jack or Ode to Kirohito, fantastical historical fiction like Adolf, and several of the bleakest portraits of man’s cold inhumanity, including Apollo’s Song and MW.
MW tells of a young man, Yuki, who was exposed to minute traces of a chemical weapon – the titular MW – as a young boy. Doomed to a slow death, Yuki resorts to kidnapping, murder, extortion and worse, perhaps losing all sense of morality from the gas, or perhaps simply filled with hatred over his fate. Along the way, he is both helped and hindered by a priest named Father Garai. Garai’s lustful attraction to Yuki prevents him from turning Yuki over to the authorities, though he offers several other rationalizations as to why he shelters a killer. (A flashback involving Garai and Yuki’s encounter in a cave before exposure to the MW gas offers another possible motive for Yuki’s amorality.)
Dealing directly with homosexuality, MW can be shocking. Neither Garai nor Yuki can be considered admirable characters, which makes Tezuka’s choice to depict a minor interlude with a trashy magazine publisher and a potential blackmailer one of the book’s most important and emotionally honest sequences. The minor scene offers a strong counterpoint to the depravity and inhumanity of Garai and Yuki, showing a caring, compassionate homosexual.
The plot is pure thriller, as Yuki unfolds a daring and complex plot with far greater stakes than his initial kidnappings suggest. With a city investigator attempting to crack the case, Garai torn between his human responsibility and his lust for Yuki, and with dozens of other characters caught up in the maelstrom of events, MW doesn’t give readers much time to pause. Compassionate and caring people are struck down with callous ease, and the charismatic Yuki is always one step ahead of everybody else.
Like many manga titles, Tezuka allows scenes to breathe, using establishing shots to ground readers in a peaceful, windswept forest or a roaring, clustered cityscape, yet he also keeps MW moving at a breakneck pace. Brief interludes and scene setting moments are offset by scenes that race the plot forward, as Yuki kidnaps, murders, seduces and schemes his way toward his objective.
Tezuka’s art remains as strong as ever, a fine match for the terse, noir-driven script. Though open and cartoony, Tezuka channels a full range of characters, avoiding generic “background” character designs. His character acting and page layouts continue to be superb, and the clean details of the backgrounds firm up the world around his characters.
For fun escapism, MW isn’t the Tezuka title to read. However, if you’re looking for a bleak ride with some of comics’ more amoral and conflicted characters, you’ll find few more compelling stories. It’s dark and scary, taboo and twisted, and unendingly compelling. Osamu Tezuka earned his reputation as a master of manga by creating comics in any style and genre you can imagine, and MW is one of his darkest and most damning in its portrayal of humanity’s potential for depravity.