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Manga Review: Phoenix: Civil War, Vols. 7-8

Posted by: Katherine Dacey on October 26, 2006 at 9:26 am

Phoenix: Civil War, Vols. 7-8

By Osamu Tezuka
Published by Viz

phoenix_civil_war_7.jpgDo you have a friend who won’t touch a comic book unless a New York Times critic pronounces it a “brilliant graphic novel” by a “major artist”? Well, I have the manga for you: Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix: Civil War.

A quick glance through its pages might not suggest that this is the stuff of high art. The characters bear an uncanny resemblance to the denizens of Popeye and jokey anachronisms abound. (Although the story ostensibly takes place in twelfth-century Japan, one character receives a telephone call and chows down on a bucket of KFC.) But flip to the back pages, where Viz has included a brief statement from the manga-ka himself explaining the origins and meaning of Phoenix, and you’ll find just the hook for your highbrow pal: Tezuka claims Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird as his inspiration. That’s right—Stravinsky, the OG of twentieth-century classical music.

As Tezuka explains:

The serialization of Jungle Taitei in Shonen Jump ended in 1954, and I was at a loss to what to create next. Then I saw Stravinsky’s famous ballet, L’oiseau de Feu. Of course the ballet itself was excellent, but I was especially intrigued by the prima ballerina dancing as the spirit of the phoenix.

Translation: Tezuka did not manga-ify the venerable Russian legend of Kaschei the Immortal with steampunk ninja Cossacks.

Tezuka drew a parallel between Stravinsky’s firebird and a similar creature from Japanese legend, Hou-ou. The phoenix, Tezuka decided, was a powerful symbol of “man’s attachment to life and the complications that arise from greed.” Using the phoenix as a touchstone, Tezuka constructed an elaborate, 12-volume series exploring Japan’s historic past and possible future. He planned a final volume set in present-day Japan (“where past and future converge”), but passed away without completing his epic.

phoenix_civil_war_8.jpgCivil War is set in Heian-era Kyoto, where several powerful families vie for control of the city. We experience the conflict through myriad perspectives: a lowly woodcutter and his fiancée, a ragtag band of samurai, an apolitical sage, and two powerful clan leaders, both of whom seek the phoenix in an effort to consolidate their political victories and perpetuate their bloodlines. The story plays like The Hidden Fortress: an epic punctuated by moments of battlefield violence, domestic drama, and earthy comedy. (Tezuka even riffs on Kurosawa’s famous firewood festival scene. With such classy borrowings, your Foucault-loving friend is bound to succumb to Phoenix’s charms.) While Tezuka isn’t above a little flatulence humor, he never condescends to his humble characters, using lowbrow moments to demonstrate the common humanity of his entire cast. The character designs may be too cartoonish for some tastes, but Tezuka’s artwork is never short of spectacular. If I were really pushing my luck with the Stravinsky metaphor, I might say the images danced across the page. Or maybe I’d just fall back on those staple review words of bold, dynamic, kinetic, and fluid to describe his vivid visual style.

Although Phoenix doesn’t exude the deluxe feel of Vertical’s much-lauded Tezuka projects (Buddha and Ode to Kirihito), Viz doesn’t cut any corners. The quality is evident in all aspects of the production, from the high-grade paper stock to the ample cultural footnotes, elegant translation, and enlightening extras that include a helpful schematic of the Phoenix universe and Tezuka’s 1969 essay “Phoenix and Me.” All in all, a manga worth every penny.

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