Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix (2004)
Mortality, immortality, and the circle of life are explored in five stories, one set in prehistory, two in medieval Japan, and two on the dying Earth of the distant future.
I guess I'm one of the few anime fans who's been around long enough to (vaguely) remember the U.S. debut of Astroboy, the Osamu Tezuka creation that pretty much invented anime in the first place. Through the years Tezuka has made many other notable contributions to both manga and anime, including rogue doctor Black Jack and a rather odd (but frequently very good) re-conceptualization of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Like fellow creative genius Miyazaki, Tezuka is at heart a moralist, and much of the title here reviewed is kind of an allegory to illustrate Tezuka's views, which seem to be:
(1) The pursuit of personal immortality is vain and foolish, and
I think those are the main recurring points, most of which are already evident in the first story, "Dawn". Set in prehistory, it is the story of the betrayal and slaughter of the more primitive Fire People by soldiers of the country of Yamatai, whose leader, Himiko, desires the Phoenix (of the title) that dwells in the Fire People's land, to restore her own youth and beauty. The story gets more involved as the commanding general of Yamatai, Sarutahiko, adopts a Fire People boy, Nagi, and they both in turn end up trying to protect Yamatai against invaders even more advanced in the arts of war than they are (with cavalry rather than just infantry.) But it's a parallel story-the fate of a little nuclear family-that is used to illustrate the above three principles. Personally, I find banishing your protagonists in a literal hole in the ground is a bit heavy-handed in the allegory department, and I wasn't quite as impressed by the first story as I was by some of the subsequent ones.
(By the way, some incarnation of "Sarutahiko"- with the same warty, bulbous nose and some variant of the name "Saruta"- will show up in every one of the five stories. He appears as father figure, villain, or warrior- in this first story, actually as all three. He's also a testament to Lamarckian rather than Darwinian inheritance- in the first story, set in the earliest time, he started out with a more or less normal-sized nose, until an unfortunate encounter with some really bad bugs.)
Some of the following stories are much better. Story Number Two, "Resurrection", is set on a moon colony. A young man named Leona has a problem. He was in a tragic accident and part of his brain was replaced with a mechanical brain, with an unusual side effect: he sees human beings only as weirdly distorted shapes, while robots look human to him. Leona soon acquires what he finds to be an attractive female companion, and one of the delights of this segment is that the audience is allowed to see this companion both as he sees her, and how she REALLY looks. The story also stands another sci-fi convention on its head, because as Leona's body becomes more mechanical, his soul becomes more "human" (sensitive, compassionate.)
The next one, "The Transformation", is good too, very Twilight-Zone-ish. A female samurai gets stuck in a time loop due to some bad karma. This is the only one of the stories that really presents a well-developed female character- most of Tezuka's females are sweet and supportive but not much else, and in "Dawn" a character utters the rather un-feminist line "A woman as a ruler will lead to disaster!" Tezuka was apparently able to escape the trap of male-chauvinist thinking in this particular segment; one only hopes that the protagonist in his story is equally successful in escaping the trap SHE'S in.
Story Four, "The Sun", is also set in the Japanese Middle Ages, and involves the conflict that arose (both at the level of humans and at the level of the gods) when Buddhism began to replace nature worship. A ruler is forcing the issue here, and he is resisted by a young man named Karima, who now unfortunately sports a wolf's head due to the actions of his enemies. (I'm still a little unclear about how that happened.) The storyline trips over its own complications a bit (a common problem with Tezuka's plots), but it's got a pretty spectacular battle as the centerpiece (worthy of those old Marvel Comics superhero melees), an actual fighting female in Marimo (though she's still awfully deferential to Karima), and overall is probably the nearest thing to a fairy tale that this anthology has. It's best described as a "qualified" feel-good story. ("Qualified" is the best Tezuka will give you.)
The last story, "The Future", returns us to the dying-Earth future of "Resurrection". Most of it is about a young man named Masato who ends up having to wait for Whatever Happens Next. I think it's impossible to effectively capture the feeling of this kind of wait in any kind of objective portrayal, and so I'm not entirely sure that this story really works. The Phoenix herself, whose involvement in the stories grows with each succeeding one, finally has to lend a claw to the proceedings here.
Phoenix certainly makes one think, but sometimes that means having a very different take on things than Tezuka's. If people want to live forever, maybe it's not just their selfishness or vanity; maybe it's because conscious experience is such a precious thing that few are eager to give it up. When the Sergeant is ordering the troops over the hill and sneers, "Do you want to live forever?", count me as the guy who would raise his hand and say, "Yes, sir, I'd like to VERY much!" I'm getting old these days, and personally feel that while the world and its people may indeed go on without me, later events will probably be of much less personal interest to me when I'm cold in my grave.
Recommended Audience: No sex, no fanservice, but lots of hewing and hacking, and many deaths (some characters die more than once.) Small kids won't be able to follow all the nuances of the stories anyway. Older teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Partial (5/13)
Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix (2004) © 2004 Tezuka Productions
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