Centuries of Life and Death
The father of manga and anime's greatest work, Hi no Tori, done justice
Previously featured and reviewed in the pages of Animefringe, we are no strangers to Hi no Tori, the masterwork of the father of manga, Osama Tezuka. Indeed, among his various well-known manga series, including Black Jack, Kimba the White Lion, and Tetsuwan Atom, Tezuka considered the massive 12 volume Hi no Tori (bird of fire or phoenix), his life's work. All of Tezuka's trademarks are highlighted in Hi No Tori: the cartoonish designs that inspired subsequent manga and anime (Tezuka inspired, in turn, by the work of Walt Disney), deep philosophical and religious themes, and a sincere love of living things. Dr. Tezuka's work has certainly become a major part of Japanese culture (for example, Tetsuwan Atom's fictional birthday was marked by Japanese train stations playing the anime's theme). It is no surprise that NHK and America's PBS have bankrolled a stunning anime version of Hi no Tori.
Eight episodes of the new anime series are so far available fansubbed on the Internet. The first four of these deal with the Hi no Tori story arc Dawn. Set in the second century A.D., this arc follows the rise of the Japanese nation as powerful tribes conquer one another. The Hi no Yama (Fire Mountain) tribe lives near the home of the Hi no Tori, a wondrous bird, whose blood is said to grant immortality. Hinaku, a member of the village, is deathly ill and her husband decides to capture the hi no tori to save her. However, he is killed on the hunt and all looks lost for Hinaku, until a foreign doctor washes up on the shores of Hi no Yama. The village chieftain orders him to treat Hinaku, and he is able to heal the young woman. The chieftain decides to bring Guzuri into the tribe and make him Hinaku's new husband.
However, Guzuri is no simple doctor. He is a spy for Yamatai Koku, a powerful tribe with Himiko, an aging woman whom some say has magical powers. His mission is to scout out Hi no Yama. When Guzuri signals for Yamatai to come, the country's army comes to invade the village. Nearly everyone is killed in the fierce battle; Guzuri is able to escape with Hinaku. Sarutahiko, the large nosed general of the Yamatai takes Hinaku's brother, Nagi, as a slave back to Yamatai. Himiko greatly desires the hi no tori to grant her aging body immortality.
At first, Nagi hates Sarutahiko, whom he blames for destroying Hi no Yama. But the older general, whose life was not unlike Nagi's, takes care of the boy. Nagi quashes his guilt and begins to warm up to the fierce, but bumbling general. However, his rage at Himiko, who ordered the attack, grows daily until he fires arrows at her. As punishment, Sarutahiko is sent to the cave of bees. Nagi, however, breaks Sarutahiko out and they both escape to Hi no Yama. They meet Guzuri and Hinaku, who are trying to rebuild their village. As repentance for his misdeeds, Guzuri hopes to catch the hi no tori and give its blood to the Hinaku. But he is not the only one looking for it; as the last man of his village, Nagi wants the bird as well, and with her end coming, Himiko decides to send her entire army to catch the bird. As the Yamatai army lands, Fire Mountain explodes, trapping Guzuri and Hinaku within. Nagai and Sarutahiko are captured by the cavalier tribe of Jimmu, horse-riding warriors who have left a wave of destruction in their path. The arc ends in tragedy and joy as the world comes crashing down around Nagi and Sarutahiko. However, trapped in the mountain, Hinaku and Guzuri raise children, and one boy, with power from the hi no tori, is able to escape and see the light of the world in front of him.
With that story arc ended, Hi no Tori jumps far into the future, to an earth riddled with disease and death. People have moved into space, yet they try desperately to reinvigorate the earth. To the shock of humanity, life is found on the moon, a green moss, created by the hi no tori. Reona, a scientist, is able to capture a feather of the hi no tori, which he studies until it explodes, nearly killing him. He is reconstructed, part of his brain replaced with an artificial one. However, with a mechanical brain, he cannot recognize people as people, but sees life in robots. He falls in love with a bug-faced robot, which in his eyes is a beautiful woman. However, his boss, Lamp demands that he divulge everything that he learned about the hi no tori.
After Reona finds peace in a new form, Hi no Tori jumps back to the past, to medieval Japan. And herein lies the beauty of Hi no Tori: Tezuka goes between the past and future, from history to science fiction. All of the stories are tied by the philosophical themes of life and freedom, death and greed, embodied by the chase for the hi no tori. Just as the phoenix ties together the stories, it ties together humanity; Tezuka has said that he chose the firebird since people all over the world have myths about such a creature. The stories tie together further; characters come back, reincarnated perhaps; in Reona's story arc, Dr. Saruta, the big nosed scientist, bears a striking resemblance to Sarutahiko.
There is a slight problem with the anime as compared to the manga. The Dawn story arc is over 300 pages of manga, but constitutes four twenty-five minute episodes of the anime series. Even at that length, some (but not much) of the plot was altered, but Tezuka's great details are left out. For example, in the manga, Tezuka explains that Himiko comes from the Chronicles of Wei, the first recorded account of Japan (which describes the Japanese as wearing tattoos on their faces and being ruled by a female sorceress, Himiko). He explains about the god Saruta Hiko no Mikoto, the ancestor of tengu, long nosed Japanese goblins. At heart a scientist, he goes on to explain that they resemble the proboscis monkey of Borneo and conjectures that perhaps the Japanese came from that area, and the monkey was written into their folklore as the tengu. Those kind of historical musings (of which there are several) are absent from the anime, much to the loss of the non-Japanese viewers, as Japanese people would pick up on much of this.
Jokes are left out as well; one page of the Dawn manga, Tezuka shows Himiko addressing the people of Yamatai. In each panel she is made fun of, as Tezuka draws her resembling Hitler and Mussolini. However, these are minor quibbles. The anime's artstyle stays close to Tezuka's original manga (some might call the style dated, but it is beautiful and expressive), and the original power and beauty of Tezuka's message is left as clear as the ocean. The anime features a beautiful wordless opening theme and a closing theme by pop star Mika Nakashima.
Osama Tezuka's work transcends the normal stigma around anime and has become an important aspect of Japanese culture. Its power and beauty is undeniable. An excellent change from the latest dating or mech anime series, Hi no Tori is the beautiful work of a man struggling to understand humanity, life, and our place in the cosmos.