What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? These two questions are, quite possibly, the penultimate conundrum that bedevils mankind. To answer these questions, we have come to understand the universe through the mechanisms and methodologies of religion. However, few religions offer an identical meaning to those two important questions.
While my previous two articles in this series have investigated characters who either have discovered heroism in their invulnerability (as is the case with Superman) or in their traumatic regenerations (as is the case with Wolverine), few comics directly deal with the question of Life and Death in the same way that Hi no Tori does. To English-speaking audiences, this is known as Phoenix.
Phoenix is a manga created by the famed “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka, the man who many directly point to creating Japan’s post-war manga industry. Tezuka-sama was an important man to this medium and the small amount of words here cannot express how important his works like Astro Boy, The White Lion, Black Jack, Unico, Buddha, and Princess Knight were to Japan — both as entertainment and as the foundations of an entertainment industry.
Out of all the works created by Osamu Tezuka, Phoenix is perhaps the one that is both the most spiritually and emotionally challenging, yet also one of the harder books to explain in a linear fashion. Why? Keep reading as the mysteries of Phoenix are laid bare and the cycle of Death and Rebirth is explained … at least in this incarnation.
The Phoenix is Life
The manga series Phoenix begins in the ancient past of Japan and it focuses on a series of characters whose lives are inter-woven around the existence of a mystical bird called the Phoenix. While many characters wish to find the fabled Phoenix for her immortality-giving blood, none succeed at their goals and, in the end, their lives go on as they must. Some die tragically, others as heroes. The ancient characters of the first arc of the story exist in the year around 180-250 AD. These first chapters of the story encompass a plot arc entitled “Dawn.” To understand the beauty of the Phoenix’s story we need to skip ahead to second volume of the story entitled “Future.” [While the plot of the “Dawn” story arc was seemingly self-contained, the narrative’s sudden jump to the year 3404 AD might seem rather out of place.]
The story arc for “Future” focuses on a character named Masato Yamanobe and his process of becoming emotionally captivated by the alien known as Tamami. Tamami and humans are not meant to have a romantic relationship and eventually this causes the pair all manner of trouble. In the background of their love struggles, nuclear war is nigh as the five supercomputers who control the planet decide each one would be capable of destroying their four rivals with atomic weapons.
Masato and Yamanobe find shelter with the hermit-like Dr. Saruta in his underground complex where he is trying (in vain) to re-create ancient animal life, as well as artificial beings. He has been unsuccessful for some time. Unfortunately for all three individuals, an assailant who has been pursuing Masato and Tamami finds his way into the shelter. The assailant shoots Masato, however Masato does not succumb to death. In his dying state he meets the Phoenix herself who grants him not only immortality but a glimpse of the universe. The Phoenix shows Masato the patterns of the universe itself.
Phoenix: The Earth has become invisible … and the Sun …is lost in a mass of millions of other stars … as the Milky Way spirals … it is joined by billions of other galaxies … to form the macrocosm …
Masato: That’s the limit of the universe, isn’t it?
Phoenix: As far as a human conception of the universe is concerned, it is the limit, Masato …but it is enveloped in something larger. If we move onto another dimension, this whole universe would be no more than one particle. And these together form something like a cell. And in the cells in turn form another life.
Masato: Wait! You’re telling me that the whole universe is only a single cell in a living creature? What is that creature?
Phoenix: A cosmos. […] From the microcosm to the macrocosm they’re all alive …
(Phoenix Vol. 2 pg 154-155)
Masato awakens from this experience with the Phoenix and, tragically, winds up being the only survivor of the bunker inhabitants. Masato then spends decades trying to use the machinery of Dr. Saruta to revive Tamami, animal life, and anything that reminds him of his old existence. As Masato grows in age, he does not die. Frustrated and alone, Masato mourns his fate … until the Phoenix returns and asks him to shepherd the next phase of life. Masato watches (over eons) as life returns from the smallest cells. He watches for ages untold as life evolves and grows into life very similar to the ancient life forms of Masato’s existence … but they are said, by the Phoenix, to be subtly different. The Phoenix hopes that, one day, man will return again not as the savage and genocidal creature he was, but rather that he would become something better. As Masato comes to see the endless cycle of existence laid out before him, his body now aged and his beard looking rather Old testament-styled, he fades away into another existence. He fades away in peace, yet he is surely not dead.
Masato and Tamami, each a cosmos in themselves, both a cosmos together – fused and were drawn into infinity.
(Phoenix Vol. 2 pg 274)
Among the life born of the visions by Masato, characters are shown to be ones from Phoenix Vol. 1 in the “Dawn” story. The story of Phoenix is a circular one, of sorts. The plots of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are circular and they each complete the other. You could read Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 in any order because the order does not intrinsically matter – what matters is that you are moved by the human condition, that you are moved to think, just for a second, outside the limiting box of normal narrative. Phoenix is one example of how comics can provide a non-linear (yet page-to-page and very linear) story that moves on many levels.
And it is not the end of what Phoenix is, or what it has to say.
The Phoenix is Death
The fifth volume of the Phoenix manga (entitled Karma in English and Hououhen in Japanese) is, to many, one of the singularly greatest works of not only the whole series, but also of Osamu’s career. The story shifts back to ancient Japan in the 8th century time-period of the county. The story revolves around a battle of enmity and spite between a one-armed bandit named Gao and Akanemaru, a sculptor. The lives of both men are linked to the Phoenix for different reasons, however it is Akanemaru whose story is important for this revelation. Akanemaru received a vision of the Phoenix and, having become obsessed thanks to his desires for power that his skills as a sculptor can grant him via circumstance, he sets about to achieve his own agenda at the cost of others.
One night Akanemaru enters into a dream. In the dream he sees the Phoenix again. However, this time he also sees the lives of simple birds. Phoenix imparts wisdom to the mother bird that, one day, her babies will pass away and that one of them is destined to become human. The thought is horrifying to the mother and she begs the Phoenix to spare her baby this fate. Phoenix tells her (and the reader) that life does not end after death and that, regardless of the form, it will continue onwards.
Eventually, after chances to avert his life, Akanemaru becomes caught in a terrible fire. As he dies, he sees the Phoenix and begs for salvation from his agony. He begs for his life. Phoenix only tells him that he will be re-born, however it will not be as a human. His failures in the life he had led made him un-worthy of returning as a human, a fact which cripples Akanemaru with fear and doubt. He does not wish to return to the world as an animal. The irony is that (in the story) no animal wanted to return as a human.
Life becomes attached to its shape and loses sight of the dreams and realities beyond one limiting factor life “shape.” To quote from Star Wars, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
Characters in Phoenix die and return across the many-volume story. Tezuka-sama was famed for using what he called a “studio” of characters. Tezuka would draw a certain character model and re-use him in different manga stories, as if that one model was a real life actor that Tezuka had “cast” in the story. Phoenix acknowledges that not only are these re-used, karmic models for his characters being re-used, but also that their fates are not eternal. Many characters “return” throughout the Phoenix story as their own descendants, reincarnated versions of their past lives. The character of Dr. Saruta is particularly important, as his “death” in Vol. 2 is actually only the start of his journey through the backward-and-forwards timeline of the Phoenix manga.
The Phoenix Is You
The ideas behind Phoenix are not new. Tezuka-sama drew heavily from both the spiritual and literal history of Buddhism for his stories and Hi no Tori is no exception. In many ways, Hi no Tori was the sum of all the lessons that Tezuka-sama believed Buddhism could teach humanity. We, as mortal beings, fear our own deaths and we fear that which will lead to it – sickness, age, and all manner of sufferings. To overcome these obstacles and to truly help others, to love others, to teach others, and to connect with others – that is the lesson of not only Hi no Tori, but of life. Tezuka-sama’s life lessons from his Buddhist life and from his personal life are exposed in Hi no Tori. While the manga itself was never finished, it cannot be said that the work itself is not a masterpiece of the comic form and that the stories will not move you to years. Hi no Tori can then be seen as a kind of time-capsule for not only Tezuka-sama’s art, but also for his views on mankind.
Comics as a physical object are mere pieces of paper. Still, on that paper is human experience. A person learned to drawn from somebody, either for pleasure or because he needed to draw to experience life. The words on the page might have been inspired by a story that somebody lived through or something that was meaningful to them. That art and that story were them —bound through a technology — whose knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, until it wound up in your hand. Comics are human experience, even if they are sometimes silly, mindless, or trivial. They can often also be moving and inspiring and tragic and kind. Comics are but one vessel for stories and stories are eternal. Through the story of Hi no Tori, Tezuka-sama lives on through the reader.
Stories have no beginning and no end, simply endless deaths and resurrections of their forms. What was Superman in the 40s died so that there could be Superman in the 70s, and so on. Wolverine and Superman and Masato will continue to live on, just as they themselves are merely newer versions of Longinus, Hercules, and Yahweh. Their story is the human story. The human story is your story.
As it was told to me, “We are the stories we tell ourselves.” Now I am telling you.
Pass on what you have read and learned.
Love others and yourself. Connect.
Tell your story.