The Book of Human Insects

While Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects (Vertical) focuses its bug metaphors primarily on notions of transformation and parasitism, I find myself irresistibly reminded of that old fable by Aesop, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” You know the one, where the lazy grasshopper assumes that the hard-working ant will care for him when things get tough, and the ant shows its conservative credentials by just letting the grasshopper die, because the ant has his, and that’s what counts.

With customary perversity, Tezuka turns the old morality play on its head. The grasshopper does benefit from the ant’s labors, because the grasshopper steals the ant’s stash and, if she feels it necessary, kills the ant for good measure. Preach on that, Aesop.

Tezuka follows dazzling celebrity Toshiko Tomura, who’s achieved remarkable and varied success. Though only in her twenties, she’s an acclaimed actress, gifted designer, and award-winning novelist. That she’s achieved this by seducing and metaphorically leaching the life blood of her mentors is of no moral consequence to Toshiko who, not unlike Aesop’s ant, got hers, which is all that matters to her.

Like Yuki from Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), Toshiko is a quick and creative thinker. She’s not the sadist Yuki is, and she doesn’t have a grand plan beyond staving off boredom and getting what she wants. She also has a self-destructive streak, at least to the extent that she gets a gleam in her eye whenever her plans hit a roadblock. Part of the fun for Toshiko is reacting on the fly to remove unexpected obstacles. She doesn’t have Yuki’s emotional gravitas or his unapologetic perversity, but she has the same Energizer Bunny quality that helped make him such a fascinating protagonist.

And, yes, Toshiko is a protagonist, in that it’s her story and that Tezuka demands that the reader be invested in the outcome of her schemes. You don’t necessarily need to root for her, though I found myself doing so more than made me entirely comfortable, but you do need to care about what she does next and how it works out for her. The fact that she’s a clever and powerful woman at the center of a Tezuka noir tale helps enormously. Works from this category tend to push women to the side in terms of agency; they’re either doormats or harpies. Toshiko may be amoral, but she owns her choices and doesn’t shrink from adversity.

This is right in my Tezuka center of gravity. It’s a compelling story with a moral, though satirical core, taking the flaws of a generation to almost ridiculous extremes and crafting a thriller from that starting point. It’s great looking, possessed of a sexy energy that Tezuka’s adult works don’t always achieve with this level of confidence. And it’s got an indelible central figure, surrounded by an interesting cadre of marks and foes.

And it’s got one of my favorite recurring visual motifs, Toshiko in repose. When her stunts pay off, she takes a moment to just breathe and smirk, looking like a grasshopper on a sunny rock. You can almost see the ant’s leg sticking out of the corner of her mouth.