Osamu Tezuka’s Book of Human Insects

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This animated film by Charlie Ramos is one of my favorite portrayals of Gregor.


Where Kafka’s Gregor struggled with his new life as a bug, Tezuka’s Toshiko Tomura fully accepts her life. Granted she is depicted as an attractive woman that men are fatally drawn to and not a repulsive giant cockroach (as Gregor is often portrayed).

Osamu Tezuka organizes Toshiko’s story into four sections: Spring Cicada, Leafhopper, Longhorn Beetle, and Katydid. I’m not familiar enough with any of the insects he has chosen to make any statements about their meaning or symbolism. However, I can say that each time a story arch (or “life cycle”) ends she “sheds” her most recent persona (or “exoskeleton”) and waits to adopt a new one (“metamorphosis”).

When she is introduced to us in Spring Cicada, she has just won Japan’s Akutagawa Award for her book (which is also the title of Tezuka’s book), The Book of Human Insects. Immediately, you learn her night of triumph is not savored by all. A woman, who you later learn is the book’s true author, hangs herself, and two men who will play important catalytic roles in her story are introduced: Ryotaro Mizuno, a sad-eyed, dark-haired illustrator, and Hyoroku Hachisuka, a grizzled drunken man former director of a noted theater troupe.

In Leafhopper, mob assassin, Heihachi Arikawa, is introduced. He is a loud jazz-loving anarchist with a shady reputation in Japan. Despite his outward reticence, he also succumbs to Toshiko’s charms. When she calls him on it, he quips, “Women like you make me nauseous. The only thing I might be curious about, in regards to you is how you’re going to mimic me?” It’s revealed early on in the book that Toshiko is a fraud, who possesses an acute ability to copy another peron’s talent and has no conscience about stealing their work.

Toshiko meets her most difficult and dangerous victim in Longhorn Beetle, Kiriro Kamaishi of Dai Nippon Steel. He is a cunning careerist climbing his corporate ladder at all costs. In her stable of disgraced men, he is the one who she had the hardest time subduing. However, once she does, the consequences are as tragic as the effort she exerted to beat him. When she adopts Kamaishi’s persona, she destroys Mizuno, someone who up to this point you believed she sincerely cared about.

Though modern at the time (1970s), Tezuka’s artwork is now nostalgic, big eyes, clean lines, and economically illustrated pages. His storytelling, however, is timeless. By the end of the book, Katydid, I actually felt sort of sorry for Toshiko (in spite of my wishing she had met her just deserts). In the end, she is alone. She has destroyed her “nest”, where she recuperates after a “kill” and where she feels safe under the mummified gaze of her mother (this statement will make more sense once you have read the book). She has also destroyed Mizuno, who she has protected up to this point.

The Book of Human Insects was a book I couldn’t put down. Despite skipping to the end, it still engaged me because I wanted to know how she got there, alone and dwarfed by the ruins of an ancient Grecian stadium.

The Book of Human Insects also inspired me to look at some of the other bug stories that I have enjoyed. The Metamorphosis reference got stuck in my head, so these are cockroach specific:

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