Run rabbit run
A book that leaves much to the imagination.
IN A 1988 interview, Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka was asked what his proudest contribution to manga was. He said he is most proud of introducing tragic elements to the medium.
That reminded me of Astro Boy where a grieving father realises that a robot child cannot not fill the painful void left by his dead son. Indeed, Tezuka has a knack for masking layers of soul-crushing sadness underneath the innocent appeal of highly expressive anime eyes.
Which brings us to his 1948 effort The Mysterious Underground Men, now available in English for the first time.
The story begins with a bang, literally. A plane crashes and we see a man being carried away from the wreckage. With his dying breath, he makes his son John promise to build “a safer means of transportation”. As young John weeps beside his father’s deathbed, he vows to make “a wonderful machine” that will do exactly what Dad wants. Just like that, we’re introduced to the first tragic element in this manga.
Later we meet a rabbit who stuns a group of scientists with its almost human behaviour. The scientists decide that the rabbit should go for an operation that will make it more human. There is a disturbing panel where the rabbit is strapped to a bed with surgeons holding sharp objects around it. As it won’t sit still, someone screams “bring the needle!” and another simply says “chloroform”.
The rest of the procedure is left to your imagination.
Tezuka safeguards his readers’ sensitivity by hiding the graphic details of the operation behind closed doors. Once you’ve started thinking about it, though, it’s horrifying enough.
The rabbit emerges as a “practically human” anthropomorphic being. Now called Mimio, he is able to speak and solve complicated math problems. Later he runs away from the clutches of the scientists and finds himself exposed to the outside world which only makes things worse, as the “outsiders” question his sense of being. To them, he is an odd talking rabbit in human clothes. Horrified by their desire to kill and eat him, Mimio flees again.
Our unlucky rabbit bumps into John and finds himself in safe company. John shares his plans to dig a tunnel for a rocket-powered train to go through the centre of the Earth. He deems his Trans-Earth train as “the world’s fastest and safest mode of transportation”. The Trans-Earth train is John’s way of fulfilling his late father’s wishes. Intrigued by the idea, Mimio asks if there is anything he can do to help. Mimio didn’t get an answer but he gets to tag along as John begins constructing his Trans-Earth tunnel.
After some time passes with no news from John, his worried friend Uncle Bill assembles a team to look for the pair and they encounter a group of underground beings. It turns out that John’s Trans-Earth plan somehow fits the agenda of an alien queen looking to take back the surface of the Earth.
I was not particularly concerned about John’s dreams as I found myself caring more for Mimio’s character. Even when he tries to do the right thing, he ends up getting pushed away by John and Uncle Bill. In one scene, he walks away in tears as Uncle Bill shouts: “You wanna be forgiven? Then turn into human!” Damn you, Uncle Bill.
The story also focuses a lot on Uncle Bill and John’s efforts to take down the alien queen. I just wish we were given more panels with Mimio.
Published under the Ten-Cent Manga series dedicated to bringing back forgotten works by famous artists, The Mysterious Underground Men comes in a bite-size hardcover book. A note from the publisher explains that it has been printed in the manga’s original size and colour. The panels, in shades of black and orange, are printed on brown paper. Which makes me feel really nostalgic as it feels like I am holding an actual copy of the book and not the reprinted version.
Overall, The Mysterious Underground Men is an exciting story that will appeal to science fiction fans. The book also ends with notes and an essay detailing Tezuka’s inspiration for the story.
At RM99.90 per copy, casual readers might think twice about splurging on this. Die-hard Osamu Tezuka fans, on the other hand, would be proud to have this in their collection.
> The Mysterious Underground Men and Unity Vol 1: To Kill A King are available at the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kinokuniya.com/my.