Note: I have opted not to include the cover art of this volume due to its NSFW-nature.
As I’ve stated on this blog before, my first experience knowingly reading a manga was through Tezuka Osamu; Astro Boy, though not the greatest manga, was my first experience of the medium, and it holds a special place in my heart. I’ve read more volumes of Tezuka manga than probably any other author, and as I encountered so much of it when I was a teen and younger adult, reading his books make me nostalgic. It also doesn’t help that there have been considerably fewer Tezuka releases in the States since Digital Manga was granted exclusive rights to his back catalogue.
My thing with Tezuka is that I’ve always preferred his work for children over his work for adults. Tezuka’s love of moon logic as a narrative tool is easier to swallow when he’s writing for a younger audience, whereas in his adult-oriented work, it kind of takes me out of the experience. The issue is that the bulk of Tezuka’s English releases are his adult work. A lot of it is still worth reading if you’re a fan of his, but to me, it feels like we miss out on true classics in favor of his wackier, more experimental work.
Such is the case with Under the Air, the headliner of Digital Manga’s most recently fulfilled, and, if the rumors are to be believed, second-to-last, Tezuka-centric Kickstarter.
Under the Air is a short story collection, with a central theme being the inner darkness in all of us. Each chapter is a self-contained story, and the chapters are short (typically under 30 pages long). There are a variety of characters and perspectives in this book. Some stories are better than others. I’ll highlight the ones I found most memorable here.
The opening story, about a white Vietnam vet traveling to Harlem to meet a black squadmate’s mother, casts a.. grim shadow on the stories we’re about to see. There’s some commentary on racism and the Vietnam war here, as some doctors have to perform a transplant surgery and lament the fact that the first subjects are soldiers, while the protagonist wears his racism on his sleeve, only to anguish when he uncovers the identity of the organ donor who saved his life.
Another chapter stars a man who works in a country town where the residents are shapeshifting cats. He later marries a woman and relocates to Tokyo, while she grapples with homesickness and anxiety over political affairs. They later get in an argument after the wife has a very bad omen that disaster will strike Tokyo.
One chapter features a brother and sister deeply in love with each other, to the extent that the brother is seeking an experimental surgery to alter his DNA and make him not blood related to his sister. His rival in love is his supervisor’s sister, who wants to marry her and keep her within the company.
All these stories have ambiguous, uneasy endings, and I can’t say it felt good to read any of them. There wasn’t any hope in these stories, just darkness.
I struggle to understand what Tezuka wanted to say with these stories. None of these were long enough that I came to understand the characters, and some of the concepts – particularly about the brother and sister – were so out there that I didn’t know if it was a metaphor for cultural commentary or something else. It felt pretty impenetrable at times. It’s not like Phoenix, where there’s commentary on the preciousness and value of life in its limited capacity in shorter chapters. You just meet characters, they have some quirks, and then something happens. It can be weird, or it can be really dark.
I don’t know how to put my thoughts together when discussing this work. It wasn’t really for me; at their best, the stories simply weren’t long enough for me to feel a lasting connection to the protagonists. At worst, they just seemed like fodder for off-the-wall shock value and only made me miss stories like Unico that feature more level, sympathetic characters on either side of the line. For lack of a better phrase, I didn’t get this one.
Under the Air was written and illustrated by Tezuka Osamu. It was serialized in Akita Shoten’s Play Manga between 1968 to 1970 and later collected in one bound volume. The series has been licensed for release by Digital Manga, who released it in April 2017 as part of a Kickstarter campaign. You can check out Digital Manga’s listing of Under the Air here and check out Tezuka Osamu.com’s English-language description on the manga here.