Originally published in 1970, Osamu Tezuaka’s The Book of Human Insects ran in Akita Shoten’s Play Comic magazine along with other manga titles like Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Human Insects falls under Osamu Tezuka’s adult-oriented and gekiga-inspired 60’s-70’s era manga, in the same vein as MW and Ode to Kirihito.
Toshiko Tomura is a woman of national fame and multiple talents; by her early 20’s, she’s already a renowned theater actress, award-winning designer and now a hyped up-and-coming writer with her debut novel The Book of Human Insects. But things are not always as they seem, as local gossip reporter Kametaro Aokusa discovers. Tomura rose to fame in theatrics by flawlessly mimicking the acting styles of other famous actresses in her troupe, and getting her troupe’s director Hyoroku Hachisuka fired so she could take his place. Additionally, Tomura went on to submit her ex-fiance Ryotaro Mizuno’s design under her own name, running off with the awards and fame, and Aokusa suspects Tomura plagiarized her latest writings from her roommate, who committed suicide after watching Tomura’s novel award ceremony. Although Tomura is initially unfazed by Aokusa’s accusations, she hires anarchist assassin Heihachi Arikawa to dispose of him before Aokusa’s meddling goes too far.
The remainder of Human Insects highlights the true aspects of Tomura’s character, as she manipulates one person after the next. From Arikawa himself, to Kiriro Kamaishi, executive director of a steel supplier company, to gravure photographer Tamao Yamato, Tomura’s vicious cycle of control continues onward. In a minor subplot, Tomura’s ex-fiance Mizuno struggles to move on with his life after Tomura stole from him and ruined his career. Although his marriage gives him the opportunity to move forward, Tomura’s presence still haunts him.
Protagonist Tomura is a shining example of a character written with good ideas in theory, but executed quite poorly and Tezuka’s “male writers cannot write female characters” problem surface.To be specific, Tomura’s characterization is reminiscent of Michio Yuki from Tezuka’s other work MW; both characters are extremely manipulative and cunning, and are willing to step all over other people for their own sake. The biggest difference between Tomura and Yuki, however, is Tomura lacks any sort of end goal for her actions. While Yuki in the end wished to drop poisonous gas over Japan, Tomura has no over-arching plan to use the skills she has stolen. The end result is a 2-dimensional female protagonist who does awful things for no real reason (even “For the hell of it” would have sufficed), and lacks any real semblance of personality.
Many of the other characters in Human Insects aren’t any better; serving only as stepping stones for Tomura’s plans. Aokusa, Hachisuka, and Yamato suffer from this problem in particular, and feel ridiculously disposable. The only positive exception to these archetypes is Mizuno, who manages to show more personality in less than a third of the manga than Tomura does in the whole serialization. His difficulties in getting his life together with his wife after Tomura ruined him make for a far more interesting and fleshed out character than anyone else in Human Insects. Overall, the plot of Human Insects is a rather bumpy experience. The most glaring example would be in the chapter focusing on Tomura’s marriage to Kamaishi. Tezuka goes into extreme detail regarding the transactions Kamaishi’s company attends to, yet these details are absolutely meaningless and do nothing but pad the longer-then-normal chapter out. It’s especially jarring compared to the other chapters in the manga, which focus far less on minute details for minor characters; as if Tezuka became abruptly fascinated by the (otherwise brief) economic aspects of his own story and decided to flesh it out without any prior warning. As a result, the fairly interesting psychological warfare between Tomura and Kamaishi ends up muddled. The manga also feels far longer than it actually needs to be, though I wasn’t sure if that was because the chapters were too long, or if they simply felt monotonous due to Tomura’s dull character. The nail in the coffin for Human Insects would be the ending, or lack thereof. Much like my previous review of Moyoco Anno’s Sakuran, there isn’t an ending so much as the story just abruptly stops without any solid conclusions.
Pros: Art is appropriate to the story, where Tezuka does not break into his usual sight gags. The subplot focusing on Mizuno is even more interesting than the main plot.
Cons: Characters are either utterly unlikeable or downright boring. Tomura is so devoid of personality that she makes the story feel monotonous after a while. The chapter focusing on Kamaishi drowns in needless economic details that make the whole affair sleep-inducing. Lacks an actual “ending” and chooses to simply cut off the story without resolution.
The Book of Human Insects is licensed in the U.S. by Vertical Inc. Human Insects falls under the lower quality spectrum of Tezuka’s work, and by itself a rather mediocre piece with poorly-done characterization and uneven storytelling. At best, I would only recommend this manga to hardcore Tezuka collectors; otherwise, Human Insects is safe to skip.