Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects stands out as one of the bleakest, blackest books ever written, not only in the world of manga, but in literature in general. It’s not that the book is gruesome, explicit, or violent that gives it this immense power to disturb. Indeed, the artwork by manga-master Osamu Tezuka is too beautiful to inspire real revulsion. However, the way the story looks at human life, specifically the way people relate to and love one another, is a view so dark you’ll not soon forget it, even if you try.
The Book of Human Insects, all 304 pages of it, centers on the life of Toshiko Temura, a woman whose deceptions are so crafty she’d fit in perfectly to the bleakest film-noirs Hollywood has ever created. She’s the epitome of the femme-fatale: beautiful, sexy, charming, and utterly amoral. The story follows the very peculiar way she climbs up in society. She’s an utter sociopath. Essentially, her M.O. is to find a talented person, insinuate herself into their hearts, then learn their trade secrets so completely that she’s able to release her own form of their work to higher praise. At the start of the story, she has just won the Akutagawa Prize for literature, only to have it later revealed that she copied the work of her former lover so closely that the original artist turned to suicide.
As The Book of Human Insects goes on, Toshiko does this many more times, becoming an apparent polymath in the process, excelling in theater and business among other things.
Where the story derives its inherent bleakness is in the supporting cast. It’s not only that Toshiko is so unconscionable that gives the story its narrative pull; it’s that none of the other characters are good either. So many of the men fall under her spell knowing all too well they’re being hexed, while even the few who seem to have a strong moral center can’t resist her allure for long. In the entire book, there isn’t a character you can call a hero. There is one man who learns to rebuke her, but even he is depicted as a simp rather than as a pinnacle of goodness.
I’d be curious to know what Osamu Tezuka himself was going through when he wrote this. A messy divorce perhaps? I know very little about his life, but it’s clear something must’ve been going wrong for him. In so many of his other books, the story is uplifting and inspirational, such as Astro Boy and Buddha. The Book of Human Insects though seems hellbent on showing us the petty, shabby side of human affairs. For that reason, The Book of Human Insects isn’t exactly a fun book, but it’s a powerful one.
–For more articles, follow me on Facebook.
If you liked The Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka, you may also like Black Blizzard by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.