Sin and redemption in Phœnix: Karma Chapter

As a follow-up to watching the overly-long, occasionally-corny but visually-satisfying Phœnix 2772, I started watching the Madhouse OVA series based on Tezuka Osamu’s magnum opus. Why? Because this is Paneurasianist Weeb, my friends, and late-80s Madhouse is very much so my jam. More so: this one was directed by Rintarô (Meikyû Monogatari, The Dagger of Kamui), who went on to direct Tezuka Osamu’s Metropolis. Phœnix: Karma Chapter, which Rintarô directed in 1987, doesn’t disappoint.

Actually, although thematically appropriate, the English title is not very literal. The original title is Hi no Tori: Hôô-hen: literally, Firebird: Chinese Phœnix Chapter. The ‘hôô’, or ‘fenghuang’, is a mythological Chinese five-coloured bird which symbolises the classical virtues, and is said to reign over all the other birds. I point this out because Tezuka’s original ‘cosmic’ concept of the phœnix was at least to start with an adaptation of the zhar-ptitsa, inspired by Stravinskii and the Soviet animation of IP Ivanov-Vano. In ‘Karma Chapter’, Tezuka uses the Chinese figure of the virtuous fenghuang, makes it the unattainable object of human striving and ambition, and in the end uses it to impart a Buddhist meditation on suffering, morality and grace. It is a testament to Tezuka’s brilliance and breadth of learning, that he is able to respectfully and reverently take these elements from Russian and Chinese folklore, and use them to tell stories that are at once uniquely Japanese and wonderfully all-human in importance. And it is a testament to Rintarô’s superb directing ability that he can bring all of these elements in Tezuka’s original comic to the fore.

Karma Chapter, set in Japan’s early Nara era (710-794), tells the story of two men: a woodcutter named Akanemaru, and a one-armed bandit named Gaô. Akanemaru is a dreamer, on a quest to find the legendary phœnix, which he hopes will provide him creative inspiration for his carvings. Gaô was driven out of his village when he was young and has lived the life of a robber and murderer ever since, bitter at the world. A chance meeting in the forest ends with Gaô stealing Akanemaru’s food, robbing him, and cutting his right arm out of spite. The two men part ways. After two chance encounters with women – Gaô with a woman named Hayame, and Akanemaru with a woman named Sachibuchi – their fates continue to evolve. Gaô is driven down a path of remorse and repentance, while Akanemaru, conscripted by the Japanese government into a state-sponsored project to build a massive Buddha statue, finds himself more and more seduced by pride and desire for fame. In the end, the two of them are pitted against each other in a woodcarving competition with some remarkably high stakes…

First of all, I said that the English translation of the title was not literal, but it is indeed appropriate. Karma is a major theme here. Even a small act of kindness from a seemingly heartless person can return to that person in ways he does not expect. The same goes for even a small act of callousness, neglect or malice from someone who appears to be normal and friendly. Rintarô, in his attempt to be faithful to Tezuka’s storytelling, goes out of his way to reflect the psychological depth in his exploration of these two characters. Gaô’s path, shaped as it is by violence and misanthropy, and later by physical deformities, is bent toward one of gentleness by the self-sacrifice of one living thing whose life he had saved many years earlier. And Akanemaru, despite his talents and his lofty spiritual ambitions, allows himself to be sidetracked in the pursuit of wealth and power – even though it causes someone who loves him to suffer and die. This clearly takes its toll on his spirit. These stories are interwoven together in intricate overlapping ways, and the appearance of the Phœnix at the end comes not as a surprise, but as a culmination of the balancing act of causes and effects.

Yes, Karma Chapter has some remarkably profound Buddhist themes. But at the same time, Tezuka is intensely critical of the Japanese state’s adoption of Buddhism as an instrument of nationalism. The story is set during the Nara period and the conscript-driven construction of the Tôdai-ji Daibutsu, which was built in order to bolster the legitimacy of the Japanese state in the wake of a bad season of drought. Tezuka uses this backdrop as an illustration of a broader hubris and grasping after glory – and the parallels with the dangerous uses of religion during the imperialist era are subtle but clear. For Tezuka (and thus also Rintarô in this animated adaptation), the Daibutsu serves as a physical manifestation of the soul-killing appropriation of religion by political forces. However, even here, there are layers of meaning to be unfurled. Insofar as it is a representation of Buddha, it also weeps out of compassion for those who built it… which is taken by the conscript workers as a bad omen. Tezuka does not allow his critiques of nationalism to overshadow humane concern for the people who are seduced by it.

The artwork is stunning: the art director for Karma Chapter captures the spirit of Nara wonderfully. The landscapes and vistas of mediæval Japan, both the rural villages and forests and the square-planned cities based on the Tang Chinese style, are intricate and detailed – the forest scenes in particular are rendered in ink-and-watercolour tones that are deliberately reminiscent of a Tang-dynasty Chinese landscape. Rintarô doesn’t quite allow himself the same degree of arthouse-cinema stylisation that makes The Dagger of Kamui now look so dated, but the carefully-subdued deployment of light and shadow and their uses in particular to highlight the movements and paths taken by Gaô and Akanemaru is in the same vein. The soundtrack also features the same blend of synth-pop and traditional Japanese folk instrumentation that were present in Dagger, but – again – in a much more subdued form, suitable to the introspective mood of the piece.

The character designs and set pieces are also all portrayed with a careful eye for period detail. Gaô is clearly based on the same character template as Dr Salta from the Star System. Indeed, the liner notes seem to refer to him as an ancestor of Salta, and the Phœnix herself refers to the fate of his ‘descendants’ in her brief apparition to him. A couple of the other characters, such as the lord who conscripts Akanemaru for the Daibutsu project, may appear familiar to fans of Tezuka’s other work.

The Karma Chapter is a lot more limited in terms of historical and storytelling scope than Phœnix 2772 – but it’s also significantly deeper and leaves a stronger lasting impression. The religious themes and the psychological interplay of the characters in this chapter give it this sense of depth. In addition, one is left with the sense that even in a world that is broken by violence, oppression and war, a world that can produce misshapen souls like Gaô, there is still beauty and value to be found… and likewise that there is the potential for goodness even in the unlikeliest of places. This one’s definitely worth watching, and you can bet I’ll be rewatching it soon.


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