Over the past while, I’ve been watching (and re-reading) Phoenix, a sprawling epic by that towering figure of anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka.
I’d read most of the manga a while ago, but I’d not seen any of the anime based on it. Phoenix concerns itself with some pretty lofty themes; birth, death, the meaning of life, mankind’s place in the universe and the quest for immortality. That last one crops up quite a bit.
The titular Phoenix is the classic fire bird that is reborn from the ashes, common to many mythologies both western and eastern – it’s called Hi-no-Tori (bird of fire) in Japanese. Throughout the chronology of Phoenix, which spans eons, the bird appears many times. Oftentimes to advise people, influence the development of life, observe or comment on man’s folly. It is also an object of desire for people throughout time, as it is said that drinking it’s blood will give one immortality. As it turns out, those that do achieve this suffer the most of all.
It’s hard to pin down what the Phoenix represents, it refers to itself many times as a galactic spirit, other times as one aspect of the life force of the universe. In any case, it is instrumental at key points throughout history.
Tezuka began work on Phoenix in the mid 60s and continued to write it up until his death in 1989. He had intended to tie all aspects of the story, past, present and future, in the final chapter – unfortunately it remained unfinished. Phoenix contained a lot of experimental artwork and themes that were very advanced for the time, so it was initially published in Tezuka’s “out there” magazine, COM. The manga has been released in english by viz and is collected into 12 volumes. I’ve managed to get 11 of these, however volume 4 seems to have fallen off the face of the planet and is extremely difficult to find.
In terms of adaptations, the first was actually a live action version, from 1978, of the Dawn chapter (volume 1 in the viz release). This is a *really* odd film, it appears very much like it was made by students and was obviously done on the cheap – locations range from some kind of rural cottage, grass huts and what appears to be an abandoned gravel quarry. It also mixes live action with anime in parts – Astro Boy even makes an appearance at one point!. Despite it’s strangeness, it’s very faithful to the source material. As an aside, the subtitles on the copy that I have are hilariously bad in parts.
The first anime adaption came along in 1980, Phoenix 2772: Ai no CosmoZone, released in english as Space Firebird (very imaginative translation there guys). I’ve not seen this in it’s entirety, but from the few clips I have seen it looks extremely impressive, especially for the time.
The english dub is also amusing, it was one of those cheapo dubs that were oh so common in the 80s, done with British actors that didn’t bother to disguise their regional accents.
In the late 80s, 3 OVAs were produced, based on the Karma, Yamato and Space chapters. Directed by Rintarou, I think these convey very strongly the essence of Phoenix with high quality animation and an extremely atmospheric electronic score. If you only watched one Phoenix series, I would suggest this.
Finally, in 2004, a 13 episode series was released. This was directed by Ryousuke Takahashi (he of Votoms, Dougram and Gasaraki fame) and covers the Dawn, Resurrection, Strange Beings, Sun and Future chapters. Whilst this was a very impressive series for the most part, I felt that they took too many liberties with certain chapters – in some cases totally changing the setting and cutting out massive chunks of the story in order to fit things in. For this reason I was left with the impression that the latter half of the series was somewhat rushed, it would have worked better if they’d covered a smaller number of chapters in the same amount of episodes.
All in all, this is a monumental series from one of the greats of anime and manga – Tezuka called it his “life’s work”. If you are up for something that will fascinate, amuse, surprise, shock and promote some interesting debate on the nature of existence, Phoenix is really worth a look.