Sunday, 4 April 2021

Message to Adolf - Osamu Tezuka's Underrated Manga

Between 1983 – 1985, the celebrated artist Osamu Tezuka created one of his most underpraised manga. Adolf, also known as Message to Adolf (Adolf ni Tsugu アドルフに告ぐ) spans decades and is part historical epic, part spy thriller, part romance, and one of the first “adult manga” (gekiga) that I ever read. It is the story of three men named Adolf.

The story begins in 1936 with Japanese reporter Sohei Toge in Berlin to cover the Olympic Games. Relatively apolitical, Toge is still distrustful of the Nazi regime, amplified even further when he gets a phone call from his younger brother. Isao Toge is a college student, studying in Berlin and involved in the outlawed Communist Party. He tells Sohei that he’s uncovered documents about Hitler (one of the three Adolfs) that will destroy the entire Nazi regime.

But when Sohei goes to visit his brother, he finds him brutally murdered, with no witnesses. Examining Isao’s corpse, he notices a chalky substance underneath his fingernails, which conjures up memories of a murder case he covered back in Japan. A geisha had been found, strangled to death, with the same mysterious chalky substance under her nails. Another clue is a piece of scrap paper with the letters “R.W.” written on them.

Things get worse when German Police show up and take the body, and from there, Sohei plunges deeper into a rabbit hole of conspiracies. The landlord of Isao’s building suddenly states that no Japanese person ever lived there. Sohei receives a mysterious call from a farmer, who claims to know about Isao Toge. But when Sohei arrives, he finds the farmer and his entire family murdered and walks into a trap laid by the Gestapo.

The narrative splits time between Sohei Toge and the other two Adolfs of the story. Adolf Kaufmann is the son of a German diplomat and a Japanese wife, living in Kobe, Japan. He is a sensitive boy who befriends the third Adolf of the manga, Adolf Kamil, the son of Jewish bakers living in Japan. Interestingly enough, Japan became home to a sizeable Jewish community in the 1930s/1940s, despite the Axis Alliance.

Kaufmann’s father is involved with intrigue of his own. It turns out he was a client of the murdered geisha, who was involved in political activism. It’s made apparent that he strangled her to retrieve the same documents that Isao Toge was looking for, but fails. And what are these documents? They are conclusive proof that Adolf Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish, which would discredit the Fuehrer in front of his own followers.

This is based on an old rumor and doesn’t have much historical basis in reality. But, since this is fiction, Osamu Tezuka can do whatever he wants.

Volume 1 of the Viz Media books

Despite their friendship, Adolf Kaufmann and Adolf Kamil are eventually driven apart by politics. Kaufmann is sent abroad to Nazi Germany, becoming a diehard National Socialist in the process, and aide to Adolf Hitler himself. Adolf Kamil gets involved with the conspiracy, assisting the small Japanese resistance, and even getting into the orbit of the famed Soviet spy, Richard Sorge.

Sohei Toge makes his way back to Japan, where he is hounded by both the Gestapo and the Japanese Thought Police, the Tokko. There are many other characters and subplots, and Osamu Tezuka intermingles them all masterfully. The threads all connect for a climax in 1945 and the years beyond.

I first read Adolf in the 1990s through the publications put out by Viz Media’s Candence Books line. I still have all five volumes, but in 2012, it was retranslated and rereleased by Vertical in a two-volume set under the title Message to Adolf. The story is particularly interesting for analyzing the strange Japanese-German alliance, which seemed destined to fail due to both believing in their own racial superiority, and a great insight into the Japanese homefront of the 1930s/1940s.

The series is considered the last fully completed works of Osamu Tezuka aka the "Father of Manga," who is most well-known for the children’s series The Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) and Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion). However, he also created several more mature manga such as Ayako, Black Jack, and Buddha. Unfortunately, Adolf is often overlooked, which is a shame, since it stuck with me from a young age and deserves to be rediscovered by newer audiences.