Friday, August 19, 2022

Review: BOMBA!

Let's take a look at one of the most recent retro releases from this year - a new selection from the vast library of Osamu Tezuka.

 BOMBA! (Bonba!), by Osamu Tezuka.  First published in 1970 and first published in North America in 2022.


Tetsu's young life is one that's full of misery thanks to his resentful, abusive parents, bullying teachers, and his own sense of self-loathing.  The only thing that gets him through the day is thoughts of his teacher, Miss Mizushima.  The deeper his obsession with her grows, the more often he begins to hear phantom horse hooves and see visions of a spectral horse.  Soon Tetsu discovers that he can control this phantom horse, and bids it to kill anyone who gets in the way between him and the woman of his dreams.


Bomba! is yet another selection from what I refer to as Tezuka's edgelord phase, that decade or so where he was determined to outdo the big-name gekiga mangaka of the day by producing an endless stream of grim, complex, edgy, and frequently unsuccessful tales of troubled young men.  It's not my favorite part of his career, as Tezuka's desperation to prove that he was still relevant often came at the cost of narrative focus and brought out some of his less politically correct tendencies.  That being said, I do think Bomba! is one of the best examples of his work from this period.

Unlike other contemporary works such as Barbara, Bomba! isn't trying to say something about the state of the world or art or some other larger concept.  Instead it's the portrait of a serial killer, one built up bit by bit by Testu's resentful, abusive parents, a bully of a teacher who punishes Tetsu for daring to admire the woman he wants for himself, and classmates who regard him as a weirdo.  It's little wonder that one day he would snap.  It runs in the family, after all, since Tetsu's own father had a similar sort of breakdown over the beautiful titular horse during the war.  The only surprise is that Tetsu's Bomba is not just a hallucination manifested from his own trauma but instead a very real supernatural force.  His Bomba is his rage, his fear, and his possessiveness made manifest, and once Tetsu grasps its power he cannot stop himself from using it again and again to remove any obstacles from his life.

This is all very dark, powerful stuff, but I get the feeling that Tezuka didn't have a clear idea from the start how to finish it.  I also strongly suspect that like most of his work from this time, Bomba! wasn't very popular and had to wrap up faster than expected.  The vehicle for this is Professor Yamanokuchi, a pretty young psychologist who is implied to be Tetsu's reward after he stops idolizing Miss Mizushima and stops Bomba from turning on himself.  Maybe with a little more time her introduction and relationshpi with Tetsu would not feel quite so sudden, and in return their ending feel a little more justified.


This time period was also something of a transitional one for Tezuka as an artist.  He's trying to move away from the round, cartoony shapes and designs of his past and incorporate more realistic forms and settings into his work.  How well it works is down to individual taste, but there are definitely some flourishes here and there that I really liked.  There were some daring, cinematic panels here and there, and I like the way that Tetsu's eyes swirl in a way that evokes his emotional torment (something that he shares with his vision of Bomba).  


Kodansha clearly wants to make it clear to customers that this book is meant to be a Very Serious Work (much like their other recent Tezuka releases and re-releases).  You've got a dark, artsy cover image by Peter Mendelsund on a cover with French flaps.  They also printed it on nice paper, with edges that were purposefully distressed and torn.  It looks interesting, but it does mean that sometimes pages will stick a little at those edges, making it tricky to separate them.  They also brought in Polly Barton as translator, who normally works on more highbrow literary fare.

They also include a preview of another of their Tezuka rereleases.  Just one thing - why did they pick Princess Knight?  Yes, it's got name recognition, but you'd be hard pressed to find a work from Tezuka's vast library that couldn't be MORE different from this.  It's especially baffling when Kodansha's own re-release of Apollo's Song and Ode to Kirihito are right there, a far better match in subject matter and tone to this particular book.


Even if the ending is a bit rushed, Bomba! is a compelling story in its own right and one that merits a look by anyone who enjoys Tezuka's dark side and older horror manga.

This book is published by Kodansha Comics.  It is currently in print.

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