Story and Art by Osamu Tezuka
Published in English by PictureBox (2013), originally published in 1948
This is the story of a super-intelligent rabbit and a boy who build a railroad car to explore the centre of the Earth. This book chronicles their discoveries, both good and bad.
When I first picked this manga up, I was unsure whether I would find enjoyment out of it. After hearing that it was originally created in the late 1940s, I wanted to experience it from a historical perspective as opposed to any form of entertainment. Surprisingly, this piece was very much enjoyable. Written in the afterward to the 1984 re-issue of this piece, Tezuka dubbed it his first “story time manga”. He wanted to challenge the major perception of manga at the time – that it was a platform primarily consisting of shallow jokes and laughs. By adding in themes of tragedy and metaphysics, TMUM is not only a significant milestone in Tezuka’s discography, but for the platform in general.
The primary theme explored in this piece is the definition of humanity. Mimio, our sentient rabbit protagonist, struggles to grasp the complexities of his creation and his position in the world. While at the start of the piece he is subjected to rejection by humans, his acts of courage and sacrifice for the betterment of humanity lead to a shift in characterisation. Further, Tezuka explores the relationship (that is constantly strained) between humans and their environment. While the book makes it clear that the humans are good and the monsters are bad, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for them – for it was the humans who were responsible for their exile. It could be argued that humanity is portrayed as a form of parasite, sucking all the nutrients out from the world it resides in. Tezuka, in writing this piece, attempts to promote a more co-existent relationship between humans and their environment, leading to a balanced eco-system.
While his use of darker themes was groundbreaking at the time, a lot of Tezuka’s work seem to suffer from the same fatal flaw: pacing. Though, in theory, a lot of his storylines sound interesting, the speed at which Tezuka whizzes past complicated themes leaves a lot to be desired. A majority of the time, complex plot points are bluntly tied together by a single panel without appropriately explaining to the reader what is occurring. This led to a lot of confusion in my first read through. This could be attributed to the length of the manga. Most of Tezuka’s works are quite short, so if he wanted to explore all the ideas he has (which he does), it is often necessary that he quickly jumps from plot point to plot point. For example, in one scene, kid scientist John shows Mimio the blueprints for a rail road car he intends on building. In the next page, the car is already partially built and the page after that it is flying off to the nearest mountain. The lack of nuance really affected the quality of the piece, as each page the reader is exposed to a new major plot point, as opposed to fewer story arcs, with more time in between for the reader to adapt and enjoy.
The characters in this piece were very simplistic. Much like the art, characterisation is not a focus for Tezuka, more focused on a rushed look at the world he created within one volume. As such, many characters can be attributed to one trait, such as “bad guy” or “scientist”. This was our first introduction to many characters that would reoccur in Tezuka’s universe, including Mimio and Dr. Ham Egg. Perhaps, knowing these characters would be explored again, Tezuka purposefully left them to be fleshed out in other pieces, but that left the piece in hand with an underwhelming cast. Though, it must be acknowledged that Mimio’s internal conflict was groundbreaking at the time, it leaves much to be desired by today’s standard.
This piece surprised me in two accounts; the art and it’s ending. For a piece created in 1940s, the art is surprisingly good. While simple in conception, I was impressed at how effective Tezuka’s style was in portraying both landscapes and characters. For example, in one part of the manga, a character is tied up, and must point at another object in the room with his toe. In a modern manga, the artist would likely cut to a chibi rendition of their characters in order to depict such a scene, but Tezuka has no need to break up his style, leaving the reader planted in his universe. I felt giddy with excitement when our protagonists began drilling to the centre of the earth. While I don’t think Tezuka’s extended universe is particularly memorable, the links between all the characters within the piece seem purposeful and valuable and I enjoyed exploring the internal mythos. The ending of this manga caught me by complete surprise. I was taken aback by the direction Tezuka went, but I admire him for it. He was truly ahead of his time.
The Mysterious Underground Men was an intriguing manga, one that exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways. While I wouldn’t recommend it over Tezuka’s other works, it provides insight into his influence on the rest of the medium. If you are a Tezuka fanatic, or just interested in the history of manga, this is a must buy. While I wouldn’t say it was entertained the entire time, it was an interesting read nonetheless.
Art – 7
Story – 6
Writing – 6
Overall – 6.5/10