Buried Treasure
The Phoenix: Karma

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 15th 2009

Over his long, illustrious career, Osamu Tezuka produced enough manga to sink a battleship. Some of it was trashy or aged poorly, while others have gone on to become enduring classics. Foremost among the latter category is Hi no Tori, or The Phoenix, which Tezuka himself described as his "life's work."

The Phoenix isn't a single story so much as an anthology. The twelve books that were produced (starting in the late 60s and ending just prior to his death in 1989) each tell a unique story, connected only by the mythology of the legendary phoenix, the bird of immortality, and man's pursuit of her. Some take place in antiquity, others in the distant future.

At least a few anime fans were aware of the 2004 TV adaptation by Ryosuke Takahashi, which was released by Media Blasters a few years ago, and old-timers will no doubt remember the 1980 space opera adaptation Phoenix 2772. However, few are aware that Beginning in 1986, Kadokawa began a three-part project to adapt several Phoenix stories into animated films. Yoshiaki Kawajiri directed two segments (Yamato and Space), while Rintaro directed an hourlong theatrical version of what is easily the most popular and most respected story in the series: Ho-oh*, commonly renamed to Karma. Kawajiri's OAVs will likely get written about at some point, but Rintaro's feature version is easily the best of all of the Phoenix anime, and a serious contender for the best Tezuka-related anime ever made. It's a work of stunning beauty and unmitigated brilliance, and an experience that will stay with you for days.


HI NO TORI: HO-OH (The Phoenix: Karma)

Akanemaru is a young artisan travelling the land in search of the Phoenix. So inspired was he when he heard the legend of the eternal bird that he immediately set off on the quest, so that he may carve a statue of it. But in feudal Japan, it's quite dangerous to travel through the countryside, and he's alone and unarmed. During a storm, he takes refuge under a tree and stops to eat... but when he hears something coming toward him, he freaks out and runs. Peering back to his campsite, he finds a large one-armed man eating his food. Akanemaru tries to befriend the strange man, but the man isn't interested . He steals the food, and the clothes off of Akanemaru's back. "If you must blame something, blame the fire for leading me here," he says. Then, pissed off by Akanemaru's two functional arms, he slashes one of them with a knife and leaves.

The one-armed man, now clothed in Akanemaru's finery, happens upon a gorgeous woman by the river, and rapes her. Afterwards, he introduces himself as Gaoh, butcher of hundreds (making no exception for women, children or the elderly), and takes her home. The woman's name is Hayame, and though she's disgusted by him, she becomes his devoted wife. However, one day Gaoh develops a painful swelling of his nose. Hayame puts medicinal herbs on it, but suspicious that the herbs are poisonous, he kills her. It's then that he learns that Hayame is the reincarnation of a ladybug that he once rescued from drowning, and had returned to repay her debt. This realization devistates Gaoh, who begins to realize the total of pain he'd inflicted on others. Years later, he's but a sad old man, who has turned his anger and grief into a great skill, carving terrifyingly realistic sculptures from wood and attracting the attention of the many Buddhists in the area.

Meanwhile, Akanemaru (with new clothes) is travelling again, still searching for the Phoenix, when he attracts the attention of a girl who proceeds to pester him while insisting she take him as a wife. Two servants of the emperor arrive to inform him that he's been assigned to build a great buddha statue, and that he's to return to the capital at once. He's not at all happy about this, but the men are to take him by force if necessary. The girl dies in the ensuing struggle.

Akanemaru fully devotes himself to the Buddah project over the ensuing years, but as the Buddha nears its completion, the statue miraculously begins shedding tears. The builders, who are putting the finishing touches on it, fear the tears to be a bad portent and freak out. Akanemaru is unnerved, haunted by the memory of the girl that died for his sake, and for his now-abandoned quest to find the phoenix, his true artistic calling. But another figure from his past will soon haunt him as well: the emperor has decided that for the celebration of the Buddha's completion, he is to compete with a famed sculptor from the village on a small commemorative work. That sculptor... is Gaoh.

The story of Karma is almost biblical in its mood and tone, with the usual realistic expectations of modern storytelling eschewed in favor of the world of fables and fairy tales. Somehow, this seems more fitting: the era of antiquity, when it seemed anything could happen and the supernatural world seemed to lurk around every corner, is something we lost in the industrial revolution. Rintaro's signature artistic touches, including whispy fire and slightly off-kilter staging, enhance the other-worldly feeling of it all to tremendous effect, as does the analog synth musical score, which evokes Kitaro in its sense of eternity and memories of souls long lost.

Admittedly I've been quite hard on Rintaro in the past. The man is an animator gifted beyond words, but seems to have trouble focusing on telling a story; his films are frequently treats for the eye but too often those visuals are at odds with the narrative, and inevitably the narrative loses. Even the best of his work, Galaxy Express 999, seems to fidget under the weight of its subject matter. The Phoenix somehow has broken this curse. Rintaro brings the story of Karma a gentle, sage-like tone, with the deliberation of a maladjusted, bitter old man telling his grandchildren a disturbing story that upsets their mother (but that the kids secretly love).

But Karma is much more than just a fable. It calls into question the very essence of humanity: what is it that makes a virtuous man? Are good deeds and a life of nonviolence enough to attain enlightenment (Buddhist) or walk through the kingdom of God (Christianity)? Can a truly evil man be redeemed for unspeakable deeds of his past? Karma doesn't attempt to answer the questions, but ponders them as Akanemaru passes from driven and idealistic to greedy and passively vengeful. Gaoh's character, despite his evil past, is sympathetic: he's more than just sorry for his sins, but has cast his entire life aside for the sake of devotion and penance -- not necessarily to a god or a religion, but to introspection and peace.

It's impossible to witness Karma and not feel bowled over, as if one had just discovered something truly important. It's a uniquely powerful meditation in the tradition of Kurosawa, but with the spirituality and sense of fantasy that Tezuka brings to the table. When the Phoenix actually does make its appearance at the end, one gets the feeling that rather than a diety as we think of them (anthropomorphic and willful) it's more of a personification of inevitability. In its appearance, nobody's course of life changes, and the power that bowls us over is not the presence of a god but the inevitability of man and his foibles. There's nothing more powerful than a reminder of our own mortality, made more pointed by our bringing it on ourselves.

Technically the film is one of the finer examples of the era: the art hasn't dated much, though the character designs are decidedly in the 80s vein (though of course, Tezuka's trademark swollen nose plays prominently in the story). A collaboration between Mad House and Rintaro's Project Team Argos, the film is consistent and fluid, lush and imaginative in the way high budget 80s theatrical anime was famous for. The warmth, analog feel of the animation is incredibly important for a film like this.

It's astonishing to me that Karma isn't better known. Classic Tezuka titles have always been a tough sell to current anime fans: there's nothing sexy or cutting-edge about it, and Tezuka's own quirks haven't helped matters any. That said, Karma is a stunning work of anime that has been completely ignored by American fans to an unfathomable extent. It's one of the art form's undisputable gems, a crowning achievement for Mad House, Rintaro, and Tezuka alike. If you ever get the chance, do whatever it takes to see it. This is one worth crossing moutains for.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
There is a fansub for this film (along with the two Kawajiri OAV)s, but it may be hard to find. I sure couldn't find it when I wrote this. There's no US release, but given the film's age and Tezuka pedigree, that might be understandable. For those that can know Japanese, or can deal without knowing the dialogue, the R2 import is pretty cheap and looks very nice.

You may wish to check out the other Phoenix adaptations, including the recent TV series. No two anime adaptations cover the same stories, watching one won't spoil you for the others. (Oh, and should you find it, stay FAR away from the live action movie. It inexplicably features an animated Astro Boy riding a horse, which should be all you need to know about an otherwise stone-serious movie.) The manga remains available, but in pieces: Viz's edition of several Phoenix books (including Karma) are out of print.

If you're really desperate, there's an absolutely terrible MSX/Famicom game, where you play young Gaoh as he kills things (and excretes bricks).

*Ho-oh is the word for the Chinese Phoenix, apparently. Thanks to vashfanatic for the correction, and pparker for finding the fansub.


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