This Week in Anime
Is It Just Me, Or is Tezuka's Phoenix a Jerk?

by Nicholas Dupree & Steve Jones,

The TV adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's unfinished magnum opus is available on streaming once again. Nick and Steve try to figure out the larger themes at play from robot wives to wolf guys although the answer could be even simpler: The titular Phoenix is kind of an asshole.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet

Nick, I know we're supposed to talk that Phoenix anime right now, but I think I'd rather wait first for the Democrats to release the full Iowa caucus results. Please excuse me.

...on second thought, let's just talk about Phoenix.
You certainly can't accuse Tezuka of not being prescient!
So, we were hoping to cover a different 2004 series featuring the work of a legendary name in anime that just recently made its way back to a streaming platform near you after years in the ether, but sadly we didn't have enough time to inject Paranoia Agent directly into our ocular nerves. So instead we're talking about the 2000s adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's manga about this awful, awful chicken.
Turns out that horrible goose we all know and love has got some competition in the "trolling humans" department, because if I ever see this bird, I am turning tail and bolting.
Phoenix is, by nature of being an anthology series, a might inconsistent. But the one thing you can count on across every single story is no matter the time period, genre, or tone, this bird will be there to be a giant dick to whoever is unfortunate enough to find it.
To be fair, it's usually not entirely the Phoenix's fault, and I don't think Tezuka's intention was to write an anthology series purely about a mischievous fowl. Phoenix actually has a pretty neat backstory as a manga Tezuka worked on throughout the bulk of his professional life and he died before he was able to finish it. As for what "finishing" an anthology series means, we'll never know, but he clearly poured a lot of himself into it. This anime adaptation covers 5 of the 12 volumes he was able to complete, and we've got everything from feudal Japan, to high-concept sci-fi, to furries.
Oh we'll get to that walking FurAffinity forum post. But first we should probably start at the beginning. Specifically the beginning of every episode where we're greeted with this blast from the past.
I salute the one company brave enough to license Yosuga no Sora.
If ever there was a name I didn't expect to see in the new decade, it's the early 00's top purveyor of porn. But I guess we should thank them for putting this on Crunchyroll.
Honestly I'd rather they prioritize getting Simoun back up someplace where people can actually watch it, but baby steps I guess.
After I you recover from the the AnimeWorks logo-induced sense memory, the actual show starts with a fairly run-of-the-mill story by Tezuka standards. A whole bunch of people in ancient times killing the hell out of each other for highly questionable reasons.
Appropriately this opening arc is called "Dawn," and it's about various parties' quest for immortality, and how all of them fail spectacularly, including this Peter Thiel expy.

There's a lot of moving parts, and to be honest not all of them work. There's like 5 separate subplots in just the 4 episodes that comprise this story and while they intersect, they don't exactly coalesce.
This is a problem Phoenix as a whole trends towards, and it's noteworthy that it's even an issue here in one of the two arcs afforded the most episodes—these stories just never get enough time to breathe and feel like stories.
Like you start off thinking this doctor guy will be the main character, since he does all the important stuff in episode 1, but then he disappears for 90% of the remaining narrative off screen making babies and falling down a hole.
And instead we start following his younger brother-in-law Nagi and the alternately antagonistic and affectionate relationship he has with the enemy general who captured him.
Which, hey, is ultimately the most engaging part of "Dawn" so it's not a bad decision, but it feels weird that 25% of this story is dedicated to what amounts to the setup for a vaguely connected thematic coda.
I'm always a sucker for a grizzled old man warming up to a sassy youngin'. This part is also notable for introducing the most important and persistent character throughout all of these stories: Saruta and his many pickle-nosed descendants.
Tired: Cloud Atlas' Birthmark
Wired: this absolute unit of a schnozz

But yeah, Nagi and Saruta's relationship is overall basic, but they have a good chemistry together that makes it work. Plus this is based on 50-year-old material at this point so "basic" is still pretty revolutionary in context.
That's something I had to keep in mind and wrestle with while watching this. Tezuka was a trailblazer, but that means a lot of stuff he did has been so thoroughly integrated into modern manga and anime that it'd be easy (and short-sighted) to accuse him of being simplistic. I think, however, this is worsened by the way the anime condenses these arcs to fit the run time. We lose some of the flavor of the stories in favor of their moralistic messages, which end up feeling overly preachy more often than not.
Yeah, like "Dawn" sort of winds up about the perseverance of life in the face of tragedy, but it's also so filled up with warring states and dramatically ironic deaths that its message doesn't really land. And then there's just stuff that has aged like milk all on its own. See: Saruta's wife who it turns out was just PRETENDING to be ugly the whole time.
Yeahhhhh there's a tad too much casual misogyny for me to be able to explain its presence away as a "commentary" on it. It's just there, and it's bad.
It's hard to get too up in arms about it considering the context of its creation, but it's not NOT there.
This. Does not sound fun.
"Wife, I'm sorry for killing your entire village and leaving us alone on a volcanic island. As atonement I'll kill a sacred creature and turn you into an immortal human factory."
But hey, it's not all bad. One of the perks of this show hewing so closely to its source is that we get to see some weird shit you would never find in a more modernized adaptation. Tezuka was a pioneer in a lot of senses, and that often meant he'd go down weird rabbit holes of ideas that more standardized anime storytelling just doesn't anymore. Like I have no idea what the point of this bit with the animals trapped inside a collapsed cave was, but it was a neat parable.
I mean it ties into the overall theme of reincarnation, life out of death and death out of life, etc., but it also just makes for a striking image of the perseverance of life in the face of hopelessness. It's a neat little narrative
Sadly, the world's first Wife Guy could never catch the phoenix. But he and his family spent enough time eating lichen at the bottom of a pit that eventually his son manages to scale the Aggro Crag.
I actually really like how this scene of human triumph melds flawlessly and ironically into the bleak opening narration of the next arc.

YUP. Straight from a small yet infinitely significant achievement of humanity to New York City circa 2040.
I think this next part has the neatest concept out of all of them. This dude Leona gets an artificial brain graft that makes him perceive all other humans as freaky rock monsters. Straight up Twilight Zone stuff.
It's also goofy as hell, which I mean as a compliment. After seeing stuff like Westworld spend 12 hours ponderously trying to articulate "What if robot am human?" it's nice to see a story where they cut right to the chase. And by cut to the chase I mean by minute 10 he's fallen in love with a bug robot he perceives as a sexy lady.
I particularly love how quaint this line is. Hard to imagine there was a time when people didn't explicitly want to screw anime lady robots.
It is, however, another story that feels undercut by its own pacing. On top of all this stuff with having a half robot brain, there's also a big conspiracy surrounding the titular Phoenix which LIVES ON THE MOON NOW.
There's also a message about the way humanity carelessly collapses entire ecosystems, but like you said, it's difficult for all this to land in just two episodes.
It's not a bad message by any stretch, but it's also not really connected to the rest of the conflict or the overall resolution. Ultimately it feels like another weird rabbit hole, but I'd rather it have it than not.

Actually, one thing that struck me about Phoenix in general is how the anxiety over mutual nuclear destruction that permeated Tezuka's generation maps pretty cleanly onto our own modern anxiety over climate change. Just kinda neat to see similar threads of fatalism stretch over half a century. And I can't say I disagree with Leona's conclusion.
It does feel like kind of a weird decision to come to after all this. I could see this coming after some introspection about what constitutes being "human" but it mostly comes out of nowhere after Leona is told in passing by The Bastard Bird that he's cursed to be reborn for centuries on end for...reasons.
I'm assuming it probably makes more sense in the manga, which probably spends more time on it, but I could relate to it. Just get me out of this awful meat shell already. Speaking of the Phoenix being a huge dick, however, let's move onto the next arc.
It's not even really an arc since it's just 1 episode. But it is definitely this big flaming turkey at their most judgmental. Like the previous story the setup is a pretty classic Twilight Zone idea. Sakon-no-suke decides to kill the mystical nun who is working to save her evil father's life, and in so doing ends up trapped into taking her place. Though Tezuka's flavor still shines through with this very Dororo-esque plot point.
And it's like, I get it, murder's bad, but I'm still kinda rankled by the Phoenix targeting Sakon-no-suke for endless karmic retribution, while her abusive and tyrannical father only gets slapped with deadly pickle-nose disease.

It's also just kind of weirdly cruel? Like the way it works is she ends up killing herself and then being killed by herself. Forever. Until some arbitrary date when someone (the phoenix? the gods? herself?) decides she's done enough good to atone.

Apparently spending 30 years healing the sick and injured - including yokai - isn't enough to make up for killing somebody who doesn't even stay dead.
I suppose that capriciousness is probably part of the point, but in this abbreviated form it also comes across as moral grandstanding of a caliber I have very little patience for in 2020.
It's also weird to see the Phoenix, which in the "Dawn" storyline seems like a wild creature minding its own business, suddenly become a mystical arbiter of human morality? Like hey, what about that dude who died after you set him on fire ya damn ostrich? That not count as murder to you?
To be fair, he did shoot her with an arrow first. That was pretty rude.
Just saying, this bird wants to be all high and mighty it should stop shitting where it eats.
Anyway, on the topic of cruel and disproportionate punishment, how about that next arc?
From the twisted mind of Osamu Tezuka, a fate truly worse than death.
Hey at least they chose the most handsome wolf for his new face.
And honestly I don't know why Tezuka tries to depict being turned into a furry as punishment. I've seen your secret drawings, bro.
As if you need to have seen them when this arc features Wolf Wife
Her anthropomorphic form is absolute cowardice tho. Inugami gets the full cartoon wolf smolder, while she gets all of two ears on the top of her head. It's especially funny when they're in the same scene.
Osamu Tezuka presents Seton Academy: Welcome to the Pack!
Inugami's wolf head actually matters way less than you'd think it would. The first episode of this arc (the final one completed in the manga before Tezuka's death) is about him being seen as a monster and banished from his home land. But by the start of episode 2 he's settled down in Japan and become mayor of a village like it's Bizarro Animal Crossing.
And, as these stories are wont to do, this eventually escalates into an all-out religious war between Inugami and the people who want to keep worshiping the old gods, and an imperialist heir to the throne who wants everyone to try out Buddhism (or die).
There are some decent messages about how people end up using religion as a crowbar to divide and beat up each other, and that's all well and good, but mostly I'm here for the Giant Bodhisattva Laser.
It's essentially a mythicized retelling of the historical Jinshin War that, for no apparent reason, also stars a man with a wolf for a head that everyone just kind of accepts after the first episode. It's WEIRD and it's honestly my favorite part of the show.

I too love Dark Souls.
It's just not something you're gonna see anywhere else. Any modern show would either focus on Inugami's turmoil or they'd just have a good old fashioned historical drama. But not Tezuka, and bless him for it.
It def feels the most "complete" out of all of these arcs, although I had to laugh a bit at the spectacularly bad timing of throwing a "both sides" message at me at this particularly point in human history.
To be fair, this is coming from the most fundamentally sinister character in the entire show. I fully believe the Phoenix just says whatever it can to justify not helping.
Like hell you can't!!!
"I can't intervene in conflicts except when I can trap a woman in a time loop of her own murder/suicide forever," was maybe too much to say in the 5 seconds this thing shows up in the story. Since by this point I think Tezuka had just run out of things to connect Big Bird to and just wanted to tell a story about his cool wolf OC but nobody would publish it if it wasn't part of a series already.
That's plausible and I gotta respect that.
Like every other story here "The Sun" doesn't so much end as it just stops. Inugami's side wins, but then the new emperor decides to go with the whole Buddhism thing anyway so Wolf Wife is forced to leave. And this somehow triggers Inugami to just regrow his old face.
Ugh, change him back. ANYWAY, that's enough outta feudal Japan. Let's go back to the future! For the final arc in this collection. Which is called Future.
It's also apparently like, the second story published in the series? Which is a wild thought considering how it ends.
Yeah I was surprised to learn that too. In that respect, I think it was smart of the adaptation to place it last, since it works pretty well as a thematic coda to what Phoenix wants to say about the cycle of life and death. It's also just plain the weirdest one.
See this is what makes this show special. Any other series they'd come up with a cool name for the shapeshifting alien life forms that turned humanity into solipsists, but Phoenix gives them a name that sounds like a French baseball mascot. That takes guts.
It legit rules. Just like how Saruta's abject and heartfelt despair over being unable to save humanity is always coupled by the sight of that gigantic schnoz of his. I'm glad the adaptation didn't try to modernize these designs, because that level of earnestness is refreshing.
It's also just fucking jam packed. "Future" is only 2 episodes but has enough stuff going on in both of them that it could legitimately fill an entire cours of anime on its own. We start off with humanity on the brink of extinction on the fringes of a dying planet, hopeless for a solution, and somehow things go downhill from there.
We've got dissolving clones. We've got alien shapeshifters. We've got nuclear annihilation perpetrated by AI. We've got a lone immortal soul's descent into madness as he tries and fails to kickstart the earth's ecosystem. We've also got one of my favorite recurring Tezuka character designs.
By the end of the FIRST half of this story we have every single person on the planet dead. The earth left a hollow husk rotted by nuclear war and incapable of fostering even the tiniest shred of life. Except for Masato who ends up being the victim of the cruelest thing this evil cockatrice pulls in the entire series.
Oops your hot alien wife is dead and now you have to live literally forever by yourself. Oops!!
It is fucked sideways. Masato doesn't want immortality. He has no knowledge of science that could help him bring life back to the earth. He doesn't even have a way to freeze himself or leave the planet. So he's left kicking around on barren wasteland with no purpose or company and forever kept from even the embrace of death.
It's even more cruelly punctuated by his first faint glimmer of hope, a cryostasis chamber meant to open in 5000 years, with him counting down each agonizing day one by one until it opens to reveal a corpse. Unimaginably soul-crushing.
And then we get to the morbid cosmic punchline of this whole endeavor. After living in solitude for, and I'm not making this up, 600 million years, Masato finally figures out why he was made immortal.

He was kept alive against his will in numb misery for eons beyond human comprehension for the sole purpose of becoming the new primordial soup as earth reboots itself through sheer cosmic accident.
Holy shit.
It's def one of those things where, taken literally, it's an absolute nightmare. But as a philosophical exercise, it's basically just an exaggeration of what our own lives are, where the finiteness of our individual existences belie our larger role in the ongoing narrative of the persistence of life itself.
Still sucks for Masato tho.
Yeah, yeah it's a real touching meditation on the inter-connectivity of life yadda yadda. What it proved to me is that the Phoenix is neither an animal or a god. It is an Old One, ancient and inscrutable in its aims, and Masato was merely a pawn in its interdimensional whims until he was so crazed he loved and thanked his torturer.
Let me fight this thing in Bloodborne, is my point.
C'mon, Nick, look how cute those big Phoenix eyes are.
Ah yes, such limpid pools of beauty.

Anyway, with that Phoenix ends the way it began and went on: inconsistent, endlessly ambitious, and unforgettably unique.
I'd say Phoenix struck me as more interesting than it is good, but it's a very good kind of interesting. Some parts are treacly, but some are a lot meatier than I was expecting. Definitely worthwhile if you want something different!
And hey, if you came out of this wanting a more structured meditation on reincarnation that simultaneously transcends both time and genre written by a master of manga, might I interest you in a little series calls SPIRIT CIRCLE???

Shameless plugs aside I do think Phoenix is worth a look for those curious. There's nothing quite like it in the modern anime landscape, and while far from a favorite I do value the time I spent with it.
And hey, if for no nobler reason, come for the sweaty wolf boy.

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