Comic Adaptation Week: Samuel Fuller's Ode to Kirihito
The affinities between Hollywood B-movie master Samuel Fuller and Osama "God of Manga" Tezuka are so rich and varied that I want to kick myself for not seeing the connection prior to considering them for this week of dream adaptations. In both cases you have an artist who utilized popular, 'low-culture' forms in order to tell onerously plotted stories, heavy on melodrama and bathos, which stretch the reader/viewer's notions of plausibility. If all of that sounds like a bad combination to you, you're beginning to get a sense of the genius of these two consummate artists.
It is difficult to state simply why Fuller's films and Tezuka's comics are amongst the best in their respective mediums, but it has a lot to do with the genuine moral complexity that underlies the surface simplicity of the stories. Ode to Kirihito is perhaps the most novelistic comic that I've ever read--and I'm talking about novels in that wonderfully prolix 19th century sense of the form. Tezuka has created a world teeming with vainglorious scoundrels and greedy villains, in which the only virtuous figures are also broken almost beyond repair.
Fuller's movies also teem with such benevolently cracked figures. Consider The Naked Kiss's Kelly, a prostitute who finds her way to the charming small town of Grantville and who wakes up the morning after servicing her first customer, looks at herself in the mirror and realizes she can't do this forever. So what does she do, but get a job helping handicapped children in the local hospital. You can't make this shit up (at least I can't). But there is a lot of Kelly in Ode to Kirihito's Reika, the traveling circus performer whose great stunt involves curling herself up in a tight ball and allowing herself to be dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. Both Kelly and Reika are deeply disturbed and yet ultimately possess hearts of gold.
In fact, their hearts are so golden that one's initial reaction is to sneer at the apparent simplicity of the moral architecture in these artists' stories. But that simplicity is deceptive; look deep into the best of Tezuka's comics or Fuller's films and you'll find in both a realism that is jarring in the face of the deep humanism of their respective creators. Both Tezuka and Fuller were profoundly affected by war--Fuller joined the infantry in World War II and Tezuka came of age during and immediately after that war--and the works of both reveal a deep understanding of the complex implications of armed conflict in the post-industrial age.
Ultimately, though, I think Fuller would be the only filmmaker capable of bringing Tezuka's opus to the screen because he's perhaps the only other storyteller I know of who understands that precise balance between the almost gothic absurdity of plot and relentlessly driven pacing that make Tezuka's long works such bewilderingly wonderful reads. It's that mix of the bizarre and the compulsive, the brutal and the life-affirming that makes Tezuka and Fuller such enduring classics.