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.


Michael Lapinski said...

Hey man - just wanted to let you know that I've been enjoying these dream adaptations.

They're pretty spot on and, taken together, feel like comparative fiction for the film and comic set.

It does justice to the creators and their work and would be a great service a non comic reading audience as well.

david e. ford, jr said...


Thanks once again for the kind words . . . i can't really speak for all of us here, but i know that i'm pretty excited about everyone's contributions and it has been one of the more strictly fun things for me that we've done in this forum.

not to put too fine a point on things, but intertextuality in general is one of the things that interests me most in the study of literature and one of my guiding beliefs, and i think one that has guided a lot of our efforts since the inception of our blog here, is that these connections aren't limited strictly to literature or even within individual mediums. when you pay you enough attention to what people have been doing over the centuries in all sorts of art forms, you begin to recognize more and more how there are a lot of deep connections between works that at first glance seem quite disparate. so, yeah, i'm glad that someone appreciates this stuff.


Michael Lapinski said...

Right on David.

There may be an increased public attention of graphic novels and the seasonal "comics aren't just for kids anymore" news features but it's actually these sort of intertextual studies on "Serious Comic Reader" that can help legitimize and deepen an understanding of the art form.