Osamu Tezuka is one of the giants of manga. While he’s best known for Astro Boy, he has an extensive list of works most Westerners are unaware of. But Vertical has recently made one more of his books available in English: his espionage thriller Message to Adolf.
Back Cover Blurb
It is 1936 in Berlin, Nazi Germany. A Japanese reporter named Sohei Tohge is covering the Berlin Olympic Games for the Japanese press. As he sits in the Japanese press box watching the many track and field events of the day, he receives a call from his younger brother Isao, who has been studying in Germany as an international student. The two make plans to meet as Isao mentions he has something of importance to share with his sibling. While Sohei initially thinks his little brother may have found a young frau, Isao’s tone is clearly that of one who is troubled by topics much heavier than romance.
When Sohei arrives at Berlin University, he finds his brother’s room has been through some sort of violent ordeal. A mysterious message was left on a note pad and a window was left wide open, and tangled in the branches of a tree directly below Isao’s window rested his dead body. Isao was murdered.
Sohei immediately attempts to investigate the murder, but all traces of his younger brother’s study in Germany have instantly vanished!
For those who know Osamu Tezuka only for Astro Boy, Message to Adolph will be a jarring shift in pace. There’s no science fiction here; this manga is a realistic political thriller set during the time of Nazi Germany and Japan’s invasion of China.
The story begins with newspaper correspondent and former college athlete Sohei Toge. He introduces himself as a “secondary character,” but at least for Volume 1, he is the star. While Toge is in Berlin covering the 1936 Olympics, his brother, an exchange student living in Germany, turns up dead. When Toge tries to investigate the murder, he gets marked by the Nazis and winds up in a desperate race to locate a set of documents that have the power to destroy Adolf Hitler.
The setting alternates between Germany and Japan, which at the time were allies. Having drawn the Nazis’ attention, Toge also gets targeted by the Japanese government and suffers torture under both the Gestapo and Japanese special police. Between that and the brutality inflicted upon Jews, Chinese, and suspected Communists in the story, Tezuka-sensei paints the political fanaticism that swept Germany and Japan as absolute evil.
As present-day readers, we have the benefit of history as we follow the story, but Toge seems almost a little too clear-eyed in his assessment of the German and Japanese governments. Granted, the Nazis torture him and the special police ruin his livelihood for being affiliated with a suspected communist, but the way he picks apart Hitler’s Nuremberg rally sounds more like modern commentary than the analysis of someone from that time.
Then again, Tezuka-sensei portrays Toge with a kind of superhero aura. He displays incredible physical strength as he outruns the Gestapo, leaps from balcony to balcony, survives electric shock torture, and endures brawl after brawl. At one point, he even manages to catch up to a moving train on foot despite a gunshot wound. He knows German and English, shows detective-like smarts, and possesses extraordinary tenacity. And for some inexplicable reason, almost all the women he encounters fall in love with him.
Tezuka-sensei’s plot and pacing are excellent, keeping readers constantly engaged as characters uncover clues, fall into life or death situations, and struggle to maintain their humanity under vicious regimes. Though much of the material is serious, especially Tezuka-sensei’s snapshots of key historic moments, Message to Adolph does include humor, often with a physical slapstick flavor (like Toge falling down stairs). One of the funniest moments is when Toge gets visited by a slew of international spies, all trying to outbid one another for the Hitler documents.
Toward the end of the volume, the spotlight shifts from Toge to two boys: Adolph Kaufmann, the son of a German consul and his Japanese wife, and Adolph Kamil, a Jew. The friendship between the Adolphs is intriguing enough, but Kaufmann’s enrollment in an Adolf Hitler School and Kamil’s involvement with the Hitler documents will leave readers eagerly anticipating the next volume.
Regarding artwork, the character designs lean toward the cartoonish end of the spectrum. As such, the violence depicted, while it is disturbing, isn’t as harrowing as more realistically drawn works. Also, because Tezuka-sensei created Message to Adolph in the early 1980s, illustrations include a lot of stippling and not much in terms of screentones. To convey shadows, faces and bodies are often inked in black, which conveys a very stark impression.
The book has a retail price of $26.95 US, but for that amount, you receive 648 pages bound in a sturdy hardcover format. Vertical did choose to print in left to right format though, which means that the artwork gets flipped. In keeping with Tezuka-sensei’s older style, the cover has an old-school design in four colors (orange, yellow, green, pink) with a creepy sketch of Hitler’s face on the front. No glossary is included, but the translation, though awkward and stilted at times, can be followed without one.
He’s no Astro Boy, but Sohei Toge is a compelling enough hero as he seeks to avenge his brother’s murder. The plot is packed with espionage, car and train chases, shootouts, and fistfights against Nazis and Japanese special police as Toge’s journey leads to a set of documents that can destroy Adolf Hitler. The story is oftentimes violent and intense but masterfully plotted and makes for an exciting read.
First published at the Fandom Post.