The Book of Human Insects

The heroine of this short noir tale from manga godfather Osamu Tezuka is "far from a feminist role model" according to the blurb, and there's a fair amount of sexism in the book. Toshiko Tomura is described as a type of insect that impersonates other creatures in order to survive, and throughout her adventures she 'absorbs' the talents of her male admires (or outright steals their work) in order to achieve her ends. That she is able to do so "shows you what is so damn wrong with present-day civilization". And it's true that the world Tezuka creates is one where humans have become monsters – a society of insects in which the only way for women to survive is to become femme fatales. Interestingly, Tezuka doesn't have the patriarchy reassert dominance over these insect women. Instead, sympathetic characters are crushed, and Tomura triumphs over her assailants.

Tezuka's revenge on his predatory parasitic female creation is more subtle. After each adventure, Tomura retreats to a remote house in which she strips away the personas she inhabits and regresses to a baby – naked, pacifier in her mouth – succumbing to the fundamental emptiness at the core of her being. One of her former lovers has escaped her clutches, nobly kills a brutal gangster and hands himself over to the police. Tomura wants him, perhaps as the only man she was unable to corrupt and traduce, but he is lost to her. She confesses at the end of the book that she is lonely, and feels like she could be get "swept away", like trash. Despite her callous ambition, she still feels the need to love, or at least be attached to, someone. Without a host (male, talented) she is nothing.

The misogyny on display is something that needs to be acknowledged and faced up to. No excuses should be made. Nonetheless, there is a mischievous glee to Tezuka's portrayal that is winning – despite the condescension (and moral condemnation) Tomura receives at the hand of her creator, the human insects she dupes and destroys are far more reprehensible. We still root for her, even more than the noble male hero who evades her. Her vitality trumps Tezuka's attempts to suppress it – I think she gets the last laugh after all, and I can well imagine her getting over a momentary thirst for dissolution and continuing her escapades in Europe.

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