Character Analysis: Toshiko Tamura

Okay, yeah, I know you never heard of Toshiko Tamura. Let me lay down some backbeat here.

If you ain’t heard of Osamu Tezuka, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. I mean, he’s the dude Mangajin magazine called “The God of Manga,” because they decided other titles he’s also been given, like “The Father of Manga” and “The Godfather of Manga,” weren’t quite superlative enough.

Hmm. God. Father. Godfather. There’s a trifecta.

ANYWAY, you probably know him: He’s the dude that did Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion. They’re the manga that got turned into the anime that first penetrated the American market. A lot of you know Black Jack, too, right? About the doctor? Okay, never mind.

Later on in his career Tezuka changed tracks a bit, trying to reach a broader, more adult market, making books that nowadays would be called graphic novels. Some examples I know of are Message to Adolf, the story of three men named Adolf during World War II: a Jewish boy, a Hitler youth, and that one Adolf fellow his own self. And Ayako, a multi-generational soap opera about good and evil, with healthy lashings of betrayal, murder, and incest.

I liked both of those but I was a lot more interested in The Book of Human Insects, and I was interested in it because of its complex central character, the mangaka (among many other things) Toshiko Tamura. There we go. You knew I’d get there eventually.

The deal with Tamura is that she has the ability to, in essence, steal other peoples’ talents. She engages in outright plagiarism, but at the same time she gets good enough at it to “fake it until she makes it;” people BELIEVE she has the skillz.

Why she does this is unknown. It may be a compulsion, or part of her essential nature. At one point she’s compared metaphorically to certain insects that mimic the appearance of other objects, like a horse fly that looks like a bee or the moth whose wing pattern resembles an owl. It’s her survival tactic and it’s probably those insects the title refers to.

Through the course of the story she steals a number of works and leaves so many victims in her wake that I’m not going to bother looking up their names. I’ll just give them letters so you can keep track of them.

Chronologically speaking (half the story is told in flashback), she first joins a theater group. She learns to act from the leading lady and gets good enough to take the lead; later on she learns to direct from victim A, steals his talent, and boots him out of his own group.

Now a successful actor/director, she develops an interest in interior design. She hooks up romantically with B, steals his designs, and wins an international award with them. She gets famous and he becomes unable to work.

That done, she takes an apartment with a mangaka, C. (C is a woman, but because this is just before the start of the story we don’t know if she was lovers with C as she was with B.) Tamura steals C’s manga and wins major awards with it; C commits suicide.

Now that Tamura is headline-news successful in her THIRD career, she attracts paparazzi; one – D – discovers her in a compromising position I’ll tell you about in a bit. No problem. She seduces a yakuza hitman – E. E has sworn he has no interest in woman, but Tamura is woman enough to make him give up on that celibacy nonsense. E whacks D for her.

Toshiko Tamura asleep in her childhood home. Note that she has a pacifier.

But OOPS, E’s a yakuza hitman, and in trouble with the cops. He decides to flee to North Korea taking her with him (I guess the border was more open in those days) but Tamura shops him to the Korean cops and E is killed in a shootout.

More trouble: The Korean cops know Tamura was hooked up with some kind of war criminal and they are going to chuck her in prison. Enter the rich industrialist F, who will get her out if she will marry him. Yeah, it’s literally a contract marriage, with a written compact including clauses covering their sex life together, and neither of them even pretends to like the other.

F’s deal is that he will control her by making her have babies, so he exercises his contractual sexual privileges until she becomes pregnant. Then he sets all sorts of detectives to making sure she can’t get an abortion.

Re-enter B, who has married a former prostitute who happens to looks exactly like Tamura. (This is probably not a coincidence; he still had it bad for Tamura when he met the woman, but learned to love her for herself.) The two women do the switcheroo, and Tamura gets her abortion. She also gets her husband’s secret business information by seducing his (female) secretary, and releases it to the press, ruining him. F is forced to commit suicide.

All that done, a new paparazzo, G, is on the hunt. He has hooked up with A and he’s looking for the hard dirt on her. The three of them go out to the beach, where Tamura poses for some REALLY NICE photos for G (you know what I mean) and poisons A, silencing him forever.

G has the goods on her now, right? Oops. She’s got pictures of him on the outing, too, and if he turns her in, she’s taking him down with her. She makes him give up his film. She takes it to Greece – she’s always said she wants to live on a Greek island – where she publishes the REALLY NICE photos G took as her own work and gets internationally reputed as a photographer (and nude model, of course).

Watch how she’s developed.

She boots A out of his troupe
She destroys B’s career
She unintentionally drives C to suicide
She has D, a guy she doesn’t care for, whacked
She gets E, her lover, whacked
She intentionally destroys F, causing his suicide
She directly murders A

She how she gets worse every time, how her hands get dirtier each time? I wonder what’s in store for G …

What’s interesting/missing is a redemption arc, of course. That’s how we would treat this character if we wanted readers to like her: Ideally she would Find God (not literally, of course) and then Redeem Herself, typically via heroic self-sacrifice. Yeah. Doesn’t happen.

What’s really intriguing about Tamura is that we don’t know why she does this. We know she wants to someday live on a Greek island, and she achieves that, but given the skillz she has stolen she should have been able to accomplish that anyway. As she’s standing on that island she pines for B, but alas, in a bit of side plot he’s in prison so ultimately her dreams are unrequited, but that’s all the punishment she gets, and doesn’t explain WHY she wanted that.

What we do know is that she is a real mess psychologically, and I mean a REAL MESS. The dirt D gets on her is this (it’s a doozy):

When Tamura needs to “get away from it all,” she returns to her childhood home. It’s abandoned now; her parents are dead and it seems she has no siblings.

In the home she keeps a wax sculpture of her mother, just sitting there on the floor in a yukata. Tamura talks to the sculpture, strokes it tenderly, suckles from its teat. (Yes, she simulates breastfeeding from the statue of her dead mother.) Then it’s implied that she masturbates in front of the statue.

Obviously she is driven by some deep-rooted psychological need that involves her mother somehow, but what it is I couldn’t tell you.

Tamura reminds me of another character, one from a Phillip K. Dick story named The Golden Man. The Golden Man his own self is Cris, and he is the next stage of human development, whatever will follow Homo Sapiens just as we followed Neanderthal man. Everyone thinks we’ll just get smarter, but Dick realized that it’s not brains that cause you to succeed as a species, it’s the ability to reproduce. So Cris is irresistible to woman, able to seduce his way out of dire circumstances. (He also makes women pregnant readily.) He doesn’t do it because he’s bad; he’s just built that way.

Tamura steals other peoples’ talents because she’s built that way. Whether it’s that same psychological failing that also makes her increasingly indifferent to human life is not clear to me, but the two do go hand in hand.

You know what she is? She’s COMPLEX. She doesn’t answer the obvious questions about her; you read the book and say, “Wow, that was a ride. What exactly was that woman’s deal?”

In a medium where “BIG” questions are things like “What’s Haruhi going to do when she gets to college?” or “Why should Saitama punch the bad guy this week?” that’s a profound question. Why is she like that? Are there really people like that in the world? What can we do to make ourselves safe from them?

Tamura may be something of a cartoon, and of course The Book of Human Insects is literally a comic book. But what she is NOT is someone who can be summarized with the old formula, “The hero is a ____ but _____.”

And I ain’t a-gonna try.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s