Osamu Tezuka created many, many manga over the course of his career. Some were long-spanning and ambitious, exploring philosophical, even experimental ideas. Other were short and strange ideas seemingly done on a lark. Personally, though, I find that his best works were those that were simple, straightforward, with universal appeal. This is true for works like Princess Knight, Astro Boy, and the subject of today's review: Unico.

Unico is the story of a lovely little unicorn who belonged to Psyche, an ancient Greek princess renowned for her beauty and gentleness. The love goddess Venus envies her and does her best to foil Psyche, but not even her son Cupid is immune to Pysche's charms. Thus, Venus decides that if she can't get rid of Psyche, she will get rid of her unicorn with a curse. She commands the west winds to steal him away and spirit him through time and space, far from where he could be loved. Regardless of where and when Unico lands, he always ends up finding someone in need of his help, and he does his best to bring them happiness. Their happy endings always come at the expense of his, though. After a few days, Unico is always taken away once more by the winds, his memories erased, all so the cycle can start anew.

Unico was always meant to be a childrens' story, much like some of Tezuka's earliest works. It was even published in a kids' magazine by Sanrio, the same folks who brought the world Hello Kitty. This is reflected in the fairytale-like structure of the stories. Most feature some innocent child or creature in need of help, and Unico essentially acts as their fairy godmother. There are stories full of peasants and royalty, witches and goddesses, and every sort of talking animal. Adventure is had, the villain is rousted, and the child/creature in need finds their happy ending. The characters are simple archetypes, as one would expect in a fairytale. Those that are good are pure and noble creatures who only seek love and companionship; those that are evil are wicked, cackling schemers seeking only to spite others and gather wealth and power. The title character is no exception to this, either. Unico is almost an ideal, this endlessly loving, forgiving, and understanding creature who constantly gives of himself and is never allowed to keep a bit of that happiness for himself and yet never expressing a single regret or a single moment of anger. He's a sort of storytime messiah, and unlike the other he's not so much fated to die so much as he is fated to forget all those he helped. His situation is the dark shadow on these fanciful tales, and every happy ending comes with a tinge of tragedy because of it.

The artwork also fits the fairytale mold. Tezuka's love of old-school Disney tends to come out in full Silly Symphonies short. This resemblance is only aided by the fact that the entire manga is presented in full, jewel-toned color. It's kind of a shame that the panels tend to be so small and plain in presentation, because the characters are cute and occasionally he lets himself loose with a bit of visual trippiness. There are a couple of moments that visually play out like a god to honest dream ballet. The artwork is so good that it is literally spilling out of the frames, which is not a printing error but instead an artifact from its days in a kiddie magazine. This is the same reason that this manga reads left to right instead of the opposite. This is a rather unusual move for a manga in Japan, but it makes the story all the more accessible to the English-speaking world, especially for the children to whom the story was targeted in the first place.

If Unico has any sort of major failing, it's that it doesn't have a proper ending. While the story does get bookended with another episode with Venus, but it all ends on an inconclusive note, meaning that Unico himself never gets a happy ending of his own. Some might say that this is appropriate considering his situation, but it could also be seen as just one more bit of sadness in his life and it leaves the work hanging as a whole. Still, it's less of a failing than the fact that Digital Manga Press made such a small print run for this book after fulfilling its Kickstarter campaign. As such, copies of this book can now fetch up to $80 on the secondhand market. It's a terrible shame because this is easily one of Tezuka's most accessible works, and it's one that I would recommend to everyone. It's a sweetly charming collection of stories from one of manga's founding fathers, and it features some of his best and most colorful art.


Popular Posts