The story, which starts in 1936 and follows Japan and German’s path to war, with Tezuka setting his murder mystery against the backdrop of the rise of his country’s nationalistic fervor in time with the rumbling’s of German’s war machine and persecution of the Jewish people. Like his “Ayako,” it’s a story of murder and obsession as well as a cultural critique, although a broader look at its given period than the latter work.
It all starts with the 1936 Olympics, a murdered Japanese communist sympathizer living in Berlin, and a reporter who just can’t give up on a story. That would be Sohei Toge, in Berlin to cover the Olympics, during which his brother Isao, living in city at the time, becomes a victim of foul play. The German officials seemingly don’t want to investigate what happened to a dead communist, and Toge begins to find all traces of his brother’s life wiped clean–in the building where he lived, no one remembers him, and no one wants to talk about the dead Japanese student. Toge asks one too many questions and ends up on the radar of the Secret Police who torture and interrogate him–his brother had something they want, and they’re willing to hurt the reporter to get it.
This first section of the book, ends with a tragedy and Toge’s flight from Berlin, leading us back to Japan where we meet two boys named Adolf living in Kobe. There’s Adolf Kamil, a German Jew expatriate with a little bit of the streets in him, and the younger Adolf Kaufman, the good-hearted son of a German consul official. These boys become friends in spite of their parents’ objections while a second murder ensnares Kaufman’s father.
It all has to do with a set of documents that could rock the Nazi party to their foundations, splitting the story from an extended chase/thriller involving Toge and the drama with the two boys. The actual documents are far less interesting than what happens with the characters as each confronts a Japan ready to exert its might and march to war. As with “Ayako,” Tezuka is concerned with the way wealth, class, and prejudice can–in the minds of some–allow for any kind of horrible act. In giving two of his leads the same name and tying them to the notorious dictator, he creates this line where you can see how readily one’s outlook will permit any kind of atrocity. We know where this story will go and we worry about the souls of both of our Adolfs (and the safety of poor Toge whose life becomes a series of depredations and calamities once he gets on the hunt for the secret documents himself).
Tezuka is highly critical of his own country here (but no more so than interventionist nations like the U.S. and Russia at the time)–the structures that would create the Secret Police seems to be one that would encourage those same shady cops to be the worst of the worst: killers, torturers, and blackmailers. Again, it all comes down to privilege without consequence–Toge is such an interesting character to watch and one we want to root for because he wants to uncover the truth above all else and he wants to hold the guilty accountable.
You could do much worse (but not much better) than “Message to Adolf,” so if you’re looking for a thriller to read over the holiday week, this might be the one to pick up.
“Message To Adolf” is available now in hardcover from Vertical.