Also known as 火の鳥 (Hi no Tori)
There are several very different versions of Tezuka's Phoenix series. The earliest incarnation of the story was first published in 1954 in Manga Shōnen (漫画少年). When that publication folded, a reworked manga version aimed at young girls was published between 1956-57 in Shōjo Club (少女クラブ). However, by far, the most well-known Phoenix (1967-88) manga series refers to twelve loosely connected stories - with the first, "Dawn" published in COM magazine in 1967, and the last, "Sun", appearing in 1988 in The Wild Age, shortly before Tezuka's death in 1989.
What it's about
The first version (known as Phoenix "Dawn") is set in a mythical age of Japan in the latter part of the 2nd Century. The story centers around a young boy named Iza-nagi who saves the Phoenix's only egg from molten lava after a volcanic explosion. As a token of her thanks she grants him her blood - which Iza-nagi shares with his younger sister Iza-nani - bestowing them both with a 3,000-year lifespan. When her egg hatches, the otherwise immortal mother Phoenix dies in flames of her chick's birth. So, Iza-nagi and Iza-nani set off with the baby Phoenix in search of a new world - with the monkey Yota, the rabbit Popo and the tortoise Noro along to protect the child. When they eventually land on an island, the native residents treat them as living gods, but Himiko, the queen of a neighboring country called Yamatai hears of the Phoenix and orders her man Sarutahiko to capture it.
The second version, geared toward young girls readers, (known as the Shōjo Club Edition) of Phoenix delicately depicts the love story of Prince Club and the beautiful slave girl, Dia. Set against the spectacular historical backdrops of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Phoenix explores the theme of eternal life as both Club and Dia, who gain 3,000 year lifespans by drinking the blood of the Phoenix, meet and part over and over again as different reincarnations in different places and times.
The third version of Phoenix (known as the COM Edition), features stories that consist of everything from romantic love stories to sci-fi adventure, to historical drama. Although only loosely connected, each of the stories is linked by the presence of the mythical bird, an immortal guardian of the universal life force. The twelve "core" stories are all self-contained and, when read in the order they were published, jump across time with the settings alternating between the distant past and the far-flung future - with each working the story ever closer towards a middle point in "the present".
What you should know
Phoenix is considered Tezuka's life's work for good reason, the core ideas and concepts of Phoenix were continuously re-explored by Tezuka almost from the very beginning of his career right up to his death in 1989.
Following the success of the manga serialization of Jungle Emperor (1950-54), the earliest incarnation of the Phoenix story known as "Dawn" was first published from July, 1954 to May, 1955 in Manga Shōnen (漫画少年). Unfortunately, this version of Phoenix was discontinued after the eighth installment when Manga Shōnen abruptly suspended publication in May 1955. As such, it remained unfinished and Tezuka abandoned the project with the story incomplete. Yet he did not abandon the concept. Exactly one year later, in May, 1956, Tezuka decided to return to Phoenix as a follow-up project to Princess Knight (1953-56) in Shōjo Club (少女クラブ). Largely influenced by American big-screen "spectacle' movies of the time such as Land of the Pharaohs (1955) and Helen of Troy (1956), Tezuka decided to rework the story into a romantic epic for young girls. And so, Phoenix was serialized in Shōjo Club from May 1956 to December 1957.
The three chapters in the Shōjo Club Edition, form a complete story in and of themselves. Although they have no connection in terms of story content with the Manga Shōnen chapter "Dawn", or the subsequent stories in COM, they do share some of the same concepts or elements. For example, while both the rabbit Popo and the tortoise Noro reappear much as they did in the Manga Shōnen chapter "Dawn", the monkey Yota takes on a different form: he is recast as a fox in the Shōjo Club Edition. Another significant difference in terms of theme is the depiction of the cycle of death and resurrection of the Phoenix. In the Manga Shōnen Edition the mother Phoenix is simply consumed by the flames of her baby's hatching. However, in the Shōjo Club Edition, the mother Phoenix chooses her own death by fire after ensuring her child will be well cared for by Popo, Noro and Yota - all of whom gain eternal youth and immortality through her lifeblood.
Despite the Shōjo Club Edition story coming to a close, the ideas of resurrection, eternal life and how people could be caught up in a struggle over the blood of the Phoenix in order to gain them, continued to intrigue Tezuka. Since the original chapter "Dawn" had never been completed (due to the suspension of Manga Shōnen and the totally new and unrelated plot of the Shōjo Club Edition), in 1967 Tezuka returned to the series for a third time, with another brand new version of the original story - one geared towards a more mature audience.
The Phoenix chapter "Dawn" began to be serialized in the inaugural issue of COM - a new, and cutting edge, manga magazine showcasing avant-garde and experimental works. Serialized in COM from January to November, 1967, this version of "Dawn" is effectively the prologue of a grand epic Phoenix series focused on the theme of life and death of humans. In all, eight chapters of Phoenix; "Dawn", "Future", "Yamato", "Universe", "Hō-ō" (also known as "Karma"), "Resurrection", "Robe of Feathers", and "Nostalgia" were serialized in COM between 1967-71.
With the demise of COM in 1972, a further three chapters, "Turbulent Times" (also known as "Civil War"), "Life, and "Strange Beings" were serialized in Manga Shōnen (マンガ少年) - an unrelated but similarly titled publication - between 1978-81.
Tezuka continued to explore the themes of Phoenix throughout his career, with the last chapter to see print, "Sun" serialized in Wild Times from 1986-88. Although Tezuka had plans to continue the series (indeed a rough plot summary of the next story to be set during the Sino-Japanese war does exist), the series was tragically cut short by Tezuka's death in February, 1989.
Despite being an incomplete masterpiece, each chapter features an independent story and can be enjoyed on its own. Beginning with the ancient past and then the the far-flung future, each chapter moved the over-arching story back and forth, from both ends of history, closer and closer towards a meeting in "the present". By incorporating a more limited and focused version of his Star System, Tezuka is able to explore his central theme of reincarnation, by having his characters play similar roles, sometimes under very different conditions or situations. A prime example of this is Saruta (though he often has different names), by exploring the growth and development of his character from the ancient past to the far-flung future, Tezuka is able to illustrate his interpretation of the theme of eternal life.
Of course, had it been completed, Tezuka Osamu's vision of the concept of reincarnation would have been fully revealed.