You need to know a few things before we start:
First: MW is an entry by Osamu Tezuka into the gekiga/dramatic comics movement that kicked off in the 1970s. In contrast to the common perception of manga as a frivolous medium, works categorized as gekiga were, if not more realistic, at least less whimsical and more grounded. They trended toward the dark, the hardboiled, and the… weird in a discomforting way.
Second: I found (as in truly found, bought and read not just opened in a shop and got spooked away) this comic in what was either the best or absolute worst state of mind in which I could have encountered it. I was barely out of my teens, a queer kid trapped in the deep American South way into the Dubya Era, slugging through a numbing first swing at college, stuck in a stifling and abusive household. I was in dark place, awash in rage at the world and disgust at myself, as the fallout from my recently passed childhood worked its way into my pores.
If you’re looking for a breakdown of everything Wrong with MW (villainous protagonist, wanton violence, refusal to present answers to its ethical questions, et cetera), it’s really best that you leave immediately. I don’t do those reviews as a rule, and in this case I functionally can’t. Every reason I’ve seen people challenge MW on moral grounds, I either disagree with or count as a reason I love it. You also won’t find any marveling at how Tezuka could have created something this dark and twisted when the closest I’ve come after 10 more years of reading him is, “Wow, this is all the usual shit but let off the chain.”
MW, broadly, is about a lot of things. It touches hard on themes of authoritative abuse, sexuality, international relations, gender, and the question of just who in its cast of undeniably terrible people is the worst.
(Spoilers-not-spoilers: It’s Garai, by the way. Garai is the most terrible. The story literally tells you that at the end. It hands it to you.)
More specifically, it’s about the cover-up and unaccounted for victims of a small-scale chemical weapons disaster in post-war Okinawa. An experimental gas weapon, the eponymous MW, leaked from its containment facility on a remote island and wiped out every last inhabitant and visitor with the exception of two boys. The governments of Japan and Nation X, a transparent stand-in for the United States, swiftly covered it up and moved to elevate and insulate cooperative parties.
We spend most of our time with the survivors, Yuki and Garai, to whom we’re first introduced fifteen years after the disaster that defined their lives. Garai, six years the elder, has found and embraced a calling in the Catholic church. Yuki, maybe due to being younger and weaker at the time of exposure, bears lasting effects. He suffers painful fits, his lifespan is significantly reduced, and his developing brain was damaged so profoundly that as an adult he is a complete violent sociopath. The two are bound forever by their shared experience, enmeshed in spite of Garai’s troubled faith and Yuki’s singleminded quest to bring about the end of humankind.
They are also stone cold fucking, which we need to address because sexuality and gender are so much more important in MW than the salacious buzz around it suggests. Yuki and Garai are at the very least bisexual men (though Yuki seems to prefer men and only use women to further his goals), and the friction between their identities and the social realities of 1970s Japan is played to sympathetic effect as a plot point multiple times. Yuki – with whom the reader can’t help but empathize to a degree because he’s written as our protagonist – along with entirely un-villainous background and incidental characters repeatedly speak in favor of queer people’s validity. They deserve privacy, they deserve respect, their identities are gaining acceptance in more open-minded nations. Incidental gay characters are well-adjusted and largely virtuous. Only Garai, who I must remind you is confirmed the worst, has a problem with that part of himself central to his character.
Gender, gender roles, and sexuality aren’t uncommon themes for Tezuka works, either. Apollo’s Song, an earlier and simpler work, is pretty much nothing but that. Princess Knight, way earlier and way simpler, is a work whose central conceit acknowledges through metaphor that gender and physical sex may be discrete concepts. Black Jack, a title roughly contemporary with MW and way more familiar to English audiences, explains in brief the concept of sex reassignment surgery. It even features a character who, when a radical cancer operation makes it impossible to live a normal life as a woman in 1960s Japan, transitions to at least living socially as a man. Black Jack fell for this character and remains hung up on him, unable to be with him, for the entirety of the comic.
So, that MW is gay doesn’t really weird me out. It didn’t even throw me as a nerdburger in college. It felt… not ‘appropriate,’ but not inappropriate either. I knew manga could be super queer, and I kept on reading it because it was the strain of sequential narrative art that consistently made me feel least shitty about being that same thing.
It was those same shitty feelings that made me fall so deep in love with MW, and particularly with Yuki. To understand this, understand that throughout my childhood adults in my life assigned me the role of devil and monster. Understand that I was not by any means above leaning into that. We do, to a point, become what we’re set up to be.
When I discovered MW, I was leaning in hard and feeling pretty guilty about it. My media diet was entirely dark and angry and depraved (and not even really enjoyed, just gobbled because I felt like I had to belong There), and I was engaged in every last one of the destructive habits associated with at risk traumatized youth. The sheer weight of constant scrutiny, of feeling trapped, of having to disguise myself in public and prostrate myself at home, backed me into a corner where the only option set up for me was ‘Become the Worst.’ I was flaming out hard, and feeling terrible about it only made me do it more.
Maybe you’d have to have been me at the time to buy that MW helped ease me out of that. But it did. At a weird and terrible time in my life, it was a little like a friendly and familiar adult voice acknowledging me. Yuki is one of Tezuka’s brilliant, driven, wronged, maimed protagonists, even if his maiming isn’t manifest outside his skull. He’s skilled, charming, beautiful, content to be gay, and yes, indisputably monstrous.
But it’s not Yuki’s fault. It’s not even suggested that his attraction for men contributes to his monstrous nature, or that his assault as a child prompted him to develop that attraction. International conspiracy and personal betrayal have made him a monster. He’s a survivor of sexual assault with profound untreated brain damage. He maintains a relationship with the man whose assault of him inevitably doomed him to that life, and probably doesn’t even realize how terrible that is because his sense of right and wrong is so warped. He’s absolutely ruined through no fault of his own.
And he mows motherfuckers down. Yuki’s systematic destruction of every last piece of shit responsible for the MW cover-up may not satisfy any need he feels for revenge – lacking the cognitive function to conceptualize righteousness, he just can’t want revenge – but it was a sick delight to read. As a queer kid feeling trapped and monstrous and generally beat down, a beautiful terrible gay monster who wrecks everyone who’s wronged him was the best-worst wish fulfillment for me. People can bag on MW‘s supposed confusing morality, but it gave me language to place the source of my monstrous feelings somewhere outside myself and resent those things and people instead of myself.
For that matter, I’d argue that MW‘s morality isn’t all that confusing anyway. It’s just a less conventional take on morality than, ‘It sure is wrong to kill people.’ Yuki may be framed as our protagonist while being a complete monster, sure, but as a person without morality he’s as much a force of nature as he is a villain. He’s a beautiful face on a disaster created over the course of decades. He, like MW, is an unfeeling destructive force that continues to destroy because those responsible for it – supposedly good people like Garai and the powerful men responsible for the MW disaster and cover-up – find it too terrible and inconvenient to address. Garai could stop Yuki swiftly, could save many lives and even the world itself but he dawdles because it would be hard. Garai isn’t just the worst because he, as an adolescent, sexually abused a younger child: He’s the worst because he aids destruction through inaction. Yuki can’t be blamed for what he does, not in the least, but Garai is in full command of his adult faculties and can certainly be blamed for what he doesn’t do despite having ample opportunity.
As for what ultimately happens, I’ll leave that for you to find out. Which you should, because MW is well worth your time, your consideration, and your twelve dollars if you get the whole series on Kindle. The Vertical translation by Camelia Nieh is readable and serves up a lot of good lines, though the art is flipped because apparently that was a thing we still thought was acceptable in 2007. As a lighthearted aside, there’s a recurring character (in the panel above) who looks exactly like Osamu Tezuka drew Tommy Wiseau, which is just… the best thing to look at. It’s a treat, and I wouldn’t have made that beautiful connection without revisiting this series. You gotta read it.