#1 World War 2 thriller
In the prelude towards World War 2, a certain document manages to slip away from the Nazi Regime. A document containing a secret so devastating that its reveal would destroy Germany. When his brother is murdered in a bid to contain these documents, Japanese reporter Sohei Toge makes it his life mission to expose them. From there, Message To Adolf becomes an exciting thriller full of drama, conspiracies, and political turmoil.
Caught up in all this are two boys both called Adolf. Adolf Kaufmann is the son of a German consul to Japan whilst Adolf Kamil is a Jewish refugee. They are the best of friends, but their parents fervently oppose that friendship. When Kamil one day overhears his dad talking about the secret documents, the two boys become involved in affairs far beyond their comprehension.
It’s a captivating premise for a story. Sohei faces many dangers, as spies and secret police ruthlessly track him everywhere he goes. Looking for any clue as to the whereabouts of the documents and his involvement with them. He has to elude some of the most conniving villains of the Axis powers, all while his life is turned into a living hell by their constant sabotage. The story gets so intense at times that I had to take breaks from reading it.
Also impressive is the scope at which the story operates. Years go by as Sohei and the Nazis feud over these documents. The Adolfs grow up and end up becoming more seriously involved as they come to realize what’s at stake.
#2 Fascism is pathetic
Where Message To Adolf truly succeeds is in showing the pathetic nature of the Nazi ideology. It does a phenomenal job of exploring what these people believe(d) and revealing the cruelty, absurdity, and hypocrisy at the heart of those beliefs. While also mocking the fervor with which Nazis worshiped their führer, even as he doomed millions to die on the battlefield and millions more at home.
There are many examples to name here, but what I like the most is how the manga mocks the ideology’s willingness to make exceptions on technicality. Adolf Kaufmann, for example, is the son of a Japanese mother. He is mixed-race. Yet he is constantly assured by other Germans that he totally counts as one of them. His mother is registered as a German citizen, you see. It’s bullshit, but this is what has to be true for Kaufmann to be in the in-group. A German consul can’t just have an impure son.
In another instance, a Nazi falls in love with a Jewish girl. He becomes completely obsessed and insists they could be together if only she convert to Christianity. This same Nazi believes that Jews will infiltrate his society. That they do so by intermarrying so as to entrench their presence and water down the pure, Aryan bloodline. But it’s alright when he does it! She’s a Christian now, you see!
Their speeches are rousing and their convictions absolute; until the moment where those convictions begin to negatively affect them. They turn into whimpering idiots desperately trying to backpedal out of the “ironclad beliefs” they claim to hold. You get to watch them make these delusional justifications while claiming that their worldview totally makes sense.
No character better illustrates the ridiculousness of this ideology than Hitler himself. Here depicted as a rambling, paranoid shell of a man. His diatribes feel imposing when matched with the grandeur of a party rally, but which seem deranged in any other setting. He can launch into a rant at any moment, as subordinates look on in discomfort. As the war turns against the Reich, Hitler deteriorates even faster than the frontlines. Always complaining and blaming the men under his command; even accusing them of treason.
He is entirely unfit to command, yet also irreplaceable. The cult of personality on which the party is founded became the bedrock of German society. To do away with Hitler would be to shatter the unity needed to keep this war machine going. Thus an ever-dwindling cadre of loyalists awkwardly slide along with the trainwreck. Too scared to take action, even as hope slips away from them.
#3 Adolf’s downfall
Even though the Nazi beliefs are transparently idiotic to us today, they hold a deep significance to Adolf Kaufmann. He is soon separated from Kamil, as he is forced to attend a school for the Hitlerjugend back in Berlin. While he enters the school with a rebellious mindset, its ceaseless propaganda hooks into him.
It’s fun to laugh at Nazis and watch them lose the war again. To mock their shit worldviews. But in Kaufmann you see a tragedy unfold that I felt was incredibly moving. You get to see that worldview sink its claws into a boy and just ruin him. Kaufmann starts buying into the anti-Jewish sentiments of the party, despite having known and sympathized with Jews in his childhood. He comes to worship Hitler, despite getting to see him at his worst. He even becomes obsessed with denying his Japanese heritage. It becomes super important to him that he is seen as German, leading to him desperately trying to control his mother. When she starts considering changing her citizenship back to Japanese, he all but loses his mind over it.
As this story develops, I found myself wondering what could lie in store for Adolf Kaufmann. Whether he’d come to his senses and see the Nazi Party for what it truly is, or if the hate would consume him entirely. In an age where radicalization is once again a prominent concern, many may find Kaufmann’s story resonating with their own experiences. For better or for worse.
#4 Timeless artstyle
This was my first time reading a manga by Osamu Tezuka. I had watched some of his anime, but mostly the ones that kinda suck. So imagine my surprise when Message to Adolf turned out to look so good.
Message to Adolf started in 1983, but looks perfectly fine today. Tezuka’s art is detailed, refined, and has a timeless appeal to it. Some of it definitely capturing some of the cartoon influences for which he was known, but in ways that don’t detract from the deeply serious storyline too often. The artstyle pairs well with the thrilling storyline, while also permitting emotional moments to shine.
Tezuka’s style also makes Message To Adolf very accessible, I feel. Barring a few goofy moments, much of it reads like a comic book on the second world war would. Even Maus is more out there in its artstyle. Someone with an open mind could definitely appreciate this manga, even if they usually don’t read them.
#5 The cost of war
Finally, I appreciated how distinctly anti-war the tone of Message To Adolf is. It doesn’t just argue that fascism sucks, but that war is terrible in general. You don’t get exciting shots of tank battles and heroic charges in this manga. You get the slaughter, the misery, and the grief.
Tezuka effectively shows the toll that war takes on society, the people, and the human soul itself. As the war rages on, everybody’s quality of life slips away. Japan and Germany are presented as wondrous, prosperous places in 1936, which is where the manga starts. This gradually slips away as the story continues on. Food is rationed, cities become increasingly rundown, and the people more desperate. This is explored in an interesting way with Adolf Kaufmann’s mother. As he becomes ever-more engrossed in Nazi propaganda, her letters to him talk about having nothing but rice to eat. Or how she’s scared to wear Western clothes because the locals get envious when you do that.
This reaches a turning point, of course, when war actually reaches these homelands. Berlin and Kobe are ravaged by war. Reduced to ruin and littered with corpses of soldiers and citizens alike. It doesn’t feel victorious. Like the concentration camps and executions and mass graves before it, seeing these places destroyed is framed tragically.
In conclusion: don’t read this manga if you want to still be in a good mood by the end of it.
More like this…
The Diary of Anne Frank: Anime about the Jewish persecution during World War 2.
Grave of the Fireflies: Anime about the tragedy of ordinary people during World War 2.
Jin Roh: Commentary on the inhumanity of totalitarian regimes.