Mighty Tezuka! 

The God of Manga

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002

The time: The immediate aftermath of WWII.

The place: Osaka, Japan.


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Imagine: the city in rubbles and full of disoriented grown-ups. Kids were starved not only for food, but also for entertainment and maybe a sense of direction. Cheaply printed comic books, hawked on streets and in candy stores, were beginning to fill the need. TV would not enter the picture for another eight years. Enter Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), a scrawny medical student. In 1946, a daily newspaper began carrying his four-panel strip, "The Diary of Mah-chan." When "Mah-chan" became a surprise hit, he produced a 200-page book, New Treasure Island (story by Sakai Shichima), the following year. New Treasure Island sold 400,000 copies and inspired a legion of would-be artists, including Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009), Leiji Matsumoto (Galaxy Express 999; Queen Millennia), Fujio Akatsuka (Doraemon).

The result: a comic revolution.

The Japanese call Osamu Tezuka the god of manga. For without Tezuka, comics would not have become the definitive force of postwar Japan -- a hidden goad, read by everyone and influencing everything from literature to architecture. And without his Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom" -- renamed Astro Boy here by an embarrassed NBC executive), there probably would have been no anime.

Much of Tezuka's print work is virtually unknown in the West (where manga requires not only translation but paste-up because Japanese is read from right to left, anime needs only dubbing to make the international transition). Which is a pity, because those who think the current crop of bloody anime and boneless manga represent the Soul of Japan are missing 98 percent of it.

It's the 21st century. The robots, though they are indistinguishable from humans, are treated as second-class citizens -- a precursor to Blade Runner without the Yellow Peril undertone. The cute little boy robot with massively spiky hair doesn't just fight villains and their grandiose plans, he also fights for the rights of the robots. He dreams of the day when robots can coexist peacefully with humans.

From Jungle Taitei
by Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka created his boy-robot character after a fateful encounter with an inebriated member of the Allied Occupation Army. When the artist could not answer the GI's question in English quickly enough, the soldier punched him in the face. Tezuka didn't hit back. He thought -- about cultural and racial differences and why people fight each other. Dodging bombs during air raids was still fresh in his memory. It all became Tetsuwan Atomu, serialized in the monthly children's magazine Shonen ("Boys") beginning in 1952. Japan immediately went wild for Astro Boy. Meanwhile, Tezuka was running serials in nine to 10 monthly magazines while continuing to produce shorter works (20 to 50 pages) and books. He and a handful of artists would eventually publish the monthly magazine Com (for comics and communication) for adult manga readers -- among them intellectuals and culturati -- and his studio came to resemble Rubens' workshop, with assistants specializing as fillers, erasers or shaders. Amazingly, he also completed medical school in 1961.

But Tezuka wasn't satisfied. He longed to do animation. Opportunity knocked when, in 1958, Toei Animations adapted Bokuno Songoku ("My Magic Monkey") as Saiyuki ("Journey to India"). After working on the feature, Tezuka poured his earnings from manga into the founding of Mushi Productions, the first incarnation of his multimedia studio. Tetsuwan Atomu for Fuji TV was Mushi Pro's second project (after a 39-minute short, A Story From a Street Corner). Atomu the anime again shook Japan. No one had even thought of producing an animated film to fill a half-hour slot every week. Tezuka and Co. made it possible by cutting the number of frames from 24 to 8 per second, animating body parts separately and recycling shots (they called it "banking").

Other Mushi animation projects followed, including Princess Knight, an early "girl manga" and proto-feminist masterpiece, scored with a cool theme song by Isao Tomita; several experimental shorts, including Pictures at an Exhibition; and theatrical features, including the R-rated One Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra.

Tezuka's work also started influencing hollywood. The 1966 film Fantastic Voyage bears an uncanny resemblance to Tezuka's 1953 Monsters on the 38-Degree Line, in which a group of doctors shrink themselves to enter the body of a patient; Stanley Kubrick asked Tezuka to do the art direction for 2001 (he declined); and The Lion King is seen by Tezuka fans as an outrageous Kimba rip-off (his estate didn't sue, because it was felt that Sensei, ever the Disney fan, would have been proud).

From hinotori
by Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka's Hi no tori is a firebird, a phoenix, the Ho-O of Chinese legends that lives thousands of years and, after self- immolation, continually resurrects itself -- perhaps like Japan itself. This phoenix -- befitting the nuclear age, in which the meaning of death had expanded -- is an incarnation of a cosmic life force. As Mother Cosmos, an archangel in feathers or just a mysterious bird, the phoenix watches over the foibles of men from the dawn of civilization to the distant future, into the second (or is it third?) life cycle on Earth. In Hinotori's cosmology, even planets and galaxies are subject to reincarnation and other laws that govern all lives.

Just as bugs near Osaka became lions in Africa, all lives are equal in Hinotori and their forms interchangeable, from a rose to an elephant to a star. That knowledge is instinctual in these breathtakingly paced and gorgeously composed pages, alive with passion and humor.

Jungle Taitei starred smart, strong and idealistic Leo the white lion (Kimba in the U.S.) -- a superhero on four legs. Born of Tezuka's love of nature -- his favorite childhood pastime was to observe insects in the woods -- the lion stories taught lessons about the laws of the natural kingdom and presented encroaching human civilization as a threat. Possessed of human intellect and morality, Leo himself is a symbol of conflicting duality -- and as such has to sacrifice himself in the end. Atomu, too, was a cherub-faced hero and a monster in one, created by a grieving mad scientist as a substitute for his dead son.

Tezuka, in a 180-degree turn from the black-or-white, ask-no-questions tone of the war years, infused these stories with a sense of ambivalence toward civilization, progress and technology -- all that was quickly becoming the gospel of the postwar Japanese economy. It was as if he had foreseen the industrial-pollution crisis of the '60s and '70s. (I remember the "opto-chemical smog alerts" of my youth each summer when we were forced to quit playing and go indoors.) Never talking down to his young readers, Tezuka used multiple viewpoints in his panels to show how the villains felt inside. He made you ask that important question: Why?

Most Americans know Tezuka as simply the creator of TV's Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Well, Atomu on TV is one of my earliest childhood memories, too. But growing up in Japan, I was also able to read the books. To me, they were movies on paper.

Tezuka broke the monotony of existing comic strips with cinematic effects and speedy unfolding. You see unusual angles and well-composed frames in Western comics, too, but Tezuka actually changed the way manga readers experienced time. A single panel could represent a fraction of a second -- part of a whole composed of images, words, silence and movement in varying tempos and different rhythmic patterns. A frame of a Western counterpart, often laden with text, was typically 50 times as long. As a movie buff, Disney animation fan and amateur musician, Tezuka applied musical thinking to his manga, and by doing so made it a more visual and temporal, rather than literal, medium. The manga experience became more visceral, more absorbing. Here was someone who fixed on paper a world that not only was beautiful to look at, but also was bursting with running, breathing, living characters who cried, fought and loved. His characters stay with you. Once you enter, you never leave Tezuka's world, not completely.

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