The God of Manga
The time: The immediate aftermath of WWII. The
place: Osaka, Japan.
city in rubbles and full of disoriented grown-ups. Kids were starved not
only for high-grade protein and sweets, but also for entertainment and
maybe a sense of direction. Cheaply printed comic books, sold on streets
and in candy stores, were beginning to fill the need. TV would not be on
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
a comics revolution.
Japanese call Osamu Tezuka the God of Manga. For without Tezuka, comics
would not have become the definitive force of postwar Japan, read by
everyone and influencing everything from literature to robotics and
architecture. And without his Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom" — renamed Astro Boy here by an embarrassed NBC executive), there
probably would have been no anime.
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.
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.
wasn't satisfied. He longed to make animated films. Opportunity knocked
when, in 1958, Toei Animations adapted Tezuka’s 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 clip 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").
animation projects followed, including Princess Knight, an early "girl manga" and proto-feminist masterpiece, 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.
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).
Hinotori 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 next life
cycle on Earth. In Hinotori's
cosmology, even planets and galaxies are subject to reincarnation and other
laws that govern all lives.
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
Jungle Taitei starred smart, strong and idealistic Leo the
white lion (Kimba in the U.S.), a superhero on four legs who also happens
to be cute. Born of Tezuka's love of nature (his favorite childhood pastime
was to observe insects in the woods), Jungle Taitei educated its readers on the laws of the natural
world and — remarkably, for these were the go-go years of industrial growth
— presented encroaching humans 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.
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?
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
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,
— Rika Ohara