by Ed Sizemore
This has been a good year for English-language Osama Tezuka fans. Vertical is printing his Black Jack series in beautiful editions. DMP published Tezuka’s experimental manga, Swallowing the Earth. Frederick Schodt is touring the country with his lecture on the life and legacy of Tezuka. Two new books about the life and works of Tezuka were published this year too, God of Comics and The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.
To cap it all off, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art is hosting a month long celebration of Tezuka’s animated works, Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, Father of Anime. This past weekend marked the inauguration of the event, which I was fortunate enough to attend.
Introducing Astro Boy
The weekend began with a lecture by Frederick Schodt at 7:00 PM on Friday, November 13, entitled “Introducing Astro Boy”. This was similar to the lecture he gave at Otakon. Tezuka, born in 1928, is called the God of Manga in Japan, and some are also referring to him as the Father of Anime. He attended medical school and actually received his license, but he never practiced. He liked to joke that one of his medical professors told him it was a good thing for his patients that he became a manga artist.
Obviously, manga existed before Tezuka. However, Tezuka heavily influenced post-World War II manga by introducing new visual styles and storytelling techniques. Tezuka was himself influenced by Disney and the Fleischer brothers. He brought the cinematic style he saw in their cartoons to manga and made popular a more decompressed style of storytelling. Tezuka also helped introduce sophisticated themes into children’s manga.
Astro Boy made his first appearance in a short side story titled Captain Atom. There was such a positive response to the story, Tezuka’s editor convinced him to make Captain Atom a star of his own series. Tezuka completely retooled the character and the story. When the robot boy reappeared he had a new name to signal his new beginning, The Mighty Atom (Astro Boy to American audiences). The series was immediately a success. Astro Boy went on to become a symbol of science and technology in Japan. He is still a much beloved character today
In 1957, a kamishibai based on Astro Boy was made. In 1959, a short-lived live-action Astro Boy TV show was created. (Fred said this is so bad, it’s good.) Finally, in 1962, Tezuka had enough money to form his own animation company, Mushi Productions. In January 1963, the Astro Boy animated TV show premiered. It was the first half-hour weekly animated series on Japanese TV. Astro Boy became a national phenomenon. The whole family would gather around the TV set to watch the show. Executives from NBC saw the show and licensed it for syndication in the US, where Astro Boy premiered in select areas in September 1963.
Following the lecture, there were four episodes of the original Astro Boy anime series aired, all directed by Tezuka, including the first and last episodes of the series. Afterward, there was a short Q&A session. Fred said that Tezuka was embarrassed by the original Astro Boy series, because of the crude animation. However, you can see a noticeable improvement in the animation between the first episode and the last.
The Film Is Alive
Saturday’s schedule began at 2:00 PM with a short documentary entitled The Film Is Alive. This was a 45-minute film that examined Tezuka’s career as an animator, starting with his first experimental film in 1962 and ending with his last film, another experimental short, made before his death in 1989. This was an amazing documentary that revealed a dimension to Tezuka that I never knew existed.
Tezuka was responsible for several animated TV shows, feature-length films, and short experimental movies. Tezuka loved animation and wanted Japanese animation to be better known globally. He became an ambassador for anime by attending animation festivals around the world and getting international animation festivals hosted in Japan. His passion was experimentation. He loved exploring what was possible with animation both visually and from a storytelling perspective, using various styles and techniques. The one constant in all his animation was that was all hand-drawn. He didn’t like computer animation.
After the film, there was a panel discussion driven by questions from the audience. The four panelists were:
- Natsu Onoda Power, visiting professor at Georgetown University and author of God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga
- Ada Palmer, professor at Texas A&M and founder of the website Tezuka in English. She has an essay on Tezuka in the forthcoming Anime and Philosophy, edited by Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin
- Helen McCarthy, author of The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga
- Frederick Schodt, author of The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution
Initially, they began by discussing Tezuka’s influence. It turns out that his influence extends beyond just manga and anime. His works were, and continue to be, the inspiration for many scientists and doctors pursuing the careers they currently have. Several prominent roboticists in Japan have admitted they still dream of building Astro Boy.
Like everyone else of his generation, World War II was the defining event of Tezuka’s life. It shaped his desire to promote the positive, productive uses of technology over the destructive applications he had experienced. It also influenced his feminism. He saw Japanese women having to take on traditionally male roles and jobs during the war while the men were fighting abroad. (Helen says seeing his mother in these roles was the inspiration for the character Princess Knight.) The realities of war fueled his pacifism. And his experiences with American soldiers during the occupation helped shape his belief in racial equality.
Tezuka often said that manga was his wife and anime was his mistress. Tezuka could spend lavishly on experimental animation projects. Fred said that because he was so open to play with the form of animation, his animated works are often uneven and undisciplined. Ada pointed out that Tezuka approached animation like a clinical researcher. He was always testing new ideas and probing to explore limitations. He didn’t have any boundaries to what he was willing to try.
Tezuka’s star system probably grew out of his love for theater and early Hollywood movies. Growing up, his father would import movies and cartoons from America. His mother often took him to plays at the Takarazuka Theater. Tezuka created a stock group of characters that appeared throughout his manga, like actors assuming roles in a play or movie. This allowed him to create new series much more quickly, since all the character designs were finished.
Sunday also began with a film at 2:00 PM. This time it was a made-for-TV animated movie, Marine Express (1979) written by Tezuka himself and produced by Tezuka Productions. The Marine Express is an underwater train that runs from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Private detective Ban Shunsaku has been hired by the chief engineer to investigate his suspicions about illegal activities involving the train’s maiden voyage. However, Shunsaku arrives to find the chief engineer dead. He later spots the killer boarding the Marine Express and follows him onto the train. What follows is a murder mystery combined with a crime thriller mixed with a disaster film that morphs into a time travel adventure with invading space aliens. It’s a wild ride for both the train passengers and the viewing audience. Featured is most of the ensemble from Tezuka’s star system.
Following the film was a brief discussion by Helen McCarthy and Frederick Schodt. Helen loved the film, calling it sheer silliness. Fred said the film is the ultimate in-joke for Tezuka fans. He said it is a great foreshadowing of postmodern deconstructional storytelling. Amazingly, Tezuka insisted on drawing every key frame involving Black Jack. This was a film that the entire family could enjoy, as parents and children talk about the characters and which series they remember each one from.
Thoughts on the Weekend
My only disappointment the entire weekend was with the audience size. On Friday night, there were about 160 people in attendance. Saturday, the audience had dropped to a mere 80. Sunday, the number plummeted to a dismal 40 people. I was embarrassed that such great guests spoke to such a meager crowd. I know that the anime festival held during last year’s Cherry Blossom Festival packed the 300-seat theater. I don’t know why this event failed to draw a similar audience. Hopefully, the rest of the Tezuka events will attract a larger crowd.
Overall, it was a wonderful weekend that showed me new depths to the man Tezuka and his works. I now have an even more profound respect and appreciate for Tezuka. I didn’t have any idea about his experimental animation films. All the guests were magnificent and I would like to see Otakon, New York Anime Festival, Anime Boston, and the other East Coast conventions book them to speak. Tezuka really is Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Walt Disney, and Max Fleischer all rolled up into one person. He is such a formative force in manga and anime that all fans of both media need to be familiar with Tezuka and his works. Hopefully, events like the Smithsonian’s Tezuka Film Retrospective will be a start to make that happen.