Japan boasts the largest manga (comics) and anime (animation) industries in the world. The culture which has developed from this peculiar post-atomic fusion of eastern calligraphic sensibility and western narrative iconography is an active and vital demonstration of a non-Eurocentric postmodernism. An instrumental figure in the originating history of both art forms and media is Osamu Tezuka (1928 - 1989). Focus on Tezuka is a season of animation shorts, features and TV series profiling the Postwar Japanese anime of Japan's most historically important anime creator.
Perhaps the most accessible route to the fantastic world of Japan's greatest manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka is through the angelic face of his pre-pubescent robot creation, Astro Boy. First aired in Japan in 1963 and redubbed in America in 1964, ASTRO BOY has since become not only a major postwar icon for Japan but also a strangely attractive post-baby-boomer figure in non-Oriental countries. The fact that many westerners presume Astro Boy to be American is an indication of how undervalued and ignored anime (Japanese animation) is within film history, as well as a sign of how readily an American dialogue-track can cast any production in the shadow of its accent.
The manga upon which ASTRO BOY is based - Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom)- is one of Tezuka's most well-known works, serialized in phases from 1951 to 1968. It is a fascinating tale set in the 21st century, where superminiaturization of electronic components and advances in plastic applications for artificial skin have facilitated the design of extremely human-like robots. And where better to render similarities between robotics and genetics then in the highly-coded hieroglyphics of the manga page? Just as the manga form well suited such futuristic fantasy, so too did the idea appear molded by postwar Japan (the Showa 20s: 1945-54) when Japan was rebuilding itself psychologically and preparing itself for the electronics explosion of the 60s. ASTRO BOY in some measure can be viewed as a contemplative embodiment of this postwar period - a period of intense reflection that affected much world cinema.
In the original ASTRO BOY manga, Professor Temma aspires to create a new wonder robot with the aid of extensive R&D by the Science Ministry. He names the robot after his recently deceased son, Tobio. But Professor Temma becomes disillusioned with the almost-perfect nature of the ageless boy-robot and in a rage sells him to a circus. There he is rescued by Professor Ochanomizu who educates Tobio and renames him Tetsuwan Atom. With new social skills, advanced robotics and a memory bank of human-affected experiences, Tetsuwan Atom commits himself to serving humans - but forever ponders his relationship with them. This is Pinocchio retold through Asimov, but with a molecular explosion of themes and dichotomies to do with the essence of soul, the imagination of children, the gender of plastic and the morality of cuteness. And despite the TV-reduced plots (Tezuka said they tended to be 'patternized') and an American woman's voice-over, the context, culture and form of the animated ASTRO BOY resonates with a peculiarly Japanese configuration of trans-gender postwar neo-human traits not usually explored by traditional social-conscience photo-cinema.
Tezuka happens to have been remarkably articulate about his manga and anime creations, particularly in terms of his themes and the ways in which they were acutely expressed through the formalism of his story-imaging and what he later termed a 'semiotics of manga': a signage system which could convey ascribed universals tied to a dramatic flow. His published texts include historical overviews (the POSTWAR HISTORY series of Gag, Sci-Fi and Girls comics); instructional manuals (HOW TO DRAW COMICS: FROM PORTRAITS TO COMIC STORIES) and autobiographical ruminations (I AM A CARTOONIST). Reinforcing his ideas, of course, are the actual works. The afore-mentioned themes of ASTRO BOY, for example, are crisscrossed like delicate webbing through the allegorical pasts and speculative futures of hundreds of manga he published, and in anime based on his manga and devised as original projects.
Tezuka seriously drew manga from 1941, but such entertainment in wartime Japan was frowned on, so it was not until 1946 that he first received a publishing deal. By the mid-50s, Tezuka led the first manga boom in the children and young adult markets, inspiring many other artists and publishers to expand the field. Tezuka by then was recognized for shifting the blockage of manga visual formulae toward cinematic effects, and infusing his narratives with a range of emotions and tonalities which redefined notions of children's entertainment. Come 1977, Kodansha commenced publication of THE COMPLETE MANGA WORKS OF OSAMU TEZUKA which has grown to 400 hardbound volumes containing over 150,000 drawn pages. Prolific, imaginative and driven, Tezuka also wrote, directed and produced animations from 1962 up to his death in 1989: a total of 14 TV series; 36 shorts and TV specials; and 23 feature-length titles. Regarded in Japan as an artistic sensei (master) and a figurehead for the manga and anime industries, his legacy is kept alive by the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum in Takarazuka, and by the continual trickling of his work into the west.
Taking into account (a) cultural gaps between Australia and Japan; (b) the problematic way the cultured-West generally views comics and cartoons; (c) the paucity of translated manga and anime from the world's largest producer of comics and cartoons; and (d) the imposing bulk of material Tezuka produced - Focus on Tezuka is but a slight nudge to entice film patrons in Australia to consider the trans-global issues raised by the powerful post-nuclear sentiments and ideas contained in Tezuka's seemingly-cute animations. Familiar yet strange; European yet Asian; kitsch yet elegant; iconic yet distinctive - Osamu Tezuka's anime affords the interested viewer an insight into the perplexing formal mutations and weird narrative contortions which typify postwar Japanese culture and define Tezuka's own fantastic world.Expanded from the 1995 curated retrospective on Tezuka for the Melbourne International Film Festival (Tezuka: Glimpses of a Fantastic Imagination).
Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
Beautifully dated and hedonistically constructed, 1001 Nights stays true to the sensory backdrop of Scheherazade's tale-spinning. Tezuka remolds the story into something resembling an escapist fantasy-trip wherein a 60s-era salary man is transported back to an era of entirely fictitious Arabian details. Seemingly at odds with itself, 1001 Nights consistently unfolds in a way that combines Playboy graphics, Arabian rug design and traditional Japanese scroll paintings. Groovy.
Directed by Daisaku Shirakawa & Taiji Yabushita
Generally, American-dubbed versions of anime leave much to be desired through their draining of the anime's original Japanese aura. Yet this early 60s animated musical based on Tezuka's manga Saiyu-Ki (itself based on Tales from the East) surprisingly benefits from Les Baxter songs sung by Frankie Avalon. It's Beach Blanket Bingo meets Monkey - a cocktail perfectly matching Tezuka's own heady mix-and-match narratives.
Directed by Osamu Tezuka
Part Italian western, part all Japanese sci-fi, Tezuka's Bagi is an oblique response to the Japanese governments approval of genetic experimentation in the early 80s. The eponymous hero is a genetically-altered pussycat befriended by Ryosuke, whose mother engineered the creature. A minor encyclopedia of adventures unfold in various continents.
Directed by Osamu Dezaki
Brooding, near-psychotic, mysterious - Black Jack is a tormented soul blessed with superior surgeon skills. Debarred and now a renegade high-priced doctor, his encounters notch-up the drama normally applied to medical bi-pics. In this feature version, Black Jack battles to save the onslaught of a bizarre viral injection that creates 'super humans', only to have them wither and die as their immune systems collapse. Forebodingly topical and refreshingly inventive, Black Jack retains the core themes of Tezuka's long-running adult manga.
Directed by Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto
Fulfilling Tezuka's desire to openly eroticise his characterization of the famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra is a riotous romp - in many senses of the word. Tezuka has tackled numerous classical and Europeans archetypes and narratives, but rather than putting them through the Joseph Campbell grinder, he re-invents legend and lore with refreshing irreverence. Adorned with beautiful detailing echoing the manga page and its hyper-graphic sensibility, Cleopatra is a heady historical brew of passion and pathos.
Directed by oshio Hirata
Dripping with Euro-kitsch, Unico is an audio-visual summation of kawaii (cute). Stylistically leaning toward shojo manga (girls' comics), Unico's accent on dizzying visual sensations depicts Romantic and Gothic emotional tropes in this story of a baby unicorn befriended by a kitten, a young girl and her aging grandmother. A handsome satanic prince is a menacing yet seductive force that propels the melodramatic throb of this darkly cute story.
Directed by Yoshio Takeuchi
A remake of the earlier TV series based on Tezuka's manga, this version of Jungle Emperor is a muted response to the Disney Studios' The Lion King. Many key scenes from The Lion King were lifted without credit from Tezuka's original work. Spot the connections. This version of Kimba the White Lion's struggle to claim his rightful place in the animal kingdom uncannily echoes Tezuka Productions' aims to reinstate Tezuka's voice in creating this landmark family entertainment.
Directed by Eichii Yamamoto
Compiled from episodes of the original TV series with all its late 60s charm and appeal. Originating from Tezuka's 1951 manga, Jungle Emperor is a remarkably forward-thinking eco-friendly work. More than an exercise in anthropomorphism typical of Disney, Leo (Kimba the white lion) is a contemplative being, sensitive to the hypocrisy of humankind and conscious of the harsh strategies he must apply in order to achieve harmony between the threatened animal kingdom and ignorant humans.
Directed by Satoshi Dezaki
Tezuka approached his manga like a stage director with a stock ensemble of characters, They appear in various guises throughout his work, and Marine Express has just about every famous character playing a role. A mix of Murder on the Orient Express and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Marine Express plays with the 70s craze for incredible trains developed in Japan. The story involves one such invention which on its maiden voyages slips through a time warp.
Directed by Rin Taro
Tezuka's original manga from 1947 was inspired by a film still from Fritz Lang's seminal sci-fi of the same name. But Tezuka free-forms narrative and thematic possibilities in all his manga. This resulting film retains the frenetic and eclectic patchwork of the manga's adventures, and focuses them in on the inimitable Mitchy - the unisexual robot who was to be the template for many of Tezuka's cyborg creations.
Directed by Tetsu Dezaki
A mélange of narrative possibilities unfurls as the cities of Kujukiri and Dallas are jettisoned into the future of 10,000 years where they engage in war. Prime Rose is a sexy yet vengeful combatant in this terrain, mystically empowered after training with the learned Jinba. Gladiatorial spectacle, retro-sci-fi and the sexy feisty Prime Rose herself - it's an all-Tezuka mash-up.
Directed by Taku Sugiyama
Loosely based on futuristic sections of Tezuka's sprawling Phoenix series of manga, Space Firebird 2772 is a similarly long saga infusing Buddhist, Shinto and Zen concepts with sci-fi pondering. A potent non-Western view on life and the cosmos, the story follows the test-tube birthed Godoh - a ruthlessly trained space fighter who eventually develops human feeling by instinct rather than programmed design. This 'loner' figure appears consistently in Tezuka's work, shaped less through heroic actions and more through personal maturation.