Osamu Tezuka, God of Manga

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is the focal point of the social, economic, and stylistic origins of anime and manga as we know them today. He produced nearly 150,000 pages of comics spread across 700 books and pioneered Japanese animation through his own studio. I recently gave a lecture about his life and works at the anime convention NashiCon in Columbia, South Carolina, and would like to share some important takeaways from his biography.

He made art all the time.

Tezuka was raised by a cinephile father and a theater-loving mother. He was regularly exposed to films, photography, and stage shows, especially the all-female Takarazuka Theater. He and his younger siblings would draw all the time to amuse each other, with several scribbled characters surviving into Tezuka’s adult works as inside jokes. At school Tezuka was bullied for his shrimpy build and wavy hair, which only drove him further into his art.

Tezuka’s parents supplied him with a fresh sketchpad every day to fill however he pleased. Tezuka would explore his neighborhood and catalog different bugs he found. He drew whenever he was sick in bed. His effort paid off when he was published as a newspaper cartoonist at the age of 17 with his humorous four-panel comic called Diary of Ma-Chan.

He thrived under pressure and rose to challenges.

When Tezuka finished medical school–that’s right, an MD-carrying God of Manga–he was torn between the careers of doctor and artist. His mother told him, “You should work doing the thing you like most of all.”

But the path of the artist/author/cartoonist was by no means easy. Tezuka dealt with editors who altered his work or pressured him to change his style to fit popular trends. Early on, a coworker used his comics as toilet paper. The ending to his first big book, New Treasure Island, was chopped off by a critical editor. His breakout anime series Astro Boy required multiple writers and story drafters to keep up with a weekly production schedule, and he had to give up control when writers and networks opposing his dark endings and socially conscious themes.

However, Tezuka did not stop writing the Astro Boy manga, and often juggled several series at a time, so that an editorial change in one series would not dent his ego compared to keeping on a sleepless schedule in other series. His fans started to turn against his morality fables and Disney-esque illustrations once they grew up, and Tezuka had to stay on top of popular tastes to avoid obscurity.

Today’s anime and manga owe a debt to Tezuka.

There are several common features of anime that have their roots in Tezuka’s world. Anime characters have large eyes thanks to Tezuka popularizing the style, possibly as an homage to Betty Boop or the makeup used in theater to emphasize actors’ eyes. Anime also often features characters who talk through mouths that seem to flap open and shut through two frames of animation. This is a result of Tezuka Studios cutting costs for the Astro Boy anime. In fact, the low-budget trends in anime are sometimes called the “Curse of Tezuka,” and have been decried by Hayao Miyazaki (The Secret World of Arrietty, Ponyo, Spirited Away) as harming the modern state of Japanese animation.

Several anime and manga, especially shojos, feature gender-swapping as a plot device. Tezuka authored one of the first shojos, Princess Knight, in which the main character, Princess Sapphire, is born with both a female and a male heart. Princess Knight inspired Rose of Versailles, the stage production of which singlehandedly saved the Takarazuka Theater, which then staged productions of Tezuka’s works! Today’s otaku can track the influence of certain aspects of Tezuka’s works, from before Tezuka to after Tezuka and beyond.

The cycle of influence never ends.

When The Lion King came out in 1994, some people protested that the movie was a rip-off of Tezuka’s 1964 cartoon series, Jungle Emperor Leo, which played in the States as Kimba the White Lion. Disney disavowed any knowledge of the series, but multiple characters and shots from the movie bear awfully close similarities to Kimba. Even Matthew Broderick, who voiced adult Simba in The Lion King, said he thought the movie was a remake of Kimba.

When the issue was brought to Tezuka’s wife (as Tezuka was quite dead by 1994), she refused to press charges. Why not? Why wouldn’t she force Disney into a fat settlement? Because Tezuka was just as inspired by Walt Disney and loved Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and his other animated films. Tezuka claims to have watched Disney’s films repeatedly–dozens of times each. He was particularly enchanted by the realistic movements and fluid animations.

The admiration went both ways: at the 1964 World’s Fair, Disney met Tezuka and expressed a wish to create something like Astro Boy, but the project never took off. Stanley Kubrick wanted to hire Tezuka as art director for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he was too busy to take a year off in England. Tezuka used the movie’s soundtrack to stay awake during long drawing periods, though.

Don’t call it a comeback.

In the early 70s, Tezuka’s popularity waned with audiences, and he was commissioned for five chapters of story in Akita Shonen, partially as an opportunity to write a last hurrah before his perceived retirement. Tezuka used several cameos of familiar characters, linked in this new series by a mysterious doctor who operates without a medical license. The last hurrah turned into a second wind, and Black Jack continued for ten years and protected Tezuka’s status as a household name.

There have been several attempts to remake Tezuka’s ideas into live-action movies, anime series, and rebooted manga after his death. These attempts have seen limited success, confirming that we should appreciate the works Tezuka left behind because we won’t get another creator in comics and animation with the same impact.

A selected bibliography can be found at The Manga Critic.

— Thomas Maluck is a librarian at Richland County (SC) Public Library and is currently reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz