Glimpses of a Fantastic Imagination
Curated film programme for Melbourne International Film Festival - 1995

Catalogue essay

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.

This programme is an expansion of the Tezuka material researched and presented in the exhibition Kaboom! Explosive Animation from America & Japan at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (1994). Special thanks to Mr. Matsutani and Mr. Shimizu of Tezuka Productions; Mr. Ito & Mrs. Matsumoto of Mushi Productions; and Rosemary Dean, Minoru Ideta & Tim Patterson for translations and assistance.


TV series

  • Astro Boy


    Original manga: Tetsuwan Atom (1951-1958)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    The TV series that started it all, from the infiltration of Japanese style into Western TV animation to the tradition of cartoon robots still strong in Japanese anime today. The success of ASTRO BOY in and outside Japan provided the cornerstone for the animation industry there and insured a productive livelihood for Tezuka's independent animation company, Mushi. Incredibly kawaii (cute) to this day - and according to Tezuka, thematically slim when compared to the original manga - ASTRO BOY remains more innocent than puerile; more charming than cloying; more mournful than melodramatic. One of the 193 episodes inspired the 1966 film FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and a similarly inspired Stanley Kubrick approached Tezuka to do storyboards for 2001.

  • Kimba the White Lion


    Original manga: Junguru Taitei (1950-1954)
    Directed by Eichii Yamato

    The 3rd TV series Tezuka created with Mushi, KIMBA was the first colour anime series made in Japan. Highly memorable for Australian kids who saw it during its early 70s broadcast, KIMBA contained a certain harshness and sadness atypical of animation then and still now. It is based on the Zen notion of the greatness of nature: 'the great fish eats the small'. Many episodes featured death and injustice as the brutality of man is starkly contrasted against the survival codes of jungle animals. The familial, social and genetic complexities of a lion family (Kimba and his father Leo) who learn to speak English and introduce vegetarian diets to carnivores are amazing flights of the imagination. Unavailable in the west since the mid 70s, one can compare this seminal series with Disney's recent THE LION KING to study just how east meets west.

  • Princess Knight


    Original manga: Ribon No Kishi (1953-1956)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    Acknowledged as the first anime for girls (and indirectly leading to some of the most mind-boggling gender-specific girls titles [shojo manga & anime] which have proliferated in Japan over the proceeding 30 years), PRINCESS KNIGHT is a truly confounding tale. Set in a lurid fantasy-Europe which makes Disney's penchant for Bavarian castles seem restrained, this is the story of Sapphire who cannot succeed to the throne of Goldland because she is a girl. Thus she parades as a boy, and smites one Franz Charming when she redisguises herself as a blonde girl for a journey into Silverland. If this already doesn't already sound like one of the wild romantic scenarios from the female cross-dressing Takarazuka Revue, complications further arise because when Sapphire was born, a mischievous angel (Tink in the original; Choppy in the American) pushed the heart of a boy into her mouth - so she actually has the hearts of both sexes within her.

  • Marvelous Melmo


    Original manga: Fushigi na Merumo (1971)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    If PRINCESS KNIGHT sounds wild, MARVELOUS MELMO is all the more so because Tezuka's intentions were that this TV series function as sex education for young children. Never released in the west - not surprisingly - the series follows the exploits of Melmo who is given a bottle of transformative growth pills by the spirit of her recently deceased mother. These pills allow Melmo to do things like grow a human embryo of her brother in a bowl of water and transform herself to a sexy teenager who spends most of her stop-and-start teenagerhood wearing her kiddie clothes - now a very short dress and absurdly tight top. Morals, ethics and sex advice abound in this marvelously crazy series.

  • Astro Boy


    Original manga: Tetsuwan Atom (1951-1958)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    Technically referred to as the REMAKE OF ASTRO BOY, this series features a karaoke-disco version of the theme (true to the Japanese theme but with English words). Many changes are evident in this slicker version, but the themes are largely intact. The main shift is in the focus on the robotics of Astro Boy. This time his five powers are described not in humanitarian terms but in machine-power terms (trailing the 70s boom in robot anime pioneered by the likes of Go Nagai, Reiji Matsumoto and Yoshiyuki Toshmino). And just as Godzilla became a good guy, Astro Boy in this series would develop strong friendships with many of his mortal robot enemies, thus retaining a key Tezuka theme: robots, monsters, spirits and animals are OK - Man is the problem.


  • Tales Of The Street Corner


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    Tezuka's work can loosely be divided into three distinct modes of production: his manga - where he could elaborate his ideas with total control; his TV series and manga-derived features - which often transformed his manga ideas; and shorts designed for international film festivals - where he could artistically explore the animation medium and branch out from the otherwise primary prerogative to entertain. TALES OF A STREET CORNER was the first work in this third mode, and as such is heavily based on the then-established artistry of modernist illustrative animation from Eastern Europe. In fact TALES is a pastiche of many European styles and media, with emphasis on the bold poster designs which originated from Russia in the 20s. Of special note in this film is the accent on widescreen cinematic pictorialism - a design principle not usually applicable to manga layouts. Often characterized as an anti-war statement, TALES serves as an introduction to Tezuka's philosophy of life, wherein good can come from bad, a reality from which the innocent are not spared. Interestingly, Tezuka's idea for this film originated in his ideas for music and sound (each character has their own theme and instrument) and he closely monitored the production of the score which then allowed him to elaborate his storyboards.

  • Mermaid


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    A whimsical tale of impossible love rendered in severely simplistic stick-figure technique. Tezuka explored a vast range of styles and techniques in his animation which he could not do with his manga. The music score for MERMAID is the first of many done by Isao Tomita, who later went on to provide the distinctive orchestral score for KIMBA and become a recording artist in his own right.

  • Drop


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    A companion piece of sorts to MERMAID. DROP utilizes similar brush and wash backgrounds but stylizes its central protagonist in broader caricature as he attempts to pathetically lick a drop of water while shipwrecked at sea. Tezuka made this film in one week as a demonstration to his staff at Mushi that experimental anime could be done quickly and economically.

  • Pictures At An Exhibition


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    Tezuka's second major animation short. PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION is Tezuka's inspired response to Disney's FANTASIA. Much of Disney's work did not reach Japan until the late 40s, and the advances that Disney displayed in SNOW WHITE and FANTASIA hit Japanese animators with great force. Tezuka has often been characterized as the 'Japanese Disney'. Certainly he was influenced by Disney, but Tezuka also retained his own personal vision. PICTURES verges on the ostentatious at times, yet it remains a breathtaking ride through various moods and dynamics. Based on Mussorgsky's famous image-narrative score, the version for this film was arranged and conducted by Isao Tomita. On a rare occasion, PICTURES was screened with live orchestral accompaniment.

  • Jumping


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    A tour de force of technique and the imagination. Influenced by the experimental Hungarian animation THE FLY, JUMPING utilizes the point-of-view gag to convey a breathtaking view of how powerful a child's imagination can be. Apart from the technical virtuosity of the animation (containing over 4,000 cels in 6" shot over 2 & 1/2 years) JUMPING is governed by wondrous rhythms as the jumps get bigger. While some have remarked that Tezuka is first a manga artist and second an animator, this film demonstrates the sharp rhythmic and dynamic sensibilities that expand Tezuka's vision from being solely static and visual.

  • Broken Down Film


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    A string of gags based on 20s-style animation and the self-reflexiveness of Windsor McCay's surreal comic strips from the same period. While the gags are familiar, the extent to which Tezuka pushes the medium's break-down is quite extreme. Tezuka himself considered that if this film is booed off by the audience, the screening would be a success.

  • Push


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    Another of the whimsical gag shorts, this one centring on a futuristic society of machines at the eternal service of the isolated human being. The repeated 'thank-you - come again' phrase orients the film as a wry comment on the polite rituals of mass consumption in contemporary Japan.

  • Muramasa


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    One of Tezuka's last shorts. Utilizing a sketchy realist mode of depiction it is a cautionary tale of armament set against a backdrop of samurai lore and iconography. Towards the end of his life, Tezuka was especially outspoken on a variety of global issues. His cautionary address, though, exists in various mystical, poetic and philosophical ways in just about everything he produced.

  • Akuemon


    Original manga: Akuemon (from the Tiger Book series) (1973)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    AKUEMON is a good example of animation in the gekiga style which had developed in Japan by the start of the 60s. This was a more seriously-toned adult-oriented narrative form of manga which stressed realistic effect and emotional impact as opposed to the visual symbolism and hi-keyed archetypes displayed in early postwar manga. (While manga - 'comic pictures' - is the umbrella term for all Japanese comics, gekiga - 'drama pictures' - is often viewed as a branch within manga.) Establishing himself in the early postwar period, Tezuka defined much of that period's manga: a mix of kawaii, mysticism, fantasy and playfulness. By the mid-60s, Tezuka not only carved his niche in anime, but also incorporated the gekiga shift of tone which was shaping both industries. Intriguingly, Tezuka did so by retaining a sometimes disturbing cuteness which made his dramatic situations all the harsher. AKUEMON is a tale about a baby's relationship with a cute fox who becomes a human spirit after the baby's mother dies. The original mother's husband is Akuemon (nickname for a savage, animalistic man) who killed the fox's mother. Further twists ensue which make this film a fascinating mix of chintzy fairytale and brooding morality play.

  • The Green Cat


    Original manga: Midori No Neko (1956)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    The original manga on which THE GREEN CAT is based has been regarded as a pioneering science fiction work. The resultant anime is a typically quirky mix of Disney-esque character stylings with involving and ponderous narrative threads. Once again, Tezuka clashes generic traits and iconography to produce a uniquely Japanese mutative approach to story-telling.

  • Adachi-Ga Hara


    Original manga: Adachi-Ga Hara (1971)
    Directed by Osamu Tezuka

    ADACHI-GA HARA continues the afore-mentioned 'mutative approach' to story-telling. This time, the original manga is based on a traditional Noh play called KUROZUKA which mines the rich vein of Japanese witch mythology. Tezuka sets ADACHI on a desolate asteroid and plays out the involving confrontation between a young space cadet and the hermit crone, leading the story to a suspenseful and sombre ending.

  • Legend Of The Forest

    aka XXX


    Written & directed by Osamu Tezuka

    The second major artistic work Tezuka produced as a reflection on the art, craft and history of animation (the first being PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION). LEGEND OF THE GREEN FOREST is formally dedicated to Walt Disney and conveys Tezuka's ongoing theme of the importance and value of life in all its forms. Told exclusively with music and no dialogue, the progression of the plot develops in tandem with a sequence of stylistic changes which reflect a micro-history of animation: from early negative line-drawings to Windsor McCay's comic-style simplicity to early Disney SILLY SYMPHONY figuration to Disney's later fleshy renderings to the postwar modernist styles of Tex Avery and so on. The closing of LEGEND also contains a self-reflexive 'battle' of sorts between the innocent animals - drawn in full animation style - to the evil humans - depicted through the limited animation technique (the use of fewer cels) which has governed TV animation around the world since the mid-50s.


  • Space Firebird 2772


    Original manga: Hi no Tori (1967-72; 1976-80; 1986-88)
    Directed by Sugiyama Taku

    SPACE FIREBIRD 2772 is loosely based on certain futuristic aspects of Tezuka's sprawling HI NO TORI (Phoenix) series of manga, regarded by many as his most outstanding work. FIREBIRD is a similarly long saga which may appear confused and patchy (some say the result of Tezuka trying too hard to 'internationalize' the production), but is nonetheless a valuable anime in terms of how skillfully Tezuka infused Buddhist, Shinto and Zen concepts with standard science fiction pondering. FIREBIRD also serves as a potent dose of a non-Western view on life and the cosmos. The opening sequence set solely to 'beautiful' orchestral music shows the creation and birthing of a test tube human male - Godoh - within a bizarrely clinical space station. There he is attended by a sexy mother robot, Olga, who also can change herself into an amazing array of sexy machines and appliances at the service of the developing child. Godoh grows up in this environment until he is a late teenager, after which he goes out into the world for a series of adventures. Only a Japanese animation could depict such a child-rearing environment in such a sexually-coded yet utopian way. Godoh - not unlike Tetsuwan Atom - is ultimately an individual unit who has to develop his social interaction skills by instinct rather than programmed design. This 'loner' figure appears in a lot of Tezuka's work, and usually is conveyed less through heroic actions and more through personal maturation. As such, Godoh reflects not only ways in which the individual functions in the seemingly-controlled Japanese social world, but also the individualistic stance Tezuka himself has taken as a manga and anime artist.

  • Unico


    Original manga: Unico (1980-1984)
    Directed by Toshio Hirata

    Put simply, UNICO is a beautiful film - sincerely and perversely. It drips with European kitsch of the same variety that clings like treacle to Disney's postwar work. (Ironically, this hyper-saccharine creation came about after Tezuka visited Los Angeles at the end of the 70s.) If you want an audio-visual definition of what kawaii is all about, you can't go further than UNICO. The style distinctly leans toward shojo manga with an accent on dizzying visual sensations which depict both romantic and Gothic emotional tropes in the story of a baby unicorn befriended by a kitten, a young girl and her aging grandmother. And the handsome satanic prince is menacing yet achingly seductive - a prime force in propelling the melodramatic throbbing of the story. The central character, Unico, once again serves as the innocent loner suffering unending abuse (malicious and thoughtless) at the hands of humans, providing us with a quintessential Tezukian figure.