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Osamu Tezuka & Astro Boy
Notes to DVD box set of the 1980 colour ASTRO BOY, released in special edition by Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, 2004 (revised and adapted from the 1995 Melbourne International Film Festival catalogue introduction)

Osamu Tezuka – manga artist & anime director

Often referred to as ‘Japan's Walt Disney’, Osamu Tezuka was probably the single most important figure in establishing anime (animation) as a mass entertainment medium in Japan. Like many animators in Japan, Tezuka first gained notoriety and success as a manga (comic) writer and illustrator. The manga industry is the largest in the world, and the Japanese – with their uniquely non-judgemental perspective of culture – have had no problem in conferring manga critical respect despite its mass popularity. Consequently, by the time of his death in 1989, Tezuka was regarded with the kind of esteem that the west usually reserves for award-winning novelists.

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 recognised 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 300 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.

While much of Tezuka's approach to animation can be aligned with aspects of Disney's pre-WWII work, Tezuka's work generally is quite adult in tone – often effectively incorporating elements of Zen philosophy, Shinto beliefs and animist mysticism. His manga established this in the 50s, and similar concerns were carried through his TV series of the 60s and many feature films. To western audiences, the faces and voices of Astro Boy (1963, aka Tetsuwan Atom), Kimba the White Lion (1965-66, aka Jungle Emperor) and The Amazing 3 (1965-66, aka W3 or Wonder 3) remain uncannily familiar. And despite the sometimes brash American post-dubbing, the soulful and contemplative strains of Astro Boy (wondering who his parents were) and Kimba (accepting death as a way of life in the jungle) still emanate from these imported productions. Their success in the American and consequent international markets afforded the Japanese animation industry impetus to accelerate its ideas and techniques, resulting in the expansive industry it remains today.

Tezuka's career paralleled the rise of the Japanese anime industry. Inspired by Disney, he set up his own production company – Mushi Studios (1961-1973) – which became the training ground for many of the following generation of Japanese animators (including Katsuhiro Otomo and Buichi Terasawa). The Disney studios – like so many animation studios – started off as a vibrant, independent facility, but as many critics have observed, the corporate mentality of the Disney world eventually overtook the artistic direction of Walt Disney's pioneering vision. Tezuka's vision has arguably remained intact. Not only do the bulk of his anime convey a comparable style and tone to his original manga, but also his views of the future have melded comfortably into our present. In contrast, Disney's recent realms of fantasy often display a desperate air of nostalgia and feel-good wishful thinking.

More importantly, while Disney appeared to forgo further artistic experimentation after an unfortunate limited response to the ground-breaking Fantasia (1941), Tezuka continually returned to the personally expressive medium of the short animation, exploring a variety of techniques and ideas in early films like Memory and Mermaid (both 1964) and Pictures At An Exhibition (1966), and later films like Jumping (1984), Broken Down Film (1985) and Self Portrait (1988). These films in particular reveal his manner of fictional wondering, as well as how perfectly his vision is serviced by animation.

Responsibility in advancing technology, caring for all life-forms, and a belief in microcosmic and macrocosmic cycles of reincarnation are key themes which have appeared in all of Tezuka's work, marking him a proto-new-ager living precariously in post-war Japan. Strikingly, these key themes reside with depth and clarity in his children-oriented material (like the Unico trilogy of films - Unico, 1981; Unico: To The Island Of Magic, 1983; Unico: Black Cloud & White Feather, 1989) and his more adult-oriented works (like the series of Phoenix films - Dawn, 1978; Space Firebird 2772, 1981; Karma, Yamato and Space, all 1986). Perhaps the ultimate grace of Tezuka's work is that just at the point they appear cloying and even saccharine, they subtly resonate with an uneasy mournful tone.

Tezuka ventured mostly into the fields of science and speculative fiction, and his animations can bring into focus what live-action sci-fi often attempts but rarely succeeds in creating: a realm of dimensional possibilities. Tezuka's work is often devoid of all plausibility, but freed of pseudo-rational life-likeness, he can freely flow through a current which philosophy, poetry and technology co-inhabit. In Tezuka's universe, planets come and go; energies manifest themselves on multiple lanes; and machines virtually invent themselves. This specific type of fantasy functions like the uninhibited child (similar to the child in Jumping) who imagines how machines operate. Using this child-like illogical sense of wonder as a basis for his narratives and designs, Tezuka strikes at the central desire behind much technological progress and futuristic preoccupation. In doing so he reverses the established Eurocentric quest for knowledge ("how can I invent a machine to do this?") with oriental contemplation ("imagine if a machine could do this!").

Astroboy – anime icon & manga character

The most accessible route to the fantastic world of Osamu Tezuka is of course through the angelic face of his pre-pubescent robot creation, Astro Boy. The Astro Boy animation series has since become not only a major post-war icon for Japan but also a strangely attractive post-baby-boomer figure in Occidental countries. To date there are three complete television series: the original Astro Boy of 1963; the Astro Boy of 1980; and the recent Astro Boy 2003 which celebrated the actual year in which Tezuka originally set his then-futuristic story.

The original Astro Boy was produced in black and white and remains a strong favourite with baby-boomer Americans. It’s nostalgia value is high, and its naivety is its charm. Technically referred to as the Remake of Astro Boy in Japan, the second series is an update of the original series and features a karaoke-disco version of the theme (true to the Japanese theme but with English words). To a different generation, this series now has a great early-80s retro appeal, while the colouring is wonderfully garish. Many changes to the original series 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 late 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 in the Toho cycle of films through the 70s, Astro Boy in this second 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.

Interestingly, both the Japanese and American production companies employed a woman to voice Astro Boy for both series. This unusual softness for such a powerful robotic being is crucial to the character of Astro Boy as an innocent untainted by human foibles and their abuse of power. Despite the TV-reduced plots of both series (Tezuka said they tended to be ‘patternized’, though he was more than happy to supply material to both the Japanese and American markets) the context, culture and form of the animated Astro Boy resonates with a peculiarly Japanese configuration of trans-gender post-war neo-human traits not usually explored by traditional social-conscience photo-cinema.

The manga upon which Astro Boy is based – Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom)– is one of Tezuka's most well-known works, serialised in phases from 1951 to 1968. It is a fascinating tale set in the 21st century where superminiaturisation 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 moulded by post-war 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 post-war period - a period of intense reflection that affected much world cinema.

In the original Tetsuwan Atom 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.

These themes are criss-crossed like delicate webbing through the allegorical pasts and speculative futures of hundreds of manga Tezuka published, and in the formidable number of anime based on his manga and devised as original projects. Familiar yet strange; European yet Asian; kitsch yet elegant; iconic yet distinctive: Osamu Tezuka's work affords the interested viewer an insight into the perplexing formal mutations and weird narrative contortions which typify post-war Japanese culture and define his own fantastic world..

 

Complete contents of this page Philip Brophy