Curated film programme for the Melbourne International Film Festival - 1995

         b a c k g r o u n d     O V E R V I E W      t e c h n i c a l    i m a g e s      p o s t e r s      p u b l i c a t i o n s

Programme Introduction

Perhaps the most accessible route to the fantastic world of Japan's greatest manga (comic) 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 moulded 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 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. 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 animation 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 cris-crossed like delicate webbing through the allegorical pasts and speculative futures of hundreds of manga he published, and in animations 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 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.

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 - this selection of Tezuka's animated works for the Melbourne International Film Festival is but a slight nudge to entice the film patron 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 animated work 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.

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