In this month’s Spotlight article, we’re looking back on the life and times of a man who was referred to as the “God of manga” and the “godfather of anime.” Osamu Tezuka wrote around 150,000 pages of manga manuscripts for over 700 volumes and created roughly 60 animations. It was the quality of his work rather than the quantity, though, that left such a lasting impression. His influence on Japanese pop culture can never be underestimated. He was a true pioneer.
Manga (along with anime) is one of Japan’s most influential cultural exports and the work of Tezuka is one of the main reasons for that. Inspired by western cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Betty Boop, he was the first mangaka here to draw the big, expressive eyes that are so ubiquitous in comics today. He was also the first to popularize decompression in manga, a technique with a strong emphasis on visuals or character interactions leading to slower-moving plots.
“Foreign visitors to Japan often find it difficult to understand why Japanese people like comic books so much…. One explanation for the popularity of comics in Japan is that Japan had Osamu Tezuka, whereas other nations did not.” (Asahi Shimbun, February 10, 1989)
Tezuka, the eldest of three children, was born in Toyonaka, Osaka on November 3, 1928. When he was five, his family moved to Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture. The city was and still is famous for the popular all-female musical theater troupe, the Takarazuka Revue. His mother often took him to watch the shows and they left a huge impression on him. This was sometimes evident in his work, most notably Princess Knight, considered the first-ever shoujo manga. The story focuses on Sapphire, a girl pretending to be a male prince.
Even more influential than the Takarazuka Revue, were the films of Walt Disney. Tezuka was first shown them by his father and immediately became obsessed, famously watching Bambi more than 80 times. He went on to adapt the heart-warming white-tailed deer story for Japanese audiences in 1951.
The Osaka-native was also inspired by domestic manga such as Suiho Tagawa’s Norakuro and Mitsuyo Seo’s animated feature Momotaro: Sacred Sailors. Another story that had a big impact on him was the Chinese animation Princess Iron Fan. The first Asian animated feature film, it was shot by the Wan brothers during World War II.
In the penultimate year of the Pacific War, Tezuka was drafted to work at an army arsenal in Osaka. He was often scolded for spending too much time drawing rather than concentrating on his work. As a result, he was regularly sent up to the top of the watchtower to keep an eye out for B-29 bombers as punishment. He wrote about the experience of seeing the city being attacked in his autobiographical manga The Paper Fortress in 1974. He described the “sea of fire below,” and the “bodies that were so fractured, they didn’t look like human beings.”
Manga Over Medicine
In the last year of the war, Tezuka enrolled at the medical school of Osaka University. He was drawn to the subject after nearly losing both his arms to infection as a teenager. His aim was to help others as doctors helped him. He graduated in 1951 and passed the exam for medical practitioners a year later. By that stage, though, his passion for drawing and storytelling was stronger than his desire to be a surgeon.
Tezuka’s first work to be published was Diary of Ma-chan in an elementary school paper in 1946. A year later, New Treasure Island was released. Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, it was written by Shichima Sakai with Tezuka providing the illustrations. An immediate hit, it was seen as the beginning of the golden age of manga.
In 1950, one of Tezuka’s most iconic stories was serialized in Manga Shonen for the first time. As the title suggests Kimba the White Lion (known as Jungle Emperor in Japan) centers around a white lion named Kimba (called Leo here). Following the deaths of his father and mother, the young cub is cared for by humans.
Similarities between Kimba and Disney’s The Lion King, released in 1994, later caused controversy. Some of the Lion King’s creative team denied even knowing who Kimba or Tezuka were. However, in an interview with Austin American-Statesman, Matthew Broderick, the voice of Simba in the Disney production, stated that he thought he was playing Kimba when he read the script. In an episode of The Simpsons, Mufasa appears in the clouds and says: “You must avenge my death Kimba… I mean Simba!”
Birth of the Atom Boy
In 1951, Tezuka introduced his most famous creation to the world. Astro Boy originally featured as a supporting character in a short manga series titled Captain Atom. He proved so popular; a spin-off titled Mighty Atom was created a year later.
The story of the robotic boy designed with a 100,000-horsepower engine and various other superpowers used to fight crime and injustice quickly became a phenomenon in Japan. Both kids and adults would wait patiently for monthly installments. The 23 volumes would go on to surpass 100 million in sales. Fewer than 20 manga series have reached that milestone.
The anime series was also a huge success both at home and abroad. It premiered here on New Year’s Day in 1963 and lasted for four seasons. An NBC representative happened to catch an episode while in a hotel in Tokyo and the show was picked up on the cheap by the channel. It was then renamed Astro Boy. Despite only being shown on smaller regional stations, it proved a ratings hit. The series was eventually broadcast in more than 50 countries and was remade in 1980 as New Mighty Atom and in 2003 as Astro Boy: Mighty Atom.
“The original stories are much more sophisticated than the animated series,” says Frederik L. Schodt who translated many of Tezuka’s works including Astro Boy. “It’s fascinating to see how Tezuka foresaw some of our problems with artificial intelligence, ecology — even suicide bombing and terrorism. There are stories that address racial discrimination in the United States and discrimination within Japan. He even had Astro Boy go to Vietnam and protect the villagers from American bombers. It’s hard to believe all that’s built into a story designed for 10-year-old boys.”
Meeting Disney and Turning Down Kubrick
Among Astro Boy‘s large fan base were many high-profile figures. At the New York World Fair in 1964, Tezuka met Walt Disney who told him the comic series “was great.” Another admirer was Stanley Kubrick, famed for movies such as Spartacus and Lolita. After watching Astro Boy, he wrote Tezuka a letter asking him to be the art director of his next movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Japanese visionary refused as he couldn’t afford to leave his studio for a year to live in England.
Tezuka continued to enhance his reputation thanks to series such as Buddha and Black Jack. The former is an epic focusing on the life and times of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. In Black Jack, Osamu utilized his medical knowledge to tell the story of an unlicensed surgeon. The famed mangaka also became known for his fictional stories based around historical events such as Dororo (the Sengoku Period), Message to Adolf (WWII) and Ayako (the US-led Occupation of Japan).
The series that Tezuka considered his magnum opus was Phoenix. His “life’s work,” it featured 12 volumes, running from 1954 to 1988. Each book is set in a different era with characters from one story being reincarnated in another. The first takes place in the era of Himiko (240-70 AD) with the second jumping forward to 3404, near the end of humankind. Phoenix was never completed due to Tezuka’s death.
Tezuka’s Death and Legacy
A workaholic to the end, Tezuka’s last words before passing away were reportedly: “I’m begging you let me work,” after a nurse took away his drawing equipment. The legendary artist died of stomach cancer on February 9, 1989, a month after the Showa Era ended. He was 60.
“Foreign journalists arriving in Tokyo to cover the Imperial funeral (on February 24, 1989) were surprised to find such public attention focused on the funeral of a comic book artist,” wrote author Helen McCarthy. “Tezuka’s interpreter and friend Frederik L. Schodt compared Japanese reactions to his death to the despair following John Lennon’s murder in 1981.”
In 1997, stamps were issued in his honor and the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize was created for manga artists who exemplified his spirit. As for Tezuka’s work, more than three quarters of a century on from his first publication, it continues to influence artists both at home and abroad. And that is why the great man will forever be referred to as the “God of manga” and the “godfather of anime.”
Feature image by Anna Petek