Saturday, 29 May 2010

The complex side of Osamu Tezuka

As I had recently finished reading Swallowing the Earth, an old (but recently available in translation) manga book by Osamu Tezuka, I was thinking of posting something about him, but there was no real timely connection. Then, earlier this week, Japan Today reported that manga-academic (if there's such a job title) Helen McCarthy is nominated for a prize this summer for her book The Art of Osamu Tezuka, God of Manga. So that'll be my excuse.

Tezuka (1928-89) is of course widely known, mostly for Astro Boy. I've only read a couple of the volumes of Astro Boy (originally published in 1952), but love the character's look and feel generally (so, naturally, I have an onsen towel of the character and various figures). However, although the character is officially known in translation as Astro Boy (adapted from the Japanese, Tetsuwan Atom, literally "Iron-arm Atom", or as he is sometimes actually known, "Mighty Atom") I've never been able to think of him as that. I've always thought of him as Atom Boy – in fact, for years I used to think that actually was his name. It has always seemed strange to me that the Americans went for "Astro" with the excuse that it was then more contemporary, more in keeping with the space-programme era. It seems more likely to me they just bottled out of accurately translating his name because of American associations with the atom while Japan, as it has in many an action manga, took on board all those associations. So, to me he remains Atom Boy.

Astro/Atom is justly celebrated. (As in the stamp issue in Japan shown above.) But Tezuka was the most prolific of manga artists – 700-odd manga from the medically-themed volumes of Black Jack, via the re-imaginings of Hitler's pre-war history in Adolf (which has Hitler having to keep his Jewish ancestry secret), to the sci-fi Phoenix. What I especially like – and wanted to highlight in a posting – are the book-length, darker stories and the 8-volume history of Buddha. Swallowing the Earth (left, originally 1968), the one I just finished reading, in fact turned out to be a somewhat confused and simplistic addition to his ouevre. (And was another which has a 16+ age restriction suggested on the cover in the U.S., though that may be for the somewhat silly alcohol-consuming antics of the hero than for the sexual theme. With the simplistic story, an age restriction above 16 seems odd.)

By the way, there is a casually negative illustration of South Pacific islanders in this volume which is why Tezuka Productions and some translation publishers add a note in modern editions of his books to point out that no offence or insensitivity was intended – an desire apparent in Tezuka's otherwise obvious intention to "promote" equality and peace. In this age when we expect "perfection" from everyone in public, such a "failure" seems almost inexplicable – hence the attempt to explain it though the note – and, while it's feels a shame that someone as wholly laudable as Tezuka should be seen as having "slipped up", it is not out of keeping with other cartoonists' received perceptions at the time. Anyway, although this note appears in some other of his books – at the front of Astro Boy, for example – Swallowing the Earth was the first time where it has seemed relevant to me. Coincidentally, it's also Tezuka's least coherent and most simplistic story.

But on with the aim of this posting in generally celebrating Tezuka's art. To get to the heart of Tezuka's perhaps "lesser-known" works (Astro Boy and Black Jack lead the way in terms of fame, and their conversion to TV anime etc) the Buddha volumes (originally 1972) are a good place to start. In these, his drawing combines comic-strip simplicity with the occasional detailed landscape to tell a story mixing an entertaining ride through inter-kingdom warfare alongside details of Buddha's biography and thoughts from birth to nirvana. In the UK, book-length cartoon "for beginners" were popular introductions to various ideas and historical figures (Freud, Marx, Buddha etc etc), but Tezuka's Buddha is nothing like those. It's a manga entertainment first and foremost, yet it couldn't be the story it is without its biographical and philosophical content. Don't expect an academic biography explaining ideas like those UK introductions. Do expect to be entertained while being very casually "informed".

In recent translation, the U.S. publishers Vertical have almost cornered the "alternative" Tezuka market, promoting what were these "lesser known" books into the spotlight and also giving the books superb presentation by book-designer Chip Kidd. The Buddha volumes (pictures left) are a prime example. But Tezuka's 820-page Ode to Kirihito (originally 1970-71) also gets superb Chip Kidd treatment (with a sliding vertical obi to reveal and hide a split cover illustration). Kirihito is a dark story of a disease which transforms a person into a dog-like beast. A medical thriller (health issues having been a favourite of medically-trained Tezuka) dealing with in- and feral- humanity, ostracisation, fear, violence and power. Tezuka's this-time darker cartoon style is supplemented again with detailed landscapes, cityscapes and single oppressive images.

Equally dark, is his MW (originally 1976-78) Another 16+ age recommendation and a story dealing with warfare, sexuality and homosexuality, violence, Christianity, guilt and the desire for power. War history infiltrates the story of a boy who survives exposure to posion gas in Okinawa to become a murderer in later life – when his aim is to get hold of the poison gas, the MW of the title, for his own ends

It should already be clear that Tezuka wasn't all a light-hearted, "super-robot" approach to his themes of addressing violence and the world's problems, and assessing the human condition.

Apollo's Song (1970) ponders the nature of love, unrequited or ungiven, the nature of lust and the too-human disregard for its consequences, as a goddess in the story forces a teenager to confront human loves and losses. From World War II to an imagined future, rape, desire and love are drawn in a clear-line style, often against a more detailed background style. The drawings somewhat bely the darkness of the story to give this book a more open look – the teenage protagonist is drawn almost as though Astro Boy had grown into a flesh-and-blood teenager – but the darkness of the story and serious nature of the theme remains.

Despite the suggested age restriction (is it because it's a cartoon? I've never seen age suggestions on books before, unless they're aimed at children), I'd think that many a thinking teenager would enjoy these books – while, in contrast, many a thinking adult would find the cartoony inserts as really for teenagers. Take your pick.

Tezuka's drawing style only varies slightly across the different volumes, but gives each book its own energy. These scans are from the copies of the books I have. Perhaps now I'll get a copy of McCarthy's award-nominated book for more detailed information on Tezuka's art.
Discovering villagers killed by poison gas in MW

A synthetic human of the future tries to force the real humans to have sex in front of her in Apollo's Song

Insanity in Ode to Kirihito

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