The legendary manga artist and anime producer Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989), known in Japan as the manga no kamisama or “god of Japanese comics,” played a crucial role in the development of postwar manga. Active artistically for more than forty years, he left
behind approximately 150,000 manuscript pages after his death. As a pioneer, he tested the narrative possibilities that word-picture combinations offer. Thus, the development of the so-called story manga (sutorii manga) is associated with his name.1 In his search for new forms of storytelling, Tezuka hearkened back to the Japanese
tradition of word-picture combinations and, at the same time, introduced new pictorial elements from U.S. and European cinema. Like novelists and movie directors, Tezuka gathered his themes and characters from all sources: Asian and European history, the world’s
fairy tales and myths, American science fiction films, and English detective stories. In the treasure trove of Tezuka’s manga, one can find all possible genres with the idiosyncratic narrative patterns and the characters associated with them. Tezuka’s manga are populated
not only by samurai and ghosts, and robots and extraterrestrials, but also by actresses like Marilyn Monroe and comic book heroes like Dick Tracy. Through his manga, many motifs and characters from western popular culture found their way to Japan.
At the beginning of his career, Tezuka was able to strike the right chord for the children who were his readers with his adventure and science fiction stories. In the 1950s, he dominated the manga industry, monopolizing it to a degree that would be impossible for any one artist to accomplish today. Like all who are involved in
popular culture, he was sensitive to the dictates of his readers: works that did not appeal to their tastes were quickly abandoned for projects that would sell. However, he was also at the mercy of his readership’s changing preferences. By the 1960s, Tezuka was no longer considered a trendsetter. His predominance was challenged
when new kinds of stories gained popularity. Called gekiga (dramatic pictures), these comics were new in several respects. First, they came from a new generation of artists located in Osaka, not Tokyo, where the established artists lived. Second, they were new because they were realistically drawn and featured graphic scenes of violence.
Tezuka found himself fending off journalists who declared that he was all washed up. Envious of gekiga’s success, Tezuka fiercely attacked his new artist-competitors, but he also responded by adapting gekiga’s stylistic innovations to his own work. Gekiga spurred Tezuka to abandon old formulas that he had favored for new themes, plots, and character concepts. Finally, after this phase of experimentation, Tezuka hit on a winning synthesis that used the gekiga format to embellish his dramatic manga epics about key moments in world history.
In terms of narrative style, we can distinguish three periods in Tezuka’s career: (1) his early “classical” period from 1947 to the mid-sixties, (2) his horror-gothic period in the seventies, and (3) his historical-realistic period from approximately the midseventies
to his death in 1989.
From 1947 to the Mid-Sixties: Tezuka’s Classical Period
Tezuka’s first manga, Shin-takarajima (New Treasure Island, 1947), is an adventure story combining elements of Tarzan, Treasure Island, and Robinson Crusoe. It became a best-seller with about 400,000 copies sold. Shin-takarajima marked a turning point in the history of manga: for the first time, children could read an exciting story not as a serialized newspaper column, but as a manga book of nearly 200 pages from beginning to end.
After the success of Shin-takarajima, Tezuka drew other manga that were published as “red-book manga” (akahon manga), so named because they were printed on cheap paper and bound in a red cover. They were sold by sweets merchants in the Matsuyamachi district of Osaka. His ideas came from a supply of approximately 3,000pages that he had drawn and bound into books as a youngster during the war. Here, one can find a major reason for the great success of Tezuka’s early publications; most of the adventure and science fiction stories of this early phase are revised versions of those that came from the pen of a boy who was not much older than his readership, rather than an adult who saw manga as a didactic tool to educate children.
In this early phase, Tezuka wrote three kinds of tales: adventure stories, science fiction stories, and period romances. In contrast to Shin-takarajima, these manga were not originally published as books but appeared in magazines running over many, many years, with a form and content that always responded to readers’ changing tastes. For each type he drew manga from dozens to hundreds of pages long. In the early fifties, when he developed his cartoon stars, these stories became long-running bestsellers.
All were hits, such as the adventure story Janguru taitei (Kimba the White Lion, 1950–1954, literally, “Ruler of the jungle”), the science fiction story Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy, 1951–1968, literally, “Ironarm Atom”), and the period romance Ribon no kishi (Princess Knight, 1953–1956, literally, “Knight with Ribbons”). The publication of these three serialized manga marked the first triumph of Tezuka’s career. They were so successful financially—all three even gained popularity abroad—that Tezuka was able to establish his own anime studio.
Adventure stories contain all the exotic locales and extraordinary situations that one
can imagine: The heroes struggle to survive in a tropical jungle, either because they
had to make an emergency landing or because they are on an unusual expedition to
solve some mystery. En route, they find strange old towers, ruins of Inca towns, springs
of immortality, and so on. The adventurers are attacked by eagles, crocodiles, black
panthers, and gigantic poisonous spiders, as happens in Sharigawa no himitsu kichi
(The Secret Base of Shari-River, 1948). The plot of these wilderness adventure stories
is always structured upon the opposition between civilization and nature: “civilization,”
personified by the heroes, is characterized by advanced scientific thinking,
whereas “nature,” personified by the ignorant savages they encounter in the jungle,
means silly superstition.
Science Fiction Stories
Tezuka’s science fiction manga are radically different from his exotic adventure stories.
Examples of this type include Chiteikoku no kaijin (The Mysterious Men Down in the
Earth, 1948), Metoroporisu (Metropolis,1949), Kitarubeki sekai (Next World, 1951),
38 doseij÷o no kaibutsu (The Monster on the 38th Parallel, 1953), Taiheiy÷o x-pointo
(Point X in the South Pacific, 1953), and Daik÷ozui jidai (The Age of the Great Flood,
1955). Rather than being escapist fantasies, these manga directly reflect Japan’s war
experiences and the privations of the postwar period. The stark realities of the time are
made clear in Tezuka’s sharply detailed portrayals of life, down to the small details
of its cruelties. The young Ken’ichi, for example, who appears in almost all of these
early manga, is a character with whom many Japanese could closely identify. He has
lost his parents in the war, and now his uncle, Hige Oyaji, has to take care of him.
In Tezuka’s science fiction stories, the conflict that structures the narrative is based
upon the opposition between democracy and dictatorship. While “democracy” stands
for sincerity and responsibility, “dictatorship” stands for unscrupulousness and callow,
self-serving egotism. Tezuka penned many stories about how the policies of an irresponsible
government run by a dictator end in disaster. The characters who are part of
the totalitarian regime ruthlessly oppress their subordinates and torture any dissenters.
The people, lacking will and incapable of action, have no influence on the decisions
of the selfish rulers. While the officers and governmental officials prosecute the war
from a safe distance, the populace—a mob whipped into a frenzy—is exposed to a
hail of bombs. Panicked, they try to flee, while others—buried alive and shouting for
help—are abandoned to their miserable fate. Reading these manga, Tezuka’s readers
could not only reexperience the horrors of war, but also feel fear about the possibility
of new ones. As such, these stories are a reaction to contemporary history, and, above
all, to the outbreak of the Korean War.
Tezuka’s story lines, therefore, are generally deeply pessimistic. The world has
become a slaughterhouse; there is no corner left to withdraw to and be safe from
violence. He repeatedly portrays the destruction of the world as a flood that buries
everything under it, as in Daikozui jidai (The Age of Great Flood,1955). He expresses
his hope for a rescue using the biblical image of Noah’s Ark. People try to escape on
rafts or leave the earth in spaceships. If enough time remains, pairs of animals are
entered on inventory lists to be taken along on board. These stories often have heroes,
too—young adventurers who rescue Earth and humanity. Here the opposition, narratively,
is between children and adults. The adults are selfish, uncompromising. and
incapable of handling the awesome powers of new technologies responsibly. Great
rulers end up being egotistical maniacs who cut ridiculous figures. By contrast, the
young are reasonable, self-sacrificing, and fight valiantly against the corrupt evil
adults to save the world.
As in all good science fiction stories, things do not occur by happenstance but can
be explained (pseudo)scientifically. For example, the apocalyptic flood is caused by
global warming after nuclear test explosions. Many stories end happily after the evil
knowledge that has wreaked havoc has been destroyed, but it is also clear that scientific
progress is unstoppable; the danger remains that some mad ruler will get his hands on
this new technology once again and use it for nefarious purposes. Tezuka’s ambivalence
toward science is personified by different scientists who appear as characters.
He repeatedly uses scenes of conferences and congresses where scientific experts
gather from all over the world. Among them, there is always a mix of personalities.
Invariably, along with the few modest and far-sighted researchers who warn of the
consequences of new discoveries, there are also arrogant braggarts who announce
smugly that “1+1 = 2,” and greedy scientists hungry for money and ready to sell their
inventions to the highest bidder, as in Meturoporisu (1949, 18–19).
In Tezuka’s romantic fantasies one can see influences from three main sources: German
fairy tales, from which he borrows plots; Disney characters, from which he takes
stylistic features; and the Takarazuka women’s revue, from which he takes scenes that
he incorporates into his manga tableau.
Tezuka’s stories are full of fairy-tale motifs. For example, Akai yuki (Red Snow,
1955) tells the story of an outcast orphan girl who later marries the son of the czar, a
version of the Cinderella tale that, in this manga, is set in old Russia. Extremely implausible
plot twists lead finally to a happy ending. The girl’s key talent, which allows
her to rise socially, is her singing. Thus, notes dance across the manga’s pages with
little birds, which flit around twittering the melody. Replete with romantic moments,
Tezuka won over girls as manga readers with these pieces.
Animal figures, which play an important role in all early manga of Tezuka, appear
in these stories in great numbers. Their resemblance to Disney deer, squirrels, bunnies,
and so on is obvious, and one can even encounter famous Disney versions of characters
from Western popular culture, such as Snow White or Peter Pan. Many of these
manga are set in czarist Russia. In sharp contrast to the ultramodern skyscrapers and
high-tech factories that form the backdrop of his science fiction stories, the scenes in
Tezuka’s romances are reminiscent of postcards of Russian Orthodox churches, filled
with round onion turrets covered with snow.
Many also call to mind the Takarazuka all-women revue’s costume plays, which
still remain popular today with sold-out performances at their Osaka and Tokyo theaters
(Robertson 1998). As a boy, Tezuka went to many of their performances with
his mother, and he liberally imported themes, plots, scenery, scene sequences, and
characters from the stage into his manga. Thus, these had enormous influence on
Tezuka’s girls’ manga.
Tezuka’s most famous costume drama is Princess Knight. It is the story of Princess
Sapphire, a medieval European princess who has to disguise herself as a prince to
succeed to the throne. The basic plot device in the story is that the princess must play
a double role, constantly changing her dress, and thus her identity, to fool everyone.
This gives Tezuka a wide latitude for thinking about gender roles and female identity.
As girls’ manga (shojo manga) developed, it is this exploration of what it means to
be a girl, fathoming the inside world of the heroines, that became a central element
of the genre.
Influences from Abroad
The adventure and science fiction manga of Tezuka’s early phase reveal his thorough
knowledge of American and European adventure tales like Tarzan, Treasure Island,
or Robinson Crusoe, Hollywood, and the UFA (the former German film production
industry) films. Over and over again, one finds famous film scenes reappearing in
Tezuka’s stories. For example, the being that is brought to life by scientists and slowly
rises from the operating table in Tezuka’s Metoroporisu (1949, 29) is inspired by Fritz
Lang’s robot woman in Metropolis, and the automatic food dispenser for factory workers
in Shinsekai Rur÷u (literally, New World Lurue, 1951, 192) comes originally from
Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times. Tezuka altered the scenes for his young Japanese
audience, gave them an entirely new context, and enriched them with the biological
knowledge he had acquired while studying medicine.
Tezuka had mixed feelings about the United States, a love-hate relationship that
alternated between rejecting and borrowing from American popular culture. On the
one hand, the United States was Japan’s former enemy. In one of Tezuka’s science fiction
stories, Sekai o horobosu otoko (The Destroyer of the World, 1954), for example,
American generals discuss dropping another newly developed bomb on Japan. On
the other hand, America positively symbolized adventure, progress, and the future.
Tezuka’s manga often featured idealized utopian American cityscapes depicting a way
of life that was still foreign to Japanese children. Popular culture scholar Mitsutoshi
Ishigami describes his ambiguous feelings as a boy toward Tezuka’s manga by saying
that he felt a sense of strangeness (iwakan) and curiosity when looking at Tezuka’s
cityscapes filled with their skyscrapers and foreign letters on the roadsigns because
English was the language of the enemy. Japanese children did not learn English before
1945 (Ishigami 1977, 36). More and more American English crept into the titles of
Tezuka’s manga. At first, Tezuka ornamented his title pages with transcriptions in the
Roman alphabet, which added an exotic flavor to them. Later, he added English subtitles
that were more or less correct translations of the Japanese originals, and finally,
he used English titles, as in Metropolis written in Latin script and in the Japanese
katakana (Ishigami 1977, 28–37).
In addition, Tezuka added American cinematic features to his manga. In particular,
he adapted the technique of cinematic montage by making sequences of panels to
mimic movement or scene changes. For example, he might use a sequence of several
panels that depicted a figure moving closer to the “camera” (viewer) of a scene.
A typical Tezuka narrative illustrates his special talent as an innovative borrower,
an artist who could seamlessly fold western plots into Japanese stories. Tezuka alternated
his basic five-part plot structure in various manga, such as Astro Boy, Mitsume
ga t÷oru, and Dororo. His five-part structure consisted of the following:
1. An imperfect child is born or created. In one version, the father promises
the body of his child to demons to enlist their help so he can stay in power
(Hyakkimaru in Dororo). In the other, more frequently used version, a mad
or obsessed scientist creates a son, as in the case of Astro Boy; this son starts
life as a child rather than a fully grown adult like the western Frankenstein
or the Terminator. In any case, the child has physical problems that were
caused by his father. Angry about the child’s imperfections, the bad father
abandons him against the wishes of the weak mother.
2. The child is found by a man who lovingly takes care of him. Here, we see
a central motif of Japanese fairy tales at work. This is the motif of the child
sent by the gods (m÷oshigo), as in the tale of the peach boy, Momotar÷o. Every
Japanese child knows this story, which exists in countless variations.2
3. The stepfather, who is a brilliant scientist or doctor, provides the boy with
special augmentations (e.g., Astro Boy’s special equipment, radar, rocket
drive, Hyakkimaru’s artificial organs that allow him to live).
4. Through these special enhancements, the boy gains new powers, but also
suffers a split in his personality. While living like an average schoolboy, an
experience he shares with children his same age (and also the readers), he
uses his unusual abilities for good. Because he is largely artificial, the boy
wonders about his identity: Is he a human being or a robot?
5. The child rewards his stepfather by fighting criminals or ghosts. This plot
becomes a kind of hero myth that also has the character of a detective story,
like Batman in American comics. Tezuka’s most famous crime fighter is
The Cast of Characters
Tezuka authored several instructional books on drawing manga that provide insights
into his understanding of style, character development, and narrativity. In
Manga no kakikata (How to Draw Comics, 1977), he compares manga to children’s
drawings. In his eyes, children draw innocently, not in the sense of a realistic
portrait, like a photo, but expressively, directly putting down their impressions of
their surroundings. Similarly, Tezuka argues that drawing good comics involves
omission (sh÷oryaku), exaggeration (koch÷o), and variation (henkei). Correct proportion
for a realistic sketch is unnecessary. On the contrary, to express an emotion,
abrupt alterations in figuration are appropriate. Thus, his characters may look like
rubber dolls whose heads can reach the ground when submissively bowing and
whose arms become elastic, unnaturally extending far out to grab a beer bottle
they desire. During a fight, the head, arms, or legs can even fly away temporarily
from the body. Strictly speaking, Tezuka’s ideal is to make manga with a childlike
innocence, but also in a way that takes its cue from early American animation,
which is like a stack of images that simulate movement when flipped at high speed.
The only component absent in Tezuka’s manga is the musical background that
accompanies the animated film.
It is in his treatment of his characters that Tezuka comes closest to the role of a
modern film director or stage manager. The science fiction and adventure stories of
Tezuka’s early period are not serials. Content-wise they stand as independent works.
Nevertheless, all his stories from 1947 to 1955 have the same characters in them. They
may get a little older or have slightly different names, but they look the same and have
the same personalities, jobs, and, therefore, the same social status. Like Hollywood
studios with their stables of stars, Tezuka gradually built up a cast of dozens of characters
that was like an actual theater troupe. Just like real actors who are typecast to
fit particular roles, these characters appear in different manga playing their assigned
bits. Tezuka called this his “star system.”
For example, Hige Oyaji is the most pleasant, most engaging character in Tezuka’s
oeuvre. He acts as the protective (step)father or uncle of the orphan boy Ken’ichi, a
figure for whom many Japanese children of the postwar period certainly yearned. A
dear old man with a moustache, Hige Oyaji is a traditionalist who is dependable and
intelligent, although sometimes a little bit clumsy and irritable. Having lived through
the horrific defeat in the war, he is an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and atomic
bomb tests. In Tezuka’s stories, like Mah÷o yashiki (Satan’s House, 1948), Metropolis
(1949), and Janguru taitei (Kimba, 1950–54), Hige Oyaji plays either a responsible
doctor or a good-hearted detective.
In almost all of Tezuka’s early manga, Ken’ichi plays the youthful hero with whom
Tezuka’s young readers could identify. Ken’ichi has a strongly developed sense of
justice and responsibility, and does his utmost not only for his friends, but also for
world peace. His uncompromising idealism is astonishing, because Ken’ichi repeatedly
faces situations that show how naive he really is.
A third key character in Tezuka’s star system is Acetylene Lamp, or “Lamp”
for short, a character who is the embodiment of evil, the mirror opposite of Hige
Oyaji. He plays various roles, such as the sadistic criminal and the unscrupulous
saboteur. He murders people without showing the slightest touch of remorse.
While Lamp is always meticulously dressed, he almost always is a fiercelooking
man. His peculiar name comes from a candle’s flame that flickers on
Lamp’s head when he is surprised or annoyed. Lamp had his debut as the mean
newspaper journalist in Rosuto w÷arudo (Lost World, 1948) (Ishigami 1977, 111).
Acetylene Lamp is one of the few of Tezuka’s characters who also appears in his
later manga as well. Even after Tezuka had abandoned the star system, he still
cast Lamp in sadistic roles.
These and many other characters inhabit Tezuka’s early manga, even if most of
them never became the main characters in any of Tezuka serialized works.3 Tezuka
used this ensemble, giving his “actors” roles that would fit the specific genres in which
they appeared (e.g., the gunslinger hero in the western, the brilliant scientist-inventor
in the science fiction story, etc.).
An unpublished manuscript of Tezuka’s, on exhibit at the Tezuka Memorial Museum
(Tezuka Kinenkan) in Takarazuka, hints that he actually imagined his characters
to be actors that he had hired (Tezuka Productions 1994). He had drawn a lineup of
their faces, provided a short description of them, a curriculum vitae of their acting
careers (who worked when for which studio), and a salary chart of the fees they should
receive for appearing in a manga. Since his readers understand that Tezuka’s manga
are “cinematic,” most Japanese critics rarely mention this idiosyncratic way in which
Tezuka conceived his characters as real actors.
Having stock characters who are unambiguously either good or evil does not allow
much flexibility in terms of a story’s development. But it does allow for the possibility
of humor. For example, Tezuka frequently drew himself, first as a doctor or manga artist,
then as the head of his anime studio, Mushi Production. Sometimes, his characters
quarrel with each other, intrigue against each other, or argue with Osamu Tezuka as
the studio head about their “roles,” “salary,” and so on.
Tezuka also invented characters who have nothing to do with the plot per se, but
appear in cameo roles for comedic effect. The most famous of these is a strange being
called “Hyotantsugi.” It is shaped like a gourd bottle and covered with patches.
Ordinary characters can suddenly mutate into Hyotantsugi when they get angry,
excited, or are ashamed, only to be restored to their original form in the next panel
again. When Tezuka wants to stress strong emotions, the Hyotantsugi bursts straight
out of the panel. When something stupid happens in a story, it rains Hy÷otantsugi.
Occasionally, the gags are more interesting than the events at the center of the
story since they are inside jokes that only true Tezuka fans would comprehend. For
example, characters often step out of the proper story (and even the actual panels) to
remark upon the storyline and the cast of characters. They take on a life outside the
stories as if they were famous film stars. In Kitaru beki sekai (Next World, 1951), a
foreigner meeting Hige Oyaji remarks, “You say you are private detective Hige Oyaji!
I am familiar with your name from several manga” (Kitaru beki sekai, quoted from
a reprint of 1995, 87). Or, in another, when Hige Oyaji makes his first appearance
in Atomu taishi (later, Tetsuwan Atomu or Astro Boy), he asks the other characters
if they know him. They reply, “Of course, you are Hige Oyaji, the private detective
in Tezuka’s other manga.” Hige Oyaji then tells them, “Yes, now I am teacher, but
in former manga, as a private detective, I was an indispensible character of Tezuka’s
manga” (Tetsuwan Atomu 1995, vol. 1, 53). On this secondary comedic level, the close
bond between Osamu Tezuka and his contemporary readers becomes clear.
The Hero—Astro Boy, Leo, and Princess Sapphire
The three serialized manga that made Tezuka’s career all have good, strong heroes
who fight against despicable villains. Indeed, the stories of these three heroes mark
the zenith of popularity of Tezuka’s adventure, science fiction, and romantic fantasies.
The answer as to why Tezuka’s work became so popular lies perhaps in the new ways
he frames his heroes as characters. These stories are not a simple battle between good
and evil—something that we see, for example, in the American Superman comics
where the man of steel (aka Clark Kent) battles against the likes of Lex Luther and
other unrecalcitrant criminals. Tezuka’s heroes are also struggling against a corrupt
society filled with prejudice of which they are a part.
For example, the small robot Astro Boy lives in the Tokyo of 2003, a world of skyscrapers
and aircars that very much resembles today: the children are bored at school, the
police provide law and order, and the ministry of science charts a course for society’s
technological future. On the one hand, these stories are conventional myths of the hero
who protects society from evil outsiders. Like the American heroes in Batman, Superman,
or Spiderman comics, Astro Boy works on society’s behalf to hunt for dangerous criminals
who threaten the public order. With the extraordinary powers that the boy received
from his stepfather, he is often the only one able to fight the villains and save Tokyo, or
even the whole of Japan, from their attacks or from environmental disasters.
On the other hand, these stories do not portray a simple “us versus them” in which
society is good, and evil comes from outside dualism. In fact, the stories raise disturbing
questions about modern society. Unlike today, robots live among humans. Thanks
to scientific advances, in fact, the latest robot models are indistinguishable from humans.
Thus, the underlying theme of Astro Boy is that tension arises when robots and
humans live together. Using this fictional device, Tezuka is exploring real problems
in contemporary Japanese society. Astro Boy repeatedly confronts the problems that
minorities typically face today, particularly the evils of racism.
While Astro Boy faces down the evils of human prejudice, other manga heroes engage
in different battles. In Kimba the White Lion, the white lion Leo desperately fights for the
harmonious co-existence between humans and animals, and in Princess Knight, Princess
Sapphire has to deal with gender discrimination by disguising herself as a young man,
her only means of succeeding to her rightful place on the throne. By overcoming their
difficulties, all three heroes become more than stick figures. They attain an unusual psychological
depth because they are liminal figures. They stand between different groups
and thus have difficulty finding their place in society. Astro Boy stands between humans
and machines, the lion Leo stands between humans and animals, and Princess Sapphire
stands between men and women. Their identity issues open up worlds that they would
never have known if there were simply a machine, a wild animal, or a woman who fits
conventional gender-role expectations. Their new insights make them long for another
life and, at the same time, complicate any possibility of fitting into the status quo.
[*] “Characters, terms and narrative patterns in the manga of Ozamu Tezuca” in Japanese Visual Culture. Explorations in the World of
Manga and Anime. USA, Edited by Mark W. MacWilliams M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 2008. Pages. 68 – 81.