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Master Of Manga, Osamu Tezuka: “Manga Is My Wife, Animation Is My Lover”

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Original article by Daniel Poeira

People who are not used to Japanese comics often think that the characters’ big eyes are some kind of overcompensation for the fact that most oriental people have small eyes. This racist assumption reflects the ignorance that the general public has regarding one of the most important names in popular art in the 20th century.

TEZUKA, MASTER OF MANGA

Osamu Tezuka was born in November 9th 1928, in the city of Toyonaka, in the region of Kansai, near Osaka. He was a skinny little kid, and although he was often bullied by his school mates, he had an otherwise happy childhood. His family was highly educated for the times — his father was involved with commerce and banking, but in his free time he was a big enthusiast of cinema and photography. Young Tezuka had access to both disciplines early on, and was a major fan of the Mickey Mouse movies his father had at home. He also had contact with humoristic literature and early manga.

At the age of 18 he published his first work, “Ma-chan no Nikkicho”, a 4-panel comic strip for Osaka’s newspaper Shokokumin Shimbun. From that day on, Tezuka never stopped working in comics, and produced over 150,000 pages of manga in the 42 years spanning his career. His mangas were always very popular, and were printed in several different magazines by a wide array of publishing companies.

He drew all of his comics by himself, even though he later employed a large staff of assistants. The production was huge: in December 1973, for instance, he delivered 364 pages of manga, hand-drawn by himself, with the finishing touches completed by his assistants.

Despite his busy work schedule, Tezuka loved traveling. He represented Japan in several cultural events in Europe, the US, and other countries around the world. He was also a jury member of many international festivals, such as Annecy and Shanghai.

During all his travels abroad, he continued to work on his comic books. Several of his pages were drawn inside airplanes, cars, and taxis. Entire stories were drawn overnight in hotel rooms, where Tezuka fueled himself with a constant supply of hamburgers and soda. While in Japan, he would never miss the opportunity to attend an important or interesting event – always followed by an army of assistants who helped him to work in cafeterias, canteens, and waiting rooms in his spare time.

Like Tezuka himself, these assistants often even slept at work. It was a very stressful job, but Tezuka always managed to keep everybody happy, making all employees of his company feel like one big family. This was a necessity, because no amount of money could truly compel someone to work so hard for so long.

As if he wasn’t busy enough with his manga work, Tezuka went to college at a very young age. After graduating and getting a master’s degree, he continued on to the doctor’s course. By January 29, 1961, Osamu Tezuka presented his final paper: “Structural Study of Atypical Spermatozoid Cell Membranes Using Electronic Microscopes”. That’s right — Tezuka spent over 10 years in college, studying medicine. He never practiced it, but he had a true passion for it. He also loved to study history, anthropology, and biology.

TEZUKA GOES TO THE MOVIES

Such a curious, hard working and creative man with such an obvious passion for cinema and comics was destined to become an animator at some point. Even though he was greatly influenced by Disney’s works, Tezuka was also well-versed in the history of animation, and admired the works of Émile Cohl, Winsor McKay, and other pioneers.

In June 1961, the animation department of Osamu Tezuka Productions was born. Back then, it was comprised of a small group of young, enthusiastic people. Some had worked with animation before, but most hadn’t. There were no animation schools in Japan back then, and barely any books. Most people in Japan didn’t even have a TV set in their homes.

Tezuka bought all the animation equipment himself – cameras, stands, light tables – and organized the “department” inside his own home, where his manga department also worked. Back then, the animator’s salaries were paid from Tezuka’s personal finances, money that had been made from the several manga series he had published.

After putting the equipment together, the team started to work on their first movie, the experimental “Machi no Katasumi no Monogatari”. By the end of the year, they decided to call the studio “Mushi Productions”.

But the studio couldn’t continue to depend on having its salaries paid by master Tezuka himself. If they really wanted to succeed, they needed a commercially viable product to make money without having to give up their artistic visions to work with advertising.

From 1958 to 1962, the amount of Japanese homes with a TV set grew from 5.1% to 49.5%. American animation series like Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Flintstones were big hits. The people at Mushi Studios decided it was about time for someone in Japan to take a risk and create a Japanese TV series.

As usual, Tezuka accepted the challenge. One of his most popular mangas back then, Astroboy, was selected to become the first Japanese animation TV series.

The production started with a big problem: how could a small studio with no money deliver half an hour of original animation every week? Delivering 80 pages of manga was one thing, but 2,000 drawings with tracing, opaquing, dubbing and soundtrack was something else entirely.

Based on the “limited animation” techniques of UPA and Hanna-Barbera, Tezuka and his crew managed to create very simplified movies, focusing mostly on character design and strong script writing instead of the number of frames per second. Here, the vast knowledge Tezuka had accumulated from American, French and German cinema played a main role. Whenever an animator attempted to solve movie problems with extra frames and movement, Tezuka would promptly change his work and solve the same problem using zooms, pans, close ups, and other related techniques instead.

The animators at Mushi Productions didn’t have a New Year’s Eve party in 1962. Working like maniacs, they managed to deliver the first episode on the verge of its airing. By January 1st, 1963, Astroboy invaded Japanese television, capturing 40% of the audience.

The impact of Astroboy on Japanese television was monstrous. The studio kept working at the same suicidal pace as they did to complete the first episode, in order to keep delivering new half-hour episodes week after week.

After that, other TV series began to be produced by other studios, and Tezuka’s studios themselves started to produce other new series. This caused a big demand for animators in Japan, and even artists with no experience in the animation field could be hired and earn good salaries.

Astroboy was soon sold to other countries, including the USA, allowing the studio to hire more people. They also sold the rights to produce toys and other products based on the series’ characters to several Japanese companies, gaining extra profit for the studio in the process.

Tezuka’s abilities to tell stories and envision the future in Astroboy were so strong that they attracted the attention of one of the greatest cinema experts ever. In January 1965, Tezuka received a letter from England. It was from a young movie director who had watched Astroboy and wanted to invite Tezuka to be the art director of his next movie, a science fiction story based on a tale by Arthur C. Clarke. Tezuka couldn’t afford to leave his studio for an entire year to live in England, so he sadly refused the invitation.

The director was Stanley Kubrick, and the movie was “2001 – A Space Odyssey”.

Tezuka couldn’t work on it, but he loved the movie, and would play its soundtrack at maximum volume in his studio to keep him awake during the long nights of work.

PAYING TRIBUTE TO THE MASTER

Some 40 years after the release of Astroboy, the revolution begun by Tezuka is still expanding. The children who watched the first airings of the series are now grown up, and some of them became animators and comic book artists as well. Inspired by master Tezuka, these artists create today what is considered a kind of “Japanese invasion”. This so-called invasion might have caught most people by surprise, but those who knew the work of the master saw it coming. Even Disney was a recipient of this influence, producing a famous full feature movie called “The Lion King”, which resembles Tezuka’s “Kimba, the White Lion” in more than one way.

Like Walt Disney’s movies had done in the early 1930’s, Tezuka’s works have touched so many people around the globe that it’s hard to find some comic book artist or animator who has never heard of him and was not influenced by his works on some level. His life was also a great lesson for all of us, a constant battle against mediocrity, and an impressive sense of balance between business and art – something that not even Disney himself managed to achieve.

If today we have Pokémon, Akira, Cowboy Bebop and Serial Experiments Lain, it was because one day, 40-something years ago, a funny old man with a silly hat decided to give it a try.

As for the people who still believe that those big eyes are because of some kind of psychological overcompensation, think twice: aren’t all Disney’s characters big-eyed as well? You do the math.

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