History of Anime: Osamu Tezuka

Dr. Osamu Tezuka: Legend. by Brian Cirulnick

“Walt Disney of Japan”, “God of Comics”, “A Legend in his Own Time”. Many of these phrases will forever be used to describe Dr. Tezuka, but mere words cannot even begin to describe his work, or how it changed an industry, or even the incredible wealth of material produced by this one man.
As I began to research this article, friends sent me copies of magazines that attempted to detail his works, and among them, I discovered that the more I learned about him, the more I realized how little I knew. This single person output more Manga than can be detailed in these pages. The sheer volume of his works could fill several warehouses.

There are those much more qualified to explain his Manga history, and I will leave that task to them, and instead, I will concentrate on his animation career.

Osamu Tezuka was born 1926 in Osaka, Japan, the son of a doctor. According to Tezuka:

“My career as an animator began when at the age of 4 I copied a picture of Popeye. My house was full of comics when I was a schoolboy. Because we were able to obtain a projector and several films, I was able to see Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Chaplin, and Oswald Rabbit at home. When in the third grade in primary school, I drew comics in my notebook, which was immediately taken away by the teacher. Later, however, he encouraged me with praise…..”

The then still young Tezuka was heavily influenced by Disney and especially the Max Fleischer cartoons of the period. The early 1930’s character designs coming out of the New York based Max Fleischer studio featured round heads, and large round expressive eyes.

Commercial Animation
While studying to enter the medical practice, following in the footsteps of his father, he also conceptualized and then published several Manga, most notably Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom), the story about a robot boy invented by a man who lost his own son. Like Pinnochio, the robot wishes he were human.

His art style was fully formed, the characters were appealingly designed, the story well written, and rife with subplots, intrigue, and danger for the little robot.
Tetsuwan Atom was an instant hit, and made Osamu Tezuka’s name a household word. Suddenly the manga industry was reborn. Before, comics were not widely read, but Tetsuwan Atom spread far and wide, engulfing all walks of life in Japan.

In 1957 Toei Animation was formed as a subpart of Toei Productions, currently the largest film company in Japan, with the goal of producing animated feature films.
Tezuka, currently the country’s most popular cartoonist, was contracted to direct one of their first feature length productions, Monkey King (seen in the U.S. as Alakazam the Great). Though a large success within Japan, the film was panned by critics in the U.S., although many admit that it was the poor quality of the translation that ruined it.
The year after Toei Animation opened it’s doors, Osamu Tezuka became Dr. Tezuka, when he received a doctorate in human anatomy in 1958.

In 1962, his contract with Toei expired, and he set out to form his own company, Mushi Productions, which at first, seemed like a move to put him in direct competetion with his former employer.
This was not so. Dr. Tezuka saw the rapidly expanding technology of television as his future. He predicted that the best way to reach a larger audience than the movies was through the black and white box that sat in any and every home that could afford one.
He also decided that his first made for T.V. animation would be based on his number one best selling Manga, Tetsuwan Atom.

This was a rapid departure from the norm, and in effect, changed almost all Japanese animation from that point on. Dr. Tezuka’s drive, vision, and determination brought about a new concept to the then young Japanese television industry. The animation was fluid enough for T.V. audiences, with movie like plots and methods of direction previously reserved only for live action flims, such as attention to lighting and using close-ups for dramatic effect.

When NBC bought the rights to show Tetsuwan Atom in the U.S. as Astroboy, Tezuka’s worldwide success was assured. The move also gave birth to a new era of production as Japanese studios refitted themselves for TV production and new studios formed quickly, as producers raced to catch up to the level that Dr. Tezuka’s pioneering spirit had brought him.

Mushi Productions grew to be one of the largest animation houses in the business by the time Dr. Tezuka stepped down from the position as Acting Director in 1970. Among his achievements there, it should be noted that he produced an animated version of his Manga, Jungle Emperor (seen in the U.S. as Kimba the White Lion), and that he beat out Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat as the first X-rated animated film with his production Cleopatra, Queen of Sex.

Though he never actively practiced medicine, he continued to study and vacillated between his two lives. His manga series’ sold consistently in record-breaking quantities, and he continued to receive profits from Mushi, so it goes without saying that, by this point, he was extremely wealthy, and internationally known. But, he could not rest on his laurels, the animation bug had bit him. He took again to directing and producing when in the late 1970’s he formed Tezuka Production Co.

Again, one of the first productions of this new unit was a color T.V. series of Tetsuwan Atom. Also, the feature film Space Firebird 2772 was produced. Space Firebird was a story loosly based on one of his longest running Manga works, Hino Tori, which was the story of the legendary chase for the immortal Pheonix. The work was semi-autobiographical, and a very personal piece for Dr. Tezuka. Space Firebrid broke new ground in animation quality, and became a yardstick to measure all other films by.

Tezuka’s Other Life:

While his dual life as Doctor (though he never actively pursued a medical career), and commercial cartoonist is well known, what many fans of Japanese animation do not know was that Dr. Tezuka led yet another life within the field of animation, that of an independent producer.

Independent animation is a field usually reserved for the terminology “art film”, but the genre is an area full of experimentation, and art styles vastly different from those we see daily. Almost every modernization in the field of commercial animation was the result of experimentation in styles, camerawork, and usage of the medium in independent animation.

In 1961, Yoji Kuri started a group known as the “Animation Party of Three” with Ryohei Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe, and later that year, organized the first Japanese independent animation festival. The very next year, Tezuka joined, and produced two films with his own funds, Story of a Street Corner, and Male. Over the years he continued to experiment with the medium and discovered that there was much more freedom in producing his own work in whatever style and form he wished, than bowing to the limitations set by the Television Industry.

While Mushi productions continued to grow and produce several animated shows at the same time, employing over 400 people, who would later go on to become some of today’s top animation producers and directors, the man who started it all, Osamu Tezuka, was already starting to feel boxed in by the world he had created.

Already, many other studios were copying his techniques, and animation was acheiving a “standardized” look. The Japanese love for copying and conformity was strangling the creative atmosphere he needed to work in.

In 1982 he left commercial animation altogether, and went to work full time for his own films, completely abandoning the animation “factories” he helped create.
His efforts bore fruit when he premiered at the internation Zagreb Animation Festival, held on alternating years in Czechezlavokia, the experimental film, Jumping. Jumping was a seven minute piece of genius, and won the grand prize at the festival.

Not to be out done by himself, next year, the Festival in agency saw the premier of Broken Down Film; which is what the title claims it is. The elaborate pranks confused even hardened projectionists, and the audience loved it. Though no awards are given at the Annecy Festival, it won grand prize at the Hiroshima Festival. Osamu Tezuka became a honored name among independent animators.

He continued to promote the medium, appearing at many animation festivals around the world, right up until the point of his death. Osamu Tezuka collapsed after arriving home from a festival, where he shared his experience with those who had a lot to learn from this one man.
Osamu Tezkua literally changed the face of Japanimation. Before his influence, Japanese animation was traditionally oriented, with a style of it’s own. Tezuka homoginized it, making it a widely accepted form of entertainment because the style was not recognizable as belonging to any particular nation. He introduced techniques normally reserved for feature films into the television market, and created an industry in his wake. When he discovered his own Frankenstein’s Monster in the stifling air of the animation factories, he left commercial animation and pursued his own goals.

He made the films he wanted to see, and in doing so, gave us something more than anyone had ever imagined. He had a unique love for the medium, and expressed it in a way that we all could appreciate, and also love.

I for one, found myself influenced by his work, and I adapted my then forming art style towards his. It is interesting to note that he has influenced a new generation of American cartoonists, when he himself was influenced by American cartoonists at Disney, and the Fleischer studio.
It has come full circle, and we are in a unique position to continue to carry the kind of love he had towards the future. That is Osamu Tezuka’s greatest legacy: That so many people love his work, and are striving towards the elusive symbiosis this man shared with his art form and the art form he shared with the world.

Complete Filmography:

Theatrical Features:

1957-Monkey King
1966-Jungle Emperor
1969-A Thousand and One Nights
1970-Cleopatra, Queen of Sex
1970-Kindly Lion
1979-Marine Express
1980-Hinotori 2772 Love in the Cosmo Zone

Television Series:

1963-1966-Mighty Atom (Astroboy)-193 Episodes B&W
1963-1965-Space Patrol?- Episodes B&W
1964-1965-Big X-59 Episodes B&W
1965-New Treasure Island?- Episodes B&W
1965-1966-Wonder Three (Amazing 3)-52 episodes B&W
1965-1967-Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion)-26 Episodes
1966-1967-Jungle Emperor (Leo the Lion (Kimba grown up)-26 Episodes
1976-Monkey King-39 Episodes
1967-1968-Princess Knight (Choppy and the Princess)-52 Episodes
1968-1969-Vampire-26 Episodes
1969-Dororo-28 Episodes
1971-1972-Wonderous Melmo-26 Episodes
1972-Triton Of The Sea-? Episodes
1973-Wansa-Kun-26 Episodes
1973-Mekro S-26 Episodes
1977-Jetter Madasu-27 Episodes
1978-Banderbook-? Episodes
1979-Marine Express-26 Episodes
1980-Fumoon-31 Episodes
1981-Bremen 4-? Episodes
1980-1981-Mighty Atom (Astroboy (new color series)-52 Episodes
1983-Prime Rose-? Episodes

Commercial films not within either category:

1970-Once Upon A Time
1966-Flying Ben
1969-Blue Triton
1970-Miiske Of The Ice Country
1971-Miiske’s Southern Voyage
1981-Unico (The Fantastic Adventure of Unico)
1983-The Green Cat
1983-The Rain Making Brat

Independent Animation:

1962-A Story Of The Street Corner
1965-Tobacco & Ash
1966-The Pictures On The Exhibition
1985-Broken Down Film
1987-Legend Of The Forest Part 1

Mighty Atom: Beyond the gloss.

My article mostly is a roundup of his animation career. What made Tezuka truly stand head and shoulders above the generations of animators he inspired was that above all, he was a fantastic storyteller.

Take a look at his most popular creation, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astroboy). Astroboy is sort of the “Mickey Mouse” of Japanese animation, if one equates Dr. Tezuka with Walt Disney. The difference is that while Mickey was a character who played different roles seven minutes at a time dependent upon the cartoon, Astroboy was about social change in Japan, and the future of technology as we view it.

Tesuwan Atomu translates into “Mighty Atom”, who is a friendly robot, atomic powered. This embraces the idea of atomic energy, and the atom itself, as a friendly device, working for the good of man, and NOT the deadly, violent atom that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagaski. The story’s underlying meaning does not stop merely at the prospect of helping the Japanese deal with this new power in a friendly fashion, but also goes on to discuss the possibilities of how we will deal with intelligent machines when they come.

Astroboy is a robot who wishes that he were a real boy, much like Pinnochio. However, instead of facing the wraith of a whale, or being beguiled by the Fox and the Cat, Atsroboy faces a much more terrible enemy – the insensitivity of man.

Astroboy is treated like a machine, though he has human feelings. It is this “second class citizenship”, that focuses on our future of artificial intelligence.

Issac Asimov wrote of such things in his classic “I Robot” series, but Tezuka goes beyond that. He makes Astroboy more human in terms of his caring and consideration for life, than the humans he is surrounded by. Astroboy is more human than human, and society does not recognize this.
Tezuka tells us that it is we who are the robots, unless we learn to care.

Almost all of Dr. Tezuka’s other work reflects these same attitudes – Peace, technological achievement through peaceful means, Society’s ills, – Tezuka gave us a mirror through which to view ourselves, and the sight was indeed, something to learn from.