Friday, September 19, 2008

Master of Mighty Manga

There has been a torrent of Tezuka related news and articles coming out of the UK to coincide with the film festival taking place in London at The Barbican, which started yesterday and will conclude September 24th.

In a recent article found in newspaper The Times, writer Dominic Wells talks about Tezuka and makes a case that he ought to be much better known considering the depth and importance of his work. It's a great article that also briefly details the controversial comparisons between Tezuka's Jungle Emperor Leo/Kimba the White Lion and Walk Disney Pictures' The Lion King.

You can read the entire article for yourself on the Times Online website or read the archived copy right here by clicking the link below.

Osamu Tezuka, the master of mighty manga
The ‘Japanese Walt Disney’ deserves wider acclaim

Dominic Wells

“One explanation for the popularity of comics in Japan,” ran the Japanese newspaper Asahi’s obituary for the man known as “the god of manga”, “is that Japan had Osamu Tezuka, whereas other nations did not.”

Walt Disney was an admirer of Tezuka. Stanley Kubrick tried to recruit him as an art director on 2001: A Space Odyssey.Devoted as a child to American movies and cartoons, Tezuka introduced a remarkably cinematic style to his comics, and every Japanese animator since lies in his debt, or shadow. And yet, even as racks of Japanese animation proliferate in our DVD stores, even as Western parents gratefully add another enchanting Miyazaki anime such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away to their collection of family classics, the name of Tezuka, who died aged 60 in 1989, has been all but forgotten over here.

This week, a festival of Tezuka’s films, coupled with an exhibition of his artwork, will set the record straight. The week-long season at the Barbican in London cannot hope to be comprehensive – throughout his all-too-short life, Tezuka slept only four hours a night, the better to create more than 700 stories, 170,000 pages of manga, dozens of TV series and 17 feature films. But it includes his best-known works, as well as many never before seen in this country.

Here, for instance, are the three cartoon series that in the Sixties introduced a generation of Americans to Japanese animation. Astro Boy, inspired by Pinocchio, stars a super-strong robot child, built by a scientist to replace his own dead son. Princess Knight features a warrior princess who disguises herself as a boy, thus inventing the now massive shojo genre of adventure comics for girls. By contrast, in America, when the Fantastic Four was dreamt up, what superpower did the one woman get? Invisibility.

And of course there is Kimba the White Lion, which acquired notoriety in 1994 when Disney did not, repeat not, rip it off for The Lion King. How could Disney have, when their lawyers swore that not one of the animators on The Lion King had even heard of Kimba? Though as the Tezuka festival’s curator Helen McCarthy wryly remarks: “If you were a car manufacturer and not one your designers had heard of Honda, wouldn’t you be worried?”

Seeing Kimba again, the parallels are head-smackingly blatant; the bird that announces the birth of an heir to the lion king; the animals paying their respects at the foot of Pride Rock; the wise old monkey with a dodgy Jamaican accent; even the deceased paterfamilias appearing in a cloud. Tezuka’s estate, recalls McCarthy, reacted with commendable dignity. There was no court case, merely a statement to the effect that as Tezuka had himself been influenced by Disney – he watched Bambi 80 times, and it helped him to pioneer the bigeyed style with which Japanese animation has now become synonymous – he would have been delighted to repay the favour.

And yet his output is not just kids’ stuff. Tezuka, who studied medicine and became a licensed physician before turning all his energy to art, had an extraordinary breadth of interest. His comics include an adaptation of Crime and Punishment and a Life of Buddha in eight large volumes. McCarthy’s own favourite is Mw, “about a homosexual raving psychotic shagging a priest and trying to end the world” (a live-action adaptation is in the works). And at the Barbican season, must-sees include Lion Books, a series of experimental shorts, and 1,001 Nights (1969), the world’s first feature-length erotic animation.

McCarthy describes Tezuka as a “story machine” – his output was obsessive, relentless, even while dying from stomach cancer. A victim of bullies at school, who discovered that his drawings had the power to melt even their hard hearts, he wanted to do more than entertain. He hoped to spread a message of tolerance between peoples, and respect for the planet born of his studies of insect life.

“Comics,” Tezuka once said, “are an international language that can cross boundaries and generations.” As Japanese graphic art continues to convert the rest of the world, this season is a welcome chance to rediscover the man who made it possible.

Osamu Tezuka: Movies into Manga, Barbican, London EC2 ( 020-7638 8891), Sept 18-24 2008