Monday, September 22, 2008

When Animators get....

Here's another one of the many UK based articles about Osamu Tezuka released to coincide with the film festival at the Barbican. This one focuses on the, shall we say, more risque animated works of Tezuka. I shall say no more on the matter, but (if you are old enough) you can read "Andrew Osmond on X-rated manga" thanks to The Guardian, or read an archived version right here by clicking the link below.

When animators get horny
Andrew Osmond on X-rated manga

* Andrew Osmond
* The Guardian,
* Friday September 19 2008

The American science-fiction author Harlan Ellison tells a cautionary tale about how not to sex up a Hollywood movie. Hired as a writer by the Disney studio, Ellison was in the studio cafeteria on his first day, regaling amused co-workers with ideas for an X-rated Disney cartoon. He was even acting out the parts of Disney characters in pornographic situations. Unluckily for Ellison, several studio executives were sitting nearby, watching his routine. Returning to work, Ellison found a pink slip on his desk: he was fired.

Moral: don't mess with the Mouse. And yet in Japan, an artist and animator as nationally beloved as Uncle Walt took time out from creating adorable family characters to make X-rated cartoons. His name was Osamu Tezuka, and his work is now having a rare English-language screening at the Barbican. And it's not just kids' stuff.

In Japan, Tezuka is a household name. Historians of the country's often garish and cartoony pop culture see him as the prime mover behind Japan's vast comic and animation industries after 1945. Tezuka reportedly churned out 150,000 comic pages in his lifetime (10 a day, without fail). He also created dozens of TV cartoons and cinema films. His iconic characters include Astro Boy (a little-boy robot superhero), Princess Knight (a swashbuckling girl disguised as a boy) and Jungle Emperor Leo (the first cartoon lion king).

But even Tezuka's "adult" cartoons can look disconcertingly Disneyesque. In 1,001 Nights, a fairy turns herself into a seductive lioness, displaying her disturbingly human breasts to lusty lions threatening the hero. In Cleopatra, the title heroine consummates her relationship with Mark Anthony, and the filmstrip breaks down during the act. (A quarter century later, the live-action grindhouse tribute Planet Terror would have a similar meta-film gag, in which celluloid catches fire during a sex scene.)

Frederik L Schodt, author of the book The Astro Boy Essays, knew Tezuka before the director's death in 1989. "Tezuka was very much an experimenter," Schodt says. "Even though he may be best known for his children's work, he didn't think of the audience for manga and animation as being necessarily limited to children. His goal was to expand the audience, and to be able to depict anything he wanted."

Cleopatra, in particular, seems to share the tripped-out counterculture vibe of Yellow Submarine (released a few years earlier) and Fritz the Cat (just after). Tezuka's cartoon animals engage in acts of bestiality that Tex Avery's throbbing wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood could only dream of. Cleopatra also throws in cheesy sci-fi elements, as if Tezuka was commenting on the fact that Stanley Kubrick personally offered him the post of art director on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the murder of Julius Caesar is improvised in the manner of a kabuki play. For Tezuka, cartoon sex was just part of the fun.

Such invention feels positively childlike compared to the nastier sex cartoons that later rolled out of Japan, most notoriously in the late 1980s with Legend of the Overfiend. But perhaps Tezuka was letting off steam between his family-oriented bread and butter. Ralph Bakshi, who directed Fritz the Cat, once said, "What bothers me about animation and the heat I took for my X-rated films is why anybody would spend their whole lives doing the same thing over and again ... If you're a cartoonist, you have to continue to grow, to evolve."

Osamu Tezuka: Movies into Manga runs at the Barbican, London, until September 24