Exhibitions and events
Tezuka Osamu: god of manga

Recently I spoke about manga artist Tezuka Osamu’s life and work at a British Museum lunchtime lecture. One of the things I always bear in mind when speaking about this remarkable artist is that the scope of his work goes far beyond what can be summarised in an hour, even at breakneck speed. Another is that his story is, quite literally, as exciting, inspiring and sometimes hair-raising as any manga he ever wrote. From his tranquil middle-class childhood in a small town deep in the countryside near Osaka, through school bullying and first-hand experience of Japan’s increasing militarism, to post-war success as a teenage superstar and the endless battle to stay on top of the booming anime and manga markets he helped to shape. Tezuka’s life combined solid artistic achievement across a number of fields with self-curated celebrity.

One of Tezuka’s most important roles in the history of manga – and in the revival of Japan’s media industry after it practically shutdown during the war – was acting as a bridge between the cosmopolitan, wide-ranging manga of the 1920s and early 1930s and its post-war revival. Many manga artists, writers and editors perished alongside their readers in the fire-bombings of Tokyo and on the Pacific front. The few survivors carried forward the memory of pre-war manga as open and trans-cultural, as part of a wider engagement with film, politics, music and art.

Tezuka Osamu at work. © Tezuka Productions

The skinny, bespectacled teenager from Osaka led the way. Fuelled by his youthful passion for Japanese, European and American comics, films and animation, and his determination to keep on creating comics in spite of the deprivations and dangers of wartime, Tezuka embraced Japan’s surrender as a chance to live his life to the full and help to create a new, peaceful world. At 17 he signed up for medical school and sold his first professional work within a few months of the end of hostilities. He also began to build relationships with other Japanese comic creators and editors, keeping a keen eye out for newcomers, both to offer help and encouragement, and to keep his finger on the pulse of new ideas and trends. He knew that young readers like himself wanted more than four-panel gag strips. They wanted stories that would help them to escape the poverty of post-war Japan and to imagine new and better worlds.

In Tezuka’s first long-form work, the ground-breaking Shintakarajima (New Treasure Island,1947)  we can see the influence of film at work. He picked up his passion for film not only from his father, an early tech adopter who held home film shows for his family and neighbours before the war, but from earlier manga creators who were also influenced by new media. He knew Okamoto Ippei’s work from childhood, alongside that of Kitazawa Rakuten, the father of modern manga, who taught cartooning to Oten Shimokawa, creator of Japan’s first publicly screened animated film. Tezuka saw in Okamoto a deep Buddhist spirituality, but Okamoto was also engaged with film media to the extent that  he called one of his works eiga shosetsu. Translating as ‘cinema novel’, it was a hybrid of conventional story and manga frames drawn as film frames, complete with sprocket holes, like on a reel of film.

In impoverished post-war Japan, manga was a cheap, accessible form of entertainment that could be widely shared around or swapped, and re-read as often as required. Tezuka’s new long-form stories, with plot twists and character development galore, conveyed the visual excitement of cinema. They were popular with boys and girls alike, and he built up a broad fan base for his science fiction, his tales of adventure and his lush romantic dramas. In the 1950s Tezuka debuted two characters who would sum up these two poles of his universe.

Atomu Taishi (Ambassador Atom), Tezuka Osamu ©Tezuka Productions

Atom, a childlike robot, was a supporting character in Atom Taishi (Ambassador Atom, 1951.) A year later, Atom became the leading character in the highly influencial Tetsuwan Atom (Iron-Arm Atom, known in English as Astro Boy.) Atom’s appeal spread beyond the comic book page to a live action TV series, radio drama, merchandising, education, public service information, and Japan’s first animated sequential TV drama. Six months after his Japanese animated debut on New Years Day 1963, Atom’s adventures were shown on TV in the USA. Today, 65 years on, Tezuka’s robot creation has become a symbol for the oppressed, having been sold into slavery, rejected and unjustly imprisoned. He has been an advocate for peace, speaking out against war in many stories and taking direct action to protect Vietnamese villagers during a story set in the Vietnam war. He has also inspired real-life scientific and robotic developments and cross-cultural homages in comics, art and on the stage.

A Honda ASIMO robot conducting an orchestra – one of the robotic developments inspired by Astro Boy. © Vanillase [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If we were to look for a contemporary Western equivalent, we would have to cite something with the wide-ranging cultural impact of Star Trek.

In another of his seminal works, Sapphire, a beautiful and accomplished princess born with two hearts, one male and one female, must play the role of a prince to protect her country and her family. She made her first appearance in 1953 in Ribon no kishi (Knight of the Ribbon, known in English as Princess Knight.) This ground-breaking manga was hugely influential on girls’ comic artists across Japan and beyond, establishing a tradition of heroines with androgynous characteristics and a 19th-century European aesthetic.  

This portrayal of a-typical women was doubtless influenced by the wartime experience of seeing his mother and the women of his community put away their pretty clothes and makeup, put on work trousers or uniforms, and step into essential roles left vacant by men sent to the front. But Princess Knight is above all a loving homage to Tezuka’s beloved Takarazuka Revue. Founded in his hometown in 1913, this unique musical theatre troupe was a favourite entertainment of his mother, who would often take him along. Several performers were near neighbours, so Tezuka became accustomed to seeing one familiar person play many exotic roles. In a reversal of Japan’s classical theatre tradition, which excludes women, Takarazuka has only female players.

Sapphire’s dual male and female personalities – and the lush settings of the manga and its romantic storylines – reflect Tezuka’s childhood experience of Takarazuka and the threat of invasion from an unknown beyond.

Princess Knight, Tezuka Osamu ©Tezuka Productions

Looking at this example of cover art, we see a heroic boy/girl in an absurdly feminine hat – not even the Three Musketeers used ribbons that size! Standing en garde at the foot of a majestic marble staircase, they defend their beloved mother unassisted, except for a chirpy little boy. Dark, twisted trees form a proscenium arch hint at an encroaching threat. It’s both an imaginative essay in theatrical romanticism, and a potent encapsulation of a nation at bay with only women and children left to defend its fragile beauty.

Tezuka continued to develop these two characters as leading players in his personal repertory company, but they were far from alone onstage. Mining his childhood for characters, he created a group of archetypes and used them like actors in his ongoing works. He added in new players, including characters from mythology and history – Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, in Barbara, Ludwig van Beethoven in Ludwig B, Hitler in Adolf – and animals, including the heroic young lion of his 1950 manga and 1965 cartoon series Jungle Taitei/Jungle Emperor. This was broadcast in the USA as Kimba the White Lion, and inspired controversy in 1994 because of Disney’s insistence that, despite well documented similarities, Kimba was unknown to their staff and had no influence on their movie The Lion King.

Tezuka’s death in 1989, soon after that of the Showa Emperor, was unexpected. His illness was kept secret from everyone except family and close friends, and his legions of fans were devastated. Foreign journalists arriving in Tokyo to cover the Imperial funeral were surprised to find such public attention focused on the funeral of a comic book artist. His cortege passed between lines of weeping fans, grandparents who had been children when he made his debut in 1946 carrying grandchildren clutching toys based on his works. Tezuka’s interpreter and friend Frederik L. Schodt compared Japanese reactions to his death to the despair following John Lennon’s murder in 1981.

In recent years Tezuka’s works, and works about him, have been widely translated. In English, my own book The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga has been augmented by a superb translation of Toshio Ban’s manga biography of Tezuka, available in English from Stone Bridge Press as The Osamu Tezuka Story. I hope you will enjoy exploring this fascinating creator’s life and work further!

If you enjoyed this blog, you can also buy the accompanying book to the British Museum’s major exhibition, Manga, on our online shop.