Osamu Tezuka pioneered anime (those big, doey eyes were his design), elevated manga comics to a new level of sophistication (less geeky, more general interest), and set the groundwork for mature yet kid-friendly movies (Pixar is eternally indebted). Although this influential Japanese artist-writer-producer’s work has become a founding touchstone of international pop culture, he is still relatively unknown to American audiences. Ahead of The Freer Gallery Of Art’s upcoming film retrospective, Osamu Tezuka: God Of Manga, Father Of Anime, we asked Frederik L. Schodt—a Tezuka scholar, Japanese translator, and the author of seminal text The Astro Boy Essays—to give The A.V. Club's readers a fanboy-worthy guide to the animation icon.
The A.V. Club: Why is Tezuka described as the “God of Manga”?
Fredrik Schodt: In Japan, Tezuka is called the “God of Manga” not because he invented manga—he certainly didn’t—but because he made some innovations in the traditional comic-book format. Tezuka took the basic setup and did something that was very new at the time: a hybrid between comic books and animation. He expanded stories to make them very long and cinematic, so many readers almost felt like they were watching a movie compared to traditional comic books. That allowed other artists to begin employing the same techniques and the same methods, thus elevating the original medium to a full-fledged form of expression. Artists could suddenly depict the same sorts of things that would be depicted in more mature novels or films.
AVC: How was manga different when Tezuka came to it?
FS: Tezuka started out drawing manga when it was a genre of entertainment for children. It wasn’t as popular and wasn’t as mass-media oriented as it is today. So he was drawing mainly for children, and one of the tasks was to take this format and this genre of entertainment for children and to expand it—to make it more accessible to older audiences, and gradually develop it as a full-fledged medium of expression. A lot of his works, especially his early works, may seem cartoony, but later he began exploring much more sophisticated themes, adult themes, and he started creating manga for girls and for older people in their 20s and 30s and 40s.
AVC: Why the change?
FS: Tezuka was an intellectual—he was originally granted a license to practice medicine, although he never did, and he was also very well-read. He was an extraordinary person working in a medium of entertainment for young children, who dreamed of telling stories that would rival the best literature, that would explore ideas that were very sophisticated. If you look at many of the stories he created for children, such as Astro Boy, you’ll see that he was also trying to entertain himself. Themes like religion, racial discrimination, man-machine relationships, and even subjects like terrorism appeared early on in his manga designed for young audiences.
AVC: Did he have other favorite topics?
FS: Tezuka explored ideas of future dystopias and future utopias. He often created stories that had science-fiction themes because he was very curious about the future and very curious about the world in general. He was a real sponge—he soaked up information from multiple sources then reinterpreted it to use in his stories.
AVC: Why do you think Astro Boy succeeded like it did?
FS: The way he designed Astro Boy was particularly international and capable of not only transcending borders, but also transcending the era. It’s an unusual work in the sense that he created it in manga format in ’51-’52, but he set the story in 2003. Even though it’s technically a contemporary story, it’s kind of a message from the past about today—it was an alternative future that Tezuka created to speak to his contemporaries and also to speak to us.
AVC: What did you think of the new Astro Boy movie?
FS: I enjoyed it a great deal. I know that some fans are grumbling about certain ways that the character was interpreted, but I tried to watch it and not compare it to other animated films and not analyze or deconstruct it at all. I really tried to watch it, as close as I could, with the mind of, say, a 10-year-old. I think that if you do that it’s great entertainment and a lot of fun. It’s different from Tezuka’s original story in many ways, but you can also tell that the director has read Tezuka’s original work and some changes had to be made for an American audience and international audiences.
AVC: What are some of the things that don’t translate to American audiences?
FS: A whole canon of Tezuka manga has been published in more than 400 volumes, but in his lifetime he’s said to have drawn more than 150,000 pages. We’ll never see everything that he did in English, and there’s always going to be things that don’t make it over here, which is true of all artists in Japan. There are whole genres of manga that have no market here—mahjong manga or pachinko manga, for instance—because they have no relevance to modern Americans. The converse is true too, of course; it’s just an inevitable part of cross-culture.
AVC: Which Tezuka do you recommend new readers start with?
FS: If you want to see what Tezuka was trying to do and how bold he was, begin with Phoenix. It’s a particularly good work to start with because it’s accessible due to the time it was written, and its themes are quite universal. Some of the other early works—even parts of Astro Boy—have visuals and a density of text that is a little different than what people are used to. But by the time he was really getting going with Phoenix, he had already developed many of the hallmarks of most modern manga—cinematic, dramatic layouts—so it’s visually very beautiful.