Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Swallowing The "Disney Of Japan": Osamu Tezuka's Dark Descent

Tezuka's post-Astro Boy stamp of approval. Via.

The year was 1968. Faced with the end of Astro Boy’s run and declining sales, iconic Japanese animator and manga artist Osamu Tezuka, often called the "Walt Disney of Japan," realized he had to make a change or risk fading into irrelevance.

The result was anything but Disney.

Those who know Tezuka only as the smiling figure behind the likes of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion might be surprised to read some of his work from the late 60s and 70s, a period during which his study of the less savory and infinitely more complex side of humanity took him into a bleak realm of violence, passion, and alienation. 

Credited with establishing manga and anime as popular mediums in Japan, Osamu Tezuka (aka "God of Manga", "Godfather of Anime") established his career upon rich, largely kid-friendly stories like that of the not quite-human, not-quite-robot Astro Boy. In doing so he drew heavily upon Western sources, including Popeye, Betty Boop, and Disney’s own Bambi (Tezuka admitted to watching the film over 80 times in his youth). 

He also brought his own innovations to the medium. In Japanamerica, Roland Kelts, who appears at Japan Society this week to highlight some of Tezuka most influential works, describes Tezuka's frustration with the static nature of earlier comics, which “bore a greater resemblance to the staging of a play: one character enters stage left, exits stage right, and so on.” However, in manga such as Ayako and Swallowing the Earth, both highlights from Tezuka’s later years, we see a new and often disturbing contrast between his comic drawing style and increasingly adult themes.

Study in Black: Tezuka’s Gekiga Period

Today’s fans of Japanese manga and anime are likely to think little of commercialized violence. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan), one of the most popular titles of 2013, shows no qualms about having its characters squashed, eaten, dismembered, and subjected to any number of physical and emotional torments. In the manga world of 1960s Japan, such graphic violence, even one of a far less extreme nature, was unheard of until artists working in a genre known a gekiga began to cater to darker tastes. Suddenly, manga went from being a childhood diversion to a mature exploration of society.

His once unshakeable base eroded by a generation of younger, edgier artists, Tezuka replied with Swallowing the Earth, a darkly comic tale excoriating the love of money that characterized postwar Japan, as well as the country’s troubled relation with the U.S.

It is telling that Tezuka’s hero in this story is a man who is able to avoid greed and temptation only through a singular pursuit of alcohol. In his essay "Dark Side of the Manga," Rob Vollmar of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma describes the sometimes jarring relationship between Tezuka’s style and subject matter: “Tezuka retained a strange dichotomy in his work throughout his career, characterized by the juxtaposition of round, bouncy-looking figures engaged in progressively disturbing actions.”

A boozy, dizzying panel from Tezuka's SwallowingVia.

While not remotely graphic or disturbing, the panels depicting Zephyrus, the enigmatic temptress out for revenge in Swallowing the Earth, nonetheless exemplify the development of a new sexual element that would grow progressively twisted—ingrown might be more to the point—as Tezuka plumbed the depths of human degeneracy.

Tezuka carried the theme of beautiful, amoral women to what could be called either its creative climax or its lowest point, depending on one’s view of his work, with the inarguably disturbing Ayako.

Ayako is kept in a cellar by her in-laws for over a decade after learning their family secret. While Jiro, the protagonist, provides an early glimmer of hope as the story’s redemptive element, his position as a spy for the Americans and his collusion in Ayako’s torment make him as guilty as any. Jiro and the rest of the cast signal Tezuka’s move away from a “dualistic worldview” of right and wrong. In shifting toward far darker and more adult themes, Tezuka carries the artistic baggage of his earlier years, resulting in an often unwieldy interplay between gags and an oppressive cynicism.

In his Japan Times review of the book, David Cozy uses the word "Naturalism" to describe Tezuka’s examination of moral corruption. The official website of Tezuka Productions calls the work a “social drama.” While these terms capture certain important aspects of the book, they fall short of conveying the full weight of Tezuka’s subject matter, not because Tezuka was the first to deal with family secrets and sexual violence—Fumiko Enchi’s Masks (1958) tackles both with mesmerizing narrative efficiency—or even with the legacy of evil in the postwar era, but because in Ayako and other works of the decade we see the man responsible for creating one of Japan’s most beloved children’s characters scrape the bottom of the barrel of transgression. 

For all the darkness of Tezuka’s works during the late 60s and 70s, many view this era in the artist’s life as a stage in his development, the same way scholars place Picasso’s early 20th-century paintings under the category of the Blue Period. This is not to say that Tezuka’s thematic and stylistic experimentations amount to nothing more than a passing whim. While Kelts makes note of Miyazaki’s opinion that “Tezuka took the themes of death and loss far too lightly,” both Susanne Phillipps and Vollmar argue that Tezuka’s gekiga titles served a key role in his growth as an animator.

“Far from allowing himself to be consumed by his disappointment and disapproval of his nation,” Vollmar writes, “Tezuka’s scope expanded to a more global perspective that allowed him to conceive of these shortcomings as human rather than specifically Japanese.” Meanwhile, Phillipps cites Tezuka’s transition toward a more realistic, anatomically correct drawing style as evidence of his maturation.

“Disney of Japan” indeed. While the comparison might, at best, give the uninitiated a small idea of the scope and influence of Tezuka’s work, those hoping to delve into his work should bring a flashlight; it’s going to get dark.

--Andres Oliver 

Thumper Bumper: Tezuka's epic, eight volume Buddha begins with a woodland creature's sacrificial self-immolation. Via.

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