In a section entitled “Negative Viewpoints,” which comes toward the end of her new monograph, The Art of Osamu Tezuka – God of Manga, Helen McCarthy alludes to a review of the English-language edition of Ode to Kirihito that appeared in the Anime News Network’s Right Turn Only blog, which stated, in effect, that one doesn’t speak of weaknesses when considering Tezuka’s work because he hadn’t any. As McCarthy sagely points out, such fawning serves little purpose and it is just this sort of mythologizing that has prevented, in English at least, the emergence of any serious critical evaluation of his work.
This is one of the underlying themes and intentions to which McCarthy continually refers throughout the book: only when the gloss of myth has been wiped away, can we fully appreciate the significance of Tezuka’s accomplishments. Here also is a major example of the sort of oppositional tension that McCarthy negotiates in order to justly treat this vast subject.
It’s this same tension that allowed McCarthy to pull off what I think is the book’s greatest coup: balancing the needs and expectations of an audience that will be unevenly split between Tezuka fans and academics. One of the problems of the lack of a vibrant critical tradition for comics in this country is that what critical literature there is tends to bend too far in one direction or the other, rather than speaking to both audiences. McCarthy here includes enough neat little tidbits that will wow fans—such as the anecdote about how Tezuka turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to hire him to do design work for 2001: A Space Odyssey—while also including information about new discoveries of old comics or Kodansha’s plans to make Tezuka's entire œuvre available in translation online, that will hopefully spur budding academics to continue the work she has begun. And of course there is the art.
From the perspective of a reader with pretensions to serious criticism, but whose only access to Tezuka has been the small portions of his works that have been as yet translated into English, what McCarthy’s book does is contextualize Tezuka and his work in terms of the broader history of art and culture. Thus, in the sequence reprinted from his 1953 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, we are not only afforded the opportunity to see the incredible level of compositional innovation at this early stage in his career, but also how Tezuka married storytelling techniques rooted in the cinema and his Japanese predecessors to the world’s great philosophical and moral literature.
McCarthy also documents how throughout much of his career, Tezuka was viewed by critics as being passé—an artist who relied on overly simplified characterizations in an idiom rooted in the past—and how this critical ambivalence spurred much of his most interesting work and perhaps more than anything else was responsible for his ability to remain relevant for so long. Books such as MW, Ode to Kirihito and especially Black Jack reflected Tezuka’s attempts to wrestle with his own incorruptibly humanist outlook in the face of the great evil present in the world. Black Jack was originally conceived as a sort of cipher to tie together a four-part miniseries celebrating his career and showcasing all of his characters. The character was so popular with readers, however, that he was ultimately given his own series, allowing Tezuka to explore the medical career for which he trained, but gave up in order to continue making comics. Black Jack is the touchstone of Tezuka’s moral universe and embodies the tension inherent to all of the artist’s mature works between his dogged faith in humanity and the power of good deeds and the realization that all is not well in the world.
In the past year, a couple of autobiographical manga—Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life and Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary—have explored the unfathomable pressures under which comics creators in Japan frequently work. In the case of the latter book, it led Azuma to drop all of his responsibilities and go homeless—twice. The film that is bundled with McCarthy’s book is remarkable for its providing documentary evidence of this editorial pressure. In the movie’s first few minutes we see Tezuka set up in the apartment that he stays in five days/week to work. The only person allowed within this sacred workspace is his wife—assistants and editors can come no farther than the entryway. As an assistant pops in to bring Tezuka his dinner, he lets the artist know that an editor wants him to call.
The exchange between the two that follows is illuminating; the assistant continually urging Tezuka to call in the face of the artist’s stubborn assertions that all the editor wants to know is when the work will be finished. Indeed, the pressure of deadlines is perhaps the controlling theme of this short documentary. The entire first section is concerned with the race to meet a deadline so that Tezuka can attend a planned Franco-Japanese cultural exchange in Paris. As the deadline looms closer and it becomes clear that the installments will not be finished in time to make his flight, new reservations are made for the following day. Even then, Tezuka struggles to finish the work and the episode culminates with Tezuka sitting in the backseat of a car waiting outside the airport terminal, hurriedly scribbling pages until it’s decided he can complete them on the plane and fax them from Paris. As if this scenario were not humiliating enough, viewers are then allowed into a publisher’s strategy meeting in which the suits comment that Tezuka gives editors hemorrhoids and that the best way to treat the man who has redefined the comics and animation industries over four decades is to drag the work out of him.
There is something incongruous about seeing a photograph such as the one above depicting Osamu Tezuka seated beside Moebius in some idyllic Kyoto setting in 1982. It’s like reading about that dinner at The Majestic in 1922, attended by Marcel Proust and James Joyce. You think about it and you’re like, “yeah, of course that would happen,” but somehow it still feels, I don’t know, supernatural? In any event, I realize that it’s rather a crass way of putting it, but aside from the excellent framework it provides for beginning a systematic evaluation of the man and his work, The Art of Osamu Tezuka – God of Manga is valuable for the wealth of neat shit it contains, of which this photograph is emblematic. Other examples are the images of the earliest comics drawn by Tezuka—one, Pin Pin Sei-chan, was drawn when the artist was in fifth grade—discussions of his experimental animation and even an image of a page in which Tezuka laid out the “Star System,” under which his various iconic characters ‘performed’ in many of his series.
It is difficult to imagine the scope of the task that McCarthy took upon herself. Contending with a body of work as massive as Tezuka’s and coming out with a book that is beautiful, useful and legitimately informative is no mean feat. The danger of creating a book of this nature is that it will sell poorly and ultimately end up on the remainders shelves of bookstores, snatched up for a small fraction of the original asking price. I think in this case, however, such a fate is unlikely and indeed hope that the book engenders the further critical assessment of Tezuka’s work that McCarthy seeks.