Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Japan’s Animation Master

By David Luhrssen
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Japanese cartoons, or manga, are the primary source for that nation’s distinctive genre of animated film, anime. Edited by Frenchy Lunning, Tezuka’s Manga Life (University of Minnesota Press) is an essay collection on the work of the influential and prolific manga artist Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989). Tezuka was responsible for Japan’s first successful animated export, the 1960s TV series “Astro Boy,” and dabbled in full-length feature films.

Some of the essays focus deeply on technical issues, including Tezuka’s use of still images and recycled elements in his corner-cutting, budget-conscious, knock-‘em-out fast production of “Astro Boy.” Another examines his later films, not widely circulated even in Japan but representing Tezuka’s efforts to remain current and repent for the cracker-box quality of “Astro Boy.”

Many of anime’s prevalent themes, including its explorations of the boundaries between human and non-human and pantheistic spirituality, can be found in Tezuka’s manga, though whether he was innovator or popularizer (a bit of both?) is a point of contention. Many of the essayists insist that a wall of amnesia separates the flourishing comic book culture of pre-1945 Japan from what came after. As the first important new manga artist to emerge during the U.S. occupation, Tezuka has been credited with inventing things that had already been done.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay, by Otsuka Eiji, concerns unique developments in manga during Tezuka’s 1930s childhood. In those years, Japanese cartoonists arrived at a synthesis of Sergei Eisenstein and Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse was big in Japan, as demonstrated by the ‘30s drawings Otsuka reproduces; Eisenstein was known less for his films (seldom seen in Japan) than from translations of his theoretical writings on montage. In the Japanese context, Disney and Eisenstein, artists of capitalism and Communism, were not contradictory but complementary figures of Modernism, the emerging culture of the Machine Age. Eisenstein had the additional benefit of his interest in traditional Japanese culture; he saw proto-cinematic elements in medieval scroll pictures and montage in Kabuki theater.

Reaching beyond the stated topic of one particular artist, and even of cartooning, Tezuka’s Manga Life sheds light on Japanese culture and the worldwide appeal of its cultural exports.

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