Thursday, August 02, 2007

The God of Manga

Until this week I didn't know the difference between manga and anime. Then Nick and I went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see the show "Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga," and my eyes were opened wide, just like the characters in Japanese comic books. Astro Boy, for example (shown here). Manga (books) and anime (video) are as important to Japanese culture as jazz and the blues are to American culture, and all of these art forms have been embraced by the world.

Tezuka Osamu, the creator of Astro Boy, has been called "The Father of Manga" and "The God of Manga" for his role in creating the genre, a distinct form of comic art influenced by Betty Boop as well as Disney's Mickey Mouse and Bambi. But the characters and plots in manga, which means "random or whimsical imagery," are much more complex than those found in American comic books. Put simply, manga is not just for children and nerds who haven't grown up. Over 40 percent of all publications in Japan now feature manga. Anime, short for animation, refers to animated films produced in Japan using a variety of styles, but also featuring more complicated story lines in those which are appreciated by adults as well as children.

Tezuka, who died in 1989 was the master of both. The show at the Asian Art Museum provides a peek into his oeuvre and it left me curious and hungry to know more about him and his craft. He was enormously productive. A manga life of the Buddha runs to nine volumes with each over 500 pages. It was on sale in the bookstore and I would have bought it except for the $250 price tag and the fact that I am currently disposing of books, not collecting more. His complete works include 700 manga comprising 150,000 pages, each with a number of panels which must be read right to left. Only a small selection have been translated into English. Besides the stylized characters with big eyes and the Disneyesque anthropomorphized animals, Tezuka's distinct traits include oddly sized panels and non-stop action graphically rendered with a variety of techniques.

Beginning his career by selling his drawings to the American GIs who were occupying his country, Tezuka was the God of both manga and anime. His first books, Diary of Ma-Chan and New Treasure Island, issued in the late 1940s, were widely popular and began the golden age of manga. Astro Boy was published in the early 1950s and became a TV series in 1963 that was seen around the world. Many of the American children who grew up with this character had no idea he was born in Japan. Black Jack and others were also turned into TV shows. At his death, Tezuka had produced over 500 24-minute programs from his manga characters.

The cheerful exuberance of the faces of his characters is disarming. I initially mistook them as cheap ripoffs of American comic personalities. Why, I wondered, do Japanese artist draw them to look like westerners, without the distinctive Asian eyes? I missed the homage to Betty Boop, and assumed the style was more imitative than creative. Boy, was I wrong. The Asian Art Museum show features two subtitled documentaries of Tezuka's life as well as a couple of rooms full of sample panels from his many unique characters. Like Black Jack, the doctor (Tezuka had studied medicine) who healed the poor and soaked the rich, the manga artist wrote intricate moral fairy tales which pointed toward a better world. Unlike American cartoons, people suffered and died. There are no easy, black and white answers in his stories. Tezuka was an environmentalist from an early age, having witnessed first-hand the destructiveness of warfare, and he put his art at the service of improving life rather than simply entertaining the masses.

One of Tezuka's character's, Kimba the White Lion, was borrowed without credit by Walt Disney for The Lion King. Disney played a role in the life of another animator, David Hilberman, who died last month at the age of 95. Hilberman, the father of a friend of mine, worked on Bambi (he created Thumper) and Snow White for Disney, and led a strike at the studio in 1941. After the war he was a founder of UPA which produced innovative animation that did not imitate Disney cuteness and faked reality, among them Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing. But during the Red Scare of the late 1940s, the government went looking for commies even among the cartoonists. From the LA Times obit for David:
In 1947, film producer Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the 1941 strike, which he believed was communist-led. Disney said one artist was "the real brains of this, and I believe he is a communist. His name is David Hilberman…. I looked into his record and I found that, No. 1, he has no religion and, No. 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre studying art direction, or something."
He was blacklisted because of this testimony and forced to work in Europe for many years. According to industry historian John Canemaker, "David Hilberman was inadvertently, almost accidentally, a pivotal figure in animation history. "Because of his politics in organizing the Disney strike and his artistic vision in co-founding UPA, he became a major factor in changing forever how the Hollywood cartoon was made and what it looked like." I recall David telling me about how he'd been invited to Japan to lecture on animation, and I have no doubt that he must have met Tezuka at some point. David died within weeks of the death of his wonderful wife, Libby, with whom he must have been paired over 70 years. They are both missed.

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