Let’s just suppose, for the sake of argument, that you wanted to persuade the skeptical of the artistic merit of either manga or anime. There are plenty of accomplished series in both media you could introduce them to, perhaps pointing out the compelling themes and striking imagery in a helpful, over-the-shoulder kind of way. But here’s another option: You could simply have them flip through the pages of Helen McCarthy’s The Art of Osamu Tezuka for 10 or 15 seconds. If they still don’t get it, chances are they’re operating under a different conception of what constitutes art in the first place.
Those of a certain age might recall the splash that Christopher Finch’s The Art of Walt Disney made back when it first appeared in the 1970s. Here was a comprehensive volume bursting not only with rich colors and impeccable design, but that gathered a wealth of material that otherwise was difficult to access. Moreover, Finch’s book hit readers like a cultural ton of bricks: You could really see, firsthand, the impact that Disney had on imagination itself. Well, The Art of Osamu Tezuka does the same thing—times 10. And the nice thing is that it’s lacking the hagiographical elements of The Art of Walt Disney—McCarthy’s measured prose clearly reflects an admiration for its subject, but it never strays into fannish idolatry.
At risk of wearing out this analogy’s welcome, I should point out that this book, unlike Finch’s, actually showcases the art of, well, you know, the subject himself, not his production teams or staff animators. Indeed, the argument might be advanced that while Disney and Tezuka’s status as pop-culture titans are frequently equated, Disney was a businessman with an artistic sensibility—and Tezuka was the opposite. Certainly this handsome coffee table book proves the point repeatedly. In terms of his manga work, it reaffirms Tezuka’s status as a visual genius on par with someone like Will Eisner on at least three levels—as pioneer, draftsman, and storyteller. But in its additional tracing of Tezuka’s work in animation, you have to add comparisons to the Fleischer brothers, Chuck Jones, and a host of others as well. In short, every library and school art department should own a copy of this book if for no other reason than to inspire young artists.
Of course one of the most enduring aspects of Tezuka’s achievements, and one that’s clearly evident here, is the way that they could shift between adult and child audiences without missing a beat, producing classic characters and narratives for both. When Tezuka tried to change horses midstream is when he could run into trouble, as McCarthy is quick to note in terms of how the attempt to make Astro Boy darker or more conflicted turned off many fans. But when one observes the full tonal spectrum of the individual works on display in this book, a spectrum that encompasses the cuteness of Kimba the White Lion and the homicidal madness of M/W, Tezuka’s emotional range can’t help but astound. In fact, even if you peruse McCarthy’s book without prior knowledge of the God of Manga’s work, you’d still be left with the sense that his was an authentic and holistic humanism because he was never afraid to embrace the polar opposites that are contained in each of us. As a result, Tezuka’s artistic sensibility remains a forceful argument for why there can’t be light without darkness, and vice versa.
Aside from its thematic and generic diversity, Tezuka’s output was also extraordinary in terms of its sheer volume. Surely it’s a daunting task whenever an author must distill decades of accomplishments into a single overview, but McCarthy’s achievement in compilation is nothing short of mind-blowing. As she points out, over his lifetime Tezuka produced some “170,000 pages of comic art in around 700 different titles.” And remember, that’s just manga. The fact that McCarthy also culled the best of his animation cels, posters, illustration, juvenilia, and other forms of artwork is just one more reason that it’s hard to imagine a more visually comprehensive and well-researched volume ever appearing in English again.
How did Tezuka manage to be so singularly prolific? That question is tackled in the eye-opening DVD that is included with The Art of Osamu Tezuka. A large part of it is dedicated to footage shot by a Japanese documentary crew that was able to gain access to his carefully guarded, isolation chamber-like personal studio. Or maybe “gain access” is not the right way to put it: Tezuka only allowed living and breathing people to enter the space insofar as they were installing cameras and mirrors (to capture him from different angles). The result is a staggering portrait of personal discipline, as Tezuka is captured working on multiple projects with barely a moment’s interruption. You almost want to laugh out loud when his wife finally appears—her role at their home more like than of a proprietor at a favorite inn that he occasionally visits.
Finally, where most critical biographies end at the subject’s death followed by a brief, inevitably upbeat wrap-up, The Art of Osamu Tezuka continues at length, gauging the artist’s influence not just in imaginative literature, but in fields such as robotics and medicine. In addition, it even features a section on criticisms of Tezuka and his legacy. Somehow, though, that seems just like how he would have wanted this book to conclude—by adding the requisite darkness to go along with all the blindingly bright light that precedes it.
Reviewed by Peter Gutiérrez on July 18, 2012
The Art of Osamu Tezuka