I was born to Australian parents in Sydney, but I spent several years living in California during elementary school due to my father’s job. I was exposed to all different kinds of American culture during that time, and I especially took to Saturday morning cartoons and Disney’s animated films. It was the peak of the so-called Disney renaissance at the time, and my father took me to the movie theater to see the latest Disney releases, as well as to Disneyland in L.A.
In the early morning or after school I would catch Japanese anime programs like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon on the TV—my introduction to Japanese animation. Then in the late 90s, the Pokemon craze swept the nation. I was always more interested in the classics, and I would go to my local library to rent VHS copies of old Japanese anime. My favorite works were by Tezuka Osamu, “the Walt Disney of Japan". Anime is what led me to study Japanese in high school—a journey that would ultimately lead to me living here in the Greater Tokyo Area.
Tezuka, who was born in 1928, loved Walt Disney’s animated films from a young age. Although American animated films did not show in Japan during World War II, when Bambi hit Japanese screens in 1951, Tezuka was transfixed, and it is said he saw the film in theaters about a hundred times. He was influenced not only by the style of animation, but the themes: parent and child, nature and humans. He would bring those themes into his serialized manga Jungle Emperor Leo (a.k.a. Kimba the White Lion). Legend has it that Tezuka and Disney met face to face in 1964 at the World’s Fair in New York, and Disney expressed that he someday hoped to make a work like Astro Boy.
Without these two great masters of animation, the landscape and substance of animation (both in the U.S. and Japan) would be completely different. And I would surely not be the person I am today. Those animated films lit the spark of creativity within me and were the reason I became interested in storytelling and visual mediums.
This is the first in a series about world-class Japanese animators who have shaped the industry, the medium, and generations of anime lovers around the world. In this first installment, we look at the pioneers of anime in postwar Japan: the aforementioned Tezuka Osamu, and the production company Tatsunoko Production.
2.The “God of Manga" Tezuka Osamu
Tezuka Osamu, or as he is affectionately known in Japan, “the God of Manga", was born in Osaka in 1928. When he was four, his family moved to what is today the city of Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture, where the Takarazuka Revue is based. The Takarazuka-related entertainment facilities would play a significant role in shaping Tezuka’s aesthetic and portrayals of artificial urban environments. The yard behind his house and the rural surroundings were home to insects of all kinds, and the young Tezuka soon became obsessed with insect collecting. One day, he was looking through a friend’s illustrated reference book and came across a bug called “osamushi"—what’s known in English as a ground beetle or carabid beetle—which he would adopt as his nom de plume.
Tezuka taught himself to draw manga from a young age, and became so skilled that would-be tormentors would start leaving him alone because they wanted to read his work. In the 1940s, however, things took a turn when the country started inching toward war; one of his middle school teachers came across him drawing and scolded him severely for it. In summer 1944, the frail Tezuka was sent to a shurenjo in order to get into shape, and later in the fall, he was drafted to work for a factory in order to support the Japanese war effort. While he was stationed at a surveillance post, American forces bombed Osaka, and the experience would affect him greatly. He would subsequently stop going to the factory and focus on drawing manga at home.
Tezuka’s experience of World War II would have a profound effect on him. Anti-war themes would factor heavily into original works—namely, his most famous manga/anime, Astro Boy. Astro Boy is a sci-fi series where a young humanoid robot powered by nuclear energy fights for justice and acts as a bridge between humans and robots. In other words, he is depicted as a peacekeeper—an innocent child doing the work that politicians and military generals are unable, or unwilling to do. (The character made its first appearance in Tezuka’s manga Ambassador Atom. ) Astro Boy became a paragon of peace, hope, and a better future (*16). Moreover, he would inspire generations of Japanese children to enter the field of robotics, playing no small part in fueling Japan’s economic rise and technological innovations.
(In the manga/anime, Astro Boy is created on April 7th, 2003 in the Takadanobaba neighborhood in Tokyo. Takadanobaba was also home to Tezuka’s production company. Since May 1st, 2003, the departure melody for the JR Yamanote Line at Takadanobaba Station has been the theme song to Astro Boy. And just outside of the station gates, under the train tracks, is a mural depicting Tezuka’s most famous characters.)
Through the many serialized manga stories Tezuka published in the 50s, he established the “story manga" genre—long form stories, as distinct from yonkoma manga, which were less about punchlines and and tackled more nuanced themes, and often concluded in tragic or ambivalent endings. In addition to the aforementioned Astro Boy, his most popular works included Phoenix, Jungle Emperor Leo, and Princess Knight—said to be the first manga intended for young girls. His work inspired a generation of young boys and girls who were growing up in the complicated postwar era.
In the 60s, Tezuka set up an animation department at his production company (that department would later come to be called Mushi Production), and he adapted Astro Boy into Japan’s first 30-minute animated TV series. However, staff and time constraints meant that it would be impossible to produce a show with the kind of fluidity that Disney had achieved with full animation. In order to reduce the workload and make it possible to meet deadlines, Tezuka developed his own form of limited animation—influenced by the work being done by American animation studios like Hanna-Barbera—which involved the use of tome-e (static drawings—still images used in animated cartoons) and cels (allowing animators to save labor by having some parts of each frame be repeated from frame to frame). Tezuka’s use of such time and cost-saving techniques would greatly affect the way Japanese TV animation would be produced for decades to come.
By the early 70s, Tezuka had fallen into a slump. Although he was still producing manga stories, the general public had started to tire of his distinct visual aesthetic, and regarded him as a dinosaur. The popularity of his anime projects were floundering as well, and in 1973 Mushi Production went bankrupt, sending Tezuka into debt. But his manga series Black Jack—about the medical adventures of the titular unlicensed surgeon—would gradually begin to pick up steam, eventually becoming one of his best-known works. It also was significant in that it helped establish the precedent that manga was not just for kids.
●Tezuka Osamu Picks
3.The Lion King Controversy
Tezuka passed away of stomach cancer in 1989, right around the time development began on a Disney project that would become The Lion King. All of Disney’s films up until that point were based on existing fairy tales or other children’s books, and when The Lion King was released in 1994, it was marketed as the studio’s first feature animated film that was an original story. The Lion King became a national and worldwide phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing release of 1994, the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and the best-selling film on home video. It led to many derived works, namely a Broadway adaptation that would break box office records; the stage musical would also be imported to Japan, where the Shiki Theatre Company production has entered into its 21st year. In 2019, a CGI remake directed by Jon Favreau grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide and surpassed Frozen to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. (KAZOO wrote about his interview with Favreau here.) The Lion King is truly America’s greatest single entertainment franchise and export.
Following its 1994 release, critics and Japanese anime fans pointed out the film’s striking resemblance to Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor Leo (a.k.a. Kimba the White Lion). Both films feature a young lion protagonist being guided by a wise mandrill, and an antagonistic lion bearing a scar on one of his eyes accompanied by hyena henchmen. The Lion King also has many scenes that bear more than a passing resemblance to scenes in Tezuka’s work. One such scene was parodied in 1995 by the American cartoon The Simpsons. Simba’s father Mufasa’s face appears in the clouds and says, “ You must avenge my death, Kimba...I mean, Simba."
In response to accusations of plagiarism, the filmmakers behind The Lion King claimed they were unfamiliar with Tezuka’s work. Co-director Roger Allers said he had been unfamiliar with the show until the movie was almost completed, despite the fact that he had spent two years living in Tokyo and working on animation in the 80s. Co-director Rob Minkoff claimed that he had never heard of Kimba or Tezuka. Meanwhile, the actor Matthew Broderick, who voiced the adult Simba, stated that when he was initially cast, he believed he would be working on a Kimba-related project.
The Japanese manga artist Satonaka Michiko, who had fallen in love with the Astro Boy manga as a child, sent Disney a letter and petition signed by many Japanese animators and anime fans demanding that they give due credit to Tezuka. However, public support did not materialize in Japan, and Satonaka’s efforts fell on deaf ears. Perhaps the staff at Mushi Production felt that Tezuka would have been honored by the homage. Perhaps they understood that they stood no chance in the face of the giant entertainment empire that is the Walt Disney Company.
4.Tatsunoko Production: More Than the Sum of its Parts
One of the classic Saturday morning cartoons that introduced American audiences to Japanese anime was Speed Racer, known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo — the adventures of a young racer and his powerful Mach 5 car, which was designed by his father. The series began airing in Japan in spring 1967, and by fall, a heavily edited and re-dubbed American version (some of the car crashes were deemed too violent and not suited for kids) hit the airwaves and spawned a franchise of comic books, merchandise, and multiple animated series—including American-produced originals. In 2008, the Wachowskis directed a live-action adaptation, which was a box-office flop but has since gone on to become a cult classic.
Speed Racer was produced by Tatsunoko Production, which was founded in 1962 as a manga production company by Kyoto-born brothers Yoshida Tatsuo, Yoshida Kenji, and Kuri Ippei. Tatsuo had taught himself to draw at a young age and had become a manga artist after moving to Tokyo in the mid-50s. When the manga-obsessed brothers met the animation director Sasagawa Hiroshi—who had cut his chops drawing storyboards for Astro Boy—they were convinced to shift to anime production. The studio’s first TV anime was the Astro Boy-inspired Space Ace (1965), the story of a young alien boy who fights for peace and justice on Earth. In other words, your classic superhero story.
While Tezuka’s work had a softer, more fluid aesthetic characterized by an exaggerated, “deformed” art style, Tatsunoko Production adopted a harder, more realistic approach to the depictions of its characters, emphasizing the feel and texture of objects and environments. This is reflected in the character designs and world-building in their action stories, namely Speed Racer and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle of the Planets). The characters in Speed Racer have a western-looking appearance, and the design of the Mach 5 racecar, resembles real-life Le Mans winning cars like the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, the Ford GT40, and the Aston Martin DB1. Meanwhile, Gatchaman is the story of a five-member superhero team, a predecessor to the Super Sentai series produced by Toei.
Tatsunoko Production is known for more than its action stories. It pioneered the so-called gag anime genre with works such as The Genie Family, and moved viewers with the sentimental series The Adventures of Hutch the Honeybee. It’s also known for the sci-fi gag anime series Time Bokan, which became popular for its unique robot designs and establishing the lovable antagonist trope. Starting its second season (titled Yatterman), its robots were designed by Okawara Kunio, who would later establish a reputation as Japan’s first “mechanics designer” (someone who specializes in designing robots for anime) with his work for Mobile Suit Gundam.
Tatsunoko Production was able to produce works of such colorful variety because the studio was about teamwork. While Mushi Production produced many animators who would leave their mark on the industry in the decades to follow, it was always about the genius and ruthless work ethic of Tezuka Osamu. Meanwhile, at Tatsunoko, Yoshida Tatsuo and Kuri Ippei designed idiosyncratic characters, while directors like Sasagawa Hiroshi and Nunokawa Yuji made the shows come to life, and visionaries like Okawara Kunio added a unique vision of technology. And project meetings involved the free exchange of ideas. Tatsunoko forged a unique path in the early years of Japanese anime through teamwork.
●Tatsunoko Production Picks
People have been talking about the dark side of Japan’s anime industry for ages: animators work long hours for little pay, and the vast majority are freelancers who are hired on a per-project basis. Even today, it’s said an entry-level animator earns less than 2 million yen a year ($18,600).
Even while Tezuka Osamu was still alive, critics wrote about how it was all his fault. It was because Tezuka had sold Astro Boy at a loss, they argue—about 550,000 yen per episode, compared to a cost of about 2.5 million per episode—that rival studios and animators for generations to come would have to settle for similar terms. Tezuka expressed his frustration at this accusation, arguing that the sponsors would have never gotten onboard if he had asked for more money. At the time, TV anime programs were an unproven genre, and many regarded anime as lowbrow content suited solely for children.
To be sure, Mushi Production itself was having trouble breaking even. But the success of Astro Boy would lead to lucrative merchandizing opportunities, which, in addition to selling the show overseas, would put the company in the black. This would become the standard business model for the Japanese anime industry, and grunt-level animators would be worked to the bone to feed the machine.
The argument was that if the “God of manga" was producing content in such a short period of time and at such a low cost, others were shackled by the conventions of Japanese society to accept the same terms. It didn’t help that Tezuka was a singular genius who channeled his own money into his work and often slept only four hours a day—young hopefuls were drawn to the legend and likely would have followed him to the ends of the Earth for little to no compensation.
In recent years, production companies are increasingly turning to overseas studios to produce shows at an even lower cost, and the domestic industry is at a crossroads. At this point, decades after Tezuka’s death, it seems clear that the true culprit is Japanese social conventions—follow precedent, stay in your lane, don’t rock the boat. It’s also intriguing to note that the Japanese people refer to master manga artists using the honorific sensei.
The Japanese have the habit of deifying geniuses and visionaries, while at the same time feeling guilty for achieving success (sometimes even for simply making ends meet when those around you are struggling) and getting in the way of others who dare to shine. It’s all about maintaining the status quo. And then there’s the romanticizing of the suffering artist stereotype. It’s because young Japanese animators keep thinking of Tezuka as a god that they are unable to surpass him or even step out of his shadow. Perhaps it’s because they keep blaming him for the state of the anime industry that they cannot escape his ghost.
In part two of this series, we look at Studio Ghibli.