When legendary manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he met a man he had long idolized, Walt Disney. Tezuka later enjoyed describing the encounter, and how Disney had praised his Astro Boy animated hit TV series. He would sometimes embellish the tale, too, adding that Disney said he wished he himself had created Astro Boy.
Though Disney’s company would later be accused of plagiarizing Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” as “The Lion King,” Japan’s “god of manga” has never been as well known as he deserves among mainstream audiences overseas. Tezuka was a tireless, vastly influential artist without whom the industries now propelling “cool Japan” into the hearts of young people around the world would not exist as we know them. Yet there have been no books written in English that focus on Tezuka himself. Veteran manga chronicler Frederik Schodt’s “Astro Boy Essays” is a welcome correction, coming just before the 80th anniversary of Tezuka’s birth in 1928.
Using one of Tezuka’s most famous characters as a prism to view the man, this is a unique, engaging work that no one else could have written, peppered with anecdotes like the Disney conversation. Schodt was Tezuka’s translator, interpreter and friend. In the 1970s, he became hooked on manga and asked Tezuka for permission to translate his work. Their relationship continued for more than a decade until Tezuka’s death, giving Schodt numerous insights into the mind of a man he calls a “true genius.”
Certainly Tezuka, author of myriad metaphysical stories and pioneer of multiple comic subgenres and Japanese TV animation, deserves that title. Schodt narrates his growth as a prolific young storyteller inspired by Disney films like “Bambi” (Tezuka watched it over 80 times). He also details the development of Astro Boy, created by a semi-mad scientist to replace his dead son. No mere surrogate, Astro is an atomic-powered robot who fights for peace, debuting in Shonen magazine six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both Tezuka and Astro were deeply informed by the horrors of World War II — the artist witnessed the U.S. firebombing of Osaka — and were dedicated to propagating a pacifist vision of science.
Schodt, despite being a fan of Tezuka the philosopher, is remarkably objective in analyzing his work. He notes animator Hayao Miyazaki’s criticism that while Astro Boy blazed a trail as the first full-fledged TV cartoon in Japan, it suffered from low-budget production that set a precedent for cost-cutting, cheap animation. That has plagued the Japanese industry ever since.
Meticulously researched, “Astro Boy Essays” goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of Tezuka’s mechanized Pinocchio. In Japan, Astro Boy is far more than a cartoon character. He inspired countless young readers to dream big and become roboticists themselves, and this is part of what made Japan the world leader in robotics. The Astro Boy stories, penned by Tezuka over roughly two decades, evolved as times changed in the ’50s and ’60s. Tezuka’s environmentalism, humanism and pacifism were clear in the manga, but as Schodt points out, at its core the series was about discrimination, not science fantasy.
Tezuka was once beaten by Occupation American soldiers because he couldn’t speak English. That experience led him to write stories about intelligent machines as an underclass in a future society and their struggle for equality. It was a robot retelling of the U.S. civil rights movement — heavy stuff for a kids’ comic book, but that was Tezuka.
To his many young readers and fans, he once gave this message: “When you grow up, don’t forget to look at both Earth and mankind objectively. And always think about what it means to be human.”