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Osamu Tezuka in the 1970s: When God Got Gritty

Osamu Tezuka is renowned the world over as ‘The God of Manga.’ Across such works as Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and Kimba the White Lion, Tezuka helped lay the foundations for the modern manga industry and set creative standards which are still abided by today. In fact, while attempting to explain why comics are still so popular in Japan in his book Manga: sixty years of Japanese comics, Paul Gravett comes up with a very simple response: “Japan had Osamu Tezuka, whereas other nations did not.”

Yet, what is often not understood is the fact that ‘The God of Manga’ was not always on top. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, a series of costly ventures into animation with the failed Mushi Productions left Tezuka without funds and without a foothold in the industry. While he never stopped producing (some estimate that he drew over 150,000 pages in his lifetime), the manga industry and his audience had left him behind: in the words of Naoki Urasawa, he had “become uncool” (Go Ito, Tezuka is Dead: Postmodernist and Modernist Approaches to Japanese Manga).

This prompted a period of drastic creative change in the 1970s that would see Tezuka rebel against the type of kid-friendly, cutesy stories that had made him so famous. Susanne Phillipps actually identifies three distinct phases in Tezuka’s career in her essay ‘Characters, Themes, and Narrative Patterns in the Manga of Osamu Tezuka’: the early, “classical” period from 1947 to the mid-sixties, the “horror-gothic” period of the 1970s, and the “historical-realistic” period from the mid-seventies until his death.

Even so, the 1970s was undoubtedly the most transformative period in Osamu Tezuka’s life. He was fighting from the outside in, attempting to reclaim his former glory and directly against what had made him so famous – presented here are four manga that showcase this very well, all with official English releases available via Vertical: Dororo, Ayako, MW, and Black Jack (click the pictures).

Dororo (1967-1968)

Dororo

While this article is mainly focused on the work of Osamu Tezuka in the 1970s (for the reasons outlined above), it would be strange not to discuss Dororo. Published from 1967 to 1968 in Shogakukan’s Weekly Shonen Sunday (and later finished in Akita Shoten’s Bouken Ou), it has garnered a lot of attention as of late thanks to Studio MAPPA’s excellent anime adaptation. But the manga itself is also important, as it marked Tezuka’s first major shift into gekiga.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

What is gekiga? Literally meaning ‘dramatic pictures,’ this was a creative movement that swept through the manga industry in the 1960s and 70s, pioneered by such figures as Yoshihiro Tatsumi. In contrast to the more whimsical manga (literally meaning ‘whimsical pictures’), gekiga wished to tell more serious stories, typically with very little or no comedic effect.

Closely linked to popular counterculture and the political movements that were occuring at the time, it dominated and transformed the manga industry at a time where both consumer and creator alike were changing. In the words of Paul Gravett: “instead of growing out of comics, both readers and creators continued to grow up with them”.

But what does Dororo have to do with this? In part, Tezuka’s manga can be seen as a response to GeGeGe no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki’s adherence to the standards of gekiga is obvious when looking at his later works, including the historical epic Showa: A History of Japan, but this was also present in Kitaro.

Taking his inspiration from traditional folklore, his depiction of Japanese yokai was at once endearing as it was terrifying – Mizuki was never afraid to scare his younger audience. Furthermore, the series embarked on proper story arcs, which was something of a rarity at the time. Most magazines tended to prefer the oneshot format, as we shall see later on.

Dororo is similar to GeGeGe no Kitaro, but it is not identical. While both series use Japanese mythology and folklore, Dororo has a much keener overall goal as the protagonist, Hyakkimaru, is attempting to gather all forty-eight of his limbs stolen by demons. What’s more, Dororo was also influenced by samurai fiction, taking place in the Warring States era.

Dororo

Still, to say that Tezuka was inspired by GeGeGe no Kitaro would not be too much of a stretch. They both grew in popularity around the same time and were even published in the same magazine, for a little while. Tezuka even confirms this himself in the Japanese edition of the fourth volume of Dororo:

“I’m pretty competitive when it comes to everything, including manga, so whenever an author comes out with a unique hit, I think ‘I could’ve done something like that!’ and come out with something in the same genre. It’s an odd habit.

So Dororo really was just a fad, provoked by the popularity of Shigeru Mizuki’s works and made to jump on the yokai boom that came afterwards.” (Source)

Much like GeGeGe no Kitaro, Dororo uses Japanese folklore and mythology to its own advantage. Depicting the journey of Hyakkimaru, it sees the prosthetic-wielding protagonist go up against a variety of yokai foes. By his side is the wise-cracking titular protagonist, who brings comic relief in a way that would make Yoshihiro Tatsumi frown.

But Dororo is not just a tale of yokai action – at heart, it is a beautiful story about what makes us human. It is such a shame that Tezuka never got to finish it, but at least MAPPA did a good job in his stead.

Ayako (1972-1973)

Ayako

One of the other things that makes Dororo so important to Osamu Tezuka’s career transformation during the 1970s is the fact that it was published in a mainstream magazine. Unlike some of the other works that scholars tend to focus on, this Weekly Shonen Sunday series brought the standards of gekiga – dark, serious storytelling – to a wide, impressionable audience. This is significant as it shows that Tezuka’s transformation was not just limited to experimental side projects, but tentpole works.

Unfortunately, Ayako is one of the former. Published from 1972 to 1973 in Shogakukan’s Big Comic, it was marketed towards older men and young adults in the seinen demographic. To be honest, it never really gained that much attention until Vertical published it in 2010 – bringing it to an English-speaking audience. Nevertheless, it definitely does merit discussion, as it constitutes one of Tezuka’s most literary works.

Somewhere in my physical edition, Ayako is described as a tragedy along the lines of a story by Emile Zola. As a French major, this immediately piqued my interest. Zola is considered one of the most important writers in the development of Francophone literature – if not world literature – for pioneering the genre of naturalism and blurring the lines between fiction and journalism. Germinal, in particular, is one of my favorites, and is a book that everyone should read.

Ayako

Does Ayako live up to this praise? Absolutely. Following a family in the immediate post-war period, Tezuka paints a dark picture of rural life, full of incest and murder. Indeed, if it resembles any Zola novel, then it would probably be La Bête humaine – by virtue of the amount of illicit relationships, hidden secrets, and bloody murder that it serves up.

Ayako is also one of Tezuka’s most political works. Growing up during the Second World War and the immediate post-war period, he saw first hand the horrors of war and the chaos of the Allied occupation. Of particular importance is the Shimoyama incident: a curious incident where the first president of the Japan Railway Corporation died under mysterious circumstances. At the time, it was speculated to have been carried at the hands of GHQ (General Headquarters), but the truth has never come out. It is this incident that Ayako is partly based on.

Tezuka also deals with the destruction of rural life at the hands of land reform, as well as the experience of war. Perhaps Ayako’s most striking achievement, however, is its titular character.

Ayako

What would happen if you locked up a child in a basement for twenty years? Furthermore, what if one of her only interactions with the outside world was her brother, Shiro, who used her to satisfy his own sexual desires? The answer is explosive, setting off a chain of events that eventually lead to tragedy for the Tenge family.

Aside from being an incredibly interesting character (Tezuka would use essentially the same concept multiple times throughout the 1970s), Ayako almost functions as a metaphor for post-war Japan itself. Emerging from the darkness of military dictatorship, cut off from the rest of the world, it would embark on a modernisation project with earth-shattering consequences. But that is a story for another time.

MW (1976-1978)

Ayako is quite dark, that is true. No manga can touch upon all three taboos of murder, incest, and rape without getting such a label. That much is to be expected. Yet, MW is even darker – truly constituting Osamu Tezuka’s most adult work in the 1970s.

In the first ten pages alone, MW features a father and his child being captured and killed. Then, it switches focus to one of our main characters, Father Garai, who is a Catholic priest involved in an illicit homosexual relationship. This is MW, and it is unrelenting.

Of course, the question is: is there any point to this? Taboo for taboo’s sake is hardly ever entertaining, and doing so would hardly seem to fit the pedigree of the so-called ‘God of Manga.’ Luckily, the answer is yes – yes, there is.

MW

Most of the violence and atrocities committed in MW come at the hands of Yuki Michio, the younger brother of a famous kabuki actor who was kidnapped by Garai back when he was a violent delinquent. He feels no remorse and understands no “morality or decency” because he witnessed a tragic event as a child: the mass killing of multiple people at the hands of a mysterious chemical named ‘MW.’ This, along with a sexual encounter with Garai, was what set him on the path he is on today – meaning that the darkness of MW does have proper justification.

Furthermore, Tezuka very clearly uses the character of Yuki and his relationship with Garai to explore various controversies that existed at the time. Firstly, it is no accident that MW was published in the aftermath of the Vietnam War: the invading US forces’ utilization of chemical weaponry is well documented, and is not worth describing here. Still, Tezuka very clearly evokes something similar, as the chemical MW has been made and hidden across various bases in Japan by “Nation X.” You don’t have to be a genius to figure out which one that is.

MW
Garai

The central thesis of MW, then, is that imperialism begets its own demons. The official Osamu Tezuka website describes the work as one that “shrewdly reveals through these characters the vulnerability of human beings and the concept of latent ‘original sin’ that lurks inside us,” but that second part feels unnecessary. Tezuka very clearly gives a reason for why Yuki is the way he is in the story; there is nothing “original sin” about it. In fact, Tezuka attacks this very core idea of the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, through Garai’s inability or even refusal to put a stop to Yuki’s actions.

Distrust of institutions, up to and including the Christian Church, is something that is often found throughout Tezuka’s career. Another important theme that is expanded upon in MW is gender and queer identity – it should not be forgotten that Tezuka was almost as influential in the beginnings of shojo manga as he was shonen.

Yuki is very comfortable with his sexuality, enjoying relations with both men and women in the story. Yet, his tendency to dress up as the latest woman that he has killed is worrying – it frames queer identity as something destructive, actively seeking to harm others. That may sound over the top, but MW hardly presents a positive view of the LGBT community: not only does it present gender expression as something frivolous and even dangerous, it also sees fit to add homosexuality to the list of reasons why Yuki “has absolutely no conscience.” Considering that trans panic is one of the main reasons why trans and genderfluid people are killed in their thousands across the world every year, it’s hardly a good look.

What makes MW strange in this respect is the fact that Tezuka started out his career with a fairly sympathetic attitude towards gender and queer identity. While Princess Knight is far from what we would consider today as a feminist work, it does attempt to challenge some gender roles while laying the basis for future series to go further. It is also worth noting that Tezuka grew up in Toyonaka, Osaka, and his mother took him often to the Takarazuka Revue: the influence of this all-female troupe on his upbringing is well documented, leading to such works as Princess Knight.

MW
Yuki

Still, we can hardly expect a manga from 1976 to conform to our standards today, and there is always the possibility that Tezuka became more conservative in his later life.

In any case, MW stands as probably Tezuka’s darkest work, truly plumbing the depths of the human soul and layering it’s nail-biting story with post-war and post-Vietnam anxieties. It really does deserve to be read far and wide.

Black Jack (1973-1983)

Even so, MW is once again a more fringe work: it was published from 1976 to 1978 in Big Comic, targeting the seinen demographic. Black Jack is different. It was published in Weekly Shonen Champion from 1973 to 1983, targeting the shonen demographic. As a result, it was read and enjoyed by a much wider audience, eventually becoming one of Tezuka’s most successful franchises.

Black Jack is almost so well known that it requires no introduction. Following the adventures of the titular doctor, it is renowned for its tense drama and keen eye for detail during surgery scenes – critics really love to point out the fact that, at one point, Tezuka was a trained doctor.

Yet, Black Jack is hardly ever brought up when talking about Osamu Tezuka’s transformation during the 1970s. Rob Vollmar, for example, does not bring it up once in his essay ‘Dark Side of the Manga: Tezuka Osamu’s Dark Period’. This is a shame for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Black Jack was read and consumed by a far greater number of people than Ayako and MW, making its place in the Tezuka canon that much more important. Secondly, it is a masterpiece – hardly appreciated enough in English-speaking criticism.

Black Jack

The problem of using gekiga to talk about Osamu Tezuka in the 1970s has, up until this point, been left ignored. We now need to discuss the elephant in the room.

Tezuka was a huge influence on the early pioneers of gekiga. As John A. Lent says, gekiga developed from Tezuka’s “cinematic style and novel plot” (see ‘Japanese Comics’ in Handbook of Japanese popular culture) and before Yoshihiro Tatusmi and Masahiko Matsumoto went off in their own direction, they were mentored by Tezuka and drew great influence from him. The distinction between early Tezuka and gekiga, then, is not so clear cut.

Even during the more child-friendly period of his career, Tezuka was employing some of the hallmarks that would later go on to be associated with gekiga. Astro Boy, for example, is undoubtedly aimed at children, but enjoys strong narratives and consistent themes: reading it today with knowledge of the post-war political landscape – particularly when it comes to nuclear anxieties – is a rewarding experience.

Still, if one thing always separated Tezuka and gekiga, it was the issue of humor. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, in the question and answer section of The Push Man and Other Stories, declares that he had no interest in humor as “The gag style defies realism.” In other words, humor went directly against the gekiga movement’s aim of portraying grim, dark reality.

Black Jack
Black Jack and Pinoko

In this sense, Black Jack is significant as it is often humorless. While there are undoubtedly some moments of humor in it – mostly stemming from the doctor’s diminutive assistant, Pinoko – it is, on the whole, quite serious.

Most chapters of Black Jack follow the same pattern. Black Jack meets someone or something that is in need of his help; he initially refuses before demanding a huge sum of money, and then he works his medical magic. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly when it comes to the poor and children, but it holds up most of the time.

Black Jack’s episodic format was mandated by the editorial practices of Weekly Shonen Champion at the time, requiring each series to be self-contained in order to draw in the biggest audience possible. Yet, no one mastered the format quite as well as Tezuka. Across 243 chapters and 17 volumes, he manages to craft a satisfying story each and every time – complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Truly, a master at work.

The tone of these stories is often tragic, hardly ever finishing off with a happy ending. One of my favorites is ‘Wolf Girl’, from volume 5, which perfectly demonstrates the tortured nature of Black Jack as a protagonist. In it, he discovers a girl with a disfigurement; shunned as a monster by her local community, she is forced to live in isolation. Black Jack fixes her face out of pity, but warns her not to go to the nearby village – of course, she can’t help herself, and ends up getting shot by nearby soldiers due to the tense political situation. It ends with the following harrowing image:

Black Jack

Such stories as Wolf Girl clearly position Black Jack as a tragic protagonist. Despite possessing all of the knowledge of modern medicine and then some, there is one thing that he can never overcome: the fickle nature of the human heart. Indeed, one could see this as representative of Tezuka’s philosophy itself, given that he also possesses medical knowledge. But that is not the focus of this article.

What makes Black Jack significant in Tezuka’s career is the fact that it brought all of his decisions to move away from his previous work into the mainstream. Again, unlike Ayako and MW, it was made for and consumed by a mainstream audience; what is more surprising, then, is the fact that audiences enjoyed it – clearly, something had changed between when Tezuka started his career and when he resumed it going into the 1970s.

The image that is often portrayed of Japan today is often one of peace, tranquility, and harmonious social relations. This was not the case in the post-war period. As has already been alluded to at various points throughout this article, there were enormous social and political movements all throughout the 1950s and 1960s: industrial strikes spearheaded by the Mitsui-Miike struggle, the Anpo demonstrations in 1960, as well as the student campus occupations from 1967-69. All of these things have been more or less forgotten now (or actively erased from memory), but they did happen.

The mood going into the 1970s, then, was one of black pessimism. Movements for change had been crushed, the political establishment was becoming increasingly monolithic, and all that awaited ordinary people was assimilation and wage labour. This was the period during which Osamu Tezuka made his comeback – not with happy-go-lucky tales of a nuclear future along the lines of Astro Boy, but dark, deeply pessimistic tales of the folly of humankind. Perhaps there is something we can learn from that today.

Osamu Tezuka in the 1970s: A Fascinating Period

To answer the question of why consumer tastes changed so much in the 1960s and 1970s requires more than just a simple description of the political situation. In reality, it was the combination of countless factors, each acting in and of itself and leading up to a wider equilibrium. Still, that would be to betray the focus of this article, so we shall leave it there.

The point of this article was to shed some light on an under-discussed and under-appreciated period of Osamu Tezuka’s career. Discussing Dororo, MW, Ayako, and Black Jack does some of this. Yet, to a certain extent, that has already been done: such publishers as Vertical have done a great job in bringing some of the lesser-known Tezuka works to English-speaking territories. Chief among them would probably be Buddha, which we didn’t get the chance to discuss today. Still, I would implore you to check it out.

Some of the other works that would have fit the focus of this article include Swallowing the Earth, Barbara, and – the big one – Phoenix. Nevertheless, I wanted to choose those series that were readily available in English, and – in the case of Phoenix – simple enough to unpack in a relatively short amount of time. There definitely needs to be something longer on Phoenix in the future.

Osamu Tezuka in 1988
Osamu Tezuka in 1988

Still, you can’t cover everything, and the main inspiration behind this article was as follows: I started reading Black Jack for the first time earlier last year and was very taken aback by how harrowing it was. “This is quite different from the Tezuka that I thought I knew,” I thought. “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” This led me to research the topic in my own time and, eventually, choose it as my graduation thesis.

Part of the reason why Osamu Tezuka is so renowned today is because of the amount of genres and stories that he dipped his feet into. Even so, his oeuvre is as deep as it is wide; everything deserves talking about, and it will take a long time before we ever do any of it justice.

If you haven’t read any Osamu Tezuka manga yet, then perhaps consider picking up some of the ones we have mentioned here today. Who knows? You might just find a new favourite.

 

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