That Diminutive Mechanism

The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution

This is a $16.95 book from Stone Bridge Press, published this past summer. I (barely) found it at my local bookstore, tucked away into the manga section; it's only slightly wider than a typical manga digest, so it fit in quite easily. Don't let your eyes skim over it.

I doubt there's any native English speaker out there more qualified to write this sort of book than Frederik L. Schodt. Manga honors students will recall Schodt being the first to bring the good news to bookstores with his landmark 1983 overview Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Already active in manga translation while the English-language market for the stuff remained nascent, Schodt soon became noted for his work on translation projects rich in history, such as The Four Immigrants Manga, a 1931 made-in-America project from San Francisco's Japanese community, and high in complication - I can't imagine the migraines something like Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface must have inspired.

Schodt's subsequent forays into manga popular scholarship have mainly focused on filling in gaps in the English conversation; he is eminently qualified for this, having been reading Japanese comics -- in Japan, and in Japanese -- since the form's 1970s golden age. His 1996 Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga provided an info-rich tour of seemingly everything in the manga world that Schodt found interesting at the time: the old and new avant-garde; anthologies aimed at young mothers; anthologies aimed at pachinko players; the sunny neighborhood of ero-guro; finance manga; military fetish manga; autobiographical sex manga; literal cult manga (as in manga produced by the AUM Shinrikyō cult, which gassed Tokyo's subway system in 1995, killing 12 commuters); and much more.

There was also a lot of stuff in there about Osamu Tezuka. Schodt is even more qualified to be writing about him, seeing as how he served as Tezuka's English-language interpreter for many years, and worked since 1977 to get the man's magnum opus, Phoenix, released in English letters; VIZ's North American release of the core material just wrapped the other month, so it's been quite a project. Oh, and Schodt also translated Dark Horse's 23-volume Astro Boy manga project, putting him in an even more specifically adept position.

However, the book Schodt has written may disappoint readers hungry for something more comprehensive; breezy and factoid-laden, it sometimes reads like an extended introduction to a work several times its 248-page size, even while keeping the subject matter confined to Astro Boy. That's not to say there isn't a lot of vital information and fine insight on display - as is evident from a glance at the Bibliography page, there's no lack of Tezuka-related writing published in Japanese, and Schodt's access to these secondary sources no doubt provides a perspective on the topic lacking from English-only study. But the cursory biography of Tezuka that emerges from this look at Astro Boy left me wishing for the 'overwhelming' treatment Schodt mentions in his Introduction as accordant to works seeking to grasp the full life of Tezuka.

The book's title suggests Schodt's intent; I don't think these "Essays" have been published separately, so the designation serves mainly to warn of the jumpy trip ahead. The Introduction, Afterword, color illustration gallery and various appendices take up a decent amount of space, but the meat of the book is eight essays, each focusing on a different aspect of Tezuka's life with his most fondly remembered creation.

The first piece offers a cook's tour of festivities held all around Japan in honor of the character's April 7, 2003 in-story date of birth (since it fell on a logistically troublesome Monday, most of the fun actually happened on the 6th) as a sort of introduction-after-the-Introduction. We then dive way into the past to examine the 1951 genesis of the Astro Boy manga (Japanese title: Tetsuwan Atomu, or "Mighty Atom"), as well as Tezuka's start as a teenage manga artist shortly after the end of WWII, and indeed his early life in general.

Each new essay creeps forward in time: the design and style of the manga; the 1963 debut of its television anime adaptation (and the start of 'anime' as we know it today); the show's fame in the US; the works' science and real-world impact; the works' themes and their later development; and their ultimate legacy within and beyond Tezuka's body of work.

It's a workable structure, and Schodt writes with enthusiasm and clarity, although the book as a whole can't quite choose what it wants to be. It's conceived as a set of essays, although the individual pieces hold little singular impact, obviously working off of a building impact. But taken cumulatively, there's several instances of repeated information, with certain factoids introduced several times over the course of the book, as if the essay are also meant to split apart. Coupled with a bouncy (if logical) year-skipping progression, the book sometimes reads as cursory, scattered, and in need of tighter editing. Individual parts shine, but they don't really cohere.

I realize I'm sounding awfully down on things, so let me reiterate: this is a worthwhile book, filled with information that all Tezuka readers will want to know, and gratifyingly keen on exploring the bonds that join Astro Boy the work(s) to Osamu Tezuka the man. This is no hagiographic poem, although it'd be easy to craft such a thing around Tezuka (the God of Manga! a medical doctor! an award-winning pianist! he could read a 300-page book in 10 minutes! he only slept three or four hours a day!).

Rather, Schodt presents Tezuka's virtues in a way that his arguable flaws -- a bottomless hunger for public affection, a relentless drive for perfection, working his assistants and employees to the bone, thundering into bad business decisions, casting aside various personal ideals for cultural immediacy -- seem naturally extrapolated. A comparison to David Michaelis's recent Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography might prove worthwhile for those who've read both.

Schodt is at his best when sprinkling facts from sources otherwise inaccessible to the English-only reader onto his own analysis to form detailed riffs on momentary themes. His account of Tezuka's wartime youth is fascinating and instructive, as is rundown of the factors that birthed the Astro Boy manga - many typical manga genres of the time had been supressed by occupying US forces as redolent with militarism and medieval thinking (no samurai, please!), so the time was right for a gleaming, sci-fi future of a technologically powerful Japan, and a superhero (American-inspired!) that would fight for the peace mandated by the Occupation.

Later, Schodt shows how the Astro Boy manga (which ran initially from 1951-68, but continued intermittently through 1981), reflected changes in Japan's politics and Tezuka's own life. There was even -- gah! -- a grim 'n gritty phase of sorts, to match the days of student protests. At times, Tezuka seemed to tire of his relationship with his most popular creation, occasionally dismissing it as his worst work - for a man who produced so many varied stories, the continued public focus on an episodic, somewhat repetitive kids' comic with origins in his early career must have chafed.

But it stayed close to him, always - Schodt repeats the irresistible rumor that Tezuka had planned to merge a final Phoenix story with the Astro Boy cast, perhaps concluding his most personal work with a final statement on the manga he was best known for. As Schodt reports, when Naoki Urasawa pitched the idea for Pluto to Macoto Tezuka (Osamu's son, head of Tezuka Productions, and a director of various live-action & anime projects), it was initially turned down, and only accepted later under the proviso that it not be beholden to simple parody or homage. It seems to be truly like Tezuka, you must be unlike him.

There's plenty more. I haven't even gotten into the book's intriguingly negative perspective on the business of anime, and Tezuka's role in maybe retarding it from the beginning (the reliably sassy Hayao Miyazaki pops in for a quick slam). Or its wistful peek at Tezuka's short-lived international fame following the sale of the Astro Boy anime to the US, including an invitation to move to London and work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. These snips of experience will leave you wanting more, much more, but even the push through what's here will tease a gleam of value.