Magazine article World Literature Today

Dark Side of the Manga: Tezuka Osamu's Dark Period

Magazine article World Literature Today

Dark Side of the Manga: Tezuka Osamu's Dark Period

Article excerpt

Tezuka Osamu spent the first two decades of his career entertaining Japanese children with his manga like Tetsuwan Atomu, but the rigors of being Japan's most visible creative public icon sent him down a dark path that would transform both his career and his legacy.

As global economies lurch from the popping of financial bubble after bubble, industrialized nations with identities forged in the aftermath of World War II are looking back on past histories, both near and far, with longing-a comingling of the urge to retreat into a cultural memory of triumph while searching for the elusive path back to greatness. Japan is no exception. The success of novels like Murakami Ryu's Popular Hits of the Showa Era (2011; see WLT, Sept. 2011, 63) and Urasawa Naoki's manga 20th Century Boys (1999- 2006) is a telling sign that many Japanese people are reacting to current economic and social instabilities by dissecting the remains of their country's dynamic recent past for answers to modern problems.

The Showa period began in 1926 with the ascension of Hirohito to the imperial throne of Japan. Despite the more popular contemporary conception of the Showa as being framed at one end by the conclusion of World War II and, at the other, by Hirohito's death in 1989, the period, as a whole, was more complicated than that simple narrative suggests. It began with the collapse of a fledgling democracy that led to an expansionist military state, which, in turn, was transformed into a pacifist industrializing nation fighting its way back from the brink of starvation and ruin. From there, Japan emerged as one of the world's manufacturing powerhouses and, for a short time, its banker, before the death of the emperor coincided with the collapse of the country's financial house of cards at the end of the 1980s.

To gain a more nuanced understanding of the whole of the Showa period, we need look no further than the work of twentieth-century Japan's most influential cultural icon, manga artist Tezuka Osamu. Tezuka's entire life was contained within the Showa, born two years after it began and, himself, dying of stomach cancer at the age of sixty, within one month of the emperor's own passing. An in-depth examination of how Tezuka's output relates to the Japanese culture of which he was a product, a participant, and a prophet is an undertaking that goes well beyond the scope of one magazine article. One period in his career, however, offers the inquisitive reader a fascinating cross section that yields insights into the Showa period's shaky beginnings, its turbulent middle, and concerns for its future.

Welcome to Tezuka Osamu's dark period. Tezuka was born to parents more philosophically in tune with the tech-savvy, freewheeling Japan of the 1920s than the Japan reduced to an occupied nation under General MacArthur's authority in 1945. He detested war and the belligerent nationalism (no matter the nation) that characterized the decade in which he grew to young adulthood. Tezuka was a quiet boy obsessed with drawing, and, at the war's end, he channeled that single-minded focus into attending medical school. When Tezuka completed his studies in 1948, he was faced with a dilemma. He had been drawing manga all through school, despite the demands of his education. In one of the great improbable decisions of the twentieth century, he decided not to practice medicine and, instead, began trying to sell his work to cashstrapped book publishers.

No one could have predicted the degree of his success, as no manga-ka had seen his kind of success before. Among a string of wildly successful works, one series stood out, seizing the cultural zeitgeist of Japan in the 1950s like none other: Tetsuwon Atomu or Astro Boy. An entire generation of Japanese children grew up following the exploits of "The Mighty Atom," a powerful boy robot with a tender heart but an active sense of justice. Tezuka's singular vision of the future, a world rich with technology but plagued by the same ethical problems as the world his audience inhabited, captivated the imagination of many young Japanese children and, in measurable ways, shaped the nation's future as those children grew to adulthood. …

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