This was printed in the Tombo Times (magazine for foreigners in Oita Prefecture) in Fall 2003. Now that they've taken down their website, I just reprinted it here.
Tezuka Osamu has been referred to as “The Walt Disney of Japan” and “The Shakespeare of Japanese Comics.” As the disparity between these two titles indicates, his work covers widely varied ground. This, plus the sheer volume of comics he managed to write during his lifetime, makes him a difficult artist to summarize in a short article. But here it goes anyway:
Tezuka’s most recognizable character is Astro Boy. And if you weren’t familiar with Astro Boy before you came to Japan, I’m sure you’ve seen his smiling face everywhere since you’ve arrived. Another of Tezuka’s series, “The Jungle Emperor” is thought to have been the inspiration for Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Despite the popularity of these children’s comics, it would be a mistake to dismiss Tezuka Osamu as simply for children. Much of Tezuka’s work is intended for an older audience.
There is for instance his much darker “Black Jack” series, about a mysterious unlicensed physician who is able to perform amazing surgeries. Although much of “Black Jack” is medical fantasy, Tezuka was able to draw on his own experience in medical school to create the series.
Tezuka also explored many religious themes. He produced a lengthy series (10 volumes in soft cover) on the life of Buddha. One of his earlier series retold the Chinese Buddhist myth about a mischievous monkey and his adventures in heaven. Another work took the most famous stories from the Christian bible, and retold them in comic form.
Tezuka considered his lifework to be the “Firebird” series (“Hi no Tori” in Japanese.) Each volume of the series is seemingly unconnected to the other, the only reoccurring character being the magical phoenix or fire bird. And each volume takes place in a different period of human history, from the ancient past to the distant future. But no matter what time period the story occurs in, human nature appears to be unchanged. Tezuka used this series to focus on the negative aspects of human nature, and the problems of human society. It is largely based on this series that many have compared Tezuka to Shakespeare.
But despite the depressing nature of the Firebird series, Tezuka is known as an artist who celebrated life and peace. During the 1960s, Tezuka wrote about the anti-colonialism struggles in Africa and South East Asia. His work during this period features such stories as Astro-boy defending a Vietnamese village from American bombers, and Black Jack facing a moral dilemma when asked to save the life of an American general who had massacred a Vietnamese village. Numerous other stories deal with the anti-war movement in both Japan and the United States.
Tezuka also wrote about Japan during World War II and the following American occupation. Many of these stories are semi-autobiographical, and are among his most moving works. Tezuka, who was a teenager during World War II and lived through many of the bombing raids, wrote about his friends who were killed or disfigured by American bombs.
But Tezuka’s most famous work on World War II is “Adolf”. It is historical fiction about 3 men named Adolf, one the infamous Adolf Hitler, the other two childhood friends, one half German, half Japanese, the other Jewish.
Although themes dealing with Nazi Germany have been fully explored by other writers, Tezuka offers a unique perspective. Much of the story takes place in Japan, where the German Adolf experiences racism against him by the Japanese, many of whom suspect him of being an American spy. (“Ignorant Japanese,” he says at one point, “don’t they know the difference between their allies and their enemies.”) At the same time, even in Japan he is unable to give up his hatred of Jews. And he does his best to forget that he is half Japanese, and not fully Aryan himself. The story forces the reader to think hard about the nature of racism.
Where to find Tezuka Osamu’s work: It’s all over the place actually. If you are an ALT, chances are your school library will at least have the “Firebird” series. Otherwise the town library certainly will have something by Tezuka Osamu. Although Tezuka died in 1987, his work is still being reprinted and sold in local convenience stores all over Japan. Used book stores are a great way to get his work very cheaply. And the older prints sometimes include a short summary of the story in English, which is useful for those of us still struggling with Japanese.