Osamu Tezuka was revered during his lifetime as the manga no kami-sama—the “God of manga.” More than any other individual, he was responsible for the rise of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) in post-war Japan. He achieved this fame by creating a flood of popular and critically acclaimed works. In his lifetime he drew about 150,000 pages of comics and created over 60 animated works. He became a popular cartoonist at a young age, but persisted in his education, graduating from medical school, completing a dissertation, and becoming a licensed physician. Eventually, he had to choose what he loved best, and went with manga and anime instead of medicine.
Shortly after Tezuka died at the age of 60 in 1989, his “sub-chief assistant,” Toshio Ban, with research and drawing help from Tezuka Productions, serialized a manga-format biography of Tezuka. This great, thick work, The Osamu Tezuka Story, has now been made available in English, introduced and translated by Frederik L. Schodt.
Fred Schodt occasionally served as Tezuka’s personal interpreter, and has translated a number of Tezuka’s works. His own books include one about Tezuka’s most famous character, The Astro Boy Essays. In 1983, he wrote the path-breaking book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, for which Tezuka wrote the foreword.
Fred is also an old friend of mine. I am happy that he has agreed to be interviewed about The Osamu Tezuka Story. We stitched the following together from our email correspondence.
Leonard Rifas: It seems clear that a cartoonist who drew 150,000 pages of comics and also loved to read and watch movies would not have enough time to also have an adventurous, dramatic personal life. Nevertheless, I was able to read this 900 page book (which describes Tezuka’s life but says very little about the stories that he told) without slowing down. What do you think makes Tezuka’s life interesting?
Fred Schodt: The drama comes, I think, in seeing how he was able to pursue his dreams for the comic book medium, and for animation, to such an extreme degree. In retrospect, it’s quite amazing that he not only accomplished so much, but that he did so in a relatively short time. Conversely, given his life-style, it’s amazing that he lived as long as he did.
LR: Several great manga-format autobiographies of Japanese cartoonists have been republished in English, but this is the first book I’ve seen in which one cartoonist draws a full-length biography of another. Did Tezuka create any manga about his own life?
FS: Tezuka was really too busy to create a true manga autobiography, but as the book mentions, several of his stories are very autobiographical in nature. Kami no toride (“Paper Fortress”) is a good example, for in it he describes (with only some exaggeration) what happened to him in World War II. Later on, he also created a story, Hidamari no Ki (“A Tree in the Sun”), which, while partly fictionalized, is about his ancestors.
People who read Tezuka’s manga in depth, and know his life story, can also often spot autobiographical passages in otherwise fictional works. As far as I know, Tezuka wrote only one book about his life, and that was Boku wa Mangaka (“I am a Manga Artist”), but he wrote numerous articles, some of which were incorporated into other books, about his life.
This is probably as close as we can get to a posthumous autobiography, since it is created by his former sub-chief assistant, with the help of the company and the imprimatur of the family, and is narrated by one of his most beloved characters—Higeoyaji, or “Mustachio.”
LR: I thought it was beautifully done. Has Tezuka Productions continued to create other new manga in Tezuka’s style?
FS: Unfortunately, after The Osamu Tezuka Story, the Tezuka Productions manga department was disbanded. The company has recently licensed other artists to do works based on Tezuka’s characters, but these artists are not part of the Tezuka Productions manga department.
One hallmark of Japanese manga that is quite different from American comics is that the creators usually are the only ones who draw their manga. In other words, when the artist dies, that is usually the end of new manga works using their characters, etc.
Animation is a little bit different, since it is such a group activity to begin with. For example, as many American fans know, there have been multiple iterations of Astro Boy animation created, for both television and the big screen, in the wake of Tezuka’s death.
LR: As someone who has become a fan of Tezuka’s manga, I was surprised that the book seemed to repeatedly reduce his manga to something that he did for money that he could use to support his ambition to make animated cartoons. Was drawing children’s story manga really a better-paying job than the other things he could have been doing?
FS: Given that Tezuka was often in the top category of artists, in what was called the “chôjabanzuke” (published “list of richest people,” or tax payers), manga were highly lucrative for Tezuka. Unlike the United States in those days, in Japan manga artists owned the copyright to their own works and not only received payment for each page they drew, but also royalties for sales of each compiled paperback volume (usually 10% of list price, in a land where royalties are calculated based on print runs, not on sold copies).
LR: The book never explains how much he was getting paid per page or why he didn’t draw fewer pages for higher prices. Did he ever bargain for a higher page rate?
FS: Tezuka himself didn’t have to bargain. He had savvy managers who could do this. Unlike lesser artists, Tezuka was able to pit publishers against each other, in effect jacking up his pay. As the book shows very well, the main problem he had was to find time to draw all the stories he committed to drawing for so many different publishers.
LR: I thought that Tezuka’s story seemed like a cautionary tale about the life of a “workaholic,” but the book seemed to present it as though Tezuka had provided an enviable model for how to live. Did Japanese of his generation not have a word for isogobamaware?
FS: In reading the story, you may recall that there is one section where he is warned to slow down by a colleague at an award ceremony. But obviously, not enough people cautioned him.
One thing that’s important to remember is that most of the story takes place during Japan’s high economic growth period. In those days, the Japanese economy (and especially the manga business) were like an escalator that kept speeding up. There was no incentive to slow down, and hard work was glorified, especially among men, to an extent that is hard to believe in today’s recessionary environment.
For Tezuka’s generation, and among those who had miraculously survived a terrible war, the glorification of hard work was especially intense. One valid criticism of Tezuka, I think, is that he helped glorify over-work, and as a result many younger artists who idolized him and at one point or another were his protégés also died early deaths. Shôtarô Ishinomori, Hiroshi Fujimoto, and several others, all died around 60.
LR: You’d think that with his medical training, he might have realized that he was pushing things too hard.
FS: Since Tezuka was a licensed physician, I think that he always assumed that he knew how to take care of himself, and how much he could physically stand. Those around him probably assumed (as ridiculous as it seems in hindsight) that he knew best.
LR: The book describes Tezuka as performing seemingly superhuman feats of cartooning, such as dictating one comics story while he was drawing another; doing a 20-portrait caricature based on short-term memory of a group photograph; and drawing upside down. Did you ever see him do anything like that?
FS: No, but on one trip to Florida for a documentary being made at Disney World, I did see what seemed superhuman to me. The film crew from Japan who were following Tezuka were so exhausted that, on the shoot, one of the gaffer-lighting people (supporting what was probably a 10K light) actually fell asleep on his feet, his knees suddenly buckling. I had never witnessed anything like this before. That night after dinner, Tezuka, who probably had not slept for a couple of days, wished me a good sleep, retreated to his hotel room. In the morning, when I saw him, he handed me a bunch of pages that he wanted sent to Japan.
He had stayed up all night, working on them, doing not only pencil drafts, but inking the main characters and giving directions to his staff back in Japan. He was smiling as usual, as if it were all completely normal. If I were Tezuka, I would have already been in the hospital by then.
LR: Many pages of this book show editors following Tezuka around or camping in his offices to get him to finish the pages he had promised to do for them. As a comics publisher myself, the thing that most puzzled me in this story was how could Tezuka’s publishers afford to hire editors to follow him around?
FS: This is a good question, and it follows along with others that often occur to me, and some other non-Japanese, when visiting Japan—such as, how in the world can so many tiny little bars and eateries that seat only about eight people at a time possibly thrive in a place like Tokyo, when by American economic standards it should not be remotely possible.
My answer is basically that I don’t know the reason, and can only speculate. In the case of the publishing world it may have something to do with the fact that the publishing model in Japan is very different than it is in the United States, and whether through the distribution system or the tax code, publishers are in some ways more cushioned.
LR: That was some cushion! The book shows as many as eight editors at a time, who seemed to have no other responsibilities than to sit around while he finished pages for their competitors before he got to drawing theirs.
FS: In Tezuka’s day, it’s also important to realize that manga magazines and books were a gold mine for publishers, and this was especially true of anything created by Tezuka. He was not the only manga artist whom publishers would confine to hotel rooms and hound, but he could often sell more magazines and books than anyone else, so he got extra attention, and as you can see from the book, he learned to depend upon it.
LR: Yes, he says several times in this book that he gets his best ideas when under pressure, and he seemed to have concluded from this that he should be under maximum pressure at all times.
FS: Without editors hounding him, Tezuka couldn’t get his work done. As a result, many editors also hated being assigned to him. It’s important to note that in those days editors were not only assigned to manga artists. Even successful novelists were also often confined to hotels and hounded by editors.
LR: If I remember correctly, when Tezuka was in San Francisco in 1981, you told me that an editor had followed him all the way to the United States to make sure that he completed his assigned pages!
FS: It’s true that an editor once flew to America to get Tezuka to finish an episode of Phoenix. I was amazed by this when it happened, since I was with him, and I’ve never forgotten how awkward it was for the editor. Tezuka was enjoying himself far too much on his trip, and he had to be confined to his room in the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco, as I recall. But in the hierarchical context of Japanese culture, for a young editor to pressure the “God of Manga” this way was extremely difficult, and I’m sure the editor felt as though he was going to develop ulcers.
For the magazine then serializing Phoenix, it was nearly a life-or-death situation. If Tezuka had not come through with the pages they needed, even if they had had some sort of emergency replacement ready to fill the space, Tezuka’s fans would have been outraged.
LR: I met Tezuka just one time, when he was on that tour as a “Manga Ambassador” in 1981. I know that you have no memory of this, but back then you told me that he wanted to meet me to see about having his manga republished in the United States. (With my republications of Keiji Nakazawa’s manga about the Hiroshima bomb, I was the only person in the U.S. republishing manga in American comics format at that time.) After watching a screening of his new film Phoenix 2772 at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, we met at the Top of the Mark hotel bar in San Francisco, just Tezuka, you, your girlfriend Peg, and myself.
I watched a fuzzy, web-posted version of Phoenix 2772 a few days ago. Now, after 35 years, having watched it a second time, I remember more clearly that one of the reasons I was embarrassed to meet Tezuka that night was that I had trouble thinking of a single nice thing to say about his movie. If I could see him now, I’d still have trouble thinking of anything nice to say about that movie.
FS: Phoenix 2772 was a bit awkward, wasn’t it? But whenever I see it, I’m always amazed at the opening scenes showing the futuristic city with constantly changing camera perspective. It’s simple now, with computer graphics, but in those days, that scene was quite remarkable in animation, since it was all hand-done.
LR: The book said that Tezuka rebelled against the idea that anything was impossible. All I remember of my conversation with him was that I basically told him that having his work distributed in comic book format in America at that time was impossible. (Now that I think of it, way back then, the only manga of his that I had seen was probably the short sample you had included in your book Manga! Manga!) Do you know if he ever tried to find a more receptive American publisher to republish his work?
FS: I’m sure that Tezuka wanted his manga work published in America, and I know that it was terribly disappointing to him that there seemed to be so little interest in any of it. He really believed in manga as a kind of Esperanto, or international language.
Not too long after Tezuka died, I remembered visiting Viz, in San Francisco, with Takayuki Matsutani, Tezuka’s former manager and now the president of Tezuka Productions. They were one of the first U.S./Japanese companies to start issuing manga in translation. We tried to interest them in publishing Phoenix, but had no success.
I believe I may have translated the first work of Tezuka’s published in English—Crime and Punishment, in 1990, but it was only issued in Japan. In the United States, one of the first Tezuka works to appear was Adolf, published by Viz, in 1993. Publication of Phoenix in English in America did not start until 2002, nearly 13 years after Tezuka’s death, and nearly 20 years after that translated sample first appeared in Manga! Manga!
LR: I was interested to see that The Osamu Tezuka Story had so many pages in the book about the making of the film Phoenix 2772 and about his tour of America with it. I liked the part where a woman at UCLA responds to that film by asking about “sexual discrimination” in Japan. She’d probably been waiting to ask that since the first minutes of the film, where young Godo controls his sexy robot with a somewhat phallic-looking remote control.
FS: The scene in UCLA is very much the way I remembered it. There are always people who ask about depictions of women in manga/anime, and there are always people who ask why they all look Caucasian.
LR: You appear in this book in one panel where you had accompanied Tezuka to his meeting with Ward Kimball, one of the legendary animators of Walt Disney’s cartoons. I remember that you had been thrilled to meet Ward Kimball, and what I remember of your impression of him was captured in a napkin drawing reproduced in the book. It showed Donald Duck (drawn by Kimball) flipping off Jiminy Cricket (drawn by Tezuka.) If you could have chosen one panel of Tezuka’s life to make your cameo appearance in this book, would you have chosen this same one?
FS: I think it was perfect. The panel in the book where I appear is based on a photograph taken by my friend, the animator Shin’ichi Suzuki. I’m somewhat embarrassed today by the hippie-esque way I dressed then, but it brings back many fond memories. As I recall, Ward Kimball not only had model trains in a huge shed in his backyard, but perhaps a real train, too.
LR: It seems that most fans of manga are closely attuned to what is current and not to the history of the form. Even my manga-loving students usually arrive at my classes with little idea of who Osamu Tezuka was.
FS: For American fans, I would venture to say that the most popular Japanese manga works are those which are also currently on U.S. television or available on-line as animation, and the focus is generally in real-time works. In other words, American fans want to see the same new shows that Japanese fans are enjoying and talking about.
Having said that, Tezuka’s manga is remarkably popular in Japan today, in both e-book and paper format. His most popular work, Black Jack, about an outlaw physician, has sold over 45 million copies. Of course, many older readers love to read Tezuka’s work, partly for nostalgic reasons, but for many young people, it is something they are discovering for the first time, and it is quite fresh.
LR: The Osamu Tezuka Story is packed with names of people and comics that I do not know, and yet the energetic, graphic story-telling pulled me right through it. Still, I think it would appeal mostly to people who have enjoyed some of Tezuka’s manga or anime. For someone not already familiar with his works, what would you recommend as a good place to begin?
FS: One of my all-time favorite manga series is Phoenix, especially the fourth volume, 鳳凰 (Hô-ô), or “Karma” in English. You can read a snippet of it in Manga! Manga! It’s a work that got me hooked on Japanese manga and showed me new possibilities for the comics medium. For children, many of the later episodes of the Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy, manga, are really delightful. The earliest works, which are now over 60 years old, are a bit too wordy for young children. In addition to adults, and works for both boys and girls who are already reading quite a bit, Tezuka also created several manga for the younger set, such as Unico. In Japan, as mentioned, Tezuka’s most popular work is Black Jack, a fascinating and totally unique series about an unlicensed surgeon, but it may be a bit gruesome for young American children!