Salute Your Shorts: Tezuka Osamu’s Experimental Animation

Movies Features Tezuka Osamu

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

With Phil Mulloy’s films, it’s easy to see the gradual development of an artist. Even though he’d been working in the industry for years, Mulloy’s animation had a textbook level of gradual improvement that’s easy to follow from point A to B. By the time Osamu Tezuka began working in animation, he was already a widely popular manga artist and seemed to arrive fully formed. That he more or less singlehandedly invented a subgenre (IE: anime) is just one of the side effects of his genius. Mulloy has spent his career self-consciously maintaining work as an individual “artist.” Tezuka, on the other hand, couldn’t help but do anything else, maintaining a superhuman output of works that ended up idiosyncratic and individual despite large amounts of outsourcing and many creative minds involved.

Regardless of his role as the progenitor of modern animation in Japan, Tezuka still isn’t particularly well-known internationally, and if he was it would either be for the Astro Boy television series or perhaps his epic comic biographies. Astro Boy was, of course, an extremely important work that has been endlessly copied and unintentionally became the first real anime. Tezuka worked on an incredible number of other television projects through the years, but his role was generally less of a director and more of an overarching guide. TV earned him money, as he would himself admit, but he was too busy managing the studio and writing his 120,000 pages of comics to be in charge of everything.

Even in his comics, though, Tezuka’s works are extremely cinematic; in fact this was his calling card. His works are composed less of drawings than of still frames, shots that work in action together and beg to be adapted—many of which have been, again and again. He tended to work outside of daily comics, which were the primary form when he began, and instead delved into long, sprawling works that fit together like intricate film plots, with many characters and storylines interweaving.

Tezuka was certainly big enough to attract both followers, who flocked to his film-informed style, and detractors, who rebelled against what they saw as a Westernized and Disneyfied version of the art form. The odd thing about this is that while this is a valid complaint of Tezuka’s more populist style, he was always an innovator, and finding one specific style in his works is a difficult task. Astro Boy became the first anime, but Tezuka, the father of anime himself, was drawing differently dependent on his subjects and always kept one foot making himself rich by pleasing the masses and another foot firmly entrenched in more personal and experimental works.The Astonishing Work of Osamu Tezuka highlights the man’s experimental films, featuring many of his odder and more heterogenous works (though unfortunately it doesn’t give a particularly full picture of his films in a greater sense). Even before Astro Boy truly launched his animation career, Tezuka produced and wrote “Tales of the Street Corner,” an oddly moving work that focuses on day-to-day life in Japan and how it ends up destroyed by war. Anthropomorphizing animals and images on posters, it’s an intentionally more difficult work with little story and no dialogue, instead emphasizing feelings through music and imagery. The contrast between this and Astro Boy couldn’t be any greater, but Tezuka’s effortless character creation makes the work as enchanting as any of the Disney works that Tezuka was trying to emulate.

Of course, movies like this didn’t make any actual money, but at that point, Tezuka was rolling in the dough from his increasingly successful manga, and was willing to support the effort regardless of how much it would be ignored outside of the growing festival circuit. This was also true of his other 1962 film, “Male,” which is quite a bit more idiosyncratic than “Tales of the Street Corner.” The short focuses on a Looney Toons-esque gag where events are being interpreted in the dark by a man’s cats. The animation is both creative and, luckily for Tezuka, cheap, due to its gimmick. “Male” takes this idea to a much darker place than any American cartoons of the time ever would, as it’s eventually revealed that the man has committed murder. It’s a story about miscommunication between man and the rest of the world, with man, as usual in Tezuka’s works, cast as the villain in front of innocent wildlife.

“Male” looks nothing like “Tales of the Street Corner” which looks nothing like the Astro Boy series that premiered shortly after the release of the more experimental works and actually made Tezuka some money back on his animation investment. While his earlier works did their best to make both subtle and grand points about the world, Astro Boy is ultimately a kids TV series, where artistry is second to making money and just about every corner was cut in production on the road towards success. Tezuka’s animated works were largely split between these two worlds, without particularly mixing them like Walt Disney or Chuck Jones.

Tezuka’s experimental shorts, at least on Kino’s release, are split between his earlier works in the ’60s and ones he worked on just before his death in the ’80s. While Astro Boy was just taking off Tezuka capitalized on the sudden growth of his animation’s success with a series of more personal, or at least interesting, short works: “Memory,” “Mermaid,” “The Drop,” “Genesis” and the wide-ranging “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Each of these works continued Tezuka’s fascination with changing art styles, with homage to just about everything he’d seen in foreign animation combined but with his own unique approach to storytelling. Tezuka was willing to be bluntly sexual and explicit, as well as telling stories from an almost first-person point of view. A defining feature of his experimental works is identification with protagonists (who feel like projections of Tezuka), whether it’s a boy who sees a mermaid or a man who’s lost his memory. The films feel more human than previous cartoons, wistful and contemplative rather than gag-based.

This isn’t to say that Tezuka’s earlier shorts could be pigeonholed, as his works were multi-faceted. “Genesis,” an odd retelling of the Bible’s first book, acts as an interesting counterpoint to Mulloy’s “Intolerance,” where similar themes are touched upon, though here without cynicism. The longest of these works is “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which showscases the fullest extent of Tezuka’s stylistic ambition. Using the classical Mussorgsky framing device, the work is composed of 10 smaller shorts linked by the suite’s “Promenade Theme” and combines journalistic observation with technical excess. Every short is drawn in a different style to fit with an odd gag about a type of person before they eventually crash together in the end with a wonderland of art styles. Maybe it’s because of cultural differences, but the writing on the film doesn’t quite work. Its artistic ambitions are grand enough, though, that it’s still a delight.

Tezuka’s earlier films found him striving to take animation in new places, often more personal than anyone before him, but his later works feature a maturity that more often looks outward at the world. “Jumping” offers the greatest example of this, where a girl (though she’s never shown) jumps continually higher and further, observing what happens around her from different perspectives. Composed of only one long take, its bigger view of things encapsulates the central theme of these later works.

In 1985 Tezuka released one more gag-intensive work, the brilliant “Broken Down Film,” which goes back to Tezuka’s childhood watching countless beaten up old film prints and tells a story about what would happen if characters could react to the exhibition conditions. It’s Tezuka’s take on “Duck Amuck,” where the fourth wall is not just broken, it’s taken out back and shot. Its hero suffers through scratches, frames incorrectly positioned, jump cuts, etc. before using them to his advantage later on. It’s not Tezuka’s most powerful work, but is possibly his most fun one. Any cartoon that allows speech bubbles to be used as weapons has to be doing something right.

With the 1987 works “Push” and “Muramasa,” Tezuka seemed to be developing cynicism shortly before his death, with each taking a dark look at humanity and the violence and debris we’re wreaking upon the world. Given, as always, new art styles, the two films are both affecting and uncharacteristically dark. Tezuka’s unfinished masterpiece “Legend of the Forest” combines the darker themes and higher stakes of his later works with the playfulness that’s more characteristic of his earlier ones.

Any fan of Fantasia should be delighted by “Legend of the Forrest,” which is a large-scale homage to that work done beautifully by another master of the form. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, even characters from Disney’s musical are woven into its tapestry. But the work’s true brilliance comes through in the way it combines its formal elements with its story. “Legend of the Forrest” is an homage not just to Fantasia, but to animation in general and tells its own story through the history of animation. Represented by a squirrel and his development, the movie begins by animating in the style of Emile Cohl before moving through Disney, the Fleischers, Terrytoons, Warner Bros., and even television-style limited animation. The squirrel fights back for his homeland, which is being destroyed to make way for industry, but is incapable of stopping progress from moving forward.

The story picks up again with the fourth movement, the squirrel now long gone and an all-out war going on between the full animation (24 frames/second with every cell hand-drawn) of the forest and limited animation (12 frames/second with repeated sequences) of the factories. It’s a heartfelt story and has clearly had a large effect on Hayao Miyazaki, whose own works owe a lot to Tezuka. But the film is also given a more subtle, personal undercurrent with Tezuka’s own history. Tezuka was himself one of the pioneers of limited animation, with desire for economical television animation getting the better of his artistry and he was behind the introduction of double-animating frames and many other tricks and shortcuts that became standards of low-budget anime. Tezuka is criticizing his own financial an artistic success and yet also fighting to give it a legitimate place within animation history.

Unfortunately, Tezuka only completed these first and last movements of his story before his death. Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezuka, himself a well-respected director, is purported to be working on finishing the middle movements, though whether this will actually happen no one seems to know. Tezuka’s completed portions and the many other works he produced are enough of a legacy to place him in the medium’s hall of fame, though we would still be pretty thrilled if the film was actually completed.

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