Breaking The Narrative Episode 45: Anime Came From Activism?


Welcome once again everyone, this may seem unusual today but I’m not exactly reviewing anything or debunking any particular article. Normally I would put something like this as an article separate from this series, but to be honest I feel what I’m covering today fits into two particular themes. First is the theme of this series, to smash lies, deceit, and defamation of various aspects of geek culture and men as a whole. Second is the theme I’ve been working with during the whole of the month of April: Anime. Full disclosure, I didn’t even notice I was doing it until I started writing this so I thought it would be hilarious to mock a little bit. Now that I have that out of the way what am I going to do today’s article on? I put forward the assertion that Japanese Animation was born from activism. I also stated that I don’t have any article that is claiming this so this is an observation that I’m going to be working on from a specific line of logic. So where am I going to start with this? Simply by analyzing the progenitor of the format – the late Dr. Osamu Tezuka.

I can suggest a few different books to give some perspective on the “God of Manga and Anime.” The first would be The Osamu Tezuka Story by Toshio Ban and translated by Frederik L Schodt, which follows the prestigious creator throughout his days in a graphic novel style, appropriate for a man who made his name and life by creating several classic characters. The second would be God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga by Natsu Onoda Power, which goes into more written detail as opposed to a stylistic retelling of the master’s work-life. The final piece would be Anime Essentials: Everything a Fan Needs to Know by Gilles Poitras, which goes over this Japanese equivalent to Walt Disney loosely but gives more of an understanding of the style and its genres and tropes. With these sources in mind and my assertion set, I’m going to claim now that the reason Dr. Tezuka created his seminal works were to advocate for human rights as a whole – this means both men AND women. I also would like to add that many other of his contemporaries such as Go Nagai, Shotaro Ishinimori, and Leiji Matsumoto who all worked within the same timeframe as Dr. Tezuka were influenced by him towards the same end. However, we may touch upon these particular artisans in another work. The father of Astro Boy is going to take enough time and work as is. The parameters are all set, so Let’s Hammer This In!

So where do we begin with Osamu Tezuka?  Well lets begin with who he was as a whole. Tezuka was known for creating several characters that are staples of not only the anime format – but archetypes that have passed into video games. First, there’s Tetsuwan Atomu,  or The Mighty Atom! This is a series we know here as Astro Boy, the titular character being a child-like robot implanted with “Kokoro” which is Japanese for “Heart.” In essence, a modern day Pinocchio tale based around this superhuman robot equipped  with laser arms and rocket feet, a character whose design and concepts would be revisited in a little video game called Mega Man. He also created a series known here as Kimba the White Lion who in his native Japan is simply known as Leo – I know its not that original but if you look at its story and everything about it you’ll realize this is a very familiar story of a Lion King. Yes, I’m talking THAT Lion King, as in Disney ripped off Tezuka. This is a reason Hayao Miyazaki wrote a very specific contract with Disney when licensing out his works to the company. There is also Black Jack the Surgeon with the hands of God. The main character is a  medical rogue whose reputation precedes him and is known to be a cynical bastard who always saves his patient even though he himself is an amalgam of different parts after a terrorist bomb explosion that made it to where his body was fused with another’s after the other went brain-dead, but his limbs and body were shattered completely. Effectively a ‘cripple,’ he shows many parallels with one Dr. Gregory House.

Since we now know his works let’s go to where it all begin. At first he was merely known as Tekuza Osa, eldest son of three in Osaka in 1928, as an intelligent and quick-witted soul to a primarily Buddhist family. He later decided to add the kanji ‘Mu’ or insect to his name since bug collecting was one of his favorite hobbies. In fact, its a prominent hobby for children even in Japan today, hence why we even have Pokemon today. When World War II started he was only 14 years old and spent his teenage years living through the war. Then, having some dire experiences during the war influenced him to go to one of the newly established schools  for the purposes of learning medicine. This is why I called him “doctor” earlier in this piece, because he literally was a medical doctor, which gave a lot or realism to his Black Jack series, though he did touch upon sci-fi elements of course. He made comics all throughout the time he was studying medicine, even penning a war comic in 1945.  After the war he started work on a comic called New Treasure Island, which got picked up for publication and was a massive success for the time.

Once the fifties came around he started to publish one of his first signature works, Jungle Emperor Leo – the aforementioned Kimba the White Lion. This is where we get to my assertion because one of the biggest issues talked about through this series is that of poaching that went on in Africa at the time and in many cases still happens today. Granted, at this time a lot of what Tezuka drew could be considered racist considering the look of some of the African poachers at the time, though you could attribute this to the quality of the equipment available at the time, not to mention the very minimal amount of exposure he would have had to specifically black people at the time and amount of information he would have had access to as part of the MacArthurian post-war government he was working within. It was after the success of this story that his career went into a major upswing, starting with him getting his full degree and license as a medical practitioner and leading to the development of his most famous work of Astro Boy.  Now how does a show about a super-powered futuristic robot relate to activism you may ask?

Well even in 1963 with its first animated episode that was translated and localized into English at that time, they touched not only on concerns about male disposability, but having compassion for men, as ‘Astro’s’ father goes straight to his son after a horrific car accident that took the boy’s human life away. This leads to a show that is shocking for the time, of a father with perhaps too much knowledge losing his mind in grief that is not properly addressed. It also shows concerns of what could happen if you take science to extremes. While most of the episodes could be considered sci-fi adventures based around a monster-of-the-week model, the underlying themes do become a standard of the show that are exemplified in multiple re-imaginings before and after Tezuka’s demise in 1989. It is also seen through these early depictions that men and boys were meant for service in the depicted society, even when represented by purely artificial beings. This means even in the 60’s there was an underlying concern about the mental states and well-being of men being seen as needing to serve society and by extension, women. That even a father who doesn’t ‘perfectly’ raise their son to be a well-contributing servant to the society in which they are born is seen as a matter of contention, one that leads to maddening levels of stress and self-destruction. The shame of failure leads to terrible ends for men and boys. If one doesn’t fulfill their ‘purpose’ they are put out to pasture, ‘sold’ from proper society  to lesser services.

The fact that a black and white animation from the 60’s used the idea of robots as an allegory for broken men to address issues well before their time just goes to show Tezuka’s overall genius and concern for humanity as a whole. He even showed through one of the series protagonists that any show of concern for a ‘lesser man’ is something to be mocked and belittled by the bulk of society. Going onward we’ve already touched upon the animal kingdom and how society treats men. But our next bit is where we go into what I personally believe to be his strongest work overall: Black Jack. While Tezuka and his production company that was created at this time, Mushi Productions, made several other series and characters that touched upon several other issues using a sense of wonder and adventure that influenced  all anime and other great creators (some of whom Tezuka helped train personally) Black Jack is by far his most complex and realistic work. While the manga was developed in the 1970’s, the character wasn’t introduced to animation until the 1982 remake of the original Astro Boy anime. Eventually it got its own original video animation in 1992 headed by one of Tezuka’s later proteges Osamu Dezaki.

Black Jack at its core centers around Kuro Hazama – the titular “Black Jack.” After surviving a horrific explosion which took his mother’s life and left his body in tatters, he was saved by the genius Dr. Honma, who became his mentor later in life. He was grafted with skin and parts from his best friend who also became brain-dead from the incident. Only touched upon in the first tellings of the story, his friend is half-African, which led to some of his body being darker in tone and effectively makes him the most bizarre case of a multiracial character I’ve ever seen. This being a message rather peculiar even in today’s climate to show that our skin doesn’t matter – we are all human. We can all help one another and are all connected. It is offered in the series for him to undergo plastic surgery to match his skin and make him more ‘complete’ looking but he refuses it to honor the friend who gave everything to save his life, to honor his sacrifice and not view him as simply ‘disposable.’ He also, despite his genius and astonishing dexterity (regardless of the state of his body) refuses a standard medical license, opting to act as a black market surgeon to oppose what he views as a corrupt medical establishment. He is seen as a villain by said establishment, claiming exorbitant fees for his services from his richer clientele, who are corrupt politicians and the like, as an act to weed out corruption. If they reform themselves during his services to their family, or if someone is unable to afford it or shows genuine goodwill, he waives said fee in order to serve the best of humanity, even going as far as to secretly perform operations no licensed surgeon would even begin to consider free of charge simply to do for those without the means what was done for him – all to repay the immense generosity of his mentor. The concerns brought up by this particular series are prominent even in Japan today, with a recent tokusatsu (special effects) series branching off of the long running Kamen Rider series called Ex-Aid touching upon some of the same issues with the medical establishment.

Looking at all of these long running manga and anime series created by the man considered the father of the format’s themes, if you were to describe comics with these themes simplified with no context you would think they were some activist one shot-book, a comic that shows the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, a comic about a lion fighting poachers, a comic about how young men are made to put themselves in danger to save the weak. These all sound like activist one shots down’t they? Not 50 to 60 year old franchises with a deep and long lasting history from a Walt Disney type  auteur that created an entire industry that has branched off into several genres and other industries as a whole, someone whose impact is felt globally even today, nearly 30 years after his passing, whose prime franchise is getting a re-imagining even today in the form of Atom, The Beginning. The themes it started with are touched upon even still in this updated conceptualization. If you are new to anime I advise you to watch any one of the works based on one of Tezuka’s franchises. You won’t be hard pressed to find them or their influences. If you have been an anime fan for a while I want you to go into the comments below and tell us your favorite of the late Doctor’s works, and if you ended up recognizing these same things. Perhaps you’ve noticed something I’ve missed in these series, if so please expand upon that too. Even if you think I’m misinterpreting something I want to hear your thoughts on these things.

I know this one is one of my longer articles, but to be fair we are going upon decades of work and influences so there was a lot to cover, things that took thick books to cover in other forms. People are still writing books on this enigmatic and bold genius who was years ahead of anyone else’s thinking in his time and likely knew it. We are just now about to get automated cars. In 1963 he showed quite clearly the danger of such a machine, that a child without a license could activate it easily enough and wreak havoc, even to the point to where they accidentally kill themselves. That was nearly 65 years ago! I know we’ve developed exponentially in such a short amount of time, but to realize such a possibility before it was even really a dream – I find that insanely compelling. I also find it a shame we were robbed of his mind by cancer when he was only 60 years old. If  he were alive today, he would be in his late 80s and still likely making new characters and providing commentary appropriate for our day and age. He would be one of the many creators I would love to meet and whose brain I would love to pick.

We need more people like Dr. Osamu Tezuka, a man who comprehended nuance and subtlety decades beyond his age, a bright light who considered himself as insignificant as the bugs he used to collect, but was much bigger than he gave himself credit for. Life was as precious to him as it should be to us all. May we all learn those lessons of preciousness.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a timeless soul and  look forward to what I tackle next! I might even go into some of my own creations one of these days if you would like. This has been intense so it might be well worth contemplating my next article, though likely it won’t be about anime. Until then I look forward to reading what you put in these comments and talking with all of you about these things below. Please don’t disappoint me, and remember to Game Freely!

Alex Tinsley
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About the author

Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.

<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="157021">2 comments</span>

  • There’s always a symbolic death in the heroes journey…
    In this one the death is literal, his humanity is killed and he’s turned into a machine looking to find his humanity back and learning that his humanity isn’t tied to how people perceive him but his internal morality.
    Astroboy is just a coming of age story for boys on how humanity is nothing but a realization that one has one own’s volition and is entitled to and responsible for own’s own choices.

    • This is why I went into his life and works in the order of how he came up and how he started. Mentioning specifiically Jungle Emperor Leo. Its safe to say a lot of Tezuka’s stories were layered in nature. That they used tried and true literary devices sure but in a way that also brought attention to real issues like the aforementioned poaching. Though even with how you are approaching this, Astro is still a robot with a human heart. He is still at his core a boy seeking to become a man. Its for this reason I even touched upon his war experiences as a teenager because those shaped Tezuka’s own desire to help others. Those experiences have colored his work in very clear ways. Its also why I mention Black Jack and consider it his magnum opus because it encompasses everything the good doctor is as a creator and as a person.

      Astro Boy may have been his coming of age as a creator but Black Jack proves that his desire for his works to help others was always there. Note how Astro in any form rarely questioned his own humanity. He merely had to prove it to others. Much like Pinocchio from which the story is influenced.

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