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Osamu Tezuka was the “Walt Disney of Japan.” His beautiful manga biography shows why.

This massive biography in comic form has finally been translated into English — and it's more than worth the wait.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The combined aesthetic of anime and manga may be Japan’s greatest and most influential cultural export, but it wouldn’t exist without one man — a man who looms over Japanese pop culture and who is known throughout Japan as its most legendary modern artist. That man is Osamu Tezuka, frequently nicknamed the "god of manga," the "godfather of anime," and the "Walt Disney of Japan."

At long last, a new biography of Tezuka has arrived in the US — 14 years after its Japanese debut. Recently translated by Frederik L. Schodt and released by Stone Bridge Press, The Osamu Tezuka Story — first published serially in Japan between 1989 and 1992 — is a massive, 900-page tome that explores Tezuka’s life, Japanese postwar society, and the way Tezuka changed Japanese culture forever.

Naturally, The Osamu Tezuka Story is a must-have for die-hard Tezuka fans. But it’s also essential reading for anyone who already loves or wants to understand the history of manga and anime, as well as anyone fascinated by postwar Japan and its transition into a major modern industrialized society.

Stone Bridge Press

Many of Tezuka’s best works are still little-known in the US

Always arrayed in a beret, thick-rimmed glasses, and a smile, Tezuka was an artistic genius who created more than 700 manga titles — comprising 150,000 pages of hand-drawn art — and more than 60 anime in his lifetime, making him one of the most prolific Japanese manga creators in history.

The impact of Tezuka’s career on Japanese culture far exceeds his actual artistry, though his artistry is incredibly influential. But of equal importance is his role in creating the longstanding industry around taking Japanese comics, or manga, developing them into animated Japanese TV series, or anime, and exporting them around the globe.

Tezuka began this work in the late 1960s with his iconic manga Astro Boy, which he adapted into a wildly successful anime. This process of close adaptation, along with the many animation techniques Tezuka pioneered in Japan to speed up the adaptation process, started an industrial tradition that continues into the present; the manga/anime industry, with its distinctive Japanese artistic style and identity, has profoundly shaped Japanese culture.

In the US, Tezuka is mainly known for the manga and anime Astro Boy, the manga Buddha, and the anime Kimba, the White Lion, which was originally published as the manga Jungle Emperor. But despite Tezuka's status as an artistic legend, the vast majority of his work remains unpublished in America — both because there is so much of it and because the process of licensing, translating, and publishing manga overseas is an arduous process.

But even though he isn’t a household name, Tezuka’s influence in the US has been palpable — most notably in the works his art style and stories have influenced. Stanley Kubrick admired Tezuka and asked him to serve as the art designer for 2001: A Space Odyssey (though Tezuka had to refuse the offer because he had too much work to do in Japan).

And just five years after Tezuka’s death from cancer in 1989 at the age of 60, Disney apparently flagrantly plagiarized one of Tezuka’s most beloved works, Kimba, the White Lion, by all appearances lifting whole plot points and multiple direct artistic references from the anime for its massive blockbuster The Lion King.

The famous cloud scene from Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor manga (1950–1954), which was later animated as Kimba, the White Lion, and which may have inspired a similar scene in Disney’s The Lion King.
Tezuka in English

The opening theme to Kimba the White Lion shows off many hallmarks of Tezuka’s animation style.

While Tezuka’s influence on the landscape of American animation has mostly been indirect, his fans have been doing their best to make up for this deficit. In the age of the internet, manga fans have crowdfunded new editions of several of Tezuka’s works, which still retain, even after all these decades, unique and visceral emotive properties:

A panel from Phoenix, a manga that Tezuka wrote and drew for nearly four decades, from 1956 to his death in 1989.
Tezuka in English
A panel from the manga General Onimaru, which Tezuka published in 1969.
Tezuka in English
Tezuka’s love of cinematic action translated into his unprecedented use of action in his comic illustrations, a technique that became a fundamental part of manga storytelling.

The Osamu Tezuka Story’s long road to US publication

The Japanese edition of The Osamu Tezuka Story first began publishing in serial installments in 1989, shortly after Tezuka’s death. It began as an actual manga — an educational, serialized Japanese comic — and ran in a Japanese newsweekly starting in 1989. The final version was first published in full book form in 1992, the year the serialization ended.

The lack of easy resources for publishing manga overseas may be why it’s taken 14 years for the book to reach the states. Of course, there’s also another reason: It’s huge — a hefty 928 pages in all, and an impressive addition to a bookshelf.

Sake glasses shown for scale.

The book is read as all traditional manga is read, from right to left and "back to front" instead of left to right and front to back. It is a Japanese comic, but it’s not a work of fiction; rather, it’s an embellished true story that goes into breathtaking detail about Tezuka’s life and, crucially, the background context of the Japanese political tensions and cultural shifts in which he began his work.

The entire work was written and drawn by the mangaka (manga artist) Toshio Ban, who worked as an assistant to Tezuka for the better part of 15 years. As a longtime colleague and friend of Tezuka’s, Ban bore the responsibility, while working on the manga, of not only faithfully recounting his former boss’s life but also capturing the essence of his incredibly distinctive drawing style.

To achieve the goal of historical accuracy, Ban meticulously researched the historical and visual settings of Tezuka’s manga, often using interviews with people close to Tezuka and basing manga panels on real-life photographs. He also worked direct historical quotes and images from Tezuka’s manga into his panels — nearly all of which are packed with visual and factual detail:

(Right-click to enlarge.)
(Right-click to enlarge.)

To achieve the goal of affecting Tezuka’s style, Ban used one of Tezuka’s own characters, a pleasant old man with a deceptively gruff mustache, dubbed Shunsaku Ban, or "Mustachio." Mustachio serves as the narrator for the reader’s journey through Tezuka’s rich life.

The book often seamlessly blends Tezuka’s own artwork into the mix with Ban’s, indicating the transitions only in small print. Occasionally Ban will use Mustachio to comment on the development of Tezuka’s artwork, drawing Mustachio commenting on a reprint of Tezuka’s art, in one of many moments where the past and future of manga artistry seem to converge in a literal conversation.

Like Ban, Schodt, the translator for the new English language-edition, was a longtime colleague of Tezuka’s who began translating his work in the late '70s, after Tezuka had begun making a name for himself overseas. In the foreword to the book, Schodt notes his surprise at discovering, while translating the manga, that he was actually drawn into it at one point — he’d become a background character in a broad and monumental life.

The Osamu Tezuka Story is part anecdote, part biography, and part history lesson

The Osamu Tezuka Story serves three functions. It’s an entertaining tale of a hardworking visionary, a biographical account of Japan’s most famous artist, and an in-depth history of 20th-century Japan, starting before World War II and continuing into the modern era. It’s hardly a surprise that manga fans in the US have been looking forward to the English-language publication of this tome with something like holy reverence.

Beginning with Tezuka’s childhood and his fascination with the famous all-female Takarazuka Revue, the biography follows Tezuka’s life as closely as possible: chronicling his time at a rigorous military academy as Japan was on the brink of war, his first forays into drawing, his discovery of American comics, his experiences in medical school, and his pursuit of and lifelong passion for his art.

Through it all, the wider global and political context — the international theater of war, the postwar industrial boom, and Japan’s emergence as a modern nation — rotates in and out of the detailed focus on Tezuka’s career.

The comic manages to encompass the unbelievably small and the unbelievably huge all at once, sometimes within the same frame — for instance, sequences like the one that lays out Tezuka’s love for insect collecting against the backdrop of Japanese imperialism and the march of the war through the Pacific Theater. Ban often dramatically renders these war scenes in jutting, uneven panels filled with darkness.

(Right-click to enlarge)

Ban takes pains to spell out the influences that marked Tezuka’s path along the way, both Japanese and multicultural. Schodt’s translation and Ban’s artwork easily convey the glee and sense of joy Tezuka gets from his interactions with Western culture — for example, his ongoing interest in international classical composers or his love of international cinema, as we see in this depiction of Tezuka watching Carol Reed’s famous film noir The Third Man:

Moments like these provide stark contrast to the scenes that depict Tezuka’s experience with the atrocity of war. The backdrop of the war takes up about a fourth of the entire volume — both because of its impact on Tezuka individually and its impact on Japanese society as a whole. Often, Ban lets Tezuka’s autobiographical art speak for itself, particularly in a harrowing sequence featuring panels reprinted from Paper Fortress, Tezuka’s manga about the 1945 firebombing of Osaka.

It’s striking, then, that utterly absent is any mention of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — a brief textual timeline mentions them, but they have no utterance in the story of Tezuka’s life. It’s a deafening silence that ends without comment on August 15, 1945, the day Japan surrenders to America. By the time the Allied victory is declared and Japanese society begins to pick up the pieces, the comic is bursting with activity, a kind of frenzied desperation to suggest new life and vigor.

In this moment, we get what may be the manga’s most unforgettable images: zombielike caricatures of starving Japanese citizens, dropping dead in the fields from malnourishment. The bodies are depicted with a horrifying, exaggerated comic grotesquerie that bears no resemblance to the realism of the previous sections dedicated to chronicling the war. It’s as if the horror of the war has simply, briefly, left Japan, or Japan as seen through Tezuka’s eyes, with no emotional space left for visual realism.

Tezuka’s exhausting work ethic makes for a busy narrative — but one focused on process rather than inspiration

After the war, exaggerated comic art briefly takes over the narrative and begins to transform and revive Tezuka, just as it is helping to transform and revive Japan around him. The biography continually explains and reminds us what the state of the manga industry in Japan was before, during, and after the war.

Following Japan’s surrender, the popularity of manga rose as the public sought it out for its escapist properties; this was just as Tezuka, finding his way into the publishing world, was beginning to address more serious topics in his artistic work.

His journey from there is fascinating, busy, and intense, full of details about the joys and frustrations of the postwar publishing industry — and, later, the animation industry. There’s a constant refrain surrounding Tezuka’s brutal work ethic, which he seemed both wary of and resigned to. At one point, he’s depicted as using sea urchin as an energy boost to keep working, despite having gone many hours without sleep.

One wonders if his deep industriousness was a way to cope with the immense societal changes happening around him, both during and between various wars — World War II, the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli War — all of which sent shocks through Japanese society. It may also have been a way to sidestep his dislike, recurring throughout the biography, of various trends and fads in the world of manga publishing.

By the same token, the pace of Ban’s manga sometimes feels relentless, as if he is, in Tezuka’s honor, pushing himself to furiously transcribe every moment of the great artist’s life as a mangaka and animation pioneer. Art students and anyone interested in the production of manga and anime will undoubtedly be fascinated by the depictions of these industries — little details like Ban’s explanation of what a "drawing bank" is and various descriptions of the shortcuts animators took to speed up their turnaround time help even the inexperienced reader through the denser, production-laden sections.

But the reader looking for glimpses into the sources of Tezuka’s ideas, the spark of his creative genius, may have a bit more work to do. At times, the presentation of Tezuka’s many ideas seems deceptively straightforward, and far more emphasis is given to his bursts of productivity than to the creative origins of his work.

Perhaps as a fellow animator, Ban focused on what he knew — Tezuka’s work ethic, his processes, his public statements about his work, and his lived history — rather than what he did not know: the genesis of ideas and ways in which Tezuka went about crafting and shaping his plots, inventing and building his characters, and generally thinking about the stories he spent so much of his life creating.

Still, in the epic sweep of The Osamu Tezuka Story, there’s plenty to delight the eye and capture (and educate) the mind, from the copious changing visual details of Japan over the 50-year history the book covers to the way Tezuka himself emerges as a character on the page, alternately eager and impatient, brimming with energy almost until the final pages of his life.