Thoughts on The Osamu Tezuka Story – a fan and comic artist’s perspective

Cover of The Osamu Tezuka Story

Being an artist, I enjoy reading about the creative/creation process. It’s healthy and helpful to remember everybody’s struggling with the same things. And like many people who grew up on manga and/or know its history, I recognize Osamu Tezuka as a towering figure with an immense body of work seeping into practically every imaginable genre. For these reasons, I was naturally excited when I spotted Toshio Ban & Tezuka Productions’ The Osamu Tezuka Story at The Beguiling’s Boxing Week and moving sale. So, full disclosure, as a fan who also happens to draw comics, already going in as a rather biased reader.

I was about halfway through the book when a second bookmark appeared in the first few pages. My mom had started reading it as well! Fortunately I’m a speed reader (well, fortunately in this case. It’s not always the best thing when I really should be paying closer attention), so I wrapped up in about two days and it’s with her now. Thus, I don’t have the book on hand to double check details. But that’s OK; this is mainly me wanting to collect impressions and gather my thoughts before I forget everything.

First, the physical book itself. It’s big, definitely oversized compared to your typical tankoban, and over 800 pages. I’m not sure what the format of the original 手塚治虫物語 (Tezuka Osamu Monogatari) was, but for some reason whenever I see super thick English manga, where they’ve combine multiple volumes into a single giant tome, I find it mildly odd and amusing. I guess I’m just so used to Asian comic formats (that are more portable for leisure reading while travelling), so seeing manga in this way is still a bit of a mental surprise for me.

Production itself is OK. Thin coated cover, interior pages have a shade that remind me of newsprint (but obviously much more substantial than newsprint). The stock is all fairly light so despite its bulk it doesn’t feel overly hefty and still has a floppiness to it. Not a fancy piece of work, which is too bad since I think the subject matter deserves slightly more premium production, but it does what it needs to do.

The book opens with a foreword by translator Frederik L. Schodt providing background and context. Having encountered Schodt’s name and writings from other English versions of Tezuka’s work, it’s kind of comforting. (He also retweeted my gushing about the book on Twitter, which made me squeal like a small child.) Not surprisingly, the translation works well. I did notice a few minor typos and possibly transcribing or lettering errors (e.g., text in two speech bubbles appear to have been switched accidentally, and 1 or 2 speech bubbles that, based on context, shouldn’t be blank). Considering how lengthy the work is, c’est la vie! None of these jarred me out of the story or made me lose my place in any significant way. To be frank, the English-style colloquialisms/renderings of some of the casual speech jarred me more, but I got used to it. And it’s a reality of the difficult art of translation.

The format is highly narrative, with the character Higeoyaji (“Mustachio”) taking the reins as a guide to the archives of Tezuka’s history. His recounting is interspersed with sequences where you’re dropped into scenes of people actually living their lives and doing their thing . It’s mostly chronological with a bit of jumping around (mainly in the first half of the book). Part I begins with Tezuka’s childhood and emphasizes his rise in comics; Part II is heavily focused on his animation work up to his death. The final section is a list of Tezuka’s work, in comics and in animation, with a note that it might not be complete due to the nature of documentation back in the day. As you flip through the pages filled with titles in fairly small print, it’s a closing reminder of how insanely productive he was.

Some of the stories covered in this biography are things I’d heard or read about before, bits and pieces in Chinese or English (though I didn’t always fully understand it depending on my age at the time, or language barrier). Experiencing so much of it in one place, within a relatively comprehensive and cohesive work, is quite amazing. Another thing I found really neat was being able to come out of it with a better sense of the chronological order of his most renowned works relative to each other. That is, in terms of when things were originally conceived versus being actually developed and published. I never really paid much attention to the details of when certain series were created, so it was intriguing for me. And I’m much less knowledgeable about his animation career, so Part II was very educational.

Obviously, we already go in knowing Tezuka dies of stomach cancer while still in the midst of amazing heights of productivity and creativity, but the ending still felt sudden. By that I mean it felt less polished from a storytelling perspective – how the comic chose to structure and depict the events around it. I had hoped for a little more insight and time on Tezuka’s final days; some things I had heard/read about elsewhere didn’t appear here. After I finished the book, I also read a few reviews complaining about the lack of significant controversy and exploration of darker aspects of Tezuka’s life/career. I imagine the tight timeframe after death in which the comic was originally produced probably had a little to do with this. That said, despite these gaps/shortcomings, ultimately I didn’t really feel let down. I got most of what I was personally looking for at this time, which was the focus on his early life and working process.

A couple of things stuck out to me during reading, and stuck with me immediately after I finished. Remarkable strong support since childhood was one of them. His mother’s influence was a big one, but there were also a number of non-family authority figures who played major roles in encouraging and guarding his creativity despite the turmoil of that era. In my experience, it’s hardly a given in the Western world today, and that it happened in an older, more traditional Asian school/environment really impressed me. Undoubtedly he himself was a remarkable person – but having these people in his life at that early stage seemed to me like a double whammy immunization shot against the stunting of his passion and drive over the course of his life.

Tezuka’s interests and skills were so diverse, yet he explored them so deeply it’s intimidating. As an artist, Tezuka’s production feats kind of blow my mind. I can’t match his background, experience or output, but I definitely relate to many of his challenges, the universal things experienced by all creators. Things like juggling your art with other full-time responsibilities, having more ideas than actual finished projects, and whatnot. I think that only made me even more dazzled by anecdotes of stuff like him:

  • Pumping out comics pages while becoming a licensed doctor and teaching yourself to play the piano and seeing over 365 movies a year? Seems practically beyond human. No wonder people joked about Tezuka being an alien.
  • Being able to turn out 32 pages in a single night – granted, with one assistant. However, he also had no assistants when he started and was apparently doing everything in the previous point already.
  • Dictating the dialogue including basic layout/panel composition and speech bubble position for an editor to map out (as text had to be set up ahead of time by the printer, and was not part of the art, and Tezuka was so busy that he hadn’t done any drawings yet so it was all still in his head) while plugging away at a completely different story.
  • Working simultaneously on the pages of multiple stories, so that each work (going to editors from different magazines, all anxiously waiting under looming and likely annihilated timelines) would proceed at an equal pace to make it as fair as possible. Sure, I’ve jumped from one project to another as well, but I’m no full-time pro, and the scale of what he did within the time crunches he had freaks me out.
  • Dividing up work amongst assistant artists and providing instructions to the point where the assistants were getting separate panels to be reconfigured later into a page, and even drawing bodies in action without heads and without knowing what story they were drawing for, with Tezuka being the master composer/architect knowing what was going on across all the pages flying all over the place. (Leiji Matsumoto’s experience assisting Tezuka made me laugh.)

Overall the experience was charming, amusing, compelling, moving and immersive. Certainly, if you’re a fan of Osamu Tezuka or manga, it’s a great book and you’ll get a kick out of all the familiar faces and references. If you don’t know anything about him or about manga, it’s an excellent introduction (in addition to checking out his actual work of course!).

I highly recommend The Osamu Tezuka Story for anyone who enjoys comics, animation, and storytelling (visual storytelling obviously, but really storytelling of any sort). One of Tezuka’s greatest legacies is his incredible body of work and the memories of all our experiences of living through them. I can’t even begin to imagine being able to achieve a fraction of his diligence and vision, but being able to see how some of that came together is pretty powerful and inspiring. Definitely a worthwhile read for dreamers and creators.