Part 1 of this series of blog posts delved into the early origins of anime, which date back to 1907. The post covered examples of various Japanese animated works prior to World War II. Japan, by contrast to other countries did not have much access to better resources like celluloids, thus their animations were made using cut outs. As the years went on and access to new materials were increasing, various animators adopted the filming techniques of the West, as seen in later animations. Part II covered the effect and influence WWII had on the Japanese animation industry, thus came the propaganda films of the time and how the industry recovered after the war in 1948. With the release of Tōei Animation’s 1958 classic animated feature film, Hakujaden, the industry continued to flourish throughout the 1960’s and onward. In this third and final post in this series, the rise of television animation in Japan and the everlasting influence of Osamu Tezuka’s beloved classic, Mighty Atom/Astro Boy will be discussed.
As previously stated, the 1960’s was a pivotal decade for Japanese animation, not only because it was the decade when Japan’s animated works made their way onto television, but it was also the decade that would start to give the industry its identity. The first televised Japanese animation was Instant History (Otogi Manga Calendar), which ran from 1961 to 1962. Although the series remains lost to this day due to the tapes the show was recorded on being repurposed because of the cost to preserve them, there is one image documenting its existence. The art style resembles that of a Hanna-Barbera or a UPA cartoon than that of what the later years would have in store for the industry, especially the year 1963 with the television debut of Osamu Tezuka’s international hit, Astro Boy.
Making its debut on January 1st, 1963 with its pilot episode, Atomu tanjo (The Birth of Atom or The Birth of Astro Boy in the U.S.), the animated adaption of Tezuka’s popular manga series would be the spark that would forever define the Japanese animation industry and give it its own identity. To completely grasp why Astro Boy is often understood as the ‘first anime’, it’s important to trace back to Tezuka’s life before and after WWII, how Astro Boy was initially conceived (as Tetsuwan Atomu or Mighty Atom) and the events that occurred after Astro Boy’s television debut in the United States.
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) was known for his immense passion, dedication and hard work. Exposed to the arts at an early age, Tezuka had a huge love for film and animation. He started writing and drawing his first original stories at age 13. As he worked on manga, he went to school to study medicine. During the second World War, like all other artists in Japan at the time, his work was reduced to creating propaganda pieces, thus he continued to retain his artistic value in secrecy. After WWII and witnessing the aftermath, rather than letting agony and resentment consume him, he devoted his craft to encourage understanding human nature and those from other cultures. As fan, friend and translator Frederik L. Schodt described Tezuka’s wisdom after WWII in his book, The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution, “he developed a lifelong interest in the complexity of human nature, a deep belief in the need to communicate with other cultures, and a belief in the power of manga and animation to help do so” (Schodt, 30). These themes were greatly explored throughout Tezuka’s works and were perfectly fitting for the time.
Astro Boy’s introduction goes back to 1951 in a series entitled Atomu Taishi (Ambassador Atom) for Shōnen’s (Boys) magazine. Ironically, although Atom was the titular character, he served as a plot device for later in the story. Due to the overly complex plot and the high number of characters, Ambassador Atom was met with minor success. However, Atom became a favorite amount Tezuka’s young readers. Under Shōnen magazine’s then editor-and-chief, Takeshi Kanai’s suggestion, Tezuka made Atom the lead character. At first, he was reluctant to do so, deeming it difficult to make a robot a relatable character, but Kanai suggested to rewrite the character with human traits. Atom was reworked to behave like a young school boy, which resonated with Tezuka’s readers. The Mighty Atom manga series was met with great success.
Although Tezuka’s forte was illustration and storytelling, his true passion was animation. He had hoped to create fluid animation just like the works of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, whose works he grew up with. In 1961, Tezuka started a small studio called Tezuka Osamu Productions, which later became Mushi Productions the following year. According to Schodt, “Tezuka’s goal was to create both commercial and experimental animation, using profits from the former to the latter. But in the beginning, everything would have to be financed by the profits from his manga work” (64). That meant that the company's animation projects would be completed on a tight budget and with limitations, therefore Mushi Productions used the limited animation technique created by Hanna-Barbera and UPA than the full animation that the likes of Disney. As simple as it sounded, this labor of love turned into a seemingly bottomless commitment to completion. In other words, Tezuka and his creative team would overwork long hours to the point of burnout from staying overnight and working with nearly no breaks.
Because of the long hours of labor Mushi Productions put into the making of the Mighty Atom/Astro Boy anime, the animated series proved to be a huge success both in Japan and overseas. So, the good news was that Tezuka paved the way for the Japanese animation industry to flourish and with the help of television writer and editor, Fred Ladd introducing Mighty Atom (under the name Astro Boy) to American audiences, new Japanese animated works would continue to prosper and branch out to the United States in the years and decades to come. The bad news was that because Tezuka was the first Japanese animator to create a television series, consisting of 30-minute-long episodes, something that was never done in Japan before, his approach to creating animated shows became the standard for Japanese animators. As a known fact that to say working as an animator in Japan is no easy task is undeniably an understatement, yet modern anime follows in the footsteps of Tezuka’s workflow, which leads to low pay. If the working conditions are not healthy for their employees, why is Tezuka’s approach still used to this day? According to Toshi Nakamura on Kotaku in his article How The "Godfather of Anime" Screwed Up Modern Anime, “Tezuka…supported his creation through merchandising and his own money. This lay the groundwork for the anime production model: Make an anime a[s] cheaply as possible and make up the loss through tie-in goods and character merch. Because Tezuka was basically the God of manga in Japan, no one questioned his methods and this became the norm”. It should also be noted that Tezuka did not approach animation the way a businessman would. “Unfortunately,” writes Schodt, “hoping to make the series more competitive and thinking that it would ward off potential competitors, an over-confident Tezuka agreed in his bid to Fuji TV to adhere to a cost and production schedule that bordered in the inhuman” (67) and of corse, the money made off the merchandise wasn’t enough to cover expenses. With each new work, the company continued to produce and the expenses continued to raise. Debt accumulated, proving it difficult to make a profit. 119 Mushi Production employees started a union in the early 1970’s, with prompted Tezuka to step down as president and in 1973, the studio filed for bankruptcy. This lead the company’s intellectual property to legal issues that didn’t come to a complete solution until the late ‘90’s. Mushi Prodections did relaunch in the late 70’s as the new Mushi Productions, but Tezuka had no part in it. As Schodt notes, Tezuka “was primarily a creator and not a businessman like Walt Disney” (94-95) and thus, his dream to excel in animation never materialized. He did continue working on animation while writing new manga through his original company name, Tezuka Productions after recovering from debt and would continue his work until his death in 1989.
Over the years, during and after Tezuka’s lifetime, anime as an art form took on new shapes and genres, appealing to various audiences and age groups. With expansions and/or breakaways from Tezuka’s art style and storytelling, new creators would tackle the sci-fi genre with series such as Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Iron Man No. 28 (Tetsujin 28-go), Go Nagai's Mazinger Z (Majingā Zetto), both of which were derived from manga and Yoshiyuki Tomino' s Mobile Suit Gundam (Kidō Senshi Gandamu), which spawned manga adaptions. Early 1963, Toei Dōga stood out from other anime by adding more frames per second in Wolf Boy Ken (Ōkami Shōnen Ken), a series taking place in the jungle featuring a Mowgli type protagonist. It was an original idea not based on a preexisting manga. In contrast to Mushi Productions, whose animation was mostly static except for one body part being animated, Toei Dōga took on a cinematic quality. This was not surprising considering their early expertise in film making with Hakujaden. At first, they were reluctant to take advantage of the new medium, but realizing television was flourishing, they began exploring its marketing possibilities. Although only one episode was dubbed in English, featuring the voices of Hanna-Barbera voice legends Daws Butler and Don Messick, Tōei Animation released the series on DVD sets in Japan and continue to produce new animated titles to this day. Even so, they too proved anime can expand to other genres, especially with the 1966 release, Sally the Witch (Mahōtsukai Sarī), which was based on Yokoyama's manga of the same name. Although it never received a U.S. release, it is known as one of the first shōjo (magical girl) anime along with Tezuka’s Princess Knight (Ribbon no Kishi) manga and anime.
While using the same animation workflow and limited animation techniques still stands prevalent to this day in the industry, former Tōei Doga in-between artist and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki has been an outspoken critic of the industry because of Tezuka’s unintentional template that lead to the industry’s current state. “Miyazaki openly defied the Tezuka model, creating Studio Ghibli, a production studio that hired animators as employees on a fixed salary rather than temps working on commission”, writes Nakamura. Aside from workflow, even artistically in animation, the team at Studio Ghibli meticulously focus on realistically capturing people, unlike most of anime, in which they often take short cuts when it comes to conveying expression and emotion. Miyazaki is not the only one who recognizes the Japanese animation industry’s flaws and resists them. “Other anime studios like Kyoto Animation and P.A. Works set up their studios outside of Tokyo and develop their anime in-house rather than outsourcing, with dormitories and other systems in place to support their animators” Nakamura indicates.
Reflecting on the first century of Japanese animation, viewers and fans will garner a deeper appreciation for anime as an art form. From the early years using cut out animation to learning from Western animation to the early years of television animation and so on, there’s no doubt anime has come a long way and will continue to evolve. With its broad audiences and array of genres and styles, the art form continues to show promise for further growth and will continue to thrive for generations to come.
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