Imagine for a moment that Walt Disney, in his later years, had decided to make an animated film about Jesus, mixing up a bit of theology with big-eyed anthropomorphic characters while he did so. Bit of a stretch isn’t it. But let’s stretch it further. Imagine also that Uncle Walt then reckoned that a cartoon about Russian dictator Joe Stalin might be just the thing his audience required.

You can’t see it, can you? You can’t see the man who gave us Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck messing around with religion and dictatorship (unless of course you are prepared to see Walt himself as dictator, as perhaps some of his overworked, underpaid animators may have done back in the 1930s and 1940s).

But keep this notion in mind when you start thinking about Osamu Tezuka. Because Tezuka – for some the Japanese equivalent of Disney – did just that, or something very similar, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Loading article content

Tezuka is best known in the west for his creation Astro Boy – an animated movie version about the young robot featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage and Charlize Theron will be released in the UK in January – but towards the end of his career he gave readers his version of both Buddha and Adolf Hitler.

Actually, Helen McCarthy, author of a new book about Tezuka, believes that, if anything, the Disney comparison falls short. “He was more like Walt Disney, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby [the two men behind many of Marvel Comics’ greatest characters], Tim Burton, Arthur C Clarke and Carl Sagan all rolled into one incredibly prolific creator,” she writes in The Art Of Osamu Tezuka: God Of Manga.

If that seems a big claim (to say the least) it’s perhaps because we just don’t have the background to judge. After all it’s only in recent years that we have come to recognise that the comic strip is worthy of attention (quite criminal, especially in this country given that effectively the British comic industry could be labelled with a “made in Scotland” sticker), while the concepts of manga and anime – Japanese comics and animation – have by and large bypassed an older audience and plugged directly into the central cortex of the country’s teenagers who subsequently might be better placed to overthrow our stubborn Anglo-American cultural blinkers.

Even if all that comes to pass, however, you are left with the problem of how to get a grip on such a protean talent as Tezuka, a man who is said to have created more than 700 manga series, 170,000 pages of drawings and another 200,000 pages of anime storyboards and scripts (as well as qualifying to practice medicine). On his deathbed in 1989 his last words were “I’m begging you, let me work.”

Disney and Dostoevsky

Tezuka was born in 1928, the eldest son of a well off, well educated middle class Japanese family, who grew up watching Disney films and reading and drawing comic strips. In 1944, he picked up the skin infection ringworm, his arms swelling up as a result. When his mother took him to Osaka University Hospital for treatment a doctor told her that a few more days and her son would have had to have his arms amputated. It’s impossible now to evaluate how that might have changed Japanese popular culture. A year later Tezuka was an eye-witness to the firebombing of Osaka, an experience he would vividly chronicle in manga decades later. Out of this mix of influence and experience came a talent that transformed Japanese publishing.

Astro Boy was the breakthrough. Tezuka was 22 when he created the tiny humanoid robot (known as Mighty Atom in Japan). The comic was published for 16 years and made into one live action and two animated TV series. And although it incorporated many of Tezuka’s concerns – a hatred of discrimination and injustice for starters – its success also mirrored Japan’s postwar obsession with technology and looking to the future (the past being too painful so soon after the war). Tezuka did not invent manga but he did help make them more dynamic. “I felt that existing comics were limiting,” he once said. “Most were drawn as if seated in an audience viewing from a stage ... This made it impossible to create dramatic or psychological effects, so I began to use cinematic techniques ... I experimented with close-ups and different angles and instead of using only one frame for an action scene or the climax (as was customary), I made a point of depicting a movement or facial expression with many frames, even many pages. The result was a super-long comic that ran to 500, 600, even 1000 pages.”

His work appealed to both boys and girls yet as early as 1953 Tezuka’s ambition was clear when he adapted Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment into manga form. More adult themes permeated such works as The Phoenix, Buddha and Adolf which often made few concessions for children, as well as anime such as 1001 Nights which McCarthy wryly notes contains “the only known animation of human-crocodile sex”. Before he died Tezuka had started working on an anime adaptation of the Bible. It can be jarring reading some of these adult works. Buddha, published by Harper Collins in the UK, doesn’t shy from death and pain and poverty in its account of Buddha’s education, yet it is encased in a comic strip imbued with visual signifiers that in the west we still read as childish (specifically big-eyed cartoony characters and anthropomorphism).

But in the end that’s our problem not Tezuka’s. And if other manga artists speak more to a contemporary (more cynical) audience than perhaps his work does now, anyone who wants to get a handle on Japanese popular culture in the 20th century can’t ignore him.

It’s now two decades since Tezuka’s death. You can visit a museum dedicated to his art in his home town of Takarazuka. But perhaps for the true impact of his work take a trip to Tokyo. Tokyo looks like the future. And it looks, as McCartney notes, like a manga panel. Walt Disney only has Disneyworld and Disneyland as his architectural legacy. Tezuka has a whole city.

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God Of Manga is published by Ilex, priced £25.