Tezuka and the Origin of Story Manga

This article is abridged from the book by Ichiro Takeuchi, Tezuka Osamu, sutori manga no kigen (Tezuka, the Origin of Narrative Manga), Kodansha, Tokyo, 2006.
AuthorIchiro Takeuchi
PublisherKodansha Ltd.
ISBN978 - 4062583541
PublicationFebruary, 2006
Estimated length268P
Size188 × 131 mm
Influenced by Disney

There is a well-perceived notion that Tezuka introduced animation techniques to manga expression and it is widely known that his early encounters with Disney cartoons influenced the way he drew manga in his childhood. In discussing this, Tezuka has observed:

“Influence is something you can't easily escape. Astro Boy's trademark is his two-point hair. Whatever way you look at him, these two points are drawn separately. It's a sign that Astro Boy bears Mickey Mouse's blood. As a child I always wondered why Mickey had only four fingers on each hand. I also wondered why there was a hole on the palm side of his glove. I wondered about it so much, I asked my father, ‘Why does Mickey have four fingers?’ His answer was not too enthusiastic: 'Americans only have four fingers.’ Asked why there were holes in Mickey's gloves, he replied: ‘For ventilation. Americans have sweaty hands.' So for a long period, I drew Astro Boy with four fingers instead of five – the subconscious legacy of Walt Disney, deeply imprinted in my mind."

When one draws five fingers on a drawing of a small child, unless it's done very well, you get the impression there is one too many. Four-fingered hands suit the simplicity of such a drawing. When I copied Tezuka manga characters as a child, the four-fingered hands initially struck me as strange, but soon I accepted the naturalness of it. Even for those who draw and paint professionally, figure drawing can be difficult. Yumeji Takehisa, a popular Japanese illustrator from the 1910s, drew his famous beauties with hands and digits much larger than the rest of their bodies. Hands don't always look aesthetically pleasing when depicted realistically, so Takehisa decided to exaggerate them. Following Disney's four-fingered-hand solution, Tezuka inherited the style that spread through Japan's manga culture.

Another major Disney influence on Tezuka's work is the kinetic effects of motion. Animated is a term that best describes Disney cartoon characters: they are never still, always moving and bobbing about, even when just standing or talking. In works as early as Lost World (unpublished edition) (Rosuto wadrudo shikaban), 1946, it is evident that Tezuka was already drawing characters in motion — an obsessive desire that continued until the end of his career.

Reader-defined tempo

Suiho Tagawa (1899-1989) was one of the most popular manga artists during the 1930s and 1940s. He belongs to the generation directly before Tezuka and represents the style commonly employed by manga artists of the time. On a page from his Kuro the Black Stray Dog (Norakuro), serialised in Shonen Club magazine from 1931 to 1941, two characters talk to each other, face-to-face, sitting down. The speech-balloon text alone tells the story as the frame lacks animation or motion. It neither creates the rhythmic pacing of modern manga nor does it involve the reader any more than plain text.

Modern manga actively engages the reader emotionally with the narrative rhythm created by a sequence of illustrations. In contrast, American and French comics generate less rhythm. American comics contain more text and require a longer time to read, while French comics, with their fine-art approach, distract our attention and also slow the reading process. Crucially, both strains of Western comics lack pacing.

In his childhood, Tezuka was very fond of illustrated stories that used dynamic framing to convey narrative scenes in a cinematic style, but those text-oriented stories could only be read at a speed determined by book reading. The innovation in Tezuka's early manga is derived from careful manipulation of the pace, which in turn controls how the story is read. Only partially influenced by those text-oriented stories, Tezuka incorporated Disney's animation momentum into manga narration.

Interesting plots and engaging dialogue propel the narrative in novels but they imply that physical action is being staged and performed. If one witnessed a play with badly directed actors, it might look like manga typical of Tagawa's generation – a pre-modern era that had yet to mine manga's mode of expression, where characters were neither acting nor being active

Employing illustrated actions to tell a story appears to be a post-Tezuka phenomenon. Disney was naturally attuned to action, animating characters' movements across twenty-four frames per second. New Treasure Island (Shin takarajima), 1947, illustrates how Tezuka melded action with animation on the graphic page. The frames of its pages progressively deploy a situational and emotional sense of urgency. The result is a dynamic, rhythmic, and completely animated suspense story. In contrast, Tagawa's manga is devoid of any character that encourages us to anticipate the next frame. Drama in Tezuka's manga unfolds in each sequential frame whereas in Tagawa's manga, a story is simply illustrated.

Tezuka is the pioneer of novelistic or sutori (story) manga, telling stories with images that express narrative dynamism to optimal effect. Through the chain reaction of posturized moments, Tezuka's manga functions similarly to the heightened staging of kabuki theatre while simultaneously incorporating Disney's skill at building suspense.

Manga and action

Unlike animated cartoons that are painted on film as image sequences to simulate movement, manga is drafted on paper as discrete frames of frozen action – consequently there is nothing in manga expression that naturally leads to the pursuit of action. Tezuka has explained his seemingly contradictory fixation on motion and action in a non-moving medium as being influenced by his thematic interest in metamorphosis:

“Many of my stories concern metamorphosing men and women, but it's not really about eroticism – often interpreted as the reason why I drew so many stories of men or women turning into something else. My metamorphosing comes from the fear I have of something staying still. I become anxious when I see something that doesn't move, I feel better when it's always in motion, shifting shapes or conditions. Visually or metaphorically, I like things always in motion. I have a longing for a world where nothing stays the same, where even reasons for existence change. It makes sense that everything keeps changing because life is about moving. By constantly changing, things are evolving and affecting other things. I like to observe such dynamic activities."

Tezuka was naturally inclined to react to action; further inspired by Disney, he transformed cel animation into the paper medium of manga. Tezuka often declared that animation was his inspiration in drawing manga.

The word animation is derived from the word anima, so it has a lot to do with life; every living thing moves. Animation is the art that depicts things in motion. If it doesn't move, it can't be called animation. This is a point of distinction that separates animation from paintings and manga. Motion doesn't just mean action, it even includes emotional development. Metamorphosis and shape-shifting are variations of motion.

Tezuka came from a wealthy family with a progressive father who often had home screenings of animated films that may have lead Tezuka to become an enthusiast. He admits he watched Walt Disney's Bambi eighty times. Not only was he a Disney fan, he also respected Japanese animated movies. Of great importance was his encounter with the animated propaganda feature during the war period, Momotaro – Divine Sea Warrior (Momotaro umi no shimpei), 1945. Tezuka confessed he couldn't hold back tears while watching this film that compelled him to make his own animated movies.

The beginning of cute

Tezuka initially drew in the style of the aforementioned Suiho Tagawa, as well as Noboru Oshiro (1905-1998), whose approach was distinctly cinematic, but Tezuka eventually shifted to Disney cartoons. This influence came indirectly from his sister Minako, who had picture books featuring Disney illustrations and he was fascinated by their roundness and cuteness. He noticed that the basic physiology of the subjects was constructed in circular shapes. Spherical designs allow animators to depict characters realistically and to make them cute. By imitating Disney illustrations, Tezuka developed a more sophisticated style that predominated. He observed:

“Disney and his predecessors' use of a spherical design as a basis was necessitated by the demand to animate characters in a 3-D aspect. Anything drawn based on spherical structures registered as being round when screened. This rendering made the character seem cute, like a cuddly stuffed animal. Animation techniques today are largely based on the Disney method; for example, Leo the Jungle Emperor (Jungeru taitei) – known in the West as Kimba the White Lion – comprises three large and five small spheres upon which animators drew Leo's flesh. Adult animals and people require a more complicated design, but even they can be reduced to ten to twenty connected spheres. Technically speaking, the less spheres, the cuter the character."

Tezuka further refers to how other Disney influences besides the use of cuteness affected his work, such as caricaturing animals to depict human behavior and manipulating eyebrows to emphasize emotions. Tezuka also said that cuteness instinctively arouses complex feelings. He perceived manga to be a unique medium as it allowed for characteristics to be overemphasized without a sense of reality being lost.

Limited animation and the bank system

As Tezuka matured as a manga creator, he moved toward realizing his dream of producing animation. In 1962 he completed the animated short Tales of the Street Corner (Aru machikado no monogatari) at Mushi Productions, his own animation house. The following year he started the first animated serial for television broadcast in Japan, Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu).

Although he was finally animating, Astro Boy made him realize what a challenge he had taken on. The television industry in the 1960s had not yet grown to where a weekly animated serial could be made that met with Tezuka's ideals. Its production involved fewer frames per second – far less than that employed in feature-film animation. So he devised a system to reduce the number of drawings to a minimum, consisting of two major components: the limited-animation technique and the so-called bank system. Limited animation was already being used in the USA whereby a character's whole body barely moves but generates the impression of kineticism through partial movement and animation. Hanna-Barbera had utilized this technique in producing The Flintstones, The Huckleberry Hound Show, and numerous other programs.

Tezuka's bank system comprises a comprehensive grouping of a character's expressions and poses that are numerically categorized according to camera size. Body parts are also categorized into cels of arms, hands, mouth, ears, and so forth, while background paintings are grouped into buildings, rain, storm, snow, etcetera. These cels and paintings are then stored in shelves that Tezuka referred to as an account from which an expression, pose, or background could be withdrawn for use. Astro Boy became a reality utilizing these cost-effective systems.

The bank system derived from what Tezuka was already doing in his manga production. To draw manga more effectively, he had devised a code to designate what he wanted his assistants to draw for backgrounds. For example, BG=N D4 indicated that the drawing required a night background with type D4 diagonal lines. Tezuka also used a color coded chart for his assistants to follow; thus he was responsible for the industrialization of manga, making it suitable for mass-production.

Industrial revolution

Tezuka's achievements in both manga and animation were indicative of his pragmatic nature:

“Astro Boy was our experiment in making an animated program with the least amount of money. We decided to make the first episode with only 1500 drawings. That means the picture changes only once every three seconds. It hardly moves. It's almost like showing still pictures with sound. For example, if two men are fighting, we would only show a picture of a guy hitting another guy, then cut to the next picture of another guy hitting back. It's a series of unanimated still pictures. When the fight gets complicated, we would draw forty to fifty pictures, which would make a good one minute of air time. It was so cheap that I was ready to receive all sorts of criticism. Instead, I got compliments from a journalist saying, ‘With those still moments, Tezuka has introduced the kabuki aesthetic to animation. It's uniquely Japanese.' So this is the lesson I learned: the more you move, the more money lost, plus, not everybody will be impressed because of the naturalistic movement. When things move realistically you get criticized for not moving as well as the real thing. I believe that by not animating much, I developed something interesting in the domain of animation."

Tezuka was originally attracted to animation because he liked action and movement. He pushed manga expression to depict dynamic action on paper, but when he produced animation, it didn't show much motion. When Tezuka was a boy, he dreamed of things that moved, but as an adult he decided to make animation that was fun, even if it didn't move. This reflects an interesting contradiction between his intuition and his rationalism.

About the Author

Ichiro Takeuchi received a PhD in Philosophy from Kyushu University, Fukuoka, in 2005. He lectures at Kyushu Otani Junior College and Tokyo Polytechnic University. He is also a playwright, manga story writer, and author of People Judge You 90% on Appearance.


PublicationFebruary, 2006