Tuesday, January 1, 2013

1963 (Part 1): On the Outside, Looking In

Charles Dunbar, maintainer of the Study of Anime blog, is graduate of Hunter College, CUNY, where he received a BA in Religion and Anthropology and an MA in Cultural Anthropology. His thesis, Pilgrimage, Pageantry and Fan Communities was published in 2011 and focused on anime convention participation, including spending habits, cosplay, demographics, communal behaviour and convention culture.

I’m beginning this essay with a disclaimer. I often utilize this American pie institution to clarify what I know, as opposed to what I will be presenting. This is one of those times, so please allow me a few moments to get a few things off my chest.

I came into anime fandom in the late '90s, and like many from that age of Dragon Balls and Sailor Scouts, I had little knowledge of anything beyond those two series. I had never heard of Astroboy or Gigantor, let alone Tobor. I barely knew what manga was, aside from what Stu Levy was releasing through MIXXzine. As my fandom grew, it occasionally embraced the older stalwarts of Japanese animation, but in general I kept myself close to what was new and accessible.

I say this because this essay was something of an enlightenment to me. I chose to cover the year 1963 because it was something I did not know, as opposed to something I was deeply familiar with, and in this way, I learned more about the roots of Japanese animation than I had ever thought. At the same time, I refuse to present myself as an authority on all things Tetsuwan Atomu or Ôkami Shônen Ken. This was as much a learning experience for me as a chance to write, and for that I beg your forgiveness if I get something wrong, or miss something obvious. I am still learning about this amazing time, and while I am hardly an expert, my enthusiasm and interest have grown exponentially.

You have been warned.

In 1951, a young medical student named Tezuka Osamu created a story about a little boy robot, and his adventures in a futuristic world populated with technology beyond mankind’s wildest dreams. This creation, Tetsuwan Atomu (or "Mighty Atom"), would eventually herald in a new era of Japanese media created around limited frame animation, contained stories and wild suppositions about the world we live in, and the world we were barreling towards. But in the beginning, there was just Atom, and he was good.

While Mighty Atom might not be Tezuka’s best, or most expansive, work, it was the one that would make him famous, and set the stage for the “manga eiga” revolution that came for decades afterwards. While it “lacked” some of the depth found in his later manga (and series), Atom was an expansive fable, a “what-if” centered around both technological expansion and human emotion. Rather than focus on fantastical machines and futuristic technology, Tezuka set out to tell a refreshingly simple story about a boy robot with a human personality, allowing for readers—and eventual viewers—to empathize with his emotions and identify with the character.

At the same time, he created a world of the future, a place where mankind could possibly see itself somewhere not far down the road—not a “utopia,” but a world where technology and humanity coincided, bereft of the destruction of war, yet still deeply influenced by social issues and societal fears. Rather than choose to ignore the worst parts of the scientific revolution, Tezuka chose to embrace them and showcase what could be possible if man gave it a chance. In that respect, Mighty Atom was more than just a show about robots, but was a look under the surface of the world we live in, a clever metaphor of all we know, and what we might dream.

This is not to insist that Atom was a happy fable about the beauty of technology. Far from it, Tezuka used the series to not only ask “what next,” but also to warn against arrogance and the loss of humanity in the face of scientific expansion. Scientists losing themselves in their work was a common theme, alongside exploitation of machines and a careless attitude around synergy with nature. Often, Atom was asked to rectify these incidents, but just as often he found himself confronting conflicts within his own emotions and ended up asking those same tough questions Tezuka asked of his readers. While it is simple to just overlook these themes (as some do when exploring the “first anime”), they are a part of the “hidden depth” found in Mighty Atom that allows it to maintain its appeal long after its conclusion.

Readers of the manga have known this for years, as Tezuka utilized his simplistic yet refreshing style of art to weave his tales. While the animated image might have never caught up to the drawn pages in his books, it was Tezuka’s passion and drive that allowed him to create the series we in the US know as “Astroboy.” It wasn’t an easy task, in the end, but it was one that Tezuka obsessed over, and eventually lost control of, but still was a broadcast reflection of both his hopes and fears.
“Having carefully studied all the American TV animation that was entering the Japanese market, [Tezuka] was convinced that [Atom] could be made into a TV series. Mighty Atom, he felt, was an especially good candidate, not only because it was an already famous property, but because Tezuka’s manga stories were so intrinsically interesting, and also because each episode was fairly short, and could stand alone independently.” (Schodt 2007)
Some might characterize Tezuka’s exploration of television animation as ambitious. Others might consider it a folly. While there had been previously televised versions of his iconic story before (Tokyo TV aired a “kamishibai,” or paper lantern, style television event in 1957, followed by a live-action series in 1959), a serialized, full-length television animation, created and produced in Japan, had never been attempted, with what were thought to be valid reasons: animation required hundreds of thousands of drawn frames to allow a fluid economy of motion, which entailed a staff of hundreds of people to successfully harness. At the same time, it required a staggering budget—Snow White cost over $1.5 million to create—and dozens of non-artist production staff to create a simple 90-minute animated film, pickings when compared to a run of 20-30 minute episodes (Schodt 2007).

Ever the pioneer, Tezuka approached the task with insight and innovation. By utilizing cel-style drawings, minimized action sequences, and plenty of still frames, he was able to cut most of the drawing down to what could be conceivably possible. This new type of animation was essentially a mixing of manga, kamishibai storytelling, and limited cel drawings, almost a kind of “moving manga” or “electric kamishibai,” revolutionary for the time, but also extremely minimalist when compared to modern series. As noted by Marc Steinberg, “the basis of this new type of animation was not the moving image alone, but rather the manga [coming alive] (Steinberg 2012).” At the same time, it allowed him to maintain a firm hand over his creation- from choosing stories to drawing the principle images himself. He designed his own style of film camera, specially tailored to this “key animation” he was utilizing, and then undercut his asking price, almost guaranteeing that the series would be picked up.

(Tezuka would go on to form the future Mushi Productions in 1961 to assist in fulfilling this dream. The company would eventually bloom to over 400 employees, and served almost as a “training house” for future animators, where Tezuka’s distinct style of creation would be ingrained into those who worked for him. It also had the “added effect” of indirectly “training” some of those who worked on other projects, including Tetsujin 28 and Eitoman.)

That undercutting would prove to be the most challenging aspect to surmount. By offering his new animated series at a cost far below production, he would see it aired, but also would tax his animators (of which he was the principle one) to their limits. Even taking into account the cost-cutting measures of double shots, cels and static backgrounds that the show employed, it would never have turned a profit. Hence, Tezuka was forced to seek outside funding, an action that would not only change the face of his character, but initiate the relationship between merchandise and series that pervades to this day.

Given the popularity of the Mighty Atom manga series, finding a sponsor wasn’t the hard part. But in doing so, Tezuka was relinquishing some of the control he had over the character, allowing its almost blanket use on everything from chocolates to cheaply made toys. This type of early franchising would allow Tezuka to ultimately make ends meet, and would also “force” competing series to follow a similar route. These initial forays into sponsorship would transform the “relationship between commodities and advertisement...after Tetsuwan Atomu, companies would advertise and sell products by overlapping the commodity image with the character image.” (Steinberg 2012)

But while Atom made a smash on television, other companies were taking note, and “plotting” their own debuts...

Late 1963 would see the televised launch of another robot citizen of future Japan, but this one would bear no resemblance to Tezuka’s robot boy. Released in October of that year, Tetsujin 28 (“The Iron Man”) would explore the idea of robots in society along a very different line from Tezuka’s fable.

As World War II nears its end, researchers in the Japanese government frantically attempt to complete work on a military robot capable of defending the homeland from impending invasion. Shortly before the last of these robots is set to go online, the lab where it is being built is destroyed, along with its creator, Dr. Haneda. A decade later, two previous model robots, controlled via remotes and possessing incredible strength, begin committing crimes. This leads the government to authorize the activation of the final war machine, Tetsujin 28. Shôtarô, the detective son of Dr. Haneda, discovers the robot alongside Professor Shikashima, long presumed killed in the same attack that killed his father. Shôtarô and Shikashima team up to use the robot against the criminal syndicates and shadowy figures who have been committing the crimes, and a new era is born.

On the surface, Tetsujin 28 could not appear more different than Mighty Atom. Whereas the former series takes place far into the future and revolves around the state of intelligent robots and their place in society, Tetsujin is a silent mechanical, a golem of circuits and gears, more akin to a tool than a man. While he has a “humanoid” form, his empathy is clearly derived from the boy Shôtarô, who seems to love him like a big brother, and tries his best to defend his silent friend. Also unlike Atom, Tetsujin has no free will to speak of, “living” only to obey commands through a remote control the boy possesses (and occasionally loses).

Tetsujin 28 was the brainchild of Mitsuteru Yokoyama, a mangaka heavily influenced by his experiences in postwar Japan, the V2 rockets, and Frankenstein. (Schodt 2007) By combining bits of each, he created in Tetsujin 28 another interpretation of a potential future for Japan, a place where technology and humanity could live peacefully side by side. However, whereas Tezuka’s creation asks viewers to examine the rights and consequences of artificial life, Yokoyama’s demonstrates the mutually beneficial nature of man and machine, showing the robot as more than just a tool, but not quite a full fledged person. He asks the question of how man and robot could live harmoniously, while shying away from the tricky topic of A.I. and the responsibility of creation.

That said, Tetsujin 28’s stories were often darker than Mighty Atom’s and would eventually be counted among the inspirations for later mecha series, like Tomino’s Gundam and Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z. Today, this type of silent machine/man interface might be the more visible of the two, but when they debuted, Atom and Tetsujin were both wildly popular and competed for fans for years.

Further Reading:
Schodt, Frederik: “The Astro Boy Essays.” Stone Bridge Press, 2007
Steinberg, Marc: “Anime’s Media Mix.” University of Minnesota Press, 2012

(Tomorrow Charles continues his analysis of 1963 with looks at the other major shows and how the words of a famous director resonate in all.)


  1. "The manga [coming alive]" as Steinberg puts it and it's first for a Japanese TV cartoon program alone seems no different from what America's earliest TV cartoons were as well. NBC once had a show that was simply still drawings with narration/voices called "Tele-Comics" that showed up around 1949.

    At the same time, two men, Alex Anderson, a relative of a cartoon studio producer and a former real estate salesman by the name of Jay Ward (who'll go on to better things certainly), managed to make a deal with NBC through Jerry Fairbanks of a series revolving around the adventures of a small rabbit and a tiger as they right the wrongs of the country.

    Of course years later you had two cartoon directors from a major studio take a crack at the new medium as well, and set the standard that most TV animation in this country would go down with from then on.

    Sorry to take this all off topic, but I don't mind bringing it up for historic purposes.

    Hence, Tezuka was forced to seek outside funding, an action that would not only change the face of his character, but initiate the relationship between merchandise and series that pervades to this day."

    No doubt learning what made getting a show on TV in the states such a hard job. Getting a show on American TV on the other hand involved getting a sponsor to approve picking up said program before getting the networks to OK the show for broadcast (unless it was a syndication deal).

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  3. I have had limited exposure to Astro Boy, but I have been able to appreciate the way in which Tezuka incorporated social commentary and ethical issues into his story. Heck, the notion of creating a robot to serve as a substutute for a dead son is a bone chilling prospect.